July 12, 2004
Why we hadn't noticed each other in June or July, I’ll never know. It was August and I'd been running the Ferris wheel at the amusement park for eight weeks. To one side of my 16-seat Big Eli wheel was a wild, whirl-'em-up ride. To the other side were kiddie rides. There she was, running a merry-go-round, when the rain came.
I was 20, home from college for the summer, glad to have any job in that recession year of the 1970s. She, as I would learn, was 18, going into her senior year of high school. At the first drops of rain, I unloaded the riders from the wheel and hit the red power-off button. The wind blew. The rain got heavy. She beckoned. I joined her under the merry-go-round's canopy.
To stand and talk to a pretty stranger while waiting out a summer shower: What's your name? What are you reading? Do you have brothers and sisters? What do you do for fun? Do you have friends working here?
It was the banter of a girl and a boy at leisure. A few days later I asked her out on a date.
How oddly life puts us into each other's paths. The girl by the merry-go-round had moved to our Midwestern state from 700 miles away months earlier. She had an accent that I found charming. My college was 700 miles away in another direction. Her mother drove her to work and back, 15 miles each way each day, from a wooded suburb outside the metropolis, north of the amusement park. I drove myself in an old Rambler, 15 miles each way each day, from a college town to the south.
She must have drawn a map to get me the 30 miles from my house to her house to pick her up for that first date. Some details are lost forever. But I remember her house, a two-story New England colonial set back from the road. I remember her parents, kind and welcoming people picnicking on the back patio with friends as we left. I remember that she was their oldest child and had only brothers, as I was the oldest in my family and had only sisters.
We went out just a few times that year. Once to the movies. Billy Jack wasn't very good. Once to a fancy restaurant. I went with a $20 bill and got home with only coins in my pocket. But those weren't the things that mattered. Our times together were fun. Innocent, too. A kiss on the lips at the door was our goodbye. In the fall she sent me her senior yearbook photo, with an endearing inscription on the back. I kept it in my wallet. Later it went in a box of mementos. When I married I discarded it, along with everything else that I had kept from girls other than my wife.
And that was all. As much as our dates were enjoyable, as much as I felt an attraction to her, we never became boyfriend and girlfriend. Our lives diverged as quickely as they had converged. I never saw or heard of her again. Deep in memory stuck my recollection of her; pretty, intelligent, with a ready smile, and pious in a way that I admired but didn't understand.
Recognition sneaks up on us like summer rains. Glimmers come scattered as early drops hitting us in the face, call for our attention, but not commanding it. Then a sudden realization comes over us like the unexpected downpour.
In a newspaper article I read the headline, "Sister A to Head Major Charity." The name was the same as hers. I read more. "After years of devoted service to poor people on the high plains, Sister A. takes up new duties now as chief executive of . . . " In her new role, the; article said, she leads an organization that spends more than $100 million a year doing good for desperate young people. What a blessing to our world, that there are such good works.
"Sister A. is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. . . ." of a certain Midwestern city. Wasn't that the name of the father grilling in the suburban back yard? The article gave Sister A.’s age, two years less than mine. That detail fit, too.
When I went to the website of the charity, the deluge of certainty came. There was a photo of Sister A., a few decades older than in the image I once kept, but unmistakably herself. The high cheeks, the Roman nose, the winsome smile, were all unchanged. At the bottom of her appeal for funds, her signature was instantly familiar, altered only by "Sister" at the front and the letters of her order at the back.
If I ever thought of that girl on the merry-go-round in the years after our shared August at the amusement park, it was to imagine her this way: married to a man as successful and upright as her father; with a brood of children like her mother's, raising them to be as devout as she was. But other people's lives don't follow our scripts. Sister A. has a God-given vocation that uses well the caring, smarts, warmth, and verve that I liked in her as a girl. She’s made her life and work a gift to people in need. Knowing that cheers the child of God in me.
My gift from her, entirely unintended and unmerited, is to think of her as "the nun I dated."