Feast of St. Matthew,
Apostle and Evangelist
“I beg your pardon?” Sister Mary Helen said into the telephone.
The voice on the other end of the line repeated the message slowly and carefully, with the patience of one used to being misunderstood.
“It is my pronunciation, perhaps, Seester,” he said in a rich Spanish accent, “that is giving you difficulty?”
In truth his pronunciation was fine. It was his message that puzzled Mary Helen.
“I won a what?” she asked.
Her caller must have decided that she was deaf. He began to shout, “Seester, you have won our contest! You and a companion are to be our guests on a week-long pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in España!”
“But, Señor . . . uh . . . ” Surprise knocked his name right out of her mind.
“I am Señor Carlos Fraga de la Cueva.” He supplied his name again, this time so loudly that she held the receiver away from her ear.
“Señor Fraga, how could I possibly win a contest that I did not enter?”
“Seester, it is I who now must beg your pardon. But your name, it is on one of our winning tickets.” Loudly, distinctly, he read her name, her address at Mount St. Francis College, even including San Francisco, California, and the zip code. He concluded with her telephone number at the Alumnae Office.
By now he must be figuring that as well as being a little deaf, I am more than a little dumb, Mary Helen thought, staring out of her small office window at the bright September sky.
“But, Señor,” she stalled, racking her brain. When could she possibly have entered a “Trip to Santiago de Compostela” contest? Surely she would remember a thing like that.
“I am the owner of the Patio Español Restaurant.” Señor Fraga pronounced each word deliberately. No doubt he was hoping that the old nun would have a flash of recognition. “On Alemany Boulevard, Seester. Do you remember?”
Of course, she remembered the Patio Español. How could she forget it? The place was a block long and looked like a hacienda right out of Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel Ramona. She and her friend Sister Eileen had gone there recently for a scrumptious dinner with Consuelo Aguilar, a college alumna. As a matter of fact, the dinner and the restaurant had been Connie’s idea. “A beginning-of-the-school-year treat” she called it.
With her free hand, Mary Helen flipped back the pages on her desk calendar. “Dinner with Connie A.” was scribbled across the bottom of Tuesday, September 7. Just two weeks ago. She remembered being especially pleased to go out to dinner that night—and she certainly remembered why.
Ben, the college chef, always roasted turkeys to celebrate the opening of school. Invariably he roasted too many and used up his leftovers on the nuns.
The morning of the seventh, Ramon, the pastry cook, had told Mary Helen that he was baking patty shells for dinner. It hadn’t taken much ingenuity to figure out that they would be dining on turkey à la king that night.
“If I eat another turkey anything, I’m going to start gobbling,” she had confided to Eileen, who answered by making several deep, throaty sounds herself.
“You do recall our restaurant, Seester?” Señor Fraga persisted. “We were holding a contest for a trip? Año santo in Santiago de Compostela?
“Of course, I remember your restaurant,” Mary Helen snapped. The inside of the Patio Español was as impressive as its exterior. The high-ceilinged room was filled with arches and brightly colored ceramic tiles, hand-blown glass, fresh flowers, wrought-iron chandeliers, and a trickling water fountain.
She even remembered what the three of them had ordered: Pacific snapper sautéed in olive oil with garlic and white wine. It came with San Francisco sourdough bread. David, an unlikely name for a Spanish waiter, had asked several times if their spinach sopa was hot enough. It was.
“Your restaurant stands out very clearly in my mind, Señor Fraga,” Sister Mary Helen said. “What I don’t remember is entering your contest.”
“You are Seester Mary Helen, are you not?” Señor Fraga repeated, beginning to sound exasperated.
“Of course I am.”
“Then you are one of our contest winners,” he said with a tone of finality that settled the matter for him, anyway. “You will receive the details of your wonderful trip in Thursday’s post. We leave San Francisco for Santiago on October seventh and return on the fifteenth. It is imperative that we know by Wednesday of next week if you accept. Adios,” Señor Fraga called cheerily, “and congratulations!”
Mary Helen sat at her desk, staring at the dead receiver. How in the world?
“Are you about ready to break for lunch?” She heard Shirley, her secretary, call from the outer office. The two of them had spent the entire morning working on the preliminary plans for the alumnae fashion show.
“I’m starving.” Shirley peeked in from the doorjamb.
“Lunch? Is it lunchtime already?” Mary Helen, still dazed, glanced up at her secretary. Shirley’s eyes sparkled behind her oversize glasses.
“What is it, Sister? Not bad news, I hope.” Pointing at the telephone, Shirley stepped into the small office, where her white hair shone silver under the fluorescent lights.
“No, not bad news. Actually I suppose it’s good news. That call was from a Señor Fraga at the Patio Español. It seems that I have won a trip to Spain.”
Even the unshockable Shirley took a moment to assimilate the news. “Well, hooray for you!” she said with much more enthusiasm than Mary Helen could muster. “When do you leave?”
“I’m not so sure that I’m going,” Mary Helen said. “I’ll really have to think about it.”
“Everything becomes much clearer on a full stomach.” Shirley, gold bracelets jingling, leaned over and patted her hand. “Why don’t we eat? I hear the food service is serving tacos today. Maybe that’s an omen.”
Mary Helen couldn’t help laughing. “You go on ahead. I’ll catch up and meet you there,” she said, pretending to busy herself straightening up the paperwork strewn across her desk.
As soon as her secretary left the office, Mary Helen pushed back in her wide desk chair and closed her eyes. Had she actually forgotten entering a contest? Age could play funny tricks on one’s memory, she’d heard. In fact, nowadays old Sister Donata referred to her “forgettory” instead of her memory. But I’m not so very old yet, Mary Helen fussed. Why, I’m only seventy-seven. Or is it seventy-eight? No matter. I am entirely too young to start forgetting something as unforgettable as writing my own name on an entry blank and dropping it into a box.
The word box triggered an image in her mind. Come to think of it, she had noticed a brightly colored box at the Patio Español. It was just inside the front door next to a sprawling bouquet of red, orange, and sunshine yellow gladioli. She remembered that much.
After dinner Connie had pushed the heavy wooden door open, holding it for the two nuns. In the warm glow of the restaurant Mary Helen had shivered at the sight of the low fog swirling down Alemany Boulevard. From the corner of her eye she’d spotted the box and a blurred movement. Sure enough!
She bolted up from her chair and switched off the overhead lights. Sister Mary Helen knew exactly who the contest culprit was, and she would confront her immediately.
“I hope you’re satisfied,” Mary Helen hissed the moment she spotted Sister Eileen in the lunch line.
Eileen’s eyebrows arched, and she blinked her large gray eyes. “I beg your pardon?”
“That is exactly what I said when Señor Fraga called.”
Frowning, Eileen slid her lunch tray along the counter and picked out a glossy green pear from the fruit bowl. “Fraga? Fraga? That name does not seem to ring any bells,” she said.
“Well, it should! Church bells. No, cathedral bells. Does Santiago de Compostela mean anything to you?”
Eileen’s cheeks flushed. “For the love of all that’s good and holy, keep your voice down, Mary Helen,” she said with a touch of the brogue, a sure sign that she was flustered. “Do you want the new faculty members to think that we’re fighting?”
One look at her friend’s face, and Mary Helen knew that what the new faculty thought was the least of Eileen’s concerns. She was playing for time to think up a decent defense. Like any good scrapper, Eileen knew that the best defense is a good offense. Mary Helen knew it, too.
“Don’t give me that malarkey.” She followed Eileen toward a side table in the spacious dining room which the Sisters shared at lunchtime with the faculty. “Just tell me why you entered my name in that contest and not your own.”
“I was planning it as a surprise.”
“A surprise for what?”
“For Christmas.” With a sanctimonious sniff, Eileen cut the juicy pear into quarters and offered Mary Helen one, which she refused.
“Eileen, it is only September. It’s not even Advent yet. Furthermore, you have not given me a Christmas present in over fifty years. In fact, you know perfectly well that we never give each other Christmas presents, which, we agreed years ago, simplifies both our lives. What’s more, if you intend to start at this late date, what is wrong with a blouse? I can always use another blouse. Or slippers. Or a paperback mystery. I’d love a brand-new mystery.”
Sister Eileen began to dust nonexistent crumbs from the edge of the table. The real reason was coming.
“You may find this a little difficult to believe,” she began, “but when I spotted the box, I had a very lucky feeling.”
“If you were feeling lucky, why in the name of common sense didn’t you enter your own name?”
Eileen’s bushy eyebrows shot up. “We are talking luck here, Mary Helen, not common sense! I wasn’t feeling lucky for me. I was feeling lucky for you.”
Without waiting for a comment she went on. “So, following my hunch, I entered your name. I just knew you would win that contest.” Her face broke into a wrinkled smile. “And you see? I was right!”
Sister Mary Helen opened her mouth, then closed it again. Although the logic made no sense at all to her, she knew better than to argue. Eileen, the consummate authority on Irish luck, had spoken.
“And so,” Mary Helen said, finally accepting a slice of Eileen’s pear, “now that I have won this trip, what do you suggest I do with it?”
“Go on it, of course!” Eileen had a determined tilt to her chin and a hint of excitement in her voice. “And I will go with you! Life is too short not to enjoy it,” she said with as much infallibility as any Pope could have managed. “Ex cathedra” it was called when the Pope did it: “From the chair of Peter.” When Eileen did it, it was called “annoying.”
“You and I are going on a pilgrimage to Santiago?” Mary Helen’s voice was strained. Several faculty members at other tables were beginning to glance their way. “We don’t know a thing about Santiago. Or about making a pilgrimage, for that matter,” she said, although that was not completely true.
She remembered reading a recent news story in the San Francisco Catholic about Santiago de Compostela, the birthplace of Christianity in Spain, celebrating some sort of Holy Year, although she thought the article had said that the main celebration took place in July. And from her long-ago studies of medieval history, she recalled that Compostela, the oldest shrine in the Western world, had once rivaled Rome and Jerusalem as a center of pilgrimage, although she couldn’t remember why.
“Furthermore, this Señor Fraga mentioned something about an año santo,” she said.
“Holy Year,” Eileen translated.
“I know that much!” Mary Helen glared. “What I don’t know is why it is a Holy Year in Compostela and not in the entire rest of the universal church? Isn’t it the Pope who declares a Holy Year and not the Patio Español? Every twenty-five years in modern times, if my memory serves me correctly. And don’t Holy Years generally begin in January, not in October?”
“We’ll just have to be finding that out, now, won’t we?” Eileen wiped pear juice from her fingers. “And Hanna Memorial Library is full of books that will help us with everything we need to know.”
Spoken like a true, if semiretired, librarian, Mary Helen was about to quip, but Eileen rushed on.
“And the sooner the better. What about right after we finish lunch?”
“Right after lunch? I’m working on the alumnae fashion show after lunch.”
“Certainly Shirley can do that without you.”
“Shirley! I completely forgot about her. I told her that I’d meet her here.”
“She doesn’t look like she missed you.” Eileen nodded toward Shirley, who sat chatting happily with several of the other secretaries. “And I’ll wager she will continue to do just as well without you this afternoon.”
Eileen was probably right. A fashion show was much more Shirley’s cup of tea than hers. As a matter of fact, fashion was Shirley’s forte. Mary Helen continually marveled at how everything her secretary wore, including shoes and jewelry, matched. The hues she chose magically picked up and changed the color in her eyes. Today they looked almost emerald, the color of her silk blouse.
Mary Helen pulled at her own pin-striped blouse. The stripe matched her skirt exactly. But then, you can’t go too far astray with basic navy blue. As for her eyes, what picks up a muddy hazel?
“Are you nearly finished eating, old dear?” Clearly, Eileen was eager to get their research started.
Feeling a bit like the Devil’s Advocate, Mary Helen introduced another problem. “Sister Cecilia. Have you forgotten about Sister President? How are we going to tell her that we are about to take a vacation when we just had one? And don’t tell me ‘very carefully.’ ” For a moment Mary Helen thought that she had stumped Eileen. She should have known better.
“What is the sense of being semiretired if we don’t skip work once in a while?” Eileen demanded. “And what’s more, her world won’t end.” She winked. “We have an old saying back home.”
Sister Mary Helen groaned. Although Eileen had left Ireland more than fifty years ago, she still referred to it as “back home” and could always be counted upon to dredge up an “old saying” to fit the occasion. Quite frankly Mary Helen suspected that she made up half of them. Eileen’s next remark confirmed her suspicions.
“Don’t worry about the world coming to an end today,” she announced. “It is already tomorrow in Australia.”
“Since when is Charlie Brown, who, I remember, said that, an Irishman?” Mary Helen asked, but her question fell on deaf ears. Eileen had already deposited her lunch tray on the revolving belt that swallowed up all of the college’s dirty dishes. For all her talk about luck, Mary Helen realized as she followed her friend, Eileen seemed as surprised as she that they had won the trip. And, to judge from the speed of her exit, a great deal more thrilled.
After settling things with Shirley, who was happy to carry on alone, at least for one afternoon, Sister Mary Helen went in search of her friend. Outside, the sky was brilliant, and the hedge of cobalt blue hydrangea bushes that ran alongside the main building reflected its color. The building itself glistened in the Indian summer sun. A friendly wind set the leaves of the eucalyptus trees quivering, and the pink-rimmed petals of the lemon-cream Peace Roses still held drops of moisture from the morning’s sprinklers.
Mary Helen closed her eyes and took a deep breath. The salty smell of the Pacific was in the air. She heard the college flags snapping atop their pole and from somewhere the caw-caw of a sea gull. It must have been a day much like today in Galilee, she thought, when Jesus called Matthew. In the Gospel story for this morning’s liturgy Jesus had said, “Follow me.” And Matthew, the tax collector, by his own admission had left all, “got up,” and followed Him.
God works in mysterious ways, Mary Helen mused, feeling the warmth of the sun on her shoulders and back. For the most part she had stopped years ago trying to figure out the inscrutable whys and hows. Maybe this pilgrimage to Spain was where He was calling her. Who knew? Why, then, was she so hesitant to follow? No reason that made any sense really.
Satisfied that Eileen had headed for the library, Mary Helen ducked back into the building. Eileen was right, of course. Life was too short. The more she thought about it, the more a week in sunny Spain sounded like “just what the doctor ordered,” so to speak. Actually she had not been to the doctor since her yearly checkup last January, at which time he had pronounced her “Amazing!”
Her feet clicked along on the red tile hallway toward the Hanna Memorial Library. Just like castanets, she thought, getting more and more into the spirit of the adventure. By the time she pushed open the doors of the hallowed Hanna, she was softly humming the chorus of “Lady of Spain, I Adore You.”