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One late fall afternoon, we were studying saucer-eyed Sumerian figurines in Art History, when she elbowed me, whispering. “Meet me after the last period.”
When the bell rang at the end of the day, Emmi was waiting for me outside. “Come on, you can take the second bus. I brought something I want to show you.”
She led me over to the bushes in the back and carefully drew a grocery bag out from under, then handed it to me.
“Just look. It's why I got kicked out of St. Sebby's.”
I reached inside and pulled out a round band of cardboard with yellow paper triangles that came together at the top. Around the edges and in intricate designs at the center were glued different colored Lifesavers. Clearly a hat, but it didn't look like any hat I'd ever seen.
Emmi looked at me expectantly.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Don't you even know?” She looked crestfallen at having to explain. “It's a bishop's miter, what a bishop wears when he’s saying mass. I made it.”
“You got expelled for making a hat?”
“I didn't just make it. I wore it.”
Clearly I understood nothing.
“You don't get it, do you?”
“What's so terrible about wearing a bishop's hat?”
“ Not a hat, a miter.” Her turned-down mouth made it clear I was missing the point. “I wore it to the Halloween party at school, and the nuns made me confess to Father Kilroy, the smelly old fart. He gave me ten rosaries as a penance then expelled me anyway, even after I'd spent all afternoon in chapel saying them.”
“All for wearing a hat -- I mean, a miter? That’s weird.”
“No, it was wicked. You're not supposed to make fun of nuns or priests and especially not the bishop. Sacrilege is worse than murder, practically.”
I told her I was Unitarian and she looked at me, her eyes narrowed.
“Is that the same thing as atheist? I've never met an atheist.”
“I'm not sure. I don't think so. No one ever told me it was.”
“Do you believe in Jesus?”
“Oh, sure. Of course.” But I wasn't sure at all. In Sunday school we learned about the life cycle of spiders, of solar systems. I didn't remember Jesus ever being mentioned. But I knew I couldn't be an atheist, not if I wanted Emmi to be my friend.
“Well, I hope so. I don't want you to burn in hell.”
“Don't worry, I'll be okay,” I reassured her.
Emmi scratched her nose and looked doubtful. To change the subject, I jumped up. “We better hurry. Race you to the bus -- last one has to write the other's weekend composition!”
Emmi and her seven younger brothers and sisters lived in Catholic territory, Though her house was large, it was not large enough; Emmi slept in the attic. Living with the Quigleys was an elderly distant cousin everyone called “Aunt Tom.” According to Emmi, until Aunt Tom lost her sight, she had been a “religious” and still observed the “canonical hours,” which meant nothing to me. Aunt Tom was tall as a man and blind as a parsnip, but refused to use a cane, negotiating her way through the house with her bony hands stretched out before her feeling her way.
Rejecting the privileges blindness might have conferred, Aunt Tom insisted on sharing the attic with Emmi, instead of taking up a room by herself. Curtained off, Emmi's section of the attic commanded the window but not the stairway, so every time we went up to her room, we had to pass through Aunt Tom’s side. This was barren but for a narrow iron bed and a rickety three-legged table holding a braille missal and a smelly incense candle, burning day and night in front of a picture of the Virgin Mary.
When she wasn’t praying, which she did several times a day, Aunt Tom had Emmi and me take turns reading aloud from The Divine Comedy, which she knew most of by heart and which I quickly discovered was about Hell and not funny at all. After she learned I wasn’t Catholic, she asked me to read to her about Limbo, where the “virtuous pagans” went, in sight of but outside the gates of heaven for all eternity.
“I’m not a pagan. I’m Unitarian,” I corrected her.
“Precisely my point, dear,” she answered. “There’s a place in God’s plan for each of us.”
That same night when I was sleeping over, Emmi told me the story of Aunt Tom’s miracle. “In the convent, Aunt Tom was called Sister Thomas Aquinas,” she explained. “During an epidemic of brain fever, she took care of the other sick nuns until she got sick herself and the infection went straight to her eyes. She prayed to St. Lucy -- that’s the patron saint of eyesight -- and even with her eyes bandaged spent hours kneeling on the stone floor at Mass every day.” Emmi stopped and got to her knees on the bed. “Like this,” she demonstrated, extending her arms straight out to either side, closing her eyes. Then she sat back and continued, “So anyway, one night, Sister Thomas had this vision: St. Lucy, with a candle in one hand and a mirror in the other, holding the mirror so it reflected the light onto the walls. Aunt Tom, I mean, Sister Thomas, tried to question her, but the vision vanished. This scared her something wicked. She tore off her bandages, and you know what? she had gone completely blind.”
“That doesn’t sound like much of a miracle to me,” I grumbled.
“Just wait,” Emmi said. “The miracle happened a few weeks later. The doctor had taken out one of Sister Thomas’s infected eyeballs and had the socket fitted for a glass one. So there she was, sitting in a chair in the sun, totally blind, when the doctor came to show her how to fit the glass eyeball into her socket. The minute he did, she saw, plain as day, that he was having an affair and that because he was unfaithful, his wife would die a tragic death. After that, Sister Thomas wouldn’t let the doctor near her. He was evil, he was a fornicator, she shouted, he’d burn in hell. The doctor said she was lying, that the fever had gone to her brain, but she insisted she was telling the truth. The nuns didn’t know what to think. A few weeks later, they heard that the doctor’s wife found out he was cheating on her and committed suicide. Sister Thomas declared God had taken her first eyes so St. Lucy could give her second sight, the ‘eye of discernment.’” Emmi’s voice lowered and each word became a whisper of awe: “It’s true -- Aunt Tom knows everything; she knows my sins before I even commit them.”