Wednesday, December 22, 2010

CHAPTER TWELVE: Showering Renata's Sins Away


Renata’s Diary
August 7, 1883


I hold my face in this fine mist of water falling from the holes in the bottom of the pail, and let the water run over my lips and onto my tongue. The water and the sunlight cleanse me and silently I mouth a prayer of thanks to Sister Teresa for this purifying gift and silently too I thank the Lord for sending this good woman to us, but particularly, to me. Holding the washrag in my clasped hands, I bow my head, allow the water to thoroughly soak my short ruff of hair while I stand there giving thanks and prayer, thinking He knew, yes, He knew, how does He do that? How does the Good Lord always know exactly what we need?

Lifting my face, I gently pass the washrag across my brow. How good this feels. No, how heavenly. That’s the word Teresa used. How good it is to be back from San Francisco, too, every cell in my body is grateful. How hateful that was, how long and miserable the stay, and maybe because of that, I feel like I could stand here, water raining down, drowning out a host of thoughts that I would rather go away. Again I pray, I say a Hail Mary, two, most of all I ask Him how He knew to send Teresa here? How He knew that she would come and that she would be my only ally, she would give me some bit of advice to begin and end each day, and our friendship would grow and grow, and more than that, she would give me now the clearest water to cleanse the heat and dust and dirt and sins away.

She brings this gift to me at the very moment I am most in need of cleansing – my body and no less my spirit. I arrived back here in such a dreadful condition, I hate to think what I looked like, my clothes crusted, my soul in the worst state it’s ever been. I hid in my room that first morning after Señora pulled up to the convent with the wagon, Antonie lying in the back beneath a heap of blankets. She kissed me once on the forehead and climbed off the wagon without even a word of goodbye.

Weary is not the word for what I was. Too tired to eat. To sleep.

And that very next day, dearest Teresa completed the project that has now come to my rescue.

For days and days, Teresa had toiled away in the workshed, foregoing lunch (which for Teresa is a major sacrifice) in order to bring to fruition her blueprint for the shower. Often in the past, when we weeded and watered the garden together, she would, as she always does, wonder her ideas aloud to me. One day not so long ago, as she thinned a new planting of carrots, and harvested early radishes, Teresa shared with me her hunch: that she could erect a showering device that would not only refresh us quickly and efficiently but also would save us many gallons of precious water.

I recall her chuckling and running the back of her hand over her sweaty face, as she said the plan had occurred to her that very morning in something of a vision, the washtub sitting in the crotch of a live oak tree. It was a Saturday, and the idea had come to her fully formed, more or less, during silent prayers.

“It came to you during prayers?” I whispered in horror over my hoe. I was preparing the earth for a row of perpetual spinach. “You were contemplating the construction of a shower in morning chapel?”

Sister Teresa smiled her slyest smile, and the flesh that always presses at the edges of the white fabric binding her face pressed further, and the delicate skin that is always a baby pink turned a bolder shade of rose.

Yes, she said happily, she had already prayed her apologies to Him as soon as the vision had come. And she was prepared to confess as well, to tell Father Ruby in the confessional, that it was the construction of a shower that had occupied her thoughts that morning during services.

Sometimes, she argued, God has His reasons for sending His visions the way He does, quite out of the blue. And He had his own timing, too.

“Perhaps,” she went on, staring at the tender carrot seedlings poking up from the sandy soil, “He did it today because summer is so broiling hot, and He knows full well what it’s like during our worst season for water. In His wisdom, He knows our well almost always goes dry, and He knows water is always in short supply and He knows, or I think He does, that I might have come up with an idea to address the problem.” She looked at me, and nodded, and smiled shyly.

Apparently, while I was away, Teresa had made considerable progress on her invention. The second day after I arrived home, we were sweeping and tidying Father Ruby’s quarters. Teresa had taken the sheets from his bed, and we were together laying a clean set in its place.

“Would you tell Mother Yolla my plans to work again through lunch?” We had just billowed a white sheet above our heads and now it was floating into place on top of the priest’s mattress.

“Again, you are foregoing mid-day meal again?” Lunch was our major meal, and it was now getting to be Teresa’s habit not to eat it. And as a result, the waistline of her habit was beginning to swing more loosely across her belly. “But what am I to tell her?”

Teresa’s eyes twinkled. “That I am not hungry and quite busy with one of God’s directives,” she said flatly. Her smile revealed that familiar gap between her two top teeth.

At lunch, I informed Mother Yolla of Teresa’s decision to go without food. Mother Yolla’s eyesbrows rose noticeably higher, and she set her soup spoon down beside her bowl.

“And what is it that occupies the good Teresa’s time?” she asked.

“I believe, Mother, that she has some special work of the Lord’s to complete,” I said, bowing my head. I averted my eyes and lifted a spoonful of broth to my lips. Mother Yolla said no more. For the next few moments, I said a small prayer of gratitude that the Lord had smoothed the way for Teresa to complete her plan.

Not more than five minutes later, however, we heard a thunderous racket, a smash and clatter of metal coming from the shed. My first thought was that Teresa must be hurt. Several of us, including Mother Yolla, flew from the table to the shed out back. There in the dense heat of the shed, with sweat dripping from her overheated face, stood a smiling Sister Teresa, hammer in hand. She was bending protectively over a pail and getting ready to hit it again. She had already attacked the pail in earnest, apparently, because there were already a score of tiny holes in the bottom surface. Smiling broadly, Teresa bowed her head, and said to Mother that by the time lunch was over, her project would be complete.

“And what exactly would your project be here, my good Sister?” Mother Yolla wore her sternest countenance, and her arms were crossed in a kind of protective armor over her ample bodice. Her wrinkled hands disappeared into the sleeves of her habit.

“My project, good Mother Yolla, is a shower,” Teresa replied triumphantly. By then a small crowd of nuns had gathered in the shed. I eyed Teresa’s face intently, looking for signs that she would falter. Had it been me, and had I seen the fierce look on Mother Yolla’s face, I would be on my knees, begging forgiveness for missing lunch and for insisting on doing something that had come so suspiciously from my imagination.

But not Teresa, she stood in silence, and then gestured to the holes in the pail. “The water will trickle down through these holes,” she said, gesturing to the pail. And above it there will be a washtub with a hole, so all I need now is the washtub…”

“My good Sister,” Mother Yolla interrupted, her thin lips thinner than ever. “Who told you that you were free to destroy a pail? Have you any idea how difficult each of these is to obtain? Or what the expense is for the convent to replace them? Have you? I ask you again, who told you that…”

“With all due respect, my good Mother,” said Teresa, genuflecting as if she faced an altar. “But it was the Lord Himself who instructed me to find the pail, and now, the washtub.”

Mother Yolla’s mouth dropped into that settled O of hers, and her eyes shot saucer wide, and for a moment I thought perhaps her face had frozen that way. But as soon as Sister Teresa rose from her knees, her head bowed and her hands clasped in prayer, I saw the Reverend Mother’s expression ease.

“Yes, Mother, I swear to you,” Teresa whispered rapidly now, “this is exactly what the Lord instructed me to do. Who knows His ways better than you. Perhaps you would be so kind as to guide me further in this endeav…”

“Silence!” Mother Yolla spoke the word like a dagger. Her lips folded in on themselves, and in a moment, Mother Yolla began to look so much older, more wrinkled, than she was. Her wrath sent a shudder through both my arms, my legs, and my knees felt shaky. I wondered what effect the Reverend Mother’s look must be having on dear Teresa.


Glancing at my friend, however, I had no way of knowing, as her face was directed toward the earth. I stood there, praying for my bold companion.

A long period of silence followed. Without being instructed, the rest of us began to disperse.

One by one, heads bowed, we filed out of the shed until only Teresa and Mother Yolla were left.

It wasn’t clear how Mother Yolla would resolve this impasse. Her exasperation with Teresa was as clear as the blue sky. And it was nothing new to any of the rest of us, as Teresa was too brave, too inspired, to be sufficiently deferential and polite. Still, we also knew how fearful Mother Yolla was of displeasing the Lord, of interfering, as she put it, with “His most mysterious wishes and inexplicable ways.”

What exactly transpired next will always remain a mystery. Suffice it to say that in the end, Sister Teresa was provided her washtub, and the two heavy chiseled beams she needed to suspend the tub and pail from the live oak. Looking back, it seems a miracle to me, but then, when one knows my dear Sister, one knows that Teresa indeed does surpass reality.

The very next day, there was suspended from the oak a makeshift shower. At first, not one of us modest nuns was willing to wash our faces or even our hands from the water dripping from the pail. That was before Teresa hung a sheet around the outside of the space, to afford some privacy. Once she had nailed it to the beams, I volunteered to wash behind the shed.

Teresa, her habit pulled tight around her ample hips, mounted the ladder over and over, lifting pails, slowly spilling into the washtub water she took from a nearby spring. I watched her carrying for at least an hour, making some twenty trips up and down the ladder to fill our shower. Even after all that toil and climbing, she remained gleeful. She went back and forth across the scrubby yard until she was out of breath, trampling sagebrush as she toted the water from the well to the shower. Several of the nuns gathered around her, teasing her soundly.

“Don’t slip,” they cried. And, “All those water trips are bound to make you thin.” I for one offered repeatedly to help her in the task of toting water, but she was determined to complete the gift of water by herself, at least, as she put it, in this early "testing" phase.

And so this is how I came just yesterday to be the first and principal beneficiary of Teresa’s invention. When she was satisfied that there was enough water for a “proper spray,” she instructed me to “hop to.” That was my signal to disrobe. I hesitated, and a cry went up from the rest of the nuns gathered, but Teresa hushed us with her curt statement: “Oh blessed me, we see each other in the flesh every single day, but if you must, then just turn your foolish eyes away.”

And so I put aside my clothes, letting the black habit slip into the dust. And she recovered it just as quickly and hung it on the nail that she had hammered into the side of the tree. The rest of my clothes disappeared and then, there, was me, bare of any cover.

I wrapped a towel tightly around my middle and stepped inside the circle of the sheet. Before I knew it, Teresa removed the plug in the washtub and I heard a little trickle of water pouring into the metal pail overhead, and then, before I was fully ready, I felt the cool water as it came sprinkling onto my forehead, then splashing down my neck and chest. I screeched and jumped back, and then began enjoying the spray.

All around me, from the nuns ringing the shower, there rose up a cheer. All I knew was there was cool water rinsing my sweaty face and chest and there was a ragged clapping and my ears swelled to all the yelling. And when I looked up, I saw Teresa at the top of the ladder, peering down at me, her face flushed and plump and pinkly triumphant. I smiled up at her and gave a small wave and in that instant it came to me out of the clear blue, like an ethereal appearing suddenly in a sunny sky, what plan the Lord had had me.

It was my duty to be available to my poor cousin Antonie until the end. I was destined to be his nurse and caretaker, to offer solace and all the comfort he needed during his impossibly difficult illness.

At the same time, I was also destined to come here behind the shed to the live oak tree, to Teresa’s shower, where I would wash myself in cool water and free myself of all the ugliness and soiled thoughts that Antonie had released on and in me.

Realizing God’s plan, I closed my eyes, and drank in that moment when I stood in the shower.

And now, every time I am standing there, I do the same. I let God’s plans rain down on me. I accept them. I whisper, “Thy will be done.” And as I write this now, I realize: Teresa’s shower is some kind of glorious confessional for the body, one of Mother Nature’s doing through Teresa.

It is a waterfall of sorts, one that freshens not only the mind and the soul, but the whole body and spirit. I stand in this shower every morning, and dare I say, sometimes twice a day, once in early morning and once at sunset, so that the water letting out from the tub is caught in slanted sunlight and might from time to time produce a rainbow.

These rainbows arching over this confessional are simply a reminder that God delivers His promises. The water drops keep coming, keep dancing in the sun, and the steady shower reminds me of His steady caring. Each drop of water catches the light and turns colors, and the colors wash away our sadness and renew us once again. And if on some occasion the water falling gets slightly colder, I shudder. But even then I grin, and just let the water enfold me. And when I step from this cold shower, a special kind of peace and comfort takes hold. And when I am dressed and warm again, an even deeper tranquility sets in.

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