There was another place I felt safe: my parish church. St. John of God was Eastern-European ornate, with paintings of gently smiling angels and saints covering the walls. No kid ever made fun of me there; talking during Mass meant punishment by ever-vigilant nuns scanning for infractions. Whenever I felt raw from taunts, I pictured myself in a pew on a summer day, light beaming down from the stained-glass windows. During Mass I stared at the statue of St. John of God in his alcove on the main altar, and instead of praying for the souls in Purgatory, I asked him to make me famous, like my idol, Janis Joplin. She’d been bullied, too; her high-school classmates had scrawled “pig” on her locker. I had no talent, but I vowed that someday I would, like Janis, go to my class reunion and make my bullies feel like failures.
Life after grammar school was a reprieve—except there was Sandy. She brought the name-calling to high school, though thankfully it never caught on because her old gang had dispersed. Still, she’d sidle down the hall toward me, a lithe, smirking sylph, and look me up and down and laugh as I passed. By that point, revenge through fame—although for what, I still didn’t know—was my main motivation. It carried me through high school to college, where I traded the Janis fantasy for something even more unrealistic: becoming a poet. In 1988 I moved to New York to attend an MFA program. I wasn’t on a fast-track to literary stardom, but I was getting published, traveling internationally to give readings, making a living teaching writing. Didn’t the poet George Herbert say, “Living well is the best revenge”?
In 2011, I got a friend request on Facebook from a former neighbor in Chicago, who told me St. John of God Church was being demolished. I was horrified and deeply grieved. Through many moves I’d carried artifacts of my sanctuary with me: a box of incense for the Feast of Epiphany, a small envelope of rose petals that had been touched to a Virgin Mary statue that supposedly cried real tears. There was a parish Facebook group where people were discussing old times. I knew my former bullies would be there, but I joined anyway, for one last look.
There my old tormentors were, including Sandy. No longer a snickering pixie, she looked hesitant, diminished, as if life had whittled her down. She had posted photos she took of the half-bulldozed church: a mural of the Holy Family with nothing but blue sky behind it, and the main altar, divested of everything, towering above a rubble-strewn floor. The St. John statue was gone. Great-grandpa had done carpentry work for the church, but nothing he’d built remained. From Sandy’s comments on the photos, I could tell she was grief-stricken. I’d thought I was the only one who loved that place. I was wrong.
After I posted a greeting in the group, friend requests and messages appeared:
“Sharon, I remember when your Nicholas Copernicus poem won an award in that Polish contest.”
“Are you still writing? You were so talented.”
Did none of them recall what they did? In spite of myself, I felt nostalgic.
A month later, someone organized a reunion. There was no Pulitzer in my future, but maybe I could flaunt my travels. Most of those women had never left Chicago. I decided to go.
As I walked into the bar area of the restaurant, Sandy and three former mean girls rushed toward me. I readied myself to say something eloquently sarcastic. Then one of them, Linda, thrust my first poetry collection at me.
“I ordered this off Amazon,” she said. “Will you sign it? You know, I visited the East Coast once.”
I waited for a pause in Linda’s breathless story about her trip to New York to begin my fierce narrative, but then she interrupted herself: “Hey, remember the ‘Living Rosary’?”
I did, vividly. Every year, on an evening during the first week of May, the entire grammar school walked in procession from the schoolyard to the church, led by priests carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary adorned with roses. The entire neighborhood thronged the streets, singing, taking pictures. Inside the church, we kids lined up one behind another in the aisles as an eighth-grade girl in a white dress lit the candles we were holding. As each flared, the congregation said a “Hail Mary.”
“And when all the candles were lit,” Linda said, “they’d turn off the lights, and—”
“And we were the Living Rosary,” I laughed.