In our dining room, there was a small glass-top table that looked like an old-fashioned pushcart. On it my mother kept several small plants that made a mess of the glass top as they shed their leaves and, when watered, dripped soil from the holes at the bottom of their pots. To clean the table you had to remove all the plants, wipe down the glass, clean off the bottoms of the pots, and return them to the glass. It was a chore we always put off, except when Aunt Eileen was coming to visit.
Aunt Eileen is my mother’s older sister. She is also a nun and a missionary, now retired, who spent most of her life in Africa—in Ghana, Nigeria, and later Uganda. She did not usually wear a habit, but she was so thin and dressed so simply in starchy-looking fabrics and decades-old eyeglass frames that you would never mistake her for a layperson.
During her missionary years, Eileen would occasionally return to the United States and come to see us. Preparations were strenuous. All family members were on notice to be not just good, but better than they really were. The house was cleaned so thoroughly that upon entering certain rooms you instantly felt an urge to leave. The tension became so great you could almost sleep standing up.
Then, finally, Aunt Eileen would arrive. And the first, totally awful thing she did was take your hand and look at you. I mean really look at you. Usually, when adults looked at me it didn’t occur to me to wonder what they saw. In my family I was just one of three young boys who were all freckle-faced, under-bathed, and foul-mouthed. There were hundreds more like us around the neighborhood.
But in Aunt Eileen’s huge and unblinking eyes, you were special. It was as if you were glowing and no one else had bothered to notice. Meanwhile, her long thin fingers pressed into your hand and, as she listened to you, gently fussed with your arm.
In a singsong voice, she’d question you about school and sports and whether you were being good to mom. After that, I had no idea what to say except, “How’s Africa?”
The answer was always sad and long, not that I listened closely. My aunt’s gaze was so luminously intense that I spent the whole time waiting anxiously for her to look away.
Ordinary things became different when she was around. Hastily said prayers at the dinner table became minor liturgical ceremonies. The usual bickering ceased as the kids sat quietly and the adults talked seriously. Behind Eileen’s back, however, my brothers and I made fun, mimicking her gaze and mocking that thing she did with our hands.
Sometimes on her visits, she brought slides. I remember sitting for hours in the living room with the rest of my family as she projected photos on the wall above the fireplace. Eileen’s narration consisted of identifying every single person in every single picture. She told no adventure stories and, to my disappointment, had apparently had no encounters with lions, elephants, or giraffes.
Only when I was grown did it occur to me that Eileen’s life was far more adventurous than my own. In early 2001, I called her up and talked her into an interview.
Eileen was then in Philadelphia. She had been working in American hospitals, updating her nursing skills, but also plotting to get sent back to Africa.
She talked far more about the Medical Mission Sisters than about herself. Still, I learned that she worked as a midwife at the tiny hospital in Berekum, Ghana, and trained others to be midwives there. I heard about her work in Nigeria, where she arrived in 1973. That year, the city of Lagos hosted the Pan-African Games. The government rounded up hundreds of homeless people and locked them in a camp outside the city. The parish Eileen worked with adopted the camp, bringing food and, as she put it, “consideration.”
She had delivered many babies and helped treat many cases of malaria, but the health crisis she talked the most about was AIDS. In Uganda, she worked with AIDS victims, including children. The message she tried to convey to patients, especially the most hopeless, was, “I think you are important. . . . I am here for you if you need me.” Not long after we spoke, Eileen, although in her seventies, was sent back to Uganda for another tour of duty.
Today, however, Eileen is in a nursing home and her health is failing. I visited a few weeks ago. She smiled a lot, her eyes as big as ever. She took my finger and held onto it. I don’t think she knew exactly who I was, but she still looked at me as if I was very special, which, I can finally appreciate, is how she always looked at everyone.