Gregory and Sister Margaret Mary. It sounds like the title of a kids’ book, doesn’t it? If it were, it would be in the non-fiction section. It’s a true story, and one that took place in my childhood.
I first met Gregory in 195(a-hem) – in first grade. But my first concrete memory had to wait until third grade. We won a spelling bee. Yes. WE. Sister Christina ran out of words, and the rest of the class was getting restless, so rather than lose control, she deemed us co-champs.
Somehow sharing a title ignited a mutual crush. I’d forgotten all about this. It’s funny how one unearthed memory can lead to others. His desk was next to mine and I remember holding hands across the aisle. I came home and told my mother I had a boyfriend. She smiled. I told my father when he home for dinner. He fumed and muttered about how I was too young for “that kind of talk.” Oh well.
He had nothing to fear. Young love is fickle – especially that young. Gregory was smart, he was cute, he was mischievous but he faded into the background of my school-girl memories. What I do remember is that if there was trouble to get into, he was there; but as I said he was smart, he was cute, he was made of Teflon –until eighth grade. Enter Sister Margaret Mary, a red-faced, Irish-American whirling dervish of a nun.
Sister Margaret Mary had had polio as a child. It left her with a slight limp. The limp didn’t hold her back in the least. Let any one of us dare to pass a note, or whisper to our neighbor, and she’d could make it from the chalkboard to our desk in a semi-fluid motion, not unlike a modern-day Segue with one flat tire, black robe whirling about her legs, rosary beads clicking furiously down one side, and white knotted rope lashing back and forth on the other. Yes, the woman could move. And children are cruel – we dubbed her Hop-along Cassidy.
The destination of her fleet feet was often Gregory’s desk. Yes, she had Gregory’s number. And he, in turn knew how to push her buttons. They seemed to have a love/hate relationship. While she was on to his mischievousness, she also recognized his intellect …..and creativity. And he used that creativity to come up with more and better ways to bug her. And the more bugged she was, the more she beat the crap, oops, stuffing out of him. Those stories you’ve heard about Catholic School ? T-R-U-E.
But Gregory was just biding his time. Midway through the school year, he dreamed up the ultimate prank. But he kept it to himself, waiting for just the right moment, and finally it arrived. He primed her with some small irritation. I can’t tell you what it was but I can tell you everything else about the setting. The memory is as fresh as if it took place just this afternoon.
The class consisted of thirty-eight pupils. Our desks were arranged in six long rows. I sat in the fifth row, next to the last seat (back of the room, I was tall). Gregory sat three desks in front of me. (he was shorter) Whatever he did to provoke her worked. Up the aisle she flew, wailing and flailing. He ducked for cover and let her get back to the front of the class room before he rose from his seat, waving a bottle of blue ink.
Yes, a bottle of ink.
By now it was 196ahem and although ball point pens were accepted in other grades, Sister Margaret Mary required us to use fountain pens. And the ink had to be blue, not black, not blue-black only blue.
Gregory stood up, unscrewed the top of the ink bottle amidst a tirade about how he’d had it. He was tired of how she was always picking on him. This was it. He’d reached his limit. With a final declaration that she’d hit him for the last time, he threw back his head and chug a lugged the ink.
You could hear a pin drop in the class room. Thirty eight pairs of eyes opened wide. Thirty eight mouths went agape. Sister Margaret Mary stared in horror, frozen in place at the chalkboard. Then she ran to his seat, yelling “Gregory, no, no.” She grabbed the bottle – and the smell of lemon wafted through the air.
If only he’d used water instead of lemon juice. But water and blue food coloring probably wouldn’t have given him the right color and opacity. The time he must have spent experimenting! And the self-control to keep it a total secret! The drama with which he’d performed the scene! But was it worth the pounding he received from the recovered Sister Margaret Mary? Worth being suspended until he brought his mother in for a conference? We’d all say yes! It was the highlight of our eighth grade experience.
Graduation rolled around and the class split up to attend high schools all over Manhattan and The Bronx. I’d see Gregory from time to time – mostly at Church dances, and maybe mass. High school days morphed into College, and the old gang, already thinned out, spread even farther apart. I headed to a college upstate and Gregory left for Cornell …….and then????? There was talk that he stayed on at Cornell for Law School which surprised no one who had witnessed the histrionics and timing of The Stunt. But as for the friends I remained in contact with, no one ever saw him again.
As for Sister Margaret Mary, she was transferred to a parish in Yonkers sometime during our high school years and assumed the role of principal there. The last time I saw her was when she attended my high school graduation. A few years ago I heard from a friend living in Washington DC that she had retired to a home for aged nuns in Maryland.
Both she and Gregory faded into my past at about the same time. And there they stayed …until last week.
I have two friends with whom I get together from time to time, mostly in the city. One, let’s call her Joanie, I’ve known since third grade. She was in the class behind us and has kept contact with her classmates via an e-mail network.
Joanie let me know that Gregory’s younger brother had sent word to the group that Gregory had passed away a few days earlier. The cause of death had not been determined at the time. That was in late December
The other friend, I’ll call Andrew, the one mentioned above who lives in DC. Being an attorney, he’d had occasion to help out Sister Margaret Mary and the community of aged nuns in some legal matter, and heard from them from time to time. Andrew’s email arrived in my in box last Friday. Sister Margaret Mary had passed away that afternoon. Two weeks after Gregory. So if you heard a loud thundering N-o-o-o-o-o-o ringing down from the heavens last Friday. You know who it was.
May they both rest in peace – far from each other.