The Other I

November 4, 2007


I lived as a Maryknoll nun in a Black community of Paterson, New Jersey, for about six months in 1967.  I remember the first night we moved into our apartment.  I took my guitar, and three of us went out onto the street and began to sing folk songs on the street corner.  Timothy was one of the first children to come to see what was going on.

Timothy was about 8, with huge brown eyes and a smile that cracked across his face like the summer sun.  He was short for his age, fast on his feet, and I fell in love with him on first sight.  For all the months of the summer, Timothy was there the minute any of us stepped out the door.  He learned all the songs I could play on the guitar, and often joined our group with his impromptu dance.

One evening, he grabbed my hand and dragged two of us up to the second floor apartment where he lived with his family.  There were eight children between the ages of 3 and 15, two bedrooms, and four beds.  His mother and father slept in one of the beds, and the other three were shared by whoever got there first.  There was a sofa in the living room and the last one in usually made use of a rug on the floor.  That first evening Timothy and I and his father worked on a jig saw puzzle together.  I remember Timothy was better at it than his dad.  One of his sisters said that Black was ugly, not beautiful, as I said it was, beginning an exchange that we repeated almost every time we met for the next four months.

Once school started, I tried to help Timothy with his homework, but I lacked anything but some sisterly intuition about how to go about this task, and Timothy, alas, lacked application.  By the end of September, Timothy had been suspended from school for fighting.  Two of us went to see the principle to plead his case, but failed.  We had not been in the neighbourhood long enough and lacked credibility.

One day in late October we were told to close the apartment in Paterson and return to the Motherhouse in New York.  There was no sense that we needed to say farewell to the people in whose community we had lived uninvited for six months.  I didn’t even say good bye to Timothy.  One day we were just gone.

That was almost exactly forty years ago, and I am wondering tonight what happened to Timothy.  My worst fear is that he ended up in prison, or on the street dealing drugs or engaged in some criminal activity.  My hope is that he ended up in the army or in some organization where his infectious charm and good spirits brought him success and happiness.

I would like to think that against the odds we managed to give something back to the community that, even for so short a time, made a huge impression on me, and whom I remember with so much affection.  Mostly though, I fear we came and went too quickly.  My only small hope is that somehow in the giving, the givers were enriched by their gifts to us.  I remember especially the worn wisdom of many of the women. 

And I remember Timothy.  I do remember you, Timothy.

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