She usually said this in heavy tones, we all knew the person who kept popping up in mama’s life, she had told each of us, her eight children, the story many times.
Mama did her nurse’s training in northern Maine in the early 1940s. She was a young woman, full of life and mischief, a mix of Barbara Stanwyck and Carole Lombard, a beautiful spitfire.
When the first week of the course was over, Mama was itching for the weekend, but first the nurses’ quarters had to be cleaned and inspected. They were in a drafty two-story building with wide pine-board floors, and the beds were lined up on either side of the large, open room. Mama stood with her fellow nurses. Four of them had mops, and all of them were looking at the still unused tin pail full of hot soapy water. They were on the second floor, and they could hear the first floor inspection starting below them.
“We’re done for! We haven’t even washed the floor….” said one nurse.
“Don’t worry, this is a quick way to clean….” Mama picked up the pail, “I’ll throw the water and you four start mopping. We’ll be done before you know it.”
And she heaved the bucket out and away from her tiny frame, grabbed a cloth, and started to mop at the floor. Not a one of the rookie nurses was fast enough to keep the water from draining through the cracks between the boards and onto their first floor companions - and onto the head nurse.
This head nurse was a nun, “a real Tartar,” as my mother would say, “the worst kind: a nun with no sense of humor”.
Well, Sister Mary Edmunds, the Tartar nun, came storming up to the second floor, gray water dripping off her wimple and on to her cheek, “What has happened here?”
The four nurses with mops tried to hide them behind their backs; mama sat back on her heels, twisted her palms to the ceiling, and confessed.
“My idea, Sister. I did it to get us out of this place and home for the weekend. I hadn’t realized that the cracks were so big….”
“Alice…that’s your name, isn’t it?”
“Well, Alice, thank you for telling me. Now none of you on this floor will be off for the weekend. You can all help with some cleaning in the hospital.”
Mama would pause after rolling her eyes, and assure us that cleaning a floor with a toothbrush was not a punishment reserved for the military and that if any of us would like to try it she would provide a brush.
In life, a worthy opponent is a rare find, and mama had found one in this nun.
Sister Mary Edmunds liked to lurk and find any nurse who tried to sneak out of the building. So once, Mama unscrewed the one light bulb in the second floor hallway and covered the floor in marbles. That night, Sister Mary Edmunds walked up the wooden stairs to make sure all the nurses were accounted for, and she was promptly taken by the field of marbles.
We never heard what the punishment for that was – but we knew the pranks continued.
Since mama was wily, she soon learned how to pull off a stunt, leaving absolutely no way to trace it back to her. Sister Mary Edmunds could be heard muttering, “A-lice”, yes, like “a lice”, whenever she saw a crooked painting or whenever she would find things ever-so-slightly out of place in her office. She knew her adversary had been there but she could never prove it.
My mom did graduate from nurses’ training, in spite of having almost weekly run-ins with Sister Mary Edmunds.
At the start of World War II Mama enlisted in the army. She served in the European theater, where she met and married my father. After the War, my parents moved to Rochester, Minnesota, and my father was at the Mayo Clinic for a few years. Then my parents decided to move to Rochester, New York, assuming that the weather would surely be better. My father was hired by St. Mary’s Hospital and his kindness, brilliance, and movie star good looks made him well-known in a very short time.
St. Mary’s used to hold an annual fundraiser called The Seton Ball. For their first Seton Ball, my mother was stunning in a simple long black sheath and a knot of coral beads tied around her neck. My father beamed at her as he introduced her to the liaison between the hospital and the religious staff.
“Sister Mary Edmunds, I would like you to meet my wife….”
“Alice!” Sister Mary Edmunds grimaced and hissed lightly.
My mother held out her neat little hand, “So nice to see you again, Sister!”
Sister looked at my mother’s palm to see if there was a buzzer in it before shaking it; no need to bother the good doctor….
A waltz started and my parents danced off, but not before my mother heard the nun mutter to one of her colleagues, “How did a saint like that Dr. B. get mixed up with a devil like that Alice?!”
At this point our mom would stop and shake her finger, “So you [and this was directed at whichever one of us eight that had made an unkind comment about someone and needed a reminder], you be careful about how you treat people, because you never know…..”
Decades later, my sister, who is a year older than I am, got her first job teaching at a Catholic school. My sister was excited about setting up her first classroom and was carrying in a box of posters, books, and papers when she was stopped by the principal, Sister Borromeo, “Someone would like to meet you….”
My sister followed the nun down the hall toward the main offices and there sat the tiniest of nuns. She stood as my sister came into the office, barely reaching my sister’s shoulder. Her handshake, though, was a titanium grip.
“I am Sister Mary Edmund, I had to meet you. You see, your mother and I go way back….”
So, the next time you feel like being particularly nasty to someone, please remember my mother.