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Sunday in the Park

Growing up I never knew any nuns. Never went to Catholic schools wasn’t religious didn’t go to church at all. Except once a year when my grandfather on my father’s side would visit and I’d go with him to mass. He walked with a cane and he needed support. The nuns I met were, in every sense of the word, black and white creatures. Caricatures of humorless women who covered their heads and wore no makeup. They had no role in my life, nor I in theirs.

Here, in the oldest part of Park Meadows, we have always been rather smug about our neighborhood. Flat streets and few fences allow for a kind of free flow of kids and dogs and trees that straddle property lines. Many of the homes have had the same owners for decades. About a decade ago, I got new neighbors in the rental house across the little street in our cul de sac. Three single women. Two about my age, one close to a generation older. They were healthy, athletic, very busy coming and going and eventually sitting under the big porch umbrella at day’s end on their deck. And they had friendly, well-mannered dogs.

I learned they were Holy Cross nuns who lived independently from a convent and they worked in this community and in Salt Lake City, just as the first order of Holy Cross Sisters had in the late 1880s. As I slipped into an illness that defied diagnosis, they became increasingly important in my life. Not in a "we will pray for your soul" kind of way, though God and many lesser beings knew my soul could use praying for and about. No, they just became friends. They offered meals and conversation and books and music. And love. Lots of unconditional love. We shared so much over the back lawn we often forgot there was the cul de sac road between our houses.

Margo was the oldest of the group. Raised in Washington State, she told me after I had known her for a while, that after college she had surprised everyone by joining her order. Surprised her family and especially surprised her boyfriend. She became many things but hospital administrator would be the most constant title. I think she first came to Salt Lake City to run the former Holy Cross Hospital. The other two women, Suzanne and MaryAnn, had worked in health care and education in Illinois together and all three had gone to Alaska and worked there, finally coming to rest in our neighborhood.

Margo showed me what it meant to be gracious. Not that I’ve acted on it but it was grand to see. Irish, she loved her Manhattan at the end of the day. She golfed and skied. Margo was a great reader and a critical thinker and she would give me articles from the paper and books to read. By the time she was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was better. Able to help walk the dogs when the other two women had to travel. Able to visit. During her recovery was the time my first grandchild was born and I remember an afternoon when I was going to stay with Margo until The Girls got home. My son and his wife made dual doctors appointments and asked if I’d watch Izzie that afternoon. I combined my efforts and over in Margo’s living room, she sat on the couch and held that baby girl who was maybe six weeks old. Izzie had the good sense to coo and wiggle her fingers and toes and then gently fall asleep. Margo held that child next to her cheek to feel her gentle breath. Whenever I need to still myself, I think of how peaceful that hour in that warm, quiet room was.

Just two months before, when I was rubbing the sleep from my eyes and putting on the teapot, Margo had burst through the front door of my house and insisted I turn on the television. And we stood there watching the drama of the planes hitting the Twin Towers unfold and replay. Suzanne and MaryAnn were traveling on the east coast and had called to say their flight had been canceled because of some attack in New York City. It was surreal. And I remember Margo’s immediate and unconditional sympathy for everyone involved.

Margo was the person you wanted when you were going through a crisis. I had learned that firsthand and so I called her dozens of times to help with my friends who were, like me, believers but not followers. Margo didn’t judge. She made time for my friend who discovered her own breast cancer. Gave her spiritual advice and then a whole heaping of practical advice. The mastectomy turned into a lumpectomy. The healing became a kind of realigning of priorities and values and vision. My friend now remembers this period of her cancer and diagnosis and healing as one of the best times of her life.

Margo Cain, a fine Irish name, loved all kinds of Irish music and dance. She enjoyed Sundance movies and occasional bad television. A Democrat, because it was the party most aligned with social justice, Margo and I often agreed on politics, which was a welcome change from most of the people in my life a generation older.

Three years ago their congregation decided leasing a house wasn’t such a good plan and so they bought a house for the women. In Jeremy Ranch. Margo, who had retired from Catholic Community Charities and work with Holy Cross Ministries, went to work — for the first time in her life I think — for a parish, St Mary’s here in town. Father Bob told me it was a good thing to have a feminine ear and voice at the church. He was grateful for her wisdom with the rapidly expanding parish.

Margo had gentle suggestions for me, often. I might try this, do that, when I felt blue or overwhelmed. I somehow knew she was plugged into some source of goodness, I always took her suggestions and looked forward to new ones.

On Tuesday night, Sister Margo died in her sleep, at home.

I will miss my friend. Miss her when I hear Eileen Ivers play the fiddle. Miss her when I want to learn about causes in other countries. Miss her when I want to share Izzie’s latest accomplishments. Miss her when the sunset gets low on the mountain and it is time for a Manhattan and the dimming of the day and the tales to go with that. Margo traveled the world in her work and everywhere she went, she took God with her. And everywhere she went, she left God there.

There is much discussion in theology and popular culture about the existence of a feminine face of God. I have no doubts about what that face would look like. Kind and compassionate and with a sense of humor, it looks a lot like Margo, to me. Not a harsh black and white version, mind you. But a picture with so many shades and hues and nuances of gray that you see how inspired creation can be. It is picture I will keep close to my heart each and every day and most certainly on this sad Sunday in the Park


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