When I was a Catholic schoolboy, several hundred years ago, the custom of our teachers, each and every one a sister of the Order of Preachers, was that if you forgot your lunch or had it stolen under assault and occasionally battery, you were sent, curiously without ignominy, to the adjacent convent. There Sister Cook, a spherical woman with the immense burly forearms of a stevedore, would make you a peanut butter and jam sandwich or a peanut butter and honey sandwich—your choice. And you would eat your sandwich at the huge, old wooden table in her kitchen, a table as big and gnarled as a ship, as she bustled about doing this and that; and she would offer you milk or water—your choice.
She never had a tart or testy word for you, but would even occasionally haul up a tall wooden stool to the table and perch upon it as golden dust and swirls of flour drifted through the bars of sunlight. And she would ask you questions about your family, all of whom she knew, partly because your brothers and sister had sat at this same table, and eaten of the sisters’ bread and honey, and then been sent back through the tiny lush convent garden and through the vaulting wooden fence, emerging into the chaos of the schoolyard, where screaming children sprinted this way and that, some grabbing each other by the hair or necktie, until the bell rang and they again fell into lines ordered by grade and teacher and shuffled burbling back into the echoing hallways, therein to be educated.
Many a man has written elegiacally or bitterly of his education under the adamant will and firm hands of the sisters, but not so many have sung of the quiet corners where perhaps we were better educated than we were in our classrooms, with their rows of desks and pillars of chalk and maps of the world. Perhaps I learned more about communion at that epic timbered table in that golden kitchen than I did in religion class. Perhaps I learned more about listening as prayer from Sister Cook than I did from any number of speakers on any number of subjects. Perhaps I soaked up something subtle and telling and substantive and holy about service and commitment and promise from Sister Cook, who did not teach a class or rule the religious education curriculum or conduct religious ritual and observance in public, but quietly served sandwiches to more small hungry, shy children than anyone can count, in her golden, redolent kitchen, with its table bigger than a boat.
Sometimes there would be two of us, or even three, sitting quietly at that table, mowing through our sandwiches, using two hands to hoist the heavy drinking glasses that the sisters used. They must have had herculean wrists, the sisters of the Order of Preachers, after years of such glasses lifted to such lips. And Sister would wait until all of us were done, and we would mumble our heartfelt gratitude and bring our dishes to her spotless sink and be shown the door. And never once that I remember did any child, including me, ever ask her about herself, her trials and travails, her delights and distractions, what music she loved, what stories, what extraordinary birds. We ran down the path toward the vaulting wooden fence, heedless; and only now do I stop and turn back and look her in the face and say thank you, Sister Cook, for your gentle and delicious gift, which was not the sandwich, savory as peanut butter and honey can be, but you.