Mother Roberta made the rules: no chewing gum, no bicycles, no tree nuts, no pets. Every morning she brewed the coffee and every night she cooked the meal. Twice a year she sewed our made-to-measure habits from yards of a black poly-wool blend. She embroidered pillows, made punch from powder, wrote the homilies for the priest.
When Father Thaddeus came to Lackawanna, he suggested she might take a break. Relax. She was 81, frail as filament, and had started having bad days. Lapses in memory, slips in the shower. She sometimes peed herself. Twice in one month, we’d had to rummage through bags of trash in search of her false teeth.Everything we knew about living, we knew because Mother Roberta had showed us.
Mother Roberta acquiesced—she would try to relax. She began to spend her days behind a newspaper held wide, or at the kitchen table with a cup of Red Rose tea, staring at a spread of puzzle pieces that she never seemed to touch. But while we weren’t looking, she put all thousand pieces where they were meant to be, and one afternoon the puzzle was finished. A moonscape. She left it on the table until dinner, then wrecked it and started again.
Everything we knew about living, we knew because Mother Roberta had showed us. She taught us to be busy: write our representatives, make bread of brown bananas. “There is no time for nothing,” she used to tell us, when she caught us staring out the window, or flipping through stations on the rectory radio.
Mother Roberta had three stiff hairs on her chin that we could spot only when she sat underneath the kitchen light. We used to fight each other for the chance to lean close and tug them loose. The thrill of it—we were eager, and she obliged, knowing she was too blind to get them herself. One of us would crouch and raise a pair of tweezers and, when a hair was plucked free, present it in front of Mother Roberta’s face, so she could close her eyes, make a wish, and blow.
It seemed impossible then, in the time before Little Neon and Woonsocket, to imagine chin hairs of our own. The four of us were born in different months of the same year, each of us twenty when we became novitiates, 22 when we made our vows. We were 29 when we moved from Lackawanna, just south of Buffalo, to Woonsocket. Back then, our chins were bald, our minds sharp. Our faith was firm and founded. We were fixed to one another, like parts of some strange, asymmetrical body: Frances was the mouth; Mary Lucille, the heart; Therese, the legs. And I, Agatha, the eyes.
There were a lot of parts missing, I suppose. But for a while we didn’t realize it. For a while it seemed like enough.Back then, our chins were bald, our minds sharp. Our faith was firm and founded. We were fixed to one another.
When I was young, I thought womanhood would bring autonomy. Glamor. Fur coats and fat wallets. Days entirely of my design. I planned, as a girl, to become the kind of woman who kept a pen in her breast pocket; it seemed important that when I grew up I always had my own pen, that I never had to borrow anything from anyone else.
Now that I’m on my own, the thing I miss most is time spent in a parked van with my sisters, waiting for one of us to root through her bag and find whatever it was the other needed the most.
Our ninth spring in Lackawanna, we painted the convent walls the color of mayonnaise.
This was in 2005, when newscasters couldn’t stop talking about the death of the pope, and we couldn’t stop talking about the mold on our bathroom wall. Remediation—that was the word we used. We wanted mold remediation. We bleached and squeegeed and scrubbed, but nothing worked. Nothing remediated. After a while we decided we might as well cover it up, which took three coats of what we agreed was the perfect white paint: not too yellow, not too blue. And then we painted the walls of the kitchen and the pantry and the foyer and the living room of our gable-front house. We kept painting until we ran out of walls.
It was the spring the babies stopped coming, so we had time on our hands. There used to be a dozen babies in our day care, some young enough that the mothers still counted their ages in months, others old enough to tell us how they felt. But a few years back a new Montessori school opened, and their budget allotted a music program, cooler toys, zoo-to-you animal visits—rabbits and turtles, mostly, maybe an iguana—and in the last few years, the mothers had started an enrollment exodus. Each year we had fewer babies. By our ninth spring, there was only one baby, and we thought four to one was an excellent teacher-to-student ratio, but the baby’s mother felt it important for him to socialize. So then there were none. Not a single baby.
We stayed busy. We pruned the hedges and shampooed the carpets. We were in possession of an old red Mercury Villager, a donation from a parishioner a few years back. The van had no air-conditioning. The seats were gray velour and the sliding doors were trouble; they jammed in their tracks. More than once we drove down the highway with the doors stuck halfway open, wind whipping through the car.
We couldn’t fix the doors, but we could change the motor oil. Or—Therese could, while the rest of us watched. Only Therese was game and limber enough.
That spring, when Frances and Mary Lucille and I were standing around, eating corn chips, and Therese was belly-up under the car, Mother Roberta came outside barefoot to tell us the Buffalo diocese was kicking us out.
Mary Lucille put a chip in her mouth.
“I didn’t catch that,” Therese called from under the car. She stopped cranking her wrench. “What’d you say?”
“They’re kicking us out,” Frances said. “What?”
Mother Roberta stooped to yell in the direction of Therese’s head. “You’re being reassigned! The Buffalo diocese is broke!” And when Therese said nothing, she yelled again, her face beet red. “Broke! Bust! In arrears!” Then she stood straight and turned to hock a fat loogie into the grass. She did not care to repeat herself.
There was silence, then the sound of oil hitting the pan. Therese let it all drip out, and then she tightened the bolt, emerged, wiped her blackened hands on a rag, and looked up at Mother Roberta. “How come?”
Mother Roberta reminded us about the decline in church attendance. The first year Father Thaddeus came to Lackawanna, the diocese’s numbers had fallen by nearly half. This meant the offertory revenue dropped, too. The numbers fell the next year, too, and when they fell the year after that, we were sure they couldn’t fall again.
They fell again.
Frances crossed her arms. “But can’t we do something? We could sell muffins, or CDs, or—knives. I have a cousin who got rich from knives.”
“Where would we get knives?” Therese asked. “I can call my cousin,” Frances said.
“No,” Mother Roberta said, weary. She shook her head. “We are not selling knives.”
“We could do a phone-a-thon,” Mary Lucille said. “Ask people for donations.”
“That’s a nice idea,” Mother Roberta said, “but it’s too late for that. This is bankruptcy. Do you understand? This is huge debt. Colossal.”
“But how?” Mary Lucille said. “We don’t have any expensive things.”Mother Roberta said she would see to it that we were sent somewhere good. And together—we would be together.
“Well,” Frances said, “I’ve heard stories.” A look of rapture came over her; she delighted in other people’s secrets. “Someone in Williamsville told me that Father Art has had seven cosmetic surgeries.”
“I thought so!” Therese said.
“Yeah. Neck lift, face lift, eye lift. Chin implants, too.” Mary Lucille’s hand went instinctively to her own chin. “And this other parish in Hamburg replaced all their bronze bells,” she said. They opted for new bells that could ring themselves. Frances had heard they’d selected the most state-of-the-art operating system, Apollo. With Apollo, you could make the bells play any of the 7,800 songs from a customized digital library. The Apollo package came with a five-year warranty, a money-back guarantee, free annual maintenance, and a remote control.
So the men in charge had been reckless. “But come on,” Therese said. “That’s not enough to make the diocese go broke.” “Stop it. Just stop it,” Mother Roberta said. She had no patience for gossip. “There’s no sense trying to do the math.” She hocked another loogie just past her feet.
It was Mother Roberta who kept the books for our parish. She knew where every penny went. She counted the offertory, paid the snowplow man, filed each grocery receipt. At the kitchen table she’d punch the calculator keys and fill the lines of the ledger, and it seemed to bring her joy.
Mother Roberta told us we had no reason to worry. “Reassignments happen all the time,” she said. We knew this was true, but still we looked at each other with panic.
Mother Roberta said she would see to it that we were sent somewhere good. And together—we would be together.
Mary Lucille said, “But what about you?”
“It’s time for me to retire,” Mother Roberta said. “I’m not what I used to be. Time to go live with people my own age.” Over in Batavia there was a home for elderly sisters, she told us. She’d be fine, she said. But I could tell she was vexed from the set of her jaw.
The five of us stood on the driveway, squinting in the sun. When there didn’t seem to be anything else to say, Therese stood and uncapped the jug of motor oil. The rest of us watched her pour it into the engine.
Mother Roberta was practiced at doing away with her anger. She did not cry. She did not yell. Instead, she’d scowl, mutter “Son of a pup,” and hock a loogie. I’d watch her draw up from deep in her throat and sink one into a hankie, or far off into the grass, and I saw that for a moment she was set free from whatever had taken hold of her.
But sometimes the spitting wasn’t enough. Sometimes dishes shattered. She would say, “I lost my grip,” and I would nod and bring a broom. One time, she hung up the phone so hard the receiver cracked in half. Another time, I found her standing in front of the kitchen sink, where she’d lit a section of the newspaper on fire. “What’re you doing,” I said. She waited for the flames to die before she switched on the faucet and told me she was just cleaning up.
There were many days like that, days when I knew to stay out of Mother Roberta’s way.
But there were other days when she wanted us close, when she’d call us to the kitchen to help her peel potatoes or pull the husks from corn or tell her a story while she alphabetized the spices. And those are the days I like to remember.
I can still see that version of us, younger and more at ease, returning from some errand, ambling down the grassy hill toward home. The sun pours down and makes parts of the road seem to shine, and we are buoyant, pink-cheeked, walking four across. The wind lifts our veils as we pick up speed, and we rush past trees made to droop by the weight of some forgotten snow. Our whole world waits for us at the bottom of the hill, and we start to run, desperate to reach the driveway’s end, where, through the kitchen window, we can see the face of Mother Roberta. She glances up from whatever task has kept her busy. Her face is expectant, lit up with love. And even now, years on, I can hear her voice: “Oh, they’re back!” she cries. “They’re back!”
I’ve lost track of all the things we couldn’t keep.
When there were still babies to look after, their mothers brought us gifts: nougat candy and good red wine and blown-glass ornaments. One afternoon, a box of frozen T-bone steaks, individually wrapped. After a baptism, we were given a basket of fragile fruit: soft pears, chunks of pale pineapple on sticks. After a funeral, Mother Roberta was once handed a 100 dollar bill. This, she tucked in her habit to give to the rectory. The other things, we gave away—the miscellanea to the thrift, and the perishables to the food bank.
This wasn’t always easy; we were tempted by the steaks.
Mother Roberta refashioned our future in one afternoon. She called a sister she knew in Albany, who talked to her mother superior, who passed along the phone number of a deacon in Hartford, who put her in touch with a vicar in Boston, who told her his archdiocese was strapped for cash, too, but he knew a woman religious who might be able to help. Abbess Paracleta headed an order that ran a halfway house called Little Neon, in a town in Rhode Island called Woonsocket.
Little Neon needed help. The live-in counselor had quit a couple of weeks before, and Abbess Paracleta had been filling in while she tried to find a replacement. She was looking for someone to keep people out of trouble. Ideally someone with experience, Abbess Paracleta said, but maybe one of us would do. “What about all four of them?” Mother Roberta said, and Abbess Paracleta said if we didn’t mind sharing the attic, she didn’t see why not.
Excerpted from Agatha of Little Neon by Claire Luchette. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Copyright © 2021 by Claire Luchette.