SOMETIMES I THINK of Sister Alma Rose as being God’s Lap on Earth. She is large, brown, and solid, like the earth itself. In her presence there is comfort, capaciousness, and embrace; and when she actually hugs you, physically, you feel a tsunami of love, peace, and hope – which makes her sound like a wave-borne Christmas card, but those feelings come with wings, and the energy surge lasts at least until the next time you are hugged by Sister Alma Rose, or until you learn to treasure yourself as God and Sister Alma Rose treasure you.
Me, Fanny McElroy
This is true for me, at least, and for everyone I know who has ever been hugged by Sister Alma Rose… though a Sister Alma Rose hug can literally leave you breathless, particularly if you are a certain height. No one, as far as I know, has ever collapsed during or after such an embrace, but I’d be lying if I said there’s never been some lightheadedness in the experience.
…All of which I put forth to explain why it is startling to see Sister Alma Rose weep. I’ve certainly known her to be angry, in brief but definitely daunting eruptions, but discovering tears on that face, which nearly always radiates the joy and serenity of a pure heart and a love-drenched soul, is… well, stunning – far more so than if James Bond, for example, were to break down sobbing when confronting Francisco Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun. One thing Sister Alma Rose and James Bond have in common – and the only thing I can think of at the moment, apart from their being larger-than-life human beings (quasi-human, in the case of James Bond) – is the sense of authority and competence they exude.
Father Dooley and his friend
One October morning, unseasonably warm from a sun that seemed to still be straining summerward, Pablo and I (who were probably twelve at the time) were playing chess, dismally, I have to say, on Sister Alma Rose’s wonderful grass-green wraparound porch (a kind of metaphor for Sister Alma Rose herself, I often think). The little mutt, terrier mixed with mongrel, who had followed Pablo home from school the day before, was sleeping at our feet. Mr. Truman LaFollette had just brought out, in his silent, unobtrusive way, a pitcher of his incomparable lemonade and two big tumblers filled with ice. Sister Alma Rose was just inside the kitchen door, doing something culinary with butternut squash, I think. It was a sublimely peaceful moment, though the chess was desultory and we were ready to do something, anything, else – held in place by the sweet sunlight and the lively conversation of a pair of cardinals.
Thus bemused, we didn’t notice Father Dooley and a young woman I’d never met approaching until they were actually beside us on the porch. Mr. Truman LaFollette, with his spooky prescience, was already placing three more ice-filled tumblers on the big green table. Sister Alma Rose was right behind him. She and Father Dooley and the pretty stranger all sat down beside us at the same time, as if someone had called a meeting, although I know that they didn’t have an appointment, per se, because Sister Alma Rose had gleefully set aside the day for her “early harvest,” or it might have been her “late harvest.” I know next to nothing about butternut squash.
Father Dooley jovially introduced his companion as “Tina” and explained that they had formed a friendship through Alcoholics Anonymous and that he thought it was “a good idea” for Tina and Sister Alma Rose to meet. This surprised no one, because (a) we had known for years that Father Dooley was a recovering alcoholic, (b) Father Dooley gathers friends the way marmalade attracts bees, and (c) it’s always a good idea for anyone to become acquainted with Sister Alma Rose… nor did Pablo and I imagine for a moment that we should delicately depart and give the other three some privacy. It’s like we were part of Sister Alma Rose’s posse, you see, and people who came to visit Sister Alma Rose always seemed to understand that.
So the character of the gathering around Sister Alma Rose’s sturdy outdoor table wasn’t particularly unusual. What was extraordinary from the sitting-down moment was the vibes. To put it more elegantly, when Tina and I locked eyes there was a strange certainty – on my part and I was sure on hers as well – that we had been connected since time began. I don’t know how else to explain the electricity that flowed between us.
On the surface, Tina’s background and mine could hardly have been less alike. I was born in a small, quiet town to parents who wanted me, loved and nurtured me, supported my interests, indulged my whims, and allowed my independence when it was wise to do so. Tina’s birth in an urban slum had scarcely been noticed by her alcoholic mother and heroin-addicted father. She was, almost literally, a throwaway.
Young as I was, I had visited Tina’s world, or one much like it. I’d been up close and personal with addicts and amorality and all manner of sordidness and uncompromising poverty. This is another story for another time. The important difference between Tina, at thirty, and me, at twelve, was that at the end of the day I always had a safe, cheerful dwelling to go home to. Tina, clean and sober for less than a year, had only recently found the comparative security of a shelter for the homeless.
Schooled in my family’s openness and Sister Alma Rose’s serenity and resilience, I am rarely horrified, but I was unprepared for the account of brutality I was about to hear. At Father Dooley’s invitation, Tina began her bleak narrative, but with an acceptance and a composure that seemed ever more remarkable as her story unfolded.
“I was an alcoholic by the time I was three,” she told us calmly. “I was younger than that when my father started raping me. Whenever he came around, I hid, but he found me. There was always alcohol in the house, even when there was no milk or bread. I learned very early that it dulled the pain and the fear.”
Mercifully, in my memory the details of Tina’s biography have dimmed. Trying to recall them is agonizing. I know that Tina and her siblings had lived among numerous relatives, each home more dysfunctional than the last. Her mother had routinely sold Tina’s “services” for crack cocaine. An aunt introduced her to a toxic array of street drugs.
What might have set Tina apart was an instinct to care for her younger brothers and sisters and, beginning in her early teens, for her own children. She didn’t say, but I suppose she went to school. I suppose there were ineffectual social-service interventions. Whatever the case, she learned to read and write. How she became so marvelously poised and articulate is a mystery. She spoke like Willa Cather writes. It astonished me.
At one point, I glanced at Sister Alma Rose. Her face was tranquil, but I saw the tears. She didn’t try to hide them. She didn’t even blot them with her apron. It occurred to me that she too had “recognized” Tina.
By the grace of God
When Tina could free herself and the children she protected the best she could, they became squatters, sleeping in abandoned buildings and eventually settling in a community of sorts, chronically homeless people making shift under a bridge. Worldly as I believed myself to be, I didn’t know that people actually live under bridges. Tina told us that, despite occasional attempts to roust them, the authorities pretty much looked the other way. Churches sometimes brought them food, blankets, and clothes.
An alcoholic and a drug addict, Tina managed to support her family by selling drugs. I don’t know how or where she met Craig, a thoroughly decent man who weaned her from the street and steered her to A.A. Father Dooley told us that Tina went to A.A. meetings every morning. At first, Craig drove her there directly from her job as a waitress at an all-night restaurant. At some point she got a driver’s license and a pickup truck and took charge of her transportation to work and meetings, never missing a day.
Ten months after she told us her story, Tina and Craig were married. Father Dooley says it remains “a solid marriage.
“They’re devoted to each other,” he told me not long ago.
I’ve never heard what became of Tina’s younger siblings or her children, some having been placed in foster care when Tina started rehab. It was her wish to reclaim them all, “by the grace of God.” Given her faith and determination, I’d be surprised if she didn’t succeed.
“Life throws all kinds of rubbish in your path, Fanny McElroy,” Sister Alma Rose once told me. “It puts up what looks like prison walls you can’t see over or around. Love leaps over them all.”
Walking into town
That enchanted sense of connection with Tina has never left me. As she and Father Dooley were saying their goodbyes on Sister Alma Rose’s magical grass-green porch, I took her aside. I’m not sure what words came to me, except that I “recognized” her.
“You’re an angel from Heaven,” I think I said, “or at least a very old soul. I know we’ll meet again.”
“Yes,” she said. “God is good.”
“Fanny McElroy,” I said to myself, “I believe you’re going to cry.”
It’s easy to say “God is good” when your life is rolling along like a wind-propelled tumbleweed and the worst thing you have to worry about is getting a below-average grade on a test you didn’t study for – which was pretty much the case for me when I was twelve. Coming from Tina, who had pretty much just landed on solid ground… whose yesterdays were grim and whose tomorrows were murkier than most… it was life-affirming. It was miraculous. It gave me strength and hope I would one day cling to.
“God is good indeed,” I said, with little idea of the magnificent truth of it, and walked home with Pablo and his little dog.