Now at 81, after a long, healthy life, Sister Jean is facing serious health issues. Two weeks ago when my husband, Jim, daughter, Elaine, and I were in South Bend, Indiana to visit my parents, celebrate my father's 85th birthday, and to cheer ND on to a victory over Air Force, I spent some time with Sister Jean. She's still telling amazing stories filled with wisdom, honesty and humor. And I'm grateful to have so many of her best stories preserved in her book.
In 1972, after 125 years as an all-male institution, ND threw open their doors to women. As rector of Farley Hall, Sister Jean had a front-row seat at a pivotal moment in ND history. I arrived in 1974 and took a class from her, The Gospels of Christ. After that, we became good friends. When Jim and I got married, we asked Sister Jean to give the homily at our wedding, and she did a terrific job sharing comical stories of our early courtship and reflecting on the mystery of married love.
A good memoir makes me laugh and cry, and I did both reading Sister Jean's book. As a pioneer of coeduation at ND, she dealt with some impossible situations, such as streakers, "brave marauders of spring," arriving outside her all-women dorm near midnight as she graded theology papers: "I suddenly heard the disturbing , heavily-throated chant, 'Farley, Farley, Farley.' . . . I swung the door open toward the crowd that was an arm's length away, only to discover some hundred young men ready to charge the hall in their birthday suits." Cupping her hands around her mouth, she shouted at the top of her lungs, "You're not coming in here dressed like that!" They dove into the nearest bushes and jumped behind bicycles, peeking through the spokes of the wheels. Recently, the father of a current ND student admitted to Sister Jean that he was one of those streakers, she told me with a grin.
In her epilogue, Sister Jean tells the story of a memorable midnight moment. On a sweltering hot June night, there was a knock on the door. Amalia, a young scholar, "overwhelmed with organic chemistry and the heat" asked "'Would you run through the sprinklers with me? I heard them swish on outside, but I don't want to go alone.' For a moment I stood still with a stare and an open mouth. Then I simply closed the door behind me and we left the building laughing.
"There was a great full moon in a hazy southeastern sky that night. I felt a touch of mysticism in the air. We ran south, taking the long way around the Peace Memorial through great sprays of water that arched every which way over the sidewalks, into our faces, and over our bodies. Then we ran north...catching a glimpse of the Dome." Finally, they arrived back at Farley--"drenched, laughing, out of breath, a bit exhausted, and so refreshed." Sister Jean has come to see that moment as "a fitting image of my years of ministry at Notre Dame. Having lived almost thirty years in Farley Hall, there are quiet moments late at night in all kinds of weather when I feel drenched in laughter or sorrow, out of breath, a bit exhausted, or so refreshed."
A good memoir has insight and drama, and Sister Jean's memoir is chock full of both. She is also totally honest, humble and open-hearted as she shares this unusual slice of ND history. Many excellent writers have technical skill, but it's these qualities of the spirit reflected in Sister Jean's words that make this memoir so compelling.
What are some of your favorite memoirs? What makes them rise to the top of the list?