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Cook Sister
by Ola de Sas Bookmark and Share

'What a nuisance,' I thought in exasperation while walking towards the Convent, 'to think of the preparation of meals, of a husband's culinary likes and dislikes'

I was going to the convent garden to buy some red cabbages the Sister had for sale.

I searched for Sister Gertrude, or rather, as they called her, Cook Sister. Not finding her in the house, I walked down to the garden. There I saw her stout figure bending down over a bed of carrots. The sun was hot on her, but she worked slowly, methodically picking out one carrot, after another, one after another.

As I approached, she saw me and got up slowly as though with some difficulty, but her wrinkled face was animated and her smile was warm and welcoming. We talked about her carrots, cabbages, potatoes and peas. She showed me the herbs she had planted, the special mint she used for her sauces, the roses from which she made jams and the lavender flowers whose scent was so fragrant in her linen cupboards.

She enjoyed explaining the uses of the different flowers and plants, and she spoke with enthusiasm about her cooking and baking, but I thought her rather simple and was disappointed that a religious Sister should be like that. She must have guessed my thoughts for she suddenly said: 'I can do very little, but I try to do it really well and with gladness. Don't you?'

No, I did not. I have never thought that one should pay so much attention to simple routine tasks, besides I could not. I would not confess to this simple soul my reasons. She could not help me. She would not know how.

She looked at me with her faded blue eyes. 'Look around you', she said suddenly and listen to the garden, this helps sometimes when you are troubled.

We stood quietly, and looked and listened. The beds of carrots, tomatoes and potatoes disappeared from my eyes. I saw the bright mass of greenness, I heard the faint rustle of leaves, the buzzing of bees, I smelled the herbs and flowers; there was a wonderful quietness around us and a strange intimacy which, somehow, united man and nature.

'That is why I plant and sow,' the Sister said quietly. 'One's achievement is not only in material gains.'

'Have I achieved anything?' I thought miserably. 'I lost what I was longing to achieve. Oh God' and suddenly the tranquility of the garden and the serenity of the Sister became unendurable. I fled from the garden, hating those who had achieved anything in this world and those who were at peace with themselves.

She came to see me the next day. She brought me the jar of the rose jam she was so proud of. We talked again about common-place things and people and she asked me if I could come to help her pick fruit. And so I went, but as soon as I entered the Convent garden and felt the tranquility of the place, I felt I could not bear it. I was out of place there.

My baby is dead. I have never held him in my arms, I have never heard him crying, I have never touched him. I longed for him; my arms, my breast, my whole being longed for him. There was something in my body and soul that was missing forever. I went through the whole misery of the last month listening again and again to the voice of my doctor:

'Your baby was still born, it never breathed, it never lived.' And the priest was saying,

'Don't despair, in God's domains there is a place for him too. He is enjoying natural happiness and he does not suffer. He is not lost.'

Don't despair, how easy it is to say! What does he or this jolly healthy Sister know about real suffering, or about real PAIN? They all live a life of recluses, outside the real world, caring only for themselves and their souls. But I suffered and I am still in pain. All those months of waiting, hope and joy shattered with the words: 'He is dead. Your baby is dead.'

I did not help her pick fruit. I did not wait for her. I fled again, to cry

in my pillow and then to face the world with an unhappy face.

But Sister Gertrude came to me again. She was bottling fruit now, and if I came she would show me how.

The kitchen was scrubbed clean; the empty shelves in her white-washed pantry were filled up with jars and on the old-fashioned stove stood the pots with shimmering fruit. The smell of the wood-fire and the scent of cooking apples reminded me of home.

Sister Gertrude red and sweating but nevertheless very energetic called to me from the stove, 'Hard work, my child, but when you are busy you seldom think and this is often the best remedy for your pain.' It was true; I did not think much during those two hours I spent with her in the kitchen, but when we went down later to the garden to look for some more fruit, the quietness of the evening among the trees and shrubs hit me even harder.

The leaves were shimmering in the last rays of the sun; the flowers were bending down some closing for the night-deep shadows lay over the beds of vegetables. The garden was resting, preparing for the night. There was a pervading sense of peace and Sister said quietly, 'The plants and flowers, the birds and animals, they live in the day and sleep at night. They praise God in their own way and do not despair when the time comes for them to fade. We, who have souls and minds, we should know even better that time passes, joy and sorrow pass away, and then comes the evening of our life, when we quietly rest and wait. The time comes when you start weaning yourself from the world, as the baby weans itself from the mother's breast.'

My baby! I thought rebelliously, he had no time wean himself from me! He did not live long enough to do it. I never saw the color of his eyes, or whether his hair was blond like mine. And his little cheeks: were they velvety to the touch, like the petals of those flowers? He had never cuddled against my breast with little sucking noises demanding his first drink'

'You are happy and serene, for you have never suffered, never lived in despair,' I threw in her face. 'You are wonderfully healthy; you do not suffer from any longings or desires. You are completely content with yourself for you have planned your life and it all goes without a hitch.' I was choking with tears and left her abruptly and rushed home like someone possessed. It was impossible for her to understand me; she was just a simple Cook Sister.

The last time I saw her, she was very ill. She was lying in bed in her little bare room, and as I entered I saw her gazing through the window at her garden. Was she thinking of her tomatoes, carrots and unpicked apples? I wondered. She guessed my thoughts again:

'Some are born to great things in life,' she said simply. 'Some suffer a lot, while others struggle and endure great temptations and humiliations. Some, like me, find happiness in simple things like rows of carrots and the sweet smell of roses.'

'Whatever you do, whatever you must endure, wherever you are and whatever you are born into, remember that God made us all in his likeness. There is greatness and smallness in Him, there is sorrow and pain, happiness and joy in Him. Our misery is His, our joy is His, and He is in the Nature that I loved so much. I praised Him through the small things of this world, while you praise Him in your sorrow. He shares all this with us and He is the one who will grant you forgetfulness and release you from your pain.

Don't struggle. Trust Him. He is your Father. He knows you. He sees you. Try to remember: He is here in this room, in my garden and with your baby. He looks after him. Why should you worry? I have never worried, not even about my garden, all is in His hands and if God be for us who are against us?'

Soon afterwards she died.

'Did you know, said my doctor 'that she died of cancer? She had cancer of the kidney, and it was not just a rapid illness; she had one kidney removed a few years ago. She was always unwell, and probably always in pain. She knew all along it was cancer. What agonies that woman went through. God only knows'.

'She was granted a holiday to see her country soon before she became ill', said Mother superior. 'She was so thrilled when she heard the news. After 40 years of the religious life she would see her home town again. She longed to see the valley where she was born. I know the place; it is an earthly paradise, so green and so beautiful. She loved Nature, did you know that?'

And I thought: I talked to her about my pain, my longings'

I miss her and I regret so many things, but now I try to imitate her a little, though she was only a simple Cook Sister. 

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