The extraordinary sandwiches of Sister Cook


Grilled peanut butter and honey sandwichWhen I was a Catholic schoolboy, several hundred years ago, the custom of our teachers, each a Sister of the Order of Preachers, was that if you forgot your lunch, or had it stolen under assault and occasionally battery, you were sent, curiously without ignominy, to the adjacent convent, where Sister Cook, a spherical woman with the immense burly forearms of a stevedore, would make you a peanut butter and jam sandwich, or a peanut butter and honey sandwich, your choice; and you would eat your sandwich at the huge old wooden table in her kitchen, a table as big and gnarled as a ship, as she bustled about doing this and that, and she would offer you milk or water, your choice, and she never had a tart or testy word for you, but would even occasionally haul up a tall wooden stool to the table, and perch upon it, as golden dust and swirls of flour drifted through the bars of sunlight, and ask you questions about your family, all of whom she knew, partly because your brothers and sister had sat at this same table, and eaten of the Sisters' bread and honey, and then been sent back through the tiny lush convent garden and through the vaulting wooden fence, emerging into the chaos of the schoolyard, where screaming children sprinted this way and that, some grabbing each other by the hair or necktie, until the bell rang, and we again fell into lines ordered by grade and teacher, and shuffled burbling back into the echoing hallways, therein to be educated.

Many a man has written elegiacally or bitterly of his education under the adamant will and firm hands of the Sisters, but not so many have sung the quiet corners where perhaps we were better educated than we were in our classrooms, with their rows of desks and pillars of chalk and Maps of the World. Perhaps I learned more about communion at that epic timbered table in that golden kitchen than in religion class. Perhaps I learned more about listening as prayer from Sister Cook than from any number of speakers on any number of subjects.

Perhaps I soaked up something subtle and telling and substantive and holy about service and commitment and promise from Sister Cook, who did not teach a class, nor rule the religious education curriculum, nor conduct religious ritual and observance in public, but quietly served sandwiches to more small hungry shy children than anyone can count, in her golden redolent kitchen, with its table bigger than a boat.

Sometimes there would be two of us, or even three, sitting quietly at that table, mowing through our sandwiches, using two hands to hoist the heavy drinking glasses that the Sisters used (they must have had herculean wrists, the Sisters of the Order of Preachers, after years of such glasses lifted to such lips), and Sister would wait until all of us were done, and we would mumble our heartfelt gratitude, and bring our dishes to her spotless sink, and be shown the door; and never once that I remember did any child, including me, ever ask her about herself, her trials and travails, her delights and distractions, what music she loved, what stories, what extraordinary birds; we ran down the path toward the vaulting wooden fence, heedless; and only now do I stop and turn back and look her in the face and say thank you, Sister Cook, for your gentle and delicious gift, which was not the sandwich, savoury as peanut butter and honey can be, but you.

Brian Doyle headshotBrian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of the essay collection Grace Notes.

Topic tags: Brian Doyle, nuns, Catholic education



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Existing comments

Sister Cook of the Sisters of the Order of Preachers. What a moniker! A Sister with food for the heart and soul. And I have a feeling that her particular delight and distraction involved raising the self-esteem of some very valuable citizens.
Pam | 26 February 2013

Delightful, thank you. In these troubled times it is indeed worth remembering the quiet Saints of the Church. Ft James Mulroy was such; he baptised me, taught me about quality cricket, was a very good friend for 20 years, and someone I dearly loved for his eccentricities, wholesomeness, faithfulness and holiness...and great kindness and sense of fun.
Eugene | 27 February 2013

Thank you for your heartfelt article. Memories came flooding back of my boarding school in Zimbabwe. It takes a life time to realise how kind some of the nuns were, and I too never thought to ask of their lives.
Geraldine | 27 February 2013

It's a wonderful day when I get not one but TWO Brian Doyle articles in my news feeds. (The other is at Cathnews). Oh joy, oh poignant, laugh-out-loud joy!
ErikH | 27 February 2013

Pure Grace. Thank you, Brian
Trish Taylor | 27 February 2013

Now I know why I like your articles so much. The OPs attracted me in ways that were not confined to the classroom.
Joan Winter OP | 27 February 2013

Just getting a tad sick of these eulogies to women in the back rooms of your Church, Brian. Doesn't it normalise their exclusion from any real power?
Penelope | 27 February 2013

Penelope, the Sister Cook did have power, at least in the convent school which I attended. She was responsible for the health of the nuns in her convent, and she served them well. She was Italian. Just think about it.
mary daley | 27 February 2013

Vote 1 Sister Cook for Pope then.
Penelope | 28 February 2013

Brian, I love your stuff, especially the long sweeping sentence structure. This time you have excelled even yourself. 264 words in the first sentence. Wonderful.
Kim Miller | 01 May 2013

Just a note to reply to Penelope: Do elegies for great sweet gentle holy women 'normalise their exclusion from any real power?' Not to me. To me the more I sing the astounding women who have always been wonderful leaders and teachers and graces and open hearts, the better. It's a stupidity and a sin in the Church that the power structure has for so long officially ignored and sidelined women; that's consciously and deliberately avoiding the amazing creativity of half the beings in the world. But of course authority's rules never stopped the grace of women -- who do you think carried the school system, and families, and parish work, and clothing and food drives, and Catholic hospitals? I could not disagree more, Penelope. I think the more we say what was real the better; and the more we say what was and is real, the more even the hidebound and frightened among our ostensible leaders will have to finally surrender the pretense that only men are like Christ, only men can celebrate sacramental moments, only men can be master teachers. That's patently silly, and we all know it, even as some of us pretend to believe it.
Brian Doyle | 03 May 2013

Thank you Brian for letting me commune at "Sr. Cook's" eucharistic table. This article is for me a reminder for those of us who feel estranged from the cold, rigidity of the Institutional Church that , like Emmaus, we can find Him in the breaking of bread through our daily activities.
MAUREEN WALSH | 31 July 2013

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