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Mother’s visitor

Su Lum

Last week my daughters Hillery and Skye and my granddaughter Riley and I were in Boonton, N.J., visiting my 97 1/2-year-old mother. Following a round of heart attacks, my mother is weaker, sleeping more than she had been and “losing words.”

For instance, she knew the author, the entire plot and even the size of (“It’s a slender volume, about the size of ‘A Jury of Her Peers.'”) a book she wanted, but couldn’t bring up the title.

Where her memory most failed her was with names, so we agreed that if a visitor arrived, whoever answered the door would stick out her hand and introduce herself, thus demanding the name of the visitor in return, who then would be announced to my mother.

We were all slouched around the air conditioner in my mother’s bedroom, wilting with the stifling heat and humidity, when Riley announced an incoming car and was sent for door duty. We thought it would be the visiting nurse or one of my mother’s many friends, but Riley came to the bedroom door and, with a sweeping hand gesture, announced, “Great-grandmother, Sister Pamela is here to see you,” and a small nun glided into the room.

We hadn’t even begun the introductions, or to recover from our shock, when Sister Pamela’s cell phone went off in the depths of her robes and she ran outside to find a signal. Whoa! My mother said she was from “that place,” by which she meant hospice (a word she has trouble remembering), and was very nice. Riley was excited to have met “My first nun!”

When Sister Pamela came back into the bedroom, we were exploding with questions, the first of which was about her habit. She didn’t wear a wimple or head robes, but had a chin-to-shoulder white turtleneck and black robes to her ankles, and when we asked what she wore in the summer she replied that that WAS her summer outfit, adding “and very little under it, I’m afraid.”

I wouldn’t begin to guess how old she is, given the advantages of disguise and absent the disadvantages of the aging agents of depravity. Older than my daughters, younger than I.

She is an Episcopal nun, of the Community of St. John Baptist, founded in Windsor, England. Sister Pamela is from England, raised in the same area as Carol, my mother’s Jamaican caretaker – small, small world.

Fourteen nuns live at the convent, on 93 acres in Mendham, N.J. We all try to wrap our minds around that, hoping they like each other. Sister Pamela assures us that they get along, and adds a twist: Their dog, cat, pony and Honduran cook are all male.

Sister Pamela asks my mother if she’s had any heart attacks lately and, hearing that she hadn’t, said, “That’s because I prayed for you.” She turned to us and explained that my mother didn’t want to be involved with any praying, so she told her she’d just pray for her in the car.

When my mother said it was “heaven on earth” to have us in Boonton, Sister Pamela asked her if she knew where that quote came from. To everyone’s surprise, my mother didn’t. “It’s from a poem by Thomas Traherne,” said Sister Pamela, who proceeded to recite it and was frankly delighted to have one-upped my mother in the field of literature.

Then she was off on her ministry route.

I don’t fling the word “charming” around lightly, but Sister Pamela charmed the hell out of all of us.

Su Lum is a longtime local who visited the convent’s Web site: http://www.csjb.org as soon as she got home, and found the poet but not the poem in Google. This column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times.


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