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Painting on the canvas of the world

Grace Modereger
Yankton, S.D.

Sister Imogene wasn’t always a nun. She was the usual little girl of 8 years old in 1929, who got into mischief. Her name was MaryAnn. Her best friend, Josephine, was also her cousin. They lived in Hot Springs, S.D., in twin sandstone houses that the city is famous for. Their grandmother lived next door.

MaryAnn always knew she wanted to be a nun and a nurse. Josephine wanted to be a nurse, too. She wanted to be called by her last name like the student nurses. She didn’t like her first name, but her last name was “Sherry,” and she couldn’t wait to be called “Sherry” or “Miss Sherry.” She would marry a cowboy and live in the country and wear cowboy clothes, she told MaryAnn. “Will there be bugs?” asked MaryAnn, who was deathly afraid of bugs.

One summer day, MaryAnn found herself alone. Josephine had gone to Rapid City with her family. MaryAnn jumped rope, played a game of jacks and took a walk to the end of the block.

There was an elderly lady who lived next door to grandmother. Her niece was an artist who came to Artists’ Camp every summer. About 20 artists met every summer at a ranch near Hot Springs where they sketched and painted the great outdoors. The ranch had a creek and Native Americans who would pose for them. Sometimes some of the cowboys would also pose. The artist would visit her aunt and work on some of her paintings. It was a great visit.

This summer day the artist had set up her easel and paints in the front yard. She was nowhere to be seen. MaryAnn wandered over to take a look. She dipped one of the brushes in water and then in red paint. She tried the paint on the back of her hand. What a lovely shade of red! If she had a canvas she could paint a picture.

The she saw the perfect canvas, the artist’s new 1926 black Buick. She carried the paints to the driveway. Her grandmother had prints in the Oriental style, simple but elegant. MaryAnn would paint birds and flowers. The black background would be perfect.

She happily painted a yellow lily with two buds. She was working on a colorful bird when her father came home. He walked to work downtown. It was his “constitutional,” he said.

MaryAnn’s father was standing in the driveway. He let out a “roar.” MaryAnn!” he shouted.

She knew she was in big trouble. Grandmother’s house was the best port in a storm. MaryAnn, the future Sister Imogene, dropped everything and took refuge under Grandmother’s front porch.

As she sat in the dark, she wondered, “Now what?” Her father told her the plan. “Come out and take your punishment.”

“No,” MaryAnn told him.

The artist had arrived home and was viewing her car. The artwork was really quite good.

She joined Father in the driveway. “Excuse me for laughing,” she said. MaryAnn’s father had to laugh too. “I’m sending our artist friend to get you. She is small and can crawl in the space,” Father said in a quiet voice.

MaryAnn came out. Not because of what he said. She had seen a big fat bug!

The spanking was worth the fun she had with her painting. Also the artist told her she had talent. She was to use the proper canvas, she was told. The artist said she would teach her to paint and draw.

Father said he had a talent, too. He would wash the car. The artist and MaryAnn joined him. It turned out to be a fun afternoon.

Josephine got her wish. Once in nurses’ training she was called Sherry. It stuck her entire life. She didn’t marry a cowboy. She had only three months of training left when she married a man twice her age and left nursing. She continued to live in Hot Springs and became a stay-at-home wife.

Sister Imogene spent many happy years as a Benedictine nun and a nurse. She died two years ago at the age of 87. She told the guests at the convent all her stories, and always laughed as hard as they did. Sister Imogene’s convent has not had a vocation in seven years. Their number is down to 33. They have sold much of their land and their buildings. A new smaller convent is being built for those who remain.


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