Now I know that I have officially turned into my mother:
1. I keep the “better butter” in the fridge (it’s whipped, not in a log);
2. I read the obituaries.
In my defense, my local paper, the Daily News, has taken to accepting long and beautifully written obituaries to anchor the page that just held the shorter, “just-the-facts” obits that used to reside there. It is through those pages that I learned of another woman whose family called her “Maga,” just like we did with my beloved grandmother, and that my first boss—Sister Bartholomew Swayne—had passed away at the age of 84. It was one of those moments where although I hadn’t seen or thought of Sister Bartholomew in years, memories of her came flooding back as I read the details of her long and productive life.
“Bart,” as we called her behind her back, was from the Bronx and entered the Dominican Sisters as a young adult. She taught at a variety of parochial schools; managed the convent of the Dominican Sisters of Blauvelt; and in her later years, worked at Calvary Hospital, a place for terminally ill cancer patients. From reading her obituary, it seemed that she had worked right up until she lost her life, presumably of natural causes.
I started working for Sister Bartholomew when I was fifteen, too young to get a working permit, but old enough so that she could get me a job in the sisters’ dining room at the convent. My grandmother worked on a floor above, doing light housekeeping and keeping things running. Truth be told, she hired me as a favor to Maga, but then went on to hire my best friend and my sisters. To me, the convent was a strange and mystical place, but it did have its attractions: one’s own room, a uniform (I still wear one to this day but it’s in the form of a pullover sweater, jeans and clogs), three hot meals a day (which were actually pretty good), and usually, a job teaching. The disadvantages? Living with the same group of women for your entire adult life, the job teaching (I’m not cut out for the classroom), daily prayer, and daily Mass. When all was said and done, it was kind of a wash but I knew that a life in the convent was not for me.
Bart kept things light and jovial for the girls who worked there and made her life seem exciting and special. She ran the convent with drill-sergeant precision, getting all of us to do mundane tasks like sweeping and washing every single step of the five-floor convent until they shined. And when we started to flag in that onerous task, she would come by and clap her hands like the task master that she was, always telling a little joke before she left to let us know that she knew that what she was making us do was horrible but that it was necessary in order to make the convent a place where the other sisters would feel comfortable and cared for.
She reminded us almost daily that the place we worked was the sisters’ home and that we were to treat each and every one with dignity and respect, no matter how ornery or persnickety they were. Every sister was to be greeted by name (and my sisters, friends and I to this day can summon up just about every name from memory) and treated as if she were special. These women, after all, had given up everything for God and as such, served the poor and mostly, the children of the archdiocese and around the world. We didn’t understand it then, but we get it now, all of us married, some of us with children. In the world that is the Catholic Church, these women were what kept the whole machine going. They were the cogs in the wheel and made sure that everyone had an equal opportunity to make it in a harsh world.
Bart went about her business briskly but with compassion. When my grandmother, her good friend, died, she grieved right along with the rest of us. And when my sisters and I went off to bigger and better things, she praised us, I’m sure still offering daily prayers for our success. It's no wonder that I write about nuns, having spent so much time in their presence, but it is Bart who sticks out most in my mind. She was a wonderful lady and I hope—no, I know—she rests in peace.