Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Remembering Sister Ramona With Love and Gratitude


A day never passed without my thinking of her. So when the message flashed on my cell phone this morning from my high school's alumnae office, it was a shock, but not a surprise.

The message stated simply that Sister Ramona, class of 1952, and long time teacher and principal at Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy had passed away this morning.

She had looked frail at my 50th high school reunion three years ago but, when I asked her quietly about her health, she shrugged and smiled. "I'm just getting on in years, that's all," she said.

When I flew to the Dominican Sisters' Motherhouse in San Jose, CA last May for her 60th Jubilee -- the anniversary of her first vows as a nun -- she looked ill. I could feel every bone in her back when we hugged. But she shrugged again when I asked "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine, fine enough," she said. "You know, I'd love it if you'd come back when there are no crowds, just us. A couple of days together. You could stay here at the convent. How often do you get such an offer?" She smiled.

"I'd love that, too, and I'll just plan on it," I said.

Her reply was unusually sharp: "WHEN???" she asked.

I mentally paged through my work calendar and other commitments and came up with sometime in the Fall.

She nodded, satisfied. I stood there smiling at her, but worried. Was there unusual urgency in her voice? Was she going to be leaving this life sooner rather than later?

My mind rebelled at the thought, unable to imagine the world and my life without her.

Sister Ramona Bascom was a legend -- as a teacher, a principal and, later on, a counselor. She touched and changed the lives of generations of adolescent girls, college students and, really, anyone she happened to meet.

Delighting current students - April 2013

Everyone who knew and loved her has a story about how she made a difference in their lives.

This is mine.


She came joyously into my life -- and back to her alma mater for the first time as a teacher -- in the Fall of 1962. She taught, among other things, journalism. I was a senior, the editor of the school newspaper and planning a college major in journalism. But it wasn't really journalism that brought us together. It was my need for a confidante and her wonderful ability to listen without judgment.

I'll never forget a day that fall when I finally told her the tightly held secrets of my troubled home life. Just as the words -- and my tears -- were spilling, the bell rang for the nuns' afternoon prayers. She didn't move. Her eyes met mine. "Go ahead," she said. "I'm listening..." And when I had finished telling her my story, feeling anew the shame and fear, she embraced me. "I know it hurts," she said. "But what you've just told me is painful but not unusual. A lot of people experience similar things..."

My heart suddenly lightened. I looked up at her, relieved that she wasn't shocked, disgusted, judging.

"Really???" I said. "You mean other families are like this, too? That's such a relief to hear!"

And we talked into the early evening, my shame vanishing in her warm acceptance, my spirit brightened by the fact that she cared so much, cared enough to skip prayers to stay with me.

Some months later, when, to my great dismay, my parents forgot my 18th birthday, Sister Ramona didn't. I arrived at school to find a treasure hunt map stuck in the door of my locker -- and spent the whole day between classes hunting up funny little cards, drawings, holy cards and candy. How did she know how much I needed someone to remember and celebrate with me?

Every day was a celebration

Sister Ramona always put people, treasured relationships, first over prayers or dogma or her own cherished beliefs.

I felt loved and accepted at every point in my life.

On my graduation day, she gave me a letter telling me how much I meant to her and outlining all of my positive qualities that she particularly noticed and valued. I have treasured that letter for 53 years -- bringing it out to read again when faced with self-doubt or disappointment, depression or simple nostalgia. The last time I read it, Sister Ramona and I sat quietly and read it together during my 50th high school reunion. She handed it back to me, tears in her eyes. "I'd say exactly the same things today," she said, embracing me.

At my 50th Reunion in April 2013

But there were times when I must have been harder to accept than others.

When I was a junior at Northwestern University -- having enjoyed a lively correspondence with her throughout my college years -- I began to have the crisis of faith that would lead to my stepping away from the Catholic Church. I sent her long, angry, introspective letters about it. She finally sent me a letter that said "I understand that this is all difficult and quite life-changing for you and I'm glad you feel you can write to me about it. But I miss hearing about the rest of your life. What's the scoop on your love life? Are you dating anyone special? Tell me more about your new roommate...Oh, and are you taking any more writing classes with the incredible Elizabeth Swayne?" I smiled, relieved, knowing that wherever my crisis of faith took me, Sister Ramona would be there.

Dinner in our "den of sin" in 1976

When I was "living in sin" with Bob, whom I would marry a year later, she came to our apartment for dinner, shocking and delighting Bob, a non-Catholic who had never met a nun before, with her non-chalance and her salty sense of humor.

And even though we were not married in the Catholic Church, she was there at the wedding, happy for us, and cheering up my mother who was not, at that time, particularly jubilant about the marriage.

Cheering up my mom - May 1977

When my parents died four months apart in 1980, she suddenly, as if by magic, appeared at both funerals and graveside services, knowing better than anyone there except for my siblings how complicated and deep our journey through grief would be.

She was there to cheer me on, encourage me and celebrate my successes as a writer and there to comfort me in times of doubt and disappointment. She was supportive of my decision to return to graduate school in my forties to train as a psychotherapist -- something she had also done.

She accomplished so much in her professional life -- as a teacher, a principal and a savior of troubled schools.

After teaming with her dear friend and colleague, Sister Katherine Jean, another 1950's era graduate, to literally save our high school when it faltered financially in the early 1970's, she was instrumental in turning it around, making it an academic powerhouse and the continuing success it is today. After years of saving other schools on the brink of closing -- from affluent prep schools like Flintridge to troubled, cash-strapped inner city schools -- she moved north and spent the last decade of her life working happily in two positions at Stanford University: as a counselor for students and as a member of the Human Subjects Committee, supporting research at Stanford Medical Center. To the end, she was happy, engaged, making a difference.

A joyous spirit, radiating love

One of the greatest accolades I ever heard about Sister Ramona came from my fervently atheist husband Bob.

Asked at a social gathering to name the most successful person he had ever met, he answered immediately: "Sister Ramona! She's smart, successful at her work, and so compassionate, so kind, and really, really funny! She is the finest human being I have ever known. There is no one like her!"

No one. She's irreplaceable. Inimitable. Incredibly precious to so many who had a good fortune to know her. She was direct, sometimes blunt, tough when she needed to be. But, more often, she would laugh -- when things were going well and even when they weren't. She never lost perspective and had some interesting insights.

A few years ago, I was having dinner with her and we were discussing a classmate of mine whose childhood was troubled, but whose adult life has been even more difficult and sad. "When I think of your backgrounds, I think yours was so much worse," she said. "But then it hit me: as crazy as your home life was, your parents really loved you. Every school play you were in, every parent-teacher conference, they were there, so proud of you, loving you so much..."

And I felt such gratitude for this wonderful gift of insight into my past so many years later.

Blowing kisses at her Jubilee - May 2015

There were so many special gifts of love and grace, so many valuable lessons in living she taught me  through the years. When I heard of her passing, I was filled with gratitude that I was blessed to know this wonderful, one-of-a-kind woman. And I felt a rush of sudden regret that I didn't always follow her example of putting people first.

We never did get to enjoy that convent sleepover. When Fall came, I was busy working on a difficult update of "The Teenage Body Book" slated for publication this summer.

 "Sometime in the winter, perhaps," I said, making a plane reservation for late March, then canceling when it sounded like the timing was inconvenient for her. I had no idea, until today, how inconvenient it was.

Why did I think that, against all visual evidence, she would go on forever?

Even in death, Sister Ramona continues to teach me valuable lessons.

Monday, April 4, 2016

When Paths Cross With Love

The picture was attached to a brief email last night from my dear friend Mary. I opened it and sat back, astounded, delighted and filled with a sudden rush of love.

It was a picture Mary had asked someone to take on her smart phone during a weekend charity tea when she encountered Sister Rita McCormack, someone very dear to me -- and a relative stranger to her.

I was filled with wonder that two people with whom I have had such long and loving friendships -- Sister Rita for 63 years, Mary for 44 years -- but whose paths have not crossed in all that time would meet and talk and, knowing the place each holds in my heart, would think to have a picture taken together -- just for me!

Sister Rita McCormack (l) and Mary Connolly Breiner

There is so much history in their embrace!

Sister Rita was a very young teaching nun -- just arrived from Ireland -- when we first met. And I was a shy, struggling eight-year-old, recovering from bulbar polio, troubled by my father's mental illness and his horrific abuse, particularly of my younger brother Michael. 

Sister Rita would be Michael's first grade teacher and would reach out to us in so many ways to comfort, support and encourage both of us. She was quick with hugs and reassuring words. When I stood at the edge of the playground, friendless and feeling so alone, she would come embrace me, let me walk beside her, holding the cord of her habit, feeling safe and increasingly confident as we made the rounds of the playground and I got better acquainted with the kinder and gentler members of my class. She spent hours after school, helping me to regain clear speech by acting out poems and plays. It sparked my initial interest in acting and brightened my days. Teaching me to play the piano was a less successful venture. I had little interest in making music then. All I wanted to do was to talk with her. And I loved to hear her sing and, when she encouraged me to join her, I would quietly, shyly sing along. Our favorite songs together were the comic Irish folk tune "Kitty of Colraine" and the hymn "Oh, God of Loveliness."

When I would describe her to others in later years, I would say that she was like Julie Andrews in "The Sound of Music." But the truth is, Julie Andrews was like Sister Rita -- which was why I enjoyed her so much in that movie.

Sister Rita is bright and talented with boundless energy and commitment to making a difference. She is still an activist for a number of causes. At 85 and suffering from two different kinds of cancer, she is, nevertheless, unstoppable. She shows up. She moves ahead. She is fully engaged with the world and with others. She truly lives her faith. 

The latter is also true of Mary Connolly Breiner. 

I first met Mary when we were in our late twenties. The daughter of novelist and screenwriter Myles Connolly (whose "Mr. Blue" was and is a Catholic classic), Mary grew up amid the movie stars of the beachfront Malibu Colony but left that all behind to enter the convent right after high school. 

After ten years as a nun, she made the painful decision to leave -- and her first job post-convent was at 'TEEN Magazine where I had been working for several years. 

We bonded immediately. I loved her sense of humor and her wicked insights. I admired her compassion and kindness. Our Irish Catholic origins gave us much in common. And we shared a secret ambition to go back to school and become psychotherapists. Only Mary did it first -- 20 years before I finally returned to school.  (I had declined to attend weekend grad school classes with her when we were young because I thought it would interfere with my social life).

She had a thriving practice for many years. She also met and married a widower with three children who quickly became very much her own. Her days were busy as a wife, mother and dedicated therapist. It was only when her beloved husband John had a life-changing accident and became ill that she decided to stop seeing clients in order to devote herself full-time to John's care.

Despite the fact that my husband Bob and I moved from California to Arizona six years ago,  Mary and I have stayed close. I travel to their home in Camarillo, CA every two months to visit with both Mary and John and with John's live-in caregiver Arthur, who is a wonderful new friend. And, conspiring with Bob to keep it a surprise, Mary came to Arizona last year to make my 70th birthday special and memorable.

Despite their long history with me, Mary and Sister Rita never met until about a year ago, meeting by chance at this same annual charity event. This year, they sought each other out, and decided to pose for a picture together as a gift of love from them to me.

It's a gift that not only warms my heart, but also is bringing some unexpected blessings. When I posted it on my Facebook page, I got "Likes" and some comments from elementary school classmates who have their own reasons to remember Sister Rita with love -- though we all knew her then by her pre-Vatican II religious name of Sister Mary Virginia before she reverted to her birth name in the mid-Sixties. 

After sharing this picture, I've enjoyed a delightful online conversation today with my friend Pat Hill, a classmate from kindergarten through high school. And I got a message from another grade school classmate I haven't seen or spoken with since we graduated in 1959: this male classmate, now an attorney, sent me a message that he'd love to get in touch with Sister Rita and would also enjoy visiting with me on the phone. I smiled at his request. I remember him and his twin brother as the most civilized and kind of the 13-year-old boys in our class. I'm happily anticipating our conversation.

And then there are shared snippets of the conversation between my two beloved friends, revisiting a long and cherished history.

"Sister Rita is such a dear person," Mary wrote with the email accompanying the photo. "She told me how you would walk around with her when you were little, holding onto the cord of her habit. She beamed as she talked about you. She just loves you you know..."

What a joy it is when the paths of those you love unexpectedly cross, bringing such a rich variety of wonderful, life-affirming surprises, expanding like a gentle ripple on a wind-swept pond, to warm me and others who know one or both of these very special women with so many sweet memories and enduring love.