Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Adios, Phyllis

Yes, it has indeed been a long time since I last posted an entry here.  I trust your life has moved in a variety of ways as mine has in that period.  

The reason for today’s entry is to memorialize a special friend, Phyllis Kittel, who left this plane of existence the first week of December this year.  

I first met Phyllis as Sister Mary Harold, C.PP.S., my geometry teacher at Carroll High School in 1965.  As a guy with a non-math brain, Sister Mary Harold succeeded where few other teachers had.  When all was said and done, I figured it was the visual aspect of geometry that helped me understand basic concepts, but Phyllis’s classroom management helped all of us guys in that class laugh from time to time.  I can remember her asking the class a question whose answer was something like ‘coordinates,’ but Steve Haller, the currently duly-elected Greene County prosecutor, raised his hand and answered ‘contraceptives.’  The guys erupted in laughter while I assume Sister’s face turned bright red.  

Aside from geometry, though, I really got to know Phyllis because she served as staff advisor for a group of us sophomores participating in Backyard Peace Corps, an after-school club focused on social justice.  Organizationally, the club included many kids from all grades, but we were broken out in smaller groups for efficiency.  Faculty must have concluded smaller groups had a better chance of listening to each other and maybe even getting something done.  

Turned out Sister Mary Harold was mentor for my small group while I was chosen as student group leader, which meant I had the good fortune of sitting to chat with her many afternoons that year after school.  My best Backyard Peace Corps memory from that year was some of us getting bussed to Ruskin Elementary School in Dayton once of week to tutor some needy kids.  Good gig.

Spring of sophomore year brought big changes, however.  I was disappointed to learn from Sister that she was relocating to Chicago where the Precious Blood order assigned her to work on a graduate degree in mathematics.  The biggest part of my disappointment was the loss of after school visits with her.  As consolation, I broke out my fountain pen from time to time and jotted out a note and mailed it to the Windy City.  Late junior year Sister advised she would be back in Dayton for the summer, so of course I lined up a ride from my parents to drop me off at the house in Oakwood where Sister and some of her colleagues were living.  It was good to see her if just to say ‘hi.’ 

But that was the end of things for a long time thereafter.  In correspondence that next school year, Sister wrote telling me she was leaving the order and would be re-taking her ‘maiden’ name.  The late 1960s was a time when many priests, brothers, and sisters were leaving religious life, so that didn’t surprise me.  She wrote that she planned to stay on in Chicago to teach somewhere.  And so, life moved on for us both and it wasn’t long before our correspondence ceased.  

Jump to fall 2015.  Early evening 2 September 2015, to be exact.  I was sitting at my Mac sorting & trashing most of my email, as we all do, when I saw a very unexpected one from Phyllis Kittel.  Remembering that moment now brings me to tears.  Email preserved: 

Hi Tom,

Our old sister friend in Detroit tells me this is your email address and asked if I remember you.  Of course I do, though I probably wouldn't recognize you on the street.  I have not been in touch with any former Carroll students.  Though I am in touch with several students from after I left the convent.  I would love to pick up where we left off.  Some calculus maybe!  ;-) 

If you would like to resume a friendship from our student/teacher relationship of 60 years ago, that would just be great.  I'm on facebook too--Phyllis Kittel (Sister Mary Harold).  Can we begin with your life story since Kathy tells me you are a writer and poet?

PS: I wrote a book too!  About the convent after Vatican II.

Needless to say, my answer was a resounding ‘YES!’  Just three hours later I sent back a carefully constructed and monumentally long bio of my life since high school. 

Regular emails to and from Phyllis happened every day.  I was especially excited to hear she and her husband lived in southern Colorado, just a little over an hour up the road from where Cindy & I have had some wonderful summer weeks at the Nada Hermitage in Crestone.  I would forward Phyllis comic strip clippings, a poem now and then, along with links to interesting news articles, some about sisters who had left their order to do good work.  

I was eager to get a copy of Phyllis’s book, Staying in the Fire: A Sisterhood Responds to Vatican II, in which she analyzes the dynamic of those sisters, unlike herself, who stayed in the ‘convent’ when so many women left.  I never quite got through reading it back then.  It comforts me to think that now when I pick up Staying in the Fire I’ll be hearing Phyllis’s voice as I read her words.

As it turned out, just months after Phyllis found me, her husband, John Light, took ill.  I was off in Kentucky working on my book when I received the email that John had died in a Denver hospital.  I knew right away that I would be flying out to Colorado to see Phyllis, finally after all those years.  ‘Just tell me when,’ I wrote.  I flew that following April.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Phyllis blessed me with a lovely relationship like no other.  As I wrote in a poem the day after I heard of her passing, she provided me a verbal outlet, though in writing, that I recognize now as a gift given me by my mother.  Too many friends I send emails to have little or nothing to say in return, and it hurts.  Phyllis, however, shared so much of herself at a terribly poignant time in her life that I recognized my love for her was precious and unique.  Heartfelt communication. 

That communication with Phyllis is particularly appropriate here, I think, because it was when she came back into my life four years ago that the frequency of these Back Porch blog entries diminished.  Why?  It is true that I lost some verve for the regular postings, in part because, again, I received little if anything back from readers.  

But most important, I found emailing Phyllis as often as I did satisfied some heartfelt communication need that lurks deep within my being.  For that I will be forever grateful.  

Rest well, Phyllis.  Know that you are loved.  :-)

Today’s elder idea:   "First, thank you for letting me be one of the first readers of Nature’s People.  It has been enjoyable and rewarding.  I am tempted to say that your work is brilliant....  I enjoyed thoroughly the island itself, the Todd's, and the others who made it happen.  It's a great story."  

Above:  Encouragement from Phyllis after reading the first draft of my book, Nature's People: The Hog Island story from Mabel Loomis Todd to Audubon.

Images:  Top:  Sister Mary Harold with some of her Backyard Peace Corps crew working in a food bank.  I'm the one reaching into the can.  

Bottom:  Taken just two months ago at Phyllis's house in Nathrop CO.  2 October 2019