We met over an anthill in a field between our two back yards. I came out of my back gate to find a little girl exactly my size standing there, watching the ants at work. Suddenly she stomped on a whole group of industrious ants, who were just minding their own business. It made me mad. I put both my hands on her shoulders and pushed her hard, and she went down.
"Ow! Why did you do that?" Mary Eleanor remembers asking me.
She said she never forgot my response. "You stepped on my favorite ant." We were three years old.
She already had a baby brother, and I had no one but me. Over the next ten years, her parents produced six more children, being Catholics and all. They were a constant party over there, Mrs. Donovan diapering everything she could get her hands on, with a cigarette hanging from her mouth, and whispering Hail Mary all the time. I spent every moment I could with the Donovans. It was full of constant chaos, which is the stuff of life.
Back at my house, it was quiet. It took my parents three more years to produce one more child, and she was six years younger, so we were like two only children. Plus my sister turned out to have a developmental disability, so our house was in a different kind of chaos, more of a hand-wringing kind.
Mary Eleanor and I played dolls in my backyard and when a doll became too broken to play with, we had a funeral and buried her in a shoebox in the field. We held circus events on swings, picturing ourselves as trapeze artists, even though our only trick was sticking one leg out in front or back. We made our parents pay a nickel to see that. We put on plays in the basement with a curtain hanging over the clothesline. Our parents paid a dime for those. By age seven we both wobbled our way to balancing on a bicycle.
I went to public school. She went to Catholic school. She learned cursive handwriting way before I did. I copied her ending t's that did not cross, but rather just flipped, as it looked exotic to me. Still does.
I loved how the Donovans said Grace every night before dinner. I learned to cross myself. They let me come to Confession, and while I was not allowed to confess anything, I got to sit in the cool cathedral and hear the echoes of so many people's sadnesses and hopes and joys over the ages. I wanted a pearl rosary like Mrs. Donovan's.
Back at their house, Mary Eleanor always wanted to play Nuns. I went along with her but it was clear to me that nuns never married, so I wondered why this looked fun to her. When you grow up, you become a mommy and there is a daddy and there is a family. That much was clear from my pals the Mormons. For comic books, as I read Archie and Little Lulu, she was reading The Treasure Chest, about the adventures of nuns and priests.
High school and college separated us even more, but we called each other on our birthdays and went over our lives as if we'd just parted yesterday.
Then she dropped her bomb on me, one day shortly after graduation. "I wanted to call you," she said, "because I am just about to enter the convent. I am going to become a nun."
"Oh, no. No, you're not."
"Yes, I am."
"But you can't! I mean, how can you?"
"It's all I've ever wanted. Didn't you know that?"
"But Mary! Family! Don't you want a family?"
"I had eight brothers and sisters and tended them all. That was enough."
I just sat there, absorbing her truth. Finally, I wished her well and hung up. I burst into tears for her, for the life she would not enjoy.
Over the years, her birthday and Christmas cards to me always told me she was saying a special prayer for me that day. It felt like some kind of lovely massage, from my scalp to my toes. It is nice to know you are prayed for. When she'd come to town, we'd meet for lunch, I in my mom clothes, she in her black and white habit. My young daughters thought it very cool that I had a nun for a best friend.
Eighteen years later, I had two teenage girls who were giving me hell, my marriage was not the most secure in the world right then, and I wrote Mary Eleanor a letter.
I told her that my life was not half as satisfying as I had planned. My daughters hated me, my husband was always gone, all I did in life was volunteer in our community and give parties. "I am nothing but a shallow housewife who gives parties," I concluded. I could not have confessed this to any friend except Mary Eleanor, whom I knew would forgive me and understand.
I added the final paragraph: "So I am writing to tell you that you have chosen the right path. Your life has been devoted to helping others, and what could be more satisfying than that? I love you and respect you so much."
A couple of weeks later, I got a postcard back. It said, "Dear T., I am making this short because I have just entered psychiatric counseling. I am not sure I have chosen the right path at all. All my love, Mary Eleanor."
Last year, she came back to Salt Lake City, and we went on a picnic in the wildflowers of the Wasatch Mountains. Over cold chicken legs and potato salad, we reviewed our choices in life. All in all, we decided, it kind of came out even. My four granddaughters bloom every day, as do the hundreds of African American and Hispanic children Sister Mary has taught and mentored over a lifetime. She no longer wears a habit. She looks like me. Even our white hair matches.
Before I drove her back to the convent she was visiting, we stopped at my old house. I knew the new owners, who were gone, and knew they wouldn't mind. We walked into the back yard and stood by where we gave circuses on my swing set.
When we were little circus performers, all the promises of life lay before us, and we knew could be anything, and even more important, we could be everything. With that as a yardstick, we'd had so many failures we couldn't even count them.
"How can you keep forgiving everyone and everything?" I asked her. "I mean, hell, starting with me and the anthill?"
She closed her eyes for a moment, and smiled. "How can we not?"
Hail, Mary. And Happy Birthday, kiddo.