In Memoriam: Sister Mary Jo

By Joshua Thusat

August 12, 2021

His sermon was weak, but we drank the juice he turned into blood anyway. At the benediction, Sister Lucille, our ancient librarian, crossed herself and turned to depart out a side door like a parachuter in slow motion. She left mass early every Friday to get a head start before the children took recess; it took time for her to cross the parking lot.

After she left, all eyes turned to Sister Mary Jo for dismissal. Sister Mary Jo was slight, always smiling, and young. This was her distinguishing feature: her youth. To the boys and girls of Immaculate Conception, this made her safer than the old nuns in their black and white habits. Nuns like Sister Pat, who was older than Santa Claus. Or our fragile librarian Sister Lucille, who remembered the Edict of Milan. Once when I was waiting in line to use the restroom, I saw in the distance Sister Mary Jo taking the steps to the second floor two at a time.

Sister Mary Jo nodded to the 2nd and 3rd grade classes in quick succession, a horse head mid-trot. She gestured for us 4th graders to remain, hand aloft like Byzantine Jesus. Then, tired of the same-old, she winked at the 5th and 6th grade teachers. They exited, the kids mouthing engine noises.

*

The last time I visited Ohio, my mother informed me that Sister Mary Jo had died. She’d heard it from someone who kept track of our church’s figures, old and new. Our conversation quickly turned to other topics, but the news of her passing shifted the world slightly. It was not unlike those moments when I walk down a street in any small Midwestern town and think, just for an instant, that I might pop over and visit my grandparents. Then I remember that this town is not my hometown, and my grandparents are dead. 

Later, I opened my computer and searched for Sister Mary Jo. It felt like rushing to someone’s bedside too late. I quickly found her in an obituary from some place in Florida, so far away from where I had known her as a child in Port Clinton. I stared at the photo: her page-boy haircut, the perfect posture, and her smile. She was old in the picture, and the weight of years suddenly pressed me. Time had done its work—unseen—since I last saw her. As with most of the teachers of my youth, she was not as I remembered. I wondered: do we always believe our best teachers are still out there, all of our old masters clinging to the earth like statues that we might one day visit again? 

It was tough to learn these sculpted memorials existed now only in my mind. I started to search for other figures: Dr. Callen, my philosophy teacher at BGSU—dead; Greg Fox, my music teacher in high school (surely I would’ve heard about it if…)—alive! Thank God! No, no. Most of them were still alive. I found myself conflicted about what to do with this information.

We 4th graders remained in the church to practice first confession. I had been ill with a stomach bug the week before and, as kids frequently do, puked during one of our many genuflections near lemon-scented pews. This is perhaps why I was asked to go first in our trial run with the priest who, after mass, had retired to the little room where I once rang the bell for my uncle’s wedding, the most fun I ever had in church.

So this was confession? A tiny room with two chairs next to each other and a rope hanging from the ceiling. The priest and I sat side-by-side, the dangling line off-center, within reach. He ran me through the script and asked me to confess. On the day before, my friend Greg had told me he was going to confess that he had slept with his sister to see the priest’s reaction. I didn’t believe he would do it.

Whose idea was this confessing, anyway? I could only think of two people I would tell my sins to: Henry or Maria von Trapp. And Henry was my dog.

But I was prepared. I chose the safest ubiquitous misdemeanor: cursing. “What kind of cursing?” the priest asked. Well I wasn’t going to say the words, especially with the rope so close. The S-word, the F-word. I think there was the B-word. Oh yes, and the M-word?

Hands on knees, the Father leaned forward and smiled. To my horror, he repeated these filthy words in full back to me. 

“These words are not sins,” he said. “They do not take the Lord’s name in vain. Worship is the only place appropriate for the Lord’s name.” I was preoccupied with his bad-boy nonchalance.  He dismissed me, not with a rope pull but with a prayer of forgiveness for something which, by his own admission, was not a sin. Through curse words, I was reborn into my first definition of righteousness. I felt I possessed some secret knowledge that no one else did. 

Through curse words, I was reborn into my first definition of righteousness.

As each student finished, we exited through the same escape hatch as Sister Lucille. I moved from the stained-glass dimness to the world, now wiser. I saw that Sister Lucille had only made it halfway across the blacktop. She swayed like a buoy. Dodge balls bounced around her; games of tag and fierce shrieking echoed from the enclosure, from an alien culture, an inscrutable ritual. In its midst a foreign line telegraphed through, in the form of a nun.

My limbs leapt into the fray and my lips sprang into action. The monitors on the edges heard nothing. It was Sister Lucille, ever-present in our lives but unnoticed, who heard me. She never spoke to us. She was a distant fact, like the sun or our fathers. But she heard me that day, me and my new knowledge, and it wasn’t Psalms I was speaking.

I must have made a crude display to cut my way into her awareness. (It was long ago, but I know myself. I love applying a good theory.) I must’ve hit hard with the language, but my histrionics most likely matched my “unsinful” words, with waggling kneecaps in touchdown glory whilst that dreaded M-word dug its nails into Sister Lucille’s ears. She must’ve paused momentarily, tilted her head, hardly noticed by anyone, before continuing.

*

Though a crucifix is an implement of torture, bodiless it is beautiful. It is a person, arms outstretched. You can easily create one by crossing your fingers to scare off supernatural enemies. A cross hung on the wall behind Sister Mary Jo in a windowless room the size of a large closet.

Though a crucifix is an implement of torture, bodiless it is beautiful.

So this is the principal’s office? I thought. Afterward, I would forever associate anything janitorial with asceticism. She came for me at dawn, was ready for me really, waiting by the front entrance, aware of my routines.

Today, when anyone uses the phrase ‘elegant solution,’ intended to highlight a careful, practical threading of a needle to set troubles to rest, I think of Sister Mary Jo. Following my outburst, she intentionally waited until the next day to walk me to her office, allowing me to save face. She did not pull me out of class to make an example. I sat in front of her in a new para-confessional and was asked to explain, to know why I was summoned, crucifix over her left shoulder. I did not wish to break the privacy of confession, but I also longed to avoid punishment.

We did not need to play games. I knew of what she spoke. “Those words,” I said, “are not against God.” But I was playing games. Sister Mary Jo’s face told me so.

“Perhaps. But it’s bad enough for Sister Lucille,” she said.

“But Father said…”

“Hold that thought,” she interrupted.

We sat there. Quiet. Her eyes sprayed me with my own sense. Though what is taught and what is learned can be two separate things, the most passive in the exchange is the guiltiest.

Then my punishment. “Today,” she said, “you will lunch with me in the lounge.” I understood this punishment as a desire to deprive me of fun time. I hated it.

We both sat, elbows nearly touching, looking at a wall of conventional wisdoms. All the higher-ups, everyone official, ate in the basement.

So this is the teachers’ lounge? She ate very little, perhaps nothing. Memory doesn’t serve.
I brought my free lunch from the cafeteria. For the meal she watched me and asked questions:

“How’s your mother?

Do you like playing with your little brother?

Do you miss your father? 

Your stepfather?”

Her exclamations exalted:

“You’re very neat.” This in reaction to pushing crumbs to cup. I answered with shy shrugs binary codes. Once, I looked up, in search of a trap door from the confessional.

When the bell rang, she privileged me. “Stay seated and finish the vegetables. I’ll write a note.” My tension eased; the child was given a reminder of something, of being watched, worried over, regarded. She was checking on me. She was making sure I was okay. Touching my shoulder, she thanked me for having lunch with her.

When I returned to class, the students thought I was a rebel. I had survived something. When people asked, I expressed a fake fortitude. “It was rough; don’t mess with the principal.” But from then on, I always wished, oh how I still wish, to lunch with Sister Mary Jo. 

Photo by James Coleman.