At 5 am Mother Julitta rapped so sharply on our cell’s door, it sounded like she was using the infamous jam spoon.
Faith and I squinted at dawn’s first light through the crack in the curtain, and Koshka squeaked indignantly when I sat up in bed disturbing her. She had taken turns on both our beds last night. I scratched under her little black chin, adoring the way her long white whiskers fanned out from her cheeks.
There was still time to grab a refreshing five minute shower before morning prayers. I stretched luxuriously and leaped out of bed. It was strange to think I would be sleeping in my own bed tonight!
After breakfast, before completing our final morning’s obediences, Faith and I packed up our belongings. Although sad to be leaving, I rejoiced in my final obedience of watering the troughs! I sighed and leaned back against the split rail fence. The cattle placidly drank deeply, despite pesky flies landing continuously upon their long eyelashes and foolish faces. It was almost enough to make me feel sorry for them… well… almost.
Bidding the cattle a happy and hasty farewell, I strolled down the dirt road past the little church, lost in thought. The way looped back again to the convent through the forest, and before I knew it, it was nearly lunch time. Aunt Kat would soon be here to collect Faith and me.
Lunch was particularly delicious! Although it was a fast day, Sister Maria had made some to-die-for vegan pancakes, accompanied by fresh fruit, maple syrup and yes… JAM!
The nuns continually passed the jam jar along until it finally stopped in front of-Matushka. Matushka glanced casually around the table and dipped the spoon deep into the depths of the jam jar. Kicking who I thought was Faith under the table across from me, it was poor Mother Antonina who shouted ouch!
Faith looked up questioningly, and I motioned with my eyes over to the jam jar. Faith understood. We pretended not to watch Abbess Everild stealthily load the spoon with jam before placing it quietly back onto the plate.
After lunch we saw gaunt Mother Julitta humbly approach Matushka like a little sparrow, and obediently lick the jam spoon clean. Only then did I realize that at any given meal, Mother Julitta hardly ever put anything onto her plate. Even with her loose ryasa on, she looked thin and frail, like a dry little twig. Matushka was giving her a treat, as Mother Julitta herself, never took one on her own. When Mother Julitta passed beside me, I heard her whisper which sounded like the fluttering wings of a dove, “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord. Deliver me O Lord, from the belly of Hades and the spirit of slander. O most holy Theotokos save us.”
The mystery was solved, and shame pricked me for harshly judging poor Mother Julitta. When I thought she had been directly mocking me before, she had actually been praying.
I spent some time alone in the house chapel for awhile after lunch until Aunt Kat arrived. Kissing all the relics tenderly, I especially thanked dear St. Panteleimon for his prayers to God and for helping heal my mother. Smoothing my jean skirt I looked around one last time at the chapel. Taking a deep breath, I crossed myself bowing three times and exited through the chapel door.
Meandering along the maze of halls back to the refectory, I saw Matushka Everild blessing Faith farewell. Aunt Kat was already outside loading our bags in the car. I hugged the nuns goodbye, including an astonished Mother Julitta!
“I’ll send you some of my Mom’s peach and plum jam for Nativity!” I grinned wickedly at her, and watched Mother Julitta blush. Matushka winked at me.
I thanked Matushka for everything.
“Including the tuna omelettes?” asked Matushka with her eyes crinkling up at the corners.
With a lump in my throat, I bowed in a prostration of farewell, and when I looked up, Matushka too, was bowed in a prostration. We stood up together, and she blessed me, holding her cross out for me to kiss.
“Come back soon” she said, then mischievously added, “There’s another part of the property you haven’t seen yet. Perhaps you could doctor up a special canned salmon surprise for a little picnic!”
“Eww!” I shuddered melodramatically.
As Aunt Kat, Faith and I drove off, I turned once to wave at Matushka. Faith and I sniffled several times. The air must have been dry or something, because our eyes kept tearing up. I knew Matushka would keep standing in the convent door way, blessing us continually, until we left her sight.
Faith and I regaled Aunt Kat antiphonally with tales of our adventures until we reached the little airport. We quickly hugged, and said our goodbyes. Faith promised to keep in touch more often.
“It appears you’ve recharged those spiritual batteries of yours!” Aunt Kat nodded her approval with dimples flashing. “Give your Mom and Dad a hug from me, sweetie. I’ll check with them in a month or so… maybe John, Faith and I can come visit for a long weekend sometime? O bother! Look at the time, we’re almost late… you better fly! Literally! Hey! Take good care of my niece!”
Rushing to check my bags through to home, I quickly stopped first to buy mints for the flight. An impatient man purchasing cigarettes snarled loudly at the cashier for some reason, and a memory of Marina on day number three without a cigarette flashed to mind. Wondering how she was doing, I made sure to be extra pleasant to the cashier who looked at me first with gratitude, and then strangely.
“Thanks,” she said handing me my change. “Wow! “Looks like you’ve been on a great vacation. You’re so mellow and relaxed. I’m booking my next vacation to go wherever you’ve just been!”
“Well,” I smiled, “Let’s just say, life’s never dull at a convent,” and the cashier quizzically quirked an eyebrow.
Really though, what could I say? How could I explain it to someone who had never been? Something about the convent lingered on me, and I hoped to do right – to keep it with me, in me, and on me… for as long as I possibly could.
Rushing through the boarding gates, I found my seat on the plane. My headscarf was still on, but I didn’t want to remove any remnants of the convent just yet. Some people boarding the plane used coarse language when their bags didn’t fit easily into the overhead compartments. The pre-boarding plane music was loud and raunchy. I was definitely back in the world again, and already missed the blessed peace and stillness of the convent.
Automatically crossing myself upon take-off, I startled my new seat mate. To put him at ease, I introduced myself. He did the same. James asked what religion I was, as he observantly noticed I had crossed myself from right to left.
“I’m an Orthodox Christian!”
“Are you Greek?” asked James.
“Russian?” James wondered.
He looked confused. “So… what’s your nationality?”
“What’s yours?” I quizzed him back cheekily.
“I’m Canadian.” said James.
“Me too!” I said smiling.
“You too, EH?! Seriously? I thought one had to be a certain ethnicity to be Orthodox?”
“A common mistake,” I laughed. “Our parish is a mixture of mostly Canadians… But we’re grateful to the Russian and Greek Orthodox communities who brought the faith to North America.”
I shared some of my convent vacation adventures with him and we chattered away like old friends until the plane landed. There was one stopover on my way home, and James had to catch a connecting flight. He said goodbye and wished me a good and happy life. I wished him the same. We were (what Mom calls) two ships that pass in the night, even though it was the afternoon.
I dozed the rest of the flight home and woke up before the plane landed. Crossing myself as we taxied down the runway, boisterous butterflies bounced in my tummy! Home! I was home! I could hardly wait to see Mom and Dad. “Thank you, God,” I breathed. “Thank you for my many blessings and… thank you for helping Mom.”
Ksenia raced to meet me at the arrival gate! She had come with Mom and Dad. Hugging everyone a gazillion times over (but hugging Mom gently because of her stitches), I realized my smile muscles were killing me. But I just couldn’t help it! I was soooo happy!
On the ride home, Ksenia and I sat in the back seat and caught up on each others’ news. There was a brand new family in our parish. They had one girl about our age, and twin boys a bit older. Ksusha blushed a little when she mentioned the twins. I smiled and glanced at Mom in the front set. The shadows previously haunting her thin face were replaced with a healthy new tinge of rosiness. And Dad? Well, Dad was ecstatic.
I leaned back in my seat sighing. I was with my three most favourite people in the whole wide world. My itchy scalp needed airing and interrupted my musings. Hesitantly, I ripped off my headscarf- the last physical remnants of the convent. Rolling down the car window, warm wind whipped through my hair as we sped along. I closed my eyes and inhaled the tangy scent of pine, sweet grass and wild sage. It was the heady fragrance of home.
What were the nuns doing about now? An unexpected vision of Koshka popped into my head… with her trotting down the convent halls, tail held high, deeply intent on her important cat-rounds. There would be… yes, angelic singing and melodious chants from the house chapel. The nuns would be at Compline, praying for us. Praying for the whole world.
I looked over at my best friend. “Hey Ksusha, guess where we’re going together next summer?”
Ksenia smiled radiantly. She crossed herself and whispered, “May an angel go with us!”
The joy of the Lord was in her voice.
© Barbara Bruce