The murder of Emmett Till helped launch the Civil Rights Movement, but in San Diego, I retreated into myself.
Sister Josephine Martin left San Diego in 1956. We'd come back in the fall to find Sister Philomena at the board. She was a fine teacher, and soon enough, I no longer exactly remembered Sister Josephine Martin, though I never fully forgot her either. * * * In 1981, 25 years after she left San Diego, Josie returned to spend the summer at Our Lady of Angels. The huge pepper tree in the schoolyard was gone, and now the I-5 sliced past, replacing Market Street as a major artery; the pale white concrete walls of the church had been painted a color close to that of butternut squash. She remembered that I had a younger brother, and found him listed in the phone book in El Cajon. It happened that I'd recently returned to California from New York. Marcus called me at my home in Oakland."Someone named Sister Josephine Martin called and left her number. She's living near you," he said.
Josie, as she introduced herself, would work with the choirs in many of the schools that she was to teach in (Saint Catherine's in Martinez, Saint Anthony's in Oxnard, Saint Perpetua in Lafayette, Saint Patrick's in Oakland, Saint Helena in the town of that same name, and her last school, Carondelet High). Now, a quarter century after first hearing that sweet voice, a girlish lilt with just a hint of breathiness, I heard it again.
I was almost 40 and she was in her 50s, and we got on right away. Like Philippa, the younger spinster sister with the exquisite singing voice in the movie, Babette's Feast , Josie had also traded her youthful beauty for a plain middle age. Osteoporosis would leave her slightly hump-backed. She never spoke of nor appeared to regret the loss of her looks, and her only vanity, it seemed to me, was her willing choice of perms for the gray hair that would have otherwise fallen to her shoulders as straight as paper. With the help of psychotherapy and her own keen devotion, she'd managed to remain a nun despite the turbulence of the '60s that had sent so many others out of the convent. In the years after Vatican II, she found herself at odds with the growing conservatism of her church, but she'd hung in. She underwent a long "dark night of the soul," a period of years in which she found her faith tested. In the end, it was not God but Jesus who she talked about, who was for her a friend and a guide, a companion in life.
And she had her students -- a couple of thousand over the course of more than 50 years teaching.
"I never gave an F," she once told me, proudly. Reviewing her career as an educator, she said that there was always something a child did well, "maybe just writing neatly. But there was always something."
There were many stories about Josie, but the one that I liked best happened at the end of a school year. One of the mothers of a third-grader she'd just taught went to the principal and asked for her son to be left back.
The principal explained that Sister Josephine had said the woman's son had done well. "He has been passed into the fourth grade."
The woman, the Mexican wife of a day-laborer, did not understand. Stumbling with her English, she said that her son had never felt so good about himself before coming to Sister Josie. "She makes him feel good. He is better, and it is because of her, and that is why I want him to stay with her." * * * "I never thought it would be cancer." She looked at me. It was just a few minutes before the photo of us together was taken. "I don't know why, but I never thought cancer." Josie's brother, Martin Young, the Marine I'd once briefly and so violently hated, was now a friend. Retired and living in New Mexico for his health, he and his wife, Sharon, kept me informed of Josie's condition. When she was moved to a hospice center near Carondelet High School in Concord, in Northern California where she last taught, Sharon explained that Josie knew that the cancer had spread to her liver.
"The doctors have told her that she has two months to live," she said.
Even with her death hanging over us, it was not hard for me to be there with her on that last afternoon. Sister Josephine Martin had been a part of my life so long that there was nothing we did not talk about. Dying and death had often been in our conversations, and it was then. I told her not to worry, that her faith would carry her through. We spoke of the photograph she'd promised years before, but never gave me. It was a black-and-white snapshot taken on some anonymous street. In it she stands in a black habit with a white bib, the image slightly blurred, her eyes in shadow, almost shut against the sun. I loved the photograph, for it reminded me of her when I was ten and had stepped to the front of the class, meaning to kiss her. We laughed and shared other memories. Twenty years before, as adults, we'd carried food into a theater and had a picnic in the last row.
"The movie was Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Do you remember?"
"Of course," she said, smiling wanly. "We didn't want to cause any trouble."
Yet it was in the course of our "picnic" that she accidentally kicked the bottle of apple juice so that it rolled noisily, and slowly, from the very back of the theater where we were sitting down to the very front row. It was among our favorite memories, and now we laughed.
Finally, after almost an hour, it was clear that she was tired. I took the photo, and we said goodbye.