Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Remembering Sr. Maura
I lost a dear friend Sunday night. Sr. Maura Eichner had been one of my English teachers at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, but over the years she became so much more.
I met Sr. Maura in the spring of 1976 when I took her Five Modern Dramatists course and she introduced me to Ibsen, Strindberg, Pirandello, Beckett and Pinter. We both loved theatre, and so our first bond was established. Over the school years we shared other playwrights -- Shakespeare, Shaw, O’Casey, O’Neill -- and we talked about the wonderful plays we saw at Baltimore’s CenterStage.
After I graduated, I continued to visit; I loved climbing the stairs to her tiny, sunlit office at the top of the English department. She always seemed glad to see me, coming from behind her desk to sit in a chair opposite me so we could talk friend-to-friend, not teacher-to-student as in the old days.
When her lack of physical stamina made it necessary for her to retire, our visits became even more intimate as we sat in the cozy living room of the suite she shared with other sisters. I cherished those times most of all. That big room with its unpretentious furniture was so comfortable and inviting, and Sr. Maura was like a mother welcoming me home. My own mother was not warm and nurturing. A severe childhood trauma had left her incapable of loving and caring for me the way a child needs to be loved and cared for, so all my life I’ve looked for mothers. I found one in Sr. Maura. I would give anything to sit with her again in that living room.
I’m blessed that what I shared with Sr. Maura had a specialness that was just for us. Many, many former students loved Sr. Maura and she loved them too, but we shared her history. She grew up at 528 E. 84th Street in New York, in one of those old-time brown railroad flat buildings, a few of which are still on the block. Hers, though, was incorporated many years ago into what is now my building, so I live on the very spot where Sr. Maura grew up. I hadn’t known this until I told her my new address. She was thrilled, and told me to look hard for traces of chalk on the sidewalk from her hopscotch games and to listen for the sound of her jump rope hitting the pavement.
I used to keep her informed about the neighborhood now, and for years sent her the bulletin from St. Ignatius Church, a place she held close in her heart. She loved to go there with one of the uncles who raised her. Her mother had died less than a year after she was born and her father remarried and took her sister, Marie, who was a year older, to live with his new wife and sent Sr. Maura, then called Catherine, to live with an unmarried aunt, two unmarried uncles and her grandfather on 84th Street. Sr. Maura told me once this arrangement was because her stepmother didn’t want her because she was such “a terrible little thing,” but how could she have been? She was just a little girl who wanted her mother and needed her father’s love. I’m sure it’s that pain and loneliness that shaped her into the nurturing woman she became.
She shared other memories of her childhood with me, and even wrote a couple of essays for our block association newsletter about what this part of Yorkville had been like in her day. She remembered a Miss Peacock who supervised the games in the park across the street (Carl Schurz), and she remembered concerts by Goldman's Band in the evening. I don’t think we have the equivalent of a Miss Peacock, but we have a cheery modern playground filled with children, mothers and nannies, and we still have concerts in the park on summer evenings.
Another from the cast of characters from Sr. Maura’s childhood that I like to think about is Joe, who ran the ice and coal shop on the corner. She wrote about that time, about 1925, for our newsletter, how Joe would deliver the ice, but it was her responsibility to keep the drainage tray at the bottom of the icebox emptied. Joe’s store is long gone, his profession made obsolete as refrigerators replaced iceboxes, and a luxury high-rise now sits on the spot. Sometimes as I walk by, I say a prayer for Joe and think I may be the only one alive praying for this man who died so long ago. I’m sure he would smile at that, and would enjoy knowing that a 21st century woman was imagining his little shop, keeping a bit of that world alive, thanks to Sr. Maura.
“Looking back,” she wrote for our Fall 1995 newsletter, “it seems to me to have been an urban Our Town. Everything happened here: the pain and joy of growth and change, the dailyness of life, birth, love, death, the season’s wheel. Even when I take off my rose-colored glasses, I look at the scene in my mind’s eye and I am grateful to have been part of it.”
Sr. Maura and I didn’t just share the neighborhood where we lived, though. We also for a time shared a workplace neighborhood and a job. Before my first book sold and I was desperate for money, I took a job as a secretary and worked on Fifth Avenue at 56th Street. When I told Sr. Maura, she smiled and said her first job had been as a secretary on Fifth Avenue at 57th Street. It was for a philanthropic organization that helped poor women learn to care for themselves when they were pregnant and also trained midwives in the South. “I learned more there about pregnancy and childbirth than I could have anywhere else,” she told me. Her boss was Hattie Hempsmeyer, another name that survives the years. Sr. Maura really cared for Hattie and the other women, but after a year she told them she was leaving to become a nun. They were upset and tried to talk her out of it, saying she had her whole life ahead of her and that she would be wasting it. She did leave, of course, but she was never able to let the women know how happy she was. In those days, the young novices and nuns could only correspond with immediate family at Christmas and Easter, so she was unable to write to Hattie and the others to let them know how blessed her life had become. I thought as I looked at her that day in 1995, telling me yet another wonderful story from her life, that it was such a shame those well-meaning women couldn’t see her then and know her as I knew her, so alive with her love for God, her fellow sisters, her students, literature and life at the College. She told me she had just celebrated her birthday and that she knew there wouldn’t be many more but she didn’t mind because her life had been so rich. I remember thinking she looked positively radiant, and I wondered how Hattie’s life had turned out.
I also wish those women could have known that Sr. Maura didn’t just “waste” her life as a School Sister of Notre Dame, she also had a professional life as a distinguished writer. Over the years, she published more than 350 poems in literary magazines, journals and newspapers including America, The New York Times, Yale Review and Commonweal. Many of her poems were collected in eight books of poetry including “Initiate the Heart” (1946), “The Word is Love” (1958); “Walking on Water” (1972), “What We Women Know” (1980) and “Hope is a Blind Bard” (1989). Her work was also recorded for the poetry collections of Lamont Library at Harvard and for the Library of Congress.
She received numerous awards for distinguished teaching including the Teacher of Year Award from the Maryland Council of Teachers of English in 1982; Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1985; and Theodore Hesburgh Award for Contributions to Higher Education from the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities in 1985.
And she helped others to become writers. Like Hattie, she became a midwife of sorts in her 50 years of teaching literature and creative writing at Notre Dame. Her students won many awards in national writing contests sponsored by The Atlantic Monthly, Lyric and other magazines. In the 21 years of Atlantic’s student-writing contests, Sister Maura’s students won an astonishing 297 awards, including nine first-place honors. Although I followed a different genre -- journalism was and is my great love -- I too won awards, six reporting awards, five of which were for first place. In her poem “What My Teachers Taught Me, I Try to Teach My Students,” Sr. Maura wrote that “in writing, nothing is too much trouble.”
I still have a great many of the letters Sr. Maura wrote to me over the years. I used to love to open my mailbox and see an envelope with that elegant, thin handwriting. I’m sad there will be no more, but I’m happy now for Sr. Maura. Dementia had already taken her from us mentally. Now, at 94, I like to think she has finally met her mother. I will just miss her so much as mine.