“There I was…stranded, surrounded by the big oil refinery…with its oil derricks and wells…”
~ ~ ~
It was a magnificent winter evening. The air was crisp and cold as the distant sun began to descend behind the oil derricks in Carson, California. Our convent car gave a shudder as I turned the key in the ignition and carefully backed out of the driveway. Yes, I would be there on time. This time I wouldn’t be late. Driving carefully through the school playground surrounding our convent, I made my usual left turn onto Main Street and began driving south. Prayers at our nearby convent began promptly at 5:00 p.m. and I was looking forward to joining my other Carmelite Sisters in singing God’s praises. Little did I know, as I made my left turn onto Sepulveda Boulevard, that this would be no ordinary journey.
How long did I drive before it happened? I can’t precisely remember, but it might have taken eight minutes or so since pulling out of our driveway. I do remember, however, exactly where it happened. While motoring on Sepulveda Boulevard just past Wilmington Avenue, the convent car wheezed and coughed as if catching an enormous cold from the onslaught of icy wind slapping its windshield. With one last gasp, the convent car sputtered to a graceful stop as I instinctively eased it nearer the curb. A long exhale emitted from the engine and there I was, stranded, surrounded by the big oil company’s refinery, oil derricks and wells. It took me a full minute to assess the situation. Not able to make up my mind what course to follow – to stand on the side of the road as a hitchhiker would and wave down a passing car or to start walking back home; but it was so cold and I wasn’t sure what would be best. So, I closed my eyes and said a quick prayer; asking my guardian angel to help me decide what to do. Now, it wasn’t as if I were really stranded on a high mountain or in the middle of some desert landscape. No, I was near Wilmington, California, and cars were whizzing by, eager to get home for the supper hour. Finishing my prayer, I thought, “Well, at least, they will see me; wearing my long Carmelite tunic and scapular and flowing black veil, I will stand out,” and began to plan my emergence from the car onto Sepulveda Boulevard. That is when I saw her; a beautiful, young Hispanic girl, possibly in her twenties, standing there on the street median, selling bouquets of beautiful flowers.
“This is the answer,” I thought to myself. “I can trust her. She will understand and I will feel safer standing by someone else,” I figured out within myself. About a minute later, there were two people standing on the street median of Sepulveda Boulevard, both facing south—a young Hispanic girl and next to her, a Carmelite Sister watching the cars speed by. I introduced myself and my situation in my broken Spanish and she replied “Dios se le bendiga,” which means “God bless you.”
Standing there on that street for about five minutes gave me a new view of life. I had never sold flowers on a street corner and here I was stranded, sharing in the exquisite hospitality of my new-found friend. She accepted me and I accepted her. I believe that is when I had the first inkling God was at work at the heart of this situation; there were lessons to be learned, and growth, both human and spiritual, to be accomplished. Sunset came. My new friend began to pack up her unsold flowers. It was at then that I suddenly saw Spires Restaurant. In retrospect, I wonder now why I hadn’t seen it sooner. It was right there—set back a short distance from the street corner.
A lot of big trucks were parked nearby. Truckers! My answer had come. Saying goodbye to my new-found friend, I went to the crosswalk and feeling like Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music” scene where she is toting that suitcase down the street singing, “I have confidence,” I lifted my head and walked steadfastly and confidently into Spires Restaurant.
Warmth enveloped me as I stood in the entrance. “Excuse me, can anyone help me, please? My car just died outside.” Yes, that’s what I did, and about twenty sets of eyes turned toward this shuddering Carmelite, who remained hopeful that chivalry was not yet dead and that charity still resides in the human heart. It seemed as if time stood still.
Slowly, someone seated at the counter, purposefully got up and walked over to me. “Roosevelt’s my name,” he offered. Roosevelt appeared to me to be in his sixties. “Take me to that car and we’ll see what we can do.” So I led him out onto the nearby street. He said, “Can’t fix it here. Have to bring it in.” He told me, “I’ll get my truck and push you into the parking lot. You just steer.” So that is what we did and the convent car was soon in the Spires Restaurant parking lot. Prayers at our nearby convent had already started. I was going to be late—again!
Roosevelt tinkered with the car’s innards. “Yup, that’s it. Battery’s dead.” He proceeded to take jumper cables out of his truck and attached them to our convent car. “May I buy you a cup of coffee? This will take fifteen minutes.” Looking at Roosevelt, I replied, “Thank you very much, Roosevelt. It would be much appreciated.” Now that the sun had totally set, it was getting colder. The beautiful flower girl was gone and Roosevelt and I disappeared into Spires Restaurant.
I remember Roosevelt and I talked for a period of time. He told me about his work and his family and his dreams. After a while, we returned to the parking lot. The convent car was fixed. Its battery had been recharged. I turned to thank Roosevelt. It was only then that I saw the tears in his eyes. “What’s the matter, Roosevelt,” I asked. “Why are you crying?”
“May I tell you why I fixed your car?”
“Yes,” I answered, not knowing quite what to expect.
“I was born a long time ago in Mississippi. We were very poor. Every winter I contracted pneumonia as a child—our house was so poor. One year, I must have been about ten or so, I was rushed to the hospital. With no antibiotics (recall this is in the 1930s, so antibiotics had not yet been discovered), pneumonia caused the death of many children. The doctors had just told my mother that I would not last the night. That evening two Catholic Sisters, dressed just like you, entered my hospital room. I had a high, high fever and I remember one of the sisters came by my bed, put her cool hand on my forehead and prayed for me. I didn’t know what to do, or how to respond. I had been well taught that no black could dare get near a white woman. And now here was this white Catholic nun, not only placing her hand on my head, but praying to God with all her heart for me. I had never heard nor seen anything like it. That’s just how it was in those days. That’s just how it was. Well, the next day my fever was gone. The doctor said I had passed the crisis—he didn’t know why or how. But I knew. I never saw the Catholic sisters again. Throughout all these following years, I have wished I could find them and thank them. Today, just now, when you came into the restaurant and said, “Can someone help me?” I said to myself, “Roosevelt, your time has come to thank the sisters. That’s why I got up and offered my help. It was finally my time to return the favor.”
By now tears were glistening on both our faces. It was a sacred moment. The parking lot of Spires Restaurant became a sacred place. We were standing on holy ground. Yes, times have changed. Thank God! I looked up at Roosevelt as he stood at least a foot taller than I, and I said with immeasurable respect and reflection, “Roosevelt, may I hug you?” A big smile spread across his face as he turned to me and answered, “Yes, ma’am.” At that moment in time, right there, a cold and frigid night, just off Sepulveda Boulevard, two of God’s children embraced, shattering centuries of ignorance and prejudice.
More than a battery was made right that evening…
…and the angels danced.
Sister Timothy Marie, O.C.D.
Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles
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