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The Lark

Red Light Green Light Nunnery

From Dear Me — the Diarmuid Cleary tales

Collage by author. Photos courtesy of Pexels (Nun, Mikhail Nilov; Dodge, Shukrat Umarov, traffic light CCO)

The front yard of my childhood home was three lawns in one: grass-covered slopes dotted with the occasional shrub and a smattering of trees, divided by stone steps, and a driveway with a patch of grass between its cement tire tracks. Games best played on flat fields like soccer or stickball were impossible to achieve there. We’d go out on the street or down to the schoolyard for those. But the lawn’s unusual topography was perfect for games like tag, dodgeball, and my favorite, Red Light, Green Light, 1, 2, 3. I loved the thrill of the sudden stop, the challenge of staying stone still while teetering on the edge of a divot with your best friend trying to make you laugh and fall over.

Ours was one of two large families on Melvin Drive whose front lawns were scenes of countless competitions, challenges, contests, and stunts. In summertime, they’d start in the morning and stretch into the early evening, which is when our folks usually hollered at us to get inside for supper. The TV showed us hippies at Be-Ins and, later, disco dancers at Studio 54. But we knew where it was truly “happening”: right there in our front yards.

We Cleary kids were a boisterous bunch, three boys and four girls born within a 10-year span from ’59 to ’69. I was the second youngest; scruffy and into sports, but also bookish and occasionally pensive. I often hid behind the couch to escape the clamor and chaos of our living room when I was really young.

The Teenagers™ were a gang of gearheads and burnouts that congregated in-and-around the neighbor’s garage. They generally kept their distance, but occasionally they got off on terrorizing us with their muscle cars and dimwitted taunts. Our true partners in crime were the nine Daley children, the three Taggart kids, a pair of Kirshbaums, and a couple of Pazzas in the cul de sac up the road: a ragtag assemblage of prepubescent boys and girls ready to party noon and night at the drop of a hat or the bleat of a hand whistle (and when I say “party” I really mean play kick the can or freeze tag).

We must have driven the empty nesters on the block bonkers. These were supposed to be their golden years, their chance to finally relax. Their kids, if they had them, were all grown and had finally moved out. Then these younger couples move in and just start cranking out a new crop of snot-nosed noisemakers.

Mr. Snodgrass, our neighbor, was the original prototype for the “hey you kids, get off my lawn” guy. Straight out of central casting, that one. A real curmudgeon. And boy did we make his life a living hell. All these years later, I sometimes dream I’m rifling through Old Man Snodgrass’ shrubs for my Wiffle ball. And then his front door swings open and … well, I wake up in a puddle of my own sweat. That lawn was like an extension of the carpet he vacuumed compulsively in that mausoleum he lived in with his preternaturally priggish wife.

My best friend was Mickey Muzzitt. “Easy does it” Muzzit was what some of the other kids called him on account of his being a bit hyperactive. I didn’t see it, though. Sure, Mick could get a bit over-enthused about his various passions, but those were my passions, too. We bonded over The Beatles, The Monkees, the Mamas & the Papas, SCTV, BBQ-flavored Bon-Ton potato chips, Dr. Pepper, and philately, which is just a fancy word for stamp collecting. This was before we’d discovered girls, or at least before they’d discovered us, which I, for one, could never quite understand because who wouldn’t want to be swept off their feet by a couple of swashbuckling philatelists, right?

Mickey’s dad, Mickey senior, was a full-time firefighter in the FDNY, years before they assumed their rightful place as heroes of 9/11. Mickey’s dad was kind of a shitheel, though, when he was drunk, which was most of the time. The most heroic thing I ever saw him do was set up huge orange cones to block off our street on the 4th of July, so he could light off the prodigious cache of fireworks he procured from relatives who lived south of the Mason-Dixon line. All this while tanked on half a case of Budweiser. Mickey and I would later steal our first sips of alcohol from Muzzit senior’s prodigious cache of booze hidden in the basement.

At some point, around the age of 11 or 12, Mick and I started to drift apart. He began to spend more time with a gang of kids from outside the neighborhood. When we did meet, it would be by chance at some impromptu Melvin Drive block party, a slapdash congregation of kids jumping hot rod, banana seat bikes over makeshift wooden ramps, or playing kickball or hide and seek. Both Mickey and I were at that awkward age where neighborhood games and even some of our former obsessions like baseball cards and comic books started to lose their luster; started to feel a bit, well, childish. And yet, he and I continued to indulge some of our earlier pursuits … just not together. Mick lost interest in stamp collecting, preferring war games and model trains to the hobby he now considered too nerdy to share with his new friends.

Consequently, I’d taken up with Ms. Shelly Hollins, an octogenarian my mom looked after when she started to work as a Home Health Aide to pick up extra cash. Though 60 or 70 years my senior, Shelly shared my interest in philately and coin collecting. Her knowledge, experience, and passion were nonpareil.

We were a pair, Shelly and I. A good team. Debilitating arthritis made it difficult for her to leave home, so I’d often pick up basic necessities for her, like milk, eggs, anti-inflammatories, and mint sets from the local post office. She, in turn, introduced me to perforation gauges, watermark detectors, and Red Books. This was all in the pre-Internet days when one had to scour newspaper classifieds for estate sales; sift through the back pages of Linn’s Stamp News for mail-order collectibles; or, on occasion, take out-of-town bus trips to uncharted, untapped hobby stores. All in hopes of procuring some overlooked gem. In me, Shelley had a useful foil, one willing to venture out on these wild goose chases with a wad of cash she’d shove into my jacket pocket.

It’s funny now to think back on the number of unattended hours I spent with this woman. My initial sessions with Shelley were brief, while my mom prepared her meals or cleaned her house. But I went back to her place on my own many times afterward with my mom’s blessing.

It was not unusual for my mom to have interactions with women a generation or so older than she. Some were Home Health Aide clients; others were simply kind and caring women who came to her aid when my parent’s marriage fell apart.

My mom came to the United States as a young woman from a farm in Northern Ireland where she’d typically ride a bike to get around. When she came to New York in the early 1950s she stayed with cousins in the Bronx and took buses or subways to get around. Soon after, she met my dad at a neighborhood dance, while he was on shore leave from the U.S. Navy. They fell in love, married, and moved out to the burbs. Consequently, my mom never learned to drive. She hadn’t needed to. But that meant she was pretty much dependent on my dad. And when the marriage failed, she was at the mercy of friends and sometimes even relative strangers for rides. She often turned to the church, which is how Sister Bernadine came into the picture.

Sister Bernadine was 4 feet 9 inches of nervous energy. She twitched like a bird and, though bent with age, moved with alacrity. She was like a sparrow if sparrows had Brooklyn accents, wore orthopedic shoes and worshiped all-knowing deities. Her habit framed a bulbous, beak-like nose and beady, flint-colored eyes. She had a tendency to hum or mumble while others spoke, as if impatiently waiting for them to finish so she could speak again. She was quick with a conspiratorial smile, especially after dropping sarcastic quips about various clergy members (“That Father Quinn sounded like he’s been dipping into the sacramental wine again. Did you hear last Sunday’s sermon? Jeez!”).

While she occasionally demonstrated the sedate tranquility one associates with members of the cloth, she was more apt to indulge in kooky asides, to regale listeners with tales of middleweight boxers from the Lower East Side rather than the lofty ideals of Christian martyrs from the Middle Ages. If ever one expected a clergywoman to take the lord’s name in vain it would have been Sister Bernadine while listening to her beloved NY Mets on the car radio. When they failed to turn the double play with a one-run lead in the ninth it would be, “Ah bullspit, Montanez, not again! What’s wrong with you, butterfingers!” When Seaver didn’t get that called strike with two on and two out it was “Aww, what’s a mattuh ump?! Whaddya blind as a bat!?” Each time, she’d throw you a wink and a little laugh just to see if you were paying attention. She seemed to revel in the paradox she presented to the world.

She was the polar opposite of my soft-spoken mother. Perhaps that’s why they seemed to enjoy each other’s company. It was an odd pairing to all but the two of them. Maybe it was the 1930s, New York gangster vibe the Sister gave off, or maybe it was the abiding deference some Irish still showed towards clergy. Whatever the reason, there were certain things my mother just couldn’t bring herself to say directly to Sister Bernadine. Like the time she pulled me aside and said …

“Diarmuid, honey, I need you to come with us.”

“Uh … whaddya mean, mom?”

“Would you mind taking a ride with Sister Bernadine and me? It’ll only be for a little while. It’ll be fun. I’ll buy you something. Ice cream! How about ice cream?”

“Um, Mom?” I said, whispering. “Why are we whispering?”

“Shh, I don’t want Sister to — Listen, Diarmuid. Sister Bernadine is …”

My mom glanced over, nodded and smiled at her nun friend, who was on the other side of our living room engaged in a monologue about some secular preoccupation.

Mom bent down and leaned closer to me, untucking and then re-tucking my shirt aggressively.

“Sister Bernadine is driving me to go shopping,” she whispered like we were in a Hitchcock movie, “and, well, you see, she can’t see … colors, that is. She … she’s color blind, you see. She can’t tell the difference between the green and the red traffic lights, ok? Now, do you understand, dear … mud, dear?

“Wha?” I laughed.

I was too young to drive but even I could tell we’d just skidded into the corner of risky and ridiculous. It was already odd, bordering on preposterous, to see Sister Bernadine driving around in a souped-up, boat-sized vehicle. But then to discover she couldn’t …

“Wha?” I said again.

“Shh. And what do you mean, ‘Whaaaa?’ Stop saying that, for god’s sake! Look, just get in the car with me and Sister like a good little boy now, will you?”

Shy and retiring as mom ordinarily was, she could be direct and forceful when she needed to be. A quick jerk of the arm was usually all she needed to do to let me know I’d gone too far, or that she’d run out of patience for my “palaver,” as she called it.

“Ok, sure, mom,” I relented.

“Oh goody gumdrops!” she said, snapping back to full perky. “Right. Let’s go, then.”

She turned to Sister Bernadine, who was still carrying on a conversation with herself about god knows what.

“Ok, Sister. Here we are. Ready to go.”

“Fantastic, Maggie. And you, too, Deer, um? Aces! Alrighty, folks, let’s hit the road!”

The three of us left the house, Sister in front and my mom and me trailing behind. Mom grabbed my hand as we started down the stone steps. I pushed it away but she clutched it tightly. Something caught my peripheral view. It was my friend, Mickey. He was hanging with the Teenagers near the front of Foen’s driveway next door. She was there, too: Bronwyn Davies, the cool chick who’d transferred to our school from Cardiff, Wales last year. Mickey and Bronwyn were next to each other on their hot rod, banana seat bikes, talking and … laughing.

“Hey Durrrmud!”

Someone from that general direction called my name, or rather intentionally butchered it to make some sort of point. Growing up in suburban America in the 1970s with a “foreign-sounding” name was not easy. Still, I’d come to accept or quietly disregard the various mispronunciations: some by well-meaning but as-yet-uninformed strangers; others hurled with mal intent by obnoxious dillweeds who knew better, like Herr Foen and the rest of the Hitler Youth next door.

Dear me, Queery!” one of the other Foen kids called out. “Where ya goin, huh?” You goin’ to church with mommy?

“And the flying nun?” Some other kid called out.

“Sister Atilla the Hun?” another improvised. It was like jazz but with dimwitted sarcasm instead of horns.

“Sister Penguin of the Perpetual Sorrows.”

Actually, that one was kind of clever, I silently acknowledged, as they continued to squawk, a gaggle of wisecracking seagulls. I caught a glimpse of Mickey and the girl from Wales chuckling as I continued down the stairs and pretended not to notice. But then my eyes met Mickey’s and he stopped smiling. He nodded to the girl and they pedaled off.

“Hey Mick! Where ya goin’, man!” one of the gearheads called after them. “We’re gonna mocha some doobage, man.”

My mother pulled at my arm. Sister was already in the driver’s seat revving the engine.

“Vroom, vroom, Queery! Better run along, now. Don’t keep Mommy and Auntie Jesus waiting. Bahahahaha!”

I opened the door of the backseat and slid into the yawning abyss of black vinyl. The flock of cackling birds fell away in the distance.

“Everything ok, Dearmy?” Mom said without turning to see my crimson-colored cheeks.

“Yeah,” I choked a muted reply.

“Come again?”

“Yes,” I shouted.

“Ok,” she said.

The repetitive sound of tire tread on pavement took over. I allowed myself to get lost in its rhythm.

“Those Foen boys, you know. Well, they’re just … up to no good is all.”

It wasn’t clear who my mom was talking to. I opted to stay quiet.

“Foen,” Sister Bernadine said. “Sounds German. Protestants, ya think?”

“Oh, I don’t think they’re very religious at all,” my mom said.

“Maybe Lutheran,” the sister pondered aloud.

I just wanted to get this over with; fulfill my duty as the eyes for hire. I knew we’d soon be coming up to the first traffic light, so I leaned forward in the roomy back seat and steadied myself, holding the edges of the two front seats and peering into the gap between them.

Sister Bernadine was gabbing away now, focusing more on my mom than she was on the road. My mother stared straight ahead and gripped the armrest a bit tighter, responding to the sister with “uh huh” and “oh, right.”

“Ok, so … we’re coming to a light-up ahead,” I interrupted. “It’s green now, but turning yellow. “Ok, it’s … uh … It’s red now. Ok, code red! Stop!” I yelled.

Sister Bernadine jammed on the brakes and I lurched forward.

The chatter stopped as I steadied myself again. Sister Bernadine looked at my mom and my mom looked back at me. Then my mother let out a little squeal of laughter, breaking the silence.

“Good boy, Dearmy! Good boy!” She said, patting my arm.

Sister Bernadine’s quick, short breaths evolved into laughter, too.

“That was a close one, huh? Good thing we’ve got Deer — the boy — here with those sharp — ”

A car horn honked from behind.

“Ok, green. Go!” I blurted.

“Yessir, Mr. Cleary, sir! Off we go.”

“Off we go into the wild blue yonder,” Sister Bernadine started singing “climbing high into the sun!”

My mom started singing, too, even though she didn’t know the words. Sister Bernadine’s Jimmy Durante and my mom’s pseudo operatic warbling blended in a kind of unholy harmony.

“Ok, we’ve got another situat … a blinking red light,” I said, drowned out by the atonal keening. “Um, guys, we’ve got a red … Wait! It’s ok. Just a 4-way intersection. Stop sign. It’s just a stop sign.” My labored breathing eased back down to normal.

“No problem, my boy. I can do stop signs all day,” Sister Bernadine chirped, hunching forward in what I took to be a sudden pose of mock seriousness, eyes narrowed and focused on the road ahead. She turned to mother, who also had a straight face. Then the two broke up in laughter as she inadvertently let her foot off the brake, allowing the car to lurch forward before shuddering back to a stop again.

A young mother holding her child’s hand through the pedestrian crossing jumped back at the sight of our lunging vehicle. She scrunched her face into a scowl and looked down to where the front of Sister’s land yacht overshot the lines.

“Oops! What’s her problem, right?” the sister looked back and said. She grabbed the gearshift and maneuvered it into reverse.

“No, no!” I said.

She took her foot off the brake and started to back up. The car behind us blew a Dizzy Gillespie horn blast.

“Ok, ok. Hold your horses, pal!” Sister screamed.

At least she didn’t say, “Your horn blows, what about your mother,” I thought, slumping back into my seat.

A few more traffic lights later and we finally made it to our destination: Foodtown. My mom turned to me in the back and said, “You want to come inside, dear, shopping with me? Or do you want to stay and keep Sister company?”

It was a tough call. I was in no mood to make nice with my mother, nor was I keen on idle chit chat with a nun.

“Um, I don’t know. Doesn’t matter. Stay here, I guess.”

“Ok, then. Be back soon.” She heaved the heavy door shut.

The sister and I sat for an awkward few minutes. She whistled, adjusted the rearview mirror, and then turned on the radio and started futzing with the dial.

“Let’s see if we can find the ballgame on this thing, huh? You like the Mets?”

“Yeah, sure,” I said. “Actually, no. I like the Yankees. My brother likes the Mets.”

“Ah, your brother. Sounds like a smart kid,” she chuckled.

She continued turning the radio dial, flipping through stations, and finding mostly white noise. Still, she tried to hone in on a signal. It was no use; it sounded like a transmission from outer space.

“Ah well. Crummy reception out here. You know why that is, doncha?”

“Huh?”

“Why the reception’s so bad out here on the Island?”

“Uh, no, not really.”

“Well, because we’re so far away from the city … from the Empire State Building. The big antenna on top?”

“Oh, ok. Sure. I guess so.”

“I know so,” she said. “It’s one of the things I miss most about moving away from Brooklyn. Well, that and the fettuccine Alfredo at Carmine’s on 81st Street. Oh boy! The pasta cooked just right: buttery and tender so it melts in your mouth. Mio Dio!” she said, putting her hand to her mouth in that “perfetta” gesture.

“Came out here to the boonies. Store-bought Alfredo and crummy reception. Can’t get the ball games when I want. Eh, whaddya gonna do, right?”

“Um, yeah, I guess?” I said, staring out the window.

“What’s a matter with you, anyway, kid? Somethin’ botherin’ you? You seem a bit annoyed. Am I annoyin’ you?”

“No.”

“You sure, now? I mean, some people say I never shut up and it gets a bit annoying. Like they think nuns should be mute or somethin’.”

“No, it doesn’t bother me.”

“Ok, well, if somethin’ else is on your mind, ya know, you can tell me. I mean, I’m not your mother, and I’m not allowed to hear confession or nothin’, but, well, you know, people say I’m a good listener. If I can just shut up for a minute! Ha ha ha ha.

I caught my stony reflection in the passenger side mirror.

“That was a joke, you know. You’re allowed to laugh, Deemut.”

I’d never heard the sister say my name before and it sounded funny, absurd even, like a person from Boston saying “Damn it.” I let out a spasm of involuntary laughter.

“Sorry,” I said. “That was, uh, funny is all.”

“Don’t be sorry. Good! We got you laughing. That’s good. That’s what I like to see.”

“So, c’mon, then” Sister continued. “Try me. What’s on your mind? I’ve been around the block, in case you couldn’t tell. I’ve seen and heard it all. Well, more than you might think, anyway.”

“Ok,” I said. “Well, it’s about this girl. Sorta kinda. And it’s about Mickey, too. My best friend. Or, at least he used to be … might still be. I don’t know.”

“You mean that kid back there at the neighbor’s house? The Phones or whaddyacallem? You and this Mickey had a fight over this girl? The girl on the bike? Like a Jules et Jim type deal?

“Jule say … what?

“Truffaut. French new wave. No? Alright, never mind. Go ahead.

“Ok, well I told Mickey I liked her. That was like a year ago. And now he’s hanging out with her in front of my house with those wannabe burnouts.”

Sister Bernadine turned around and looked at me. I kept staring out the window but could see from the corner of my eye she wasn’t smiling or smirking in her usual way. Her flinty eyes were softer: translucent, and flecked with hints of yellow and green.

“Look, kid. I may not be able to see colors, ya know, and it’s all a bit woohoo, strap yourselves in for the roller coaster ride with crazy Sister Bernadine … watch out! But some things are just black and white. You’d have to be blind or, I dunno, dumb — or heartless, maybe — not to recognize ’em. Sounds like this thing between you and your friend and this girl is really about you and your friend.”

I turned towards her but didn’t meet her gaze head-on. I peered beyond her, into my reflection in the rearview mirror.

“Maybe this is about letting go of what you two had,” she went on, “or what you thought you once had. Maybe it’s about letting go and trusting; letting each other become what you’re about to become. You know? And maybe — just maybe — you’ll come back together one day with a new perspective … some deeper understanding of yourselves and of each other, too.”

Wow, I thought. That sounded at least as reasonable as anything John Lennon might say or sing. And then I chuckled.

“Yeah, see, there ya go,” she said, brightening. “There’s that winning Deemut smile I know.” And we were both laughing when my mother came back with the groceries.

“Wow! What’s happening here?” mom said. “Looks like I missed some sort of comedy show.”

Like many full-sized cars in the pre “oil crisis” days, the Dodge Polara was a gas-guzzling behemoth, a land yacht. The ’69 “pursuit” model’s 375 horsepower, 440 Magnum V8 engine — coupled with its heavy-duty suspension, Sure-Grip steering wheel differential, and front disc, power, and heavy-duty drum brakes — made it a favorite of police departments across the country. The California Highway Patrol stocked its fleets with the four-door Polara sedan model from ’68 to ’73. Its use in TV shows like Ironsides and movies like 1973’s Walking Tall helped cement the car’s reputation as one the Fuzz’s preferred rides.

The sight of 4’9” 102-pound Sister Bernadine in the driver’s seat of one of these muscle-bound Crimestoppers turned quite a few heads on the sidewalks and side streets of my hometown. Not that she noticed their gazes or guffaws with her eyes so fixed on the path before her. Oh, occasionally she’d turn and laugh after some scruffy long-hair shouted “Keep on truckin, mama!”

Me? I helped the Sister know when to stop and go. But I wouldn’t presume to know what drove her. Nevertheless, we made a good team. I was the tint on her windshield and she helped me plumb the depths of my soul, divining pearls of wisdom I didn’t know were there.

Once, Sister Bernadine’s attractive young niece Belinda rode around with us. We took turns calling out the lights for Sister. Belinda had just turned 13 like me; kinda had a Runaways-era-Lita Ford-meets-Marcia-Brady vibe to her. After Sister dropped us off one fine day, she gunned the engine, giving just a hint of the car’s brawny snarl. Then she peeled away, tires screeching on the pavement outside Foen’s driveway. I heard one of the burnouts sneer “What a waste” in disgust.

It was as if the gods of greasers, gearheads, and middle-aged divorced dads were offended by the sight of this dainty creature behind the wheel of such a fearsome vehicle. But they didn’t know what I knew. They didn’t know that Sister Bernadine was a formidable machine in her own right.

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Colm Clark

Colm Clark

Confounding the algorithms since 1891. Making music as Crush Limbo (https://crushlimbo.bandcamp.com/) since AD 1231