When the ivory-colored invitation arrived in early April, there was no hesitation. Ellen filled out the RSVP that same night. By week’s end, she had contacted her travel agent to book a round trip flight to Memphis. While the agent made arrangements — from airline ticket to rental car to hotel — Ellen gave her free moments to anticipating the event.
It was the twenty-fifth anniversary of her high school graduation.
In the following weeks, Ellen studied the invitation regularly, as if holding it between her hands brought the memories back. She kept the linen envelope that had protected the invitation and regularly admired the scrolling letters of her name and address written in black ink, straight and crisp, across the front.
She knew who had written them. She would know that penmanship anywhere. Even after twenty-five years, she recognized Sister Mary Monica’s handwriting with its look of fine Irish lace.
She wondered if Sister remembered her.
* * * * * *
When Ellen was in high school, Sister Mary Monica wore the traditional black and white habit that covered her from head to toe. Only her face, with its pinched features and permanent wrinkles between the eyes, and her hands with their graceful, tapering fingers escaped from the wrapping of her profession.
As Principal of St. Theresa’s High School for Girls, Sister’s word was law. A glare in your direction carried the same weight as a verbal reprimand, and it wasn’t often that an offender made the same mistake twice.
In addition to her administrative duties, Sister taught religion to the upper class girls. It was her personal and professional crusade that no Senior left St. Theresa’s lacking moral fiber. Sister demanded great things of her students in the present and expected even more in the future.
One warm afternoon in her senior year Ellen was walking to her last class. By two in the afternoon, she was usually daydreaming of her boyfriend instead of the upcoming geometry lesson. As usual, Sister Mary Monica stood in the middle of the cold hallway and eyed her students passing in single file on both sides of her.
This afternoon, as Ellen filed past, Sister’s hand unexpectedly shot out and grabbed her arm. Those long beautiful fingers gripped like claws as the nun left her post in the hall and pulled Ellen into the nearest empty classroom. Confusion replaced daydreams, as Ellen waited, wondering what unintended transgression had been committed.
Sister released her grip and folded her arms. She waited while Ellen stared at the floor. An eternity passed before the older woman spoke.
“I don’t understand, Ellen,” Sister said, her tone warning that even if she did understand it wouldn’t matter. “You still haven’t purchased a French Club pin for your uniform lapel. Sister Renee tells me you are the only Senior who doesn’t have a pin yet.”
Not having a pin was, in Sister’s eyes, a deliberate mortal sin.
Ellen continued to stare silently at the floor, feeling a chill under Sister’s glacial glare. She and the nun were about the same height, and Sister stood so close Ellen could feel her breath. She let her own breath out in a thin, invisible stream and waited.
“I don’t see how you can be in the French Club if you are not loyal enough to buy a pin.”
Command and complaint were mixed in equal measures.
“You must set an example for the younger students. And with your grades you are certainly in contention for the Prix d’Honneur next month. I’d hate to see you miss out because you weren’t in the Club.”
Sister paused. This was the space where the errant student explained or apologized for causing such concern. It was the moment of confession to be followed by Sister’s absolution. An added warning not to transgress again was the final benediction, and then the penitent went her way.
Ellen said nothing.
From somewhere under layers of clothing, Sister’s booted toe tapped impatiently. But Ellen kept her blue eyes down and her mouth tightly closed.
“Why haven’t you brought in your money?”
The girl shrugged. Telling Sister that neither she nor her mother had extra money for the pin wasn’t a choice. The woman really didn’t understand poverty, in spite of the holy vow she had taken to observe it.
“Well, if you cannot offer any explanation, I expect the money in my office by this time tomorrow.”
Sister turned from the classroom and continued down the corridor, her ominous black habit roiling like a storm cloud thundering into new territory.
Ellen stood motionless in the doorway. She clenched her teeth and blinked her eyes for control. Hot flashes of humiliation rushed up her arms and shoulders and onto her face. She stood in the classroom as long as she dared and then raced to geometry, squeezing into the last seat just before the bell.
The next morning Ellen went to the Principal’s office first thing and handed Sister Mary Monica an envelope marked “French Club Pin.” She had no ready reply for the smile on Sister’s face, so she excused herself quickly, mumbling something about studying for a religion test.
* * * * *
As Ellen anticipated the reunion, she knew exactly how it would be.
Each May, the festivities culminated with the annual Alumnae Tea held in the school’s stuffy gymnasium, a squatty red brick building that had never seen its prime. Rather it stood square and solid, resisting change in favor of the status quo. Its main use had been for sporting events, but it was also used for the relatively few social occasions the school sponsored.
At the Tea, graduating Seniors were formally presented to the assembled alumnae. Each Senior wore white gloves and walked across the small, bare stage at one end of the gym while the head of the Alumnae Association called her name aloud for all to hear. This symbolic gesture indicated that school days were over and the young women were taking their places among all the other St. Theresa’s graduates in the world. Some attended college; others took jobs; a few special girls became nuns.
But whatever their futures, the lessons taught here were meant to last forever. For the women who returned each spring like aging swallows, the Alumnae Tea reaffirmed the influence St. Theresa’s had in their lives. Ellen had never returned.
After the Seniors were presented, all guests joined a receiving line to greet Sister Mary Monica. One by one, graduates shook hands with their former Principal. Those who had graduated a while ago added some tidbit of information.
“Hello, Sister. Remember me? I finally graduated from college.”
“Hello, Sister, you’d like my husband. We have four children.”
“Sister, it’s great to see you again. Yes, I have put on a little weight.”
Ellen’s life held its accomplishments, but she had decided against sharing them. Instead, when her turn came to greet Sister Mary Monica, she planned to ask if the nun remembered that day in the vacant classroom. Ellen was positive Sister wouldn’t remember. She would look unsure as she tried to place the moment. Then, after admitting that she couldn’t, Ellen would recall it for her.
“Sister, many times my mother didn’t have enough money for groceries. There was no possible way she could give me money for the French Club pin. I couldn’t pay for it either. But you insisted. You said I couldn’t be in the French Club, that I was a bad example to others. Even though I was the best French student in the school, you said I might not win the top prize. So, Sister,” — and there would be a dramatic pause — “I stole the money to pay for the pin.”
And she would produce the pin, still shiny, from her pocket.
The receiving line moved slowly in the un-air-conditioned gymnasium. Ellen looked to see how many were ahead of her.
Diane Jensen, the class president, was talking with Sister now. Diane still had that way of lowering her eyes beneath her black bangs and nodding her head as if she were in complete agreement with everything Sister said. Perhaps it was a survival mechanism that Diane had honed in high school, but she had obviously put it to good use since then.
Allie Foley was next. Allie stood as tall and thin as when she was the center on the girls’ basketball team. After graduation, she entered the convent and had already accumulated twenty years of teaching. We are probably the age that our teachers were when they taught us, Ellen thought. She scrutinized Allie to see if she looked older than her years. But Allie wore the street clothing that most nuns preferred now, and Ellen thought she seemed more approachable than Sister Mary Monica because of it.
Behind Allie stood Martha Earson and Dinah Sue Fleen, best friends from high school to eternity. People said they talked to each other in person or on the telephone every day since graduation.
Standing behind Martha and Dinah Sue was Phyllis Martin and then Ellen.
By rights, Phyllis should not have been at the Alumnae Tea. She had mysteriously dropped out of school just eight weeks before graduation. Her disappearance caused more interest in her than anything else she’d said or done during her entire academic career. Phyllis was extremely bright, and lunch room speculation buzzed that grades had nothing to do with her hasty departure. No one ever heard of Phyllis again.
Yet here she was, standing in front of Ellen at the Alumnae Tea. She wore the same dark, almost‑kinky‑curly shoulder length hair. She still carried the same excess weight that kept her from being truly pretty in high school and which made her appear lumpy in middle age. As she waited in line, she rocked from foot to foot.
Ellen and Phyllis had shared world history together, each sitting in the front row in opposite corners. Ellen always wondered why Sister Eulalia one day physically moved the empty seat that belonged to Phyllis to the back of the room. The same curiosity made her wonder what Phyllis was doing here now. But neither woman struck up conversation.
Instead Ellen kept her eyes on Sister Mary Monica. The somber black and white habit still encased the woman’s thin body. Her eyes were as blue and icy as ever; and her posture still held a note of authority.
As Ellen’s classmates each shook the nun’s hand, Sister placed her free one over theirs. She spent a moment acknowledging this name with a slight smile, the next name with a nod of the head. Sometimes she added more, but mostly the student did the talking.
Phyllis moved forward to acknowledge Sister. Her body stiffened as she stepped closer to the older woman. Then Phyllis took a deep breathe and plunged headlong into a pool of words, splashing them like holy water on the unsuspecting nun.
“Sister, I’ll bet you don’t remember me. I’m Phyllis Martin. Phyllis Martin Tomlin? Maybe you remember now? I got engaged at Christmas senior year and when you found out you told me I was a bad influence on the other students. You made me hide my engagement ring in school and promise not to tell anyone.”
The words filled the air between the two women. Sister made no move as Phyllis rolled on like a wave beating the shore.
“Joey and I, we were young, but we knew what we wanted. We wanted to be together. We were crazy in love. Do you know what that’s like? Do you?”
Sister Mary Monica set her eyes in alignment with her mouth and inhaled. No, she could not say what it was like. She looked directly at Phyllis.
“But I was Catholic. I wasn’t going to do anything wrong. St. Theresa’s . . . no, you . . . taught me all about that. So Joey and I married secretly in March. I don’t know how, but somehow you found out and kicked me out of school. Eight weeks before graduation and you expelled me!”
Sister’s eyes left Phyllis’ face and slowly traveled to the far corner of the gym. She remembered it all, every detail: the discovery that Phyllis and Joey were married; the fear of allowing a married student, even a bright one, to remain in a Catholic girls’ school; the shock that young people sometimes did what they wanted regardless of what they were taught. Finally there was the concern that the other students would be impressed.
Sister had agonized over what to do. Phyllis was smart, definitely college material. Possibly scholarship material. But rules were rules. Finally Sister decided that allowing the girl to continue in school would undermine her authority with the other students.
Over the years she occasionally wondered what happened to Phyllis. She never wished the girl harm, but she never wavered in her decision either. Now Phyllis was here. Sister’s mouth stretched into a thin half smile as she brought her attention back to the gymnasium.
“Sister, I want you to know that Joey and I are still married. And I got my high school diploma too, even if I’m not a St. Theresa’s graduate!”
The moment stretched as each woman waited for the other. Then there was a slight movement. From somewhere inside her heavy, long sleeved black clothing, Sister Mary Monica extended a tiny hand. Her fingers were still tapering and lovely.
“Thank you for coming,” she said sincerely. “I’m pleased to see you.”
Ellen watched Sister’s hand wait for Phyllis’ hand to meet it half way. But Phyllis turned, brushed past Ellen, and walked toward the gymnasium door. Sister’s hand retreated into the folds of her garment. She blinked and swallowed hard.
Ellen refocused. Her left hand slid into her dress pocket to check the French Club pin. She had rehearsed her speech well, and she stepped forward with deliberation. Looking Sister Mary Monica straight in the eye, she extended her right hand.
“Sister, remember me?”
Sister looked directly at Ellen. She showed no emotion, but from one of the recesses in her memory, she summoned the name and relaxed. The tenseness of the confrontation with Phyllis began to fade. She was in control again.
“Ellen, of course I remember you. You’re the young woman who won the Prix d’Honneur in your senior year. Our very best French pupil. No one has ever scored higher. Tell me, what have you done since you left St. Theresa’s?”
“I went to college and then moved to New York. I still live there. I work for a major corporation in its legal department.”
“Somehow I am not surprised. You always rose to the challenge.”
Ellen rubbed a finger over the pin in her pocket, letting it prick her. For a moment, the student said nothing. The principal waited.
Consciously, deliberately Ellen pulled the pin from her dress pocket and cradled it in her palm for the woman to see. Sister looked at it and then at Ellen.
“Ah, Ellen, you’ve kept your French Club pin all these years,” she said.
Ellen nodded and turned her palm upside down. Just as the French club pin began to fall, Sister’s hand reached to catch it. Now is the moment, thought Ellen. She spoke.
“Sister, I want you to have it.”
A slight look of surprise registered on the aging nun’s face. She closed her fingers around the pin and looked at Ellen. Waited. There was no explanation.
“Thank you for coming,” Sister said. “I’m pleased to see you.”
The principal and the student shook hands. Sister looked to the next alumnae, as Ellen moved on.