Josie grew up in the Oakland, California of the '30s. As part of her training, after college she went on to earn her teaching certificate. Since then, she has spent her entire adult life teaching children how to add and divide, write a simple sentence, and use a library card. When she was not teaching, tutoring, or leading choir practice, she was in her room, curled up with a book she'd borrowed from the library. She was a young nun, just 24 when we met. In the photograph, I am 62 and she is 75.
She was christened Elizabeth Young, and grew up as Betty, a shy girl with the strong populist sentiments of her Irish-Catholic parents. When she took First Vows as a nun in the order of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondelet, she got the Josephine Martin. (Her mother was named Josephine, her father Martin.) In the '60s, in response to Vatican II and the movement to close the gap between the church and those they served, the nuns of her order stopped wearing their black habits, and they introduced themselves no longer as Sister So-and-So but by first names. For what was to be the greater portion of her sisterhood, then, she became known as Josie, or Sister Josie. I called her many things in our time together, including sometimes a peremptory "Girlfriend!" of gay parlance, a burlesque I'd sometimes resort to when trying to ease her through one of her bouts of anxiety. Yet she remained always for me as she was first introduced: Sister Josephine Martin.
We first met in September 1954. In the course of afternoons when autumn clouds hung as low as the telephone lines running up Market Street, I'd gaze wonderingly at the temple of shiny auburn hair that peeked out from her starched headpiece. Her blue eyes sparkled. Her complexion was clear, and she had curves that no black habit or white bib could properly hide. She threw herself into our lessons in the classroom as fully as she dodged the dodgeball, spiked the volleyball, and caught us in games of "Simon Says" in the schoolyard. If she resembled Deborah Kerr as the prim nun the actress played in Black Narcissus , she was more like Sister Mary Benedict, the delicious role Ingrid Bergman bit off for herself in The Bells of St. Mary's .
Boys and girls alike, we were quickly, madly, in love; and within weeks our love was tested.
Not long into the school year, a handsome dark-haired man dressed in a Marine uniform stepped smartly into the classroom. He looked old to us, but at the time the man whom Sister Josephine Martin introduced as her brother was in his early 20s. His age, however, was not the problem. It was the discovery that someone we loved might have someone, anyone, other than us who knew and loved her, and whom she loved (a fact made obvious from the way she blushed with pleasure when she introduced him). It was hard. As he was to remain with us all day, until the 3:00 bell rang, I was consumed by new and angry feelings, a primitive jealousy that lasted a full six hours. I walked home broken and unhappy. Fortunately, the next morning Martin Young was gone. We were told that he'd returned to where he was stationed. I had no idea where Camp Pendleton was, but I asked God to make it far, far away.
How soon after that, as the school day was ending, was it that I left my seat and dream-walked up to her desk? Perhaps my lips were puckered (for I meant to kiss her), but more likely it was the wide-eyed gaze of puppy-dog devotion in my eyes. Anyway, she must have seen what I was up to, because she smiled, said something related to my schoolwork, then hustled the class outside and on our way home five minutes before the bell.
By springtime, my love had become burdened with a terrible secret.
I am not sure if Catholic parochial school children still collect for Pagan Babies, but we did then. We'd drop pennies, nickels, and a few dimes into a cigar box. A Pagan Baby may have cost as much as $25, but once the amount was collected -- money saved from lunch and allowances -- the sum was sent to some Catholic missionary agency. It happened that our Pagan Baby, following his baptism, wrote us a Thank You note. We grinned proudly as Sister Josephine Martin read the neatly typed letter aloud. But my joy was not unmixed. I had, after all, sinned.
In the course of the collection drive, I'd often found myself in the vicinity of that cigar box, watching it daily grow heavier with nickels and dimes. When moneys were found missing, and when it came my turn to 'fess up, I said that I hadn't taken anything. As Teacher's Pet, my lie -- the only lie I ever told Sister Josephine Martin -- went unremarked upon. I admitted all in confession later, and Father O'Connor assigned me a couple of Our Fathers and some Hail Marys -- and as an adult, it was among the first things I told Josie. But my lie changed something. I learned young that betrayal cannot be undone.
It was near the end of the school year, I think, that Sister had us write letters to John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State to President Eisenhower. In our letters, we asked for Dulles's help in freeing a priest, Father Charles Rigney, who was held prisoner in communist China. When my letter got published in The Southern Cross , the official newspaper for the Diocese of San Diego, Sister invited my parents to come to the convent.
"Your son is quite special," she said, showing them the newspaper.
I stood stiff with pride, my career as a writer born. * * * Sister Josephine Martin followed us into the fifth grade, but turning 11 began for me a troubling time. That September, between fourth and fifth grades, I was flipping the pages of Jet magazine at my grandfather's barbershop on Imperial Avenue when I came across photos of a body pulled out of the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi. The bloated thing, its features swollen, looked like a giant catfish. It required an immense effort on my part to recognize in that grotesque thing something of a youngster just a few years older than myself. According to the accompanying article, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old on vacation from his home in Chicago, had been kidnapped, beaten, and shot for whistling at a white woman.After the trial, the two men accused of the crime later confessed to the murder in a paid interview that appeared in Look magazine. According to them, young Till had not only failed to show sufficient contrition for having disrespected the pretty young wife of one of the confessed murderers, but, the killers said, he'd boasted of having a white girlfriend in his hometown. The men said that the teenager showed little fear of their threats to teach him a lesson. Apparently, the Northern-bred boy had forgotten his place, if he ever knew it. The men implied that it was this that was unforgivable. The jury must have agreed, for they spent less than one hour to acquit them. (And the reason that it took that long, reported one of the members of the jury afterwards, was because they'd ordered out for soft drinks.)