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The extraordinary sandwiches of Sister Cook

  • 27 February 2013
When 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,