"Thank God, it's you," she managed to stammer amidst her distress. "I couldn't imagine who was here." Her voice quivered.
Like an Easter rising, she stood and emerged from the small enclosed tub area dressed in a blue blazer and matching skirt, white blouse and wearing sensible black shoes. Why, she's fully dressed, I thought, as if on her way to Mass. She was standing next to me.
I looked up from the sink where I had just washed my hair, readying myself for my trip to Syracuse to be with my family for Easter dinner. I wrapped a towel around my head and turned toward her. Her mocha brown eyes were frightened.
"You won't believe what's been happening," she said breathlessly. "Someone's breaking in."
Breaking in, I thought. It's 11:00 on Easter Sunday morning. We're a convent not a jewelry store. Breaking in? For what? Where? Sure we were in the heart of Rochester's inner city but still. Our big brick 1907 built convent that sat on property just north of the school and south of the church and rectory had over the years been a strong presence in this community. An old Italian parish, St. Francis Xavier sat solidly in the turmoil of the changing neighborhood with eight of us, Sisters of St. Joseph, living and teaching there. There was a several priests stationed at the rectory though their forces were beginning to dwindle, the Catholic Church crisis slowly beginning.
I'd just returned fifteen minutes ago from the hospital where I'd visited with a friend whose mother was dying. I was a bit hurried, trying to get on the road by noon.
"What do you mean? There was no one here when I came in. Have you been hiding in the tub room?" I felt the corners of my mouth turn up with delight. I stifled the impulse to roar. Clare was still scared.
"Tell me what happened," I said.
"Well, I think you've scared them off. I came up here to my room to get ready to go over to Mom and Dad's. I'd finished the dishes. Everyone else was gone. I began packing up a few things when I heard this gall darn banging that sounded like the whole house was coming down." Her blonde hair fluttered as she spoke, her voice still shaky. "I couldn't imagine what it was. I tiptoed down the hall and when I got near the back stairs, that's when I figured it out. Someone was trying to break in through the milk box!"
Again I stifled a laugh. Sunday morning, sunny day, someone coming up on a back porch and trying to climb into the milk box for entry to a convent? Really?
"Well, when you heard me, had the noise stopped?" I asked, trying to bring a bit of reason to this fear, also trying to expedite my own timetable of getting on the road.
"Yes, that's probably what happened," she said, less fearfully. "By the time I figured out what happened, I climbed in here, the last place I figured anyone would look. I've been crouched down in the tub praying no one would find me."
"When you heard me, you thought I was them, coming to get you?" Now I turned away for fear I would burst out laughing.
"I didn't know what to think." As she described the scene, her voice quivered again. "I heard the footsteps and then the faucet turn on. I didn't think any robbers would wash their hands. I couldn't peek over so I just waited and finally you whistled the Alleluia song from today's liturgy. That's when I got the courage to peek out. Thank God it was you."
This petite, blonde-haired woman, a few years older than I, had delighted me since the first day I met her. She was the sixth grade teacher at the school I had become principal of in 1974. She'd spent a good number of her years at Immaculate Conception and had the heart for urban education in her soul. She was a crackerjack teacher with students who respected her and students who learned. She always had a dynamic classroom, adorned with historic quotes and posters to inspire:
Never for the sake of peace and quiet sacrifice deny your own convictions. - Dag Hammerskjold
We have to talk about liberating minds as well as liberating society. - Angela Davis
The Davis quote sat boldly next to a huge poster of her, her black face and full afro front and center under the crucifix.
Clare lived the quotes she displayed. Another of my favorites was a poster of a kite on her bedroom door. "People, like kites, are made to be lifted up."
Never did she sacrifice her convictions. Feisty is a word that aptly describes her. Her personal sense of discipline as she rose at six in the morning to do her 'ablutions' as she called them and then say her personal morning prayers preceded her arrival at breakfast, tidily attired in the conservative dress of the day, dark skirts, sweaters or blazers, complemented by white, well tailored blouses. She wore a small cross modestly around her neck and always brought a twinkle in her sage brown eyes.
This morning her eyes were unsettled and nervous, like there were if there was a storm brewing.
"Let's go and see what's happened down here." I remembered her telling of the noise and recalled her sensitivity to any loud sounds, stemming from her mother's nurturing ritual whenever there was a thunderstorm. Clare and her older brother Dave where dutifully carried or as they grew bigger, ushered to a safe spot in the basement, usually on an old glider where their mother rocked them to wait out the storm. I'd known Clare for years and watched her alarm when storms would arise. If she could, she would find a dark spot and plug her ears. I finally was able to ask Clare's mom who was a spitfire in her own right, why the ritual.
"When I was thirteen,' she had told me, her trim silver hair neatly in place, her lively brown eyes looking into mine, "the circus was coming to town." I did a quick calculation and figured this had to be in the early twenties. "A bunch of us, kids mostly, went down to Railroad Street to watch the elephants as they paraded down to the auditorium. It began to rain but we didn't let that stop our excitement until lightning streaked across the sky. In an instant, one of the girls was struck and killed. I'll never forget that. And I've never chanced losing one of my children like that."
The explanation had helped me support Clare as she headed for shelter wherever we were when a storm began. Whether in grocery stores while doing the weekly shopping where she'd head for the back of the store away from windows or while driving in one of the convent cars that overheated, steam hissing threateningly from under the hood. She's plug her ears, eyes darting, panic evident and now understandable.
One of my vivid memories is of the first week of school at St. Michael's on the corner of Clinton and Clifford. Class had been in session for about an hour. I had finished the morning rituals of my new role, checking attendance, clarifying chores for the day with the secretaries. I stood for a minute of quiet at the window of my sparsely furnished and economically paneled office, watching the thunderstorm that had started ten minutes before. Unlike Clare, my mother who was also afraid of thunderstorms, would gather us and tell stories. It was a favorite time.
Clare, I suddenly thought. I bounded up the stairs two at a time to her classroom, the first one on my right. I peered in. The twenty or so uniformed students, black, white and Latino, looked up unphased from the work they were doing. I quickly exited in search of Clare. Down the hall in a small closet she knelt, lost in her own thoughts. I went back to her classroom and sat with her students until the storm's end. They knew what to do. I didn't.
Determined to get on my way to Syracuse and yet not abandon Clare in an upset state, I suggested we go down together and look through all the rooms, so she could be certain no one was within and that nothing had been taken by this Easter morning burglar. I couldn't imagine anyone trying to get in through the old painted shut milkbox but in fairness, I would look with her.
As we clambered down the stairs, making enough noise to scare off anyone, I turned back to see Clare with a long black silver handled umbrella. "Just in case," she said.
We went through the front hallway where the stairs ended and into the dining room. Everything was in tact as far as I could see. The bay window with the plants looked undisturbed and the pile of books and papers in the far corner on the hutch, Christine's probably, were still in disarray.
I went first into the kitchen. Toaster still in place, coffee pot unplugged, dishes in the rack. Oh my God. We spotted it at the same time. The heavy old white refrigerator was twisted and pushed forward at least a foot.
We carefully moved into the little pantry area together, our jaws dropped. I peeked behind the broadsheet metal had been pulled from the wall and daylight was visible behind it. We went out the back door to the milkbox and sure enough, the door had been pried open. I was all at once flabbergasted and apologetic. I felt my breathing become shallow and my heart race a bit as I thought back to Clare, terrified squatting in the tub. She looked over at me as we stood surveying the scene. "I knew I heard some gall darn noise. Thank God you came home when you did." Her jaw was set and her eyes determined. She was vindicated now. She had indeed heard something.
I felt a rush of compassion for her as we pushed the fridge back against the wall, using all our might, our shoulders against the front panel, our rubber soled shoes firmly on the linoleum. Tomorrow we'd have to call Leon, our neighbor who so generously helped with such things to come secure the box and the sheet metal. For now, we were both off to see our parents, each of us with a tale to tell.