On a street corner on Broadway near Columbia University is a square coffee shop with a red neon frieze reading “Tom’s Restaurant.” It is run by a loud, Greek family whose priority is a high customer turnover. Before I have finished a last drop of coffee, my syrup-doused plate is deftly removed with the flick of a well-trained wrist. A hand-scribbled bill is plopped down in its place on the freshly wiped, formica tabletop. No time is allowed for languid chit chat, even to catch up with an old friend. He cocks his head toward the entrance, where a crowd of people wait for an open table. On the way out, we pass fogged windows and autographed photos of the cast of Seinfeld hanging on the wall. Bitter air bites as we force our way past the glass door into the New York winter morning.
Standing outside, I can see the subtle outline of the great Cathedral, lying in wait a couple hundred yards to my right. The side of the church peers around the edge of a distant streetlight on Amsterdam Avenue. The ignorant onlooker is deceived into thinking there isn’t a massive, neo-gothic, stained-stone structure looming just out of eyeshot. It still surprises me after I’ve shimmied past the patient train of brownstone buildings between Broadway and the architectural beast. Barely withstanding the endless row of porches, doors and their floors, I approach the mammoth church with tingling heart. Her western face stands draped in morning shadow.
Opposite the church on the other side of Broadway is a tall, old house nestled on 113th Street, a stone’s throw away from Riverside Drive. The front door is painted candy apple crimson. It’s the place where I stay in New York. There is a community of kind nuns living there, Episcopalian sisters wearing habits and silver rosaries who have been known to frequent the bagel shop around the corner, the local Rite-Aid, and Filene’s Basement a few blocks away. On the street or in the halls of the convent, they smile at me in passing.
I am enamored by the nuns. I love their quiet lives, their morning prayer and their evening compline. I love the unaffected way they color their prayers with songs that Hildegard sang in Bingen. I love their small jungle of plants in the front sitting room. I love the solitary cat snoozing to the trickle of an indoor fountain in the parlor’s far corner. I also love the names they write on the list next to the telephone downstairs, indicating that Elizabeth Grace or Mary Clarence has left or returned to the premises. Finally, I love the box left for money spent in the convent bookshop. I have to search for the light switch in the dark, cool room before skirting the shelves with eager eyes, settling on the single title by Madeleine L’Engle that I have yet to own. I write the name of the book down on a sheet of paper resting next to a pen on a linen cloth. I put a few bills in the box. Before turning the lights off, I finger crocheted crosses and pamphlets about Lent.
Madeleine, the author of a Newberry Medal-winning book in her time, was the long-time librarian at the neighboring Cathedral of St. John the Divine. She recommended I stay at St. Hilda’s House when I first visited New York at age twenty. She had been, in her lifetime, a friend of the sisters; she had been my friend in letters from my sophomore year in high school. The nuns liked me, because I was young and quiet, and they welcomed me back years later as a graduate student presenting a conference paper at Columbia. During that stay, I washed the dishes with them after supper in smiling silence. They were tickled by my atypical interest in life beyond the guests’ quarters. They even broke the code, whispering thank you and telling me in soft tones where to put the clean plates and silverware.
Last weekend, I visited a second convent in the bustling heart of the Hague. Located smack dab in the shopping center of town, it shares a wall with a monastery. Both places create an urban oasis of the soul, an unassuming, surprising diamond in the rough. Inside, the familiar stillness, the simple furnishings and the smell of old, clean corridors enveloped me like an old, forgotten friend. The peace was paradoxically overwhelming, feet sweeping and unsettling in measure. It shepherded me further up and further in, stirring a spiritual urgency that has always handicapped my cerebral approach to faith. Why have I neglected you, o parts of me, tended to by the nuns of the Upper West Side, by L’Engle’s texts, by El Greco’s elongated canvases? Bless you, Eliot’s poems, Rubylov’s icons, and labyrinth walks – bless you for surviving, despite. Is my flaw a question of context, the difference between my departed American life and this one? Or is this the price of younger motherhood; of preoccupations with the temporary and immediate?
I found a moment to steal away to the street chapel next door. I asked God to help retain these parts of me, to help me tackle, with even-keeled confidence, the stretching of this epiphany into permanence. The small space, with its hushed, stained glass and flickering red votives, preserved peace in the face of Saturday sales outside. I had to find a way to do the same with all my precious parts.
When it came time for communion, I moved back into the convent and stood before the open door of the common room. My gaze, furtive and furrowed, fell onto the small statue of Christ in the garden beyond the window. He seemed a miniature version of his Brazilian counterpart, gazing down on immaculately trimmed bushes as a replacement for the Rio cityscape. I didn’t feel like joining anyone to pass the last few minutes before the service; some chatted on couches, while those standing a few feet away kept a fair distance. It was difficult to calm the storm of regret, the confusion about who I’d become and what I’d left behind. Who and what would I need to keep them both, the contemporary and the resurrected?
The door of the elevator, an arm’s length away, creaked open. I stepped back to make room for a very old and vibrant woman, her hair cropped short and white, her length towering over me as she hobbled forward on a cane. She looked a little lost, but she wasn’t. It was simply the bewildered look of the years she wore on her face, their ongoing juxtaposition with the present that I saw, as she moved past me and over the nearest threshold. I watched her hover over a table of books on the other side of the doorway and let my glance fall back on the statue outside.
A minute later, she stood before me again.
“Do you need an arm?”
She laughed. “Yes, this one.” She lifted her right arm and put it on my shoulder. Before I had time to understand her humor, she had pulled me in and thrown the other arm around my neck. I felt a hand patting my shoulder blade with deliberate, slow taps. I would learn later she had seen ninety-three years, but in that moment, I felt my one-year old daughter patting my back in a familiar, sweet, baby embrace.
The older woman, like my Lia, pressed her temple into mine, let me linger there a while, then pulled her head back to look me straight in the face. Her eyes were bright blue, and they searched me through spectacles. I felt as if she was reading something I couldn’t see.
“There is a plan.”
“You just have to wait.”
“You are young. There is plenty of time. Be thankful.”
“What do you do when you receive a gift? Beautiful hair, eyes…skin?” Her glance was skimming the surface now.
“Say thank you?”
“And do what?”
“Take care of it.”
“Yes, take good care of it.”
Her hand moved up and down on my shoulder, congratulating me for understanding her. She smiled one last time and walked back into the room with the books. I followed her in and found a seat.
© 2009 Anastasia Hacopian. All rights reserved.