Gratitude Celebration 26: Sustaining the Sense of Wonder

I’m celebrating my 60th birthday by writing 60 essays of gratitude for significant people in my life. Today, I respectfully remember and thank a favorite college professor for her inspiration and integrity, her enthusiasm and dedication in the field of Biology.

Sister Mary Laurence played a large role in my development as a Biology student, not just in her physical stature but in her intellectual and personal guidance. She taught my first class, General Biology, in my major. That was pretty straightforward with three weekly lectures and two labs. Studying science at the college level was new to me, so I had to study diligently. But, I did ok and pulled through with consistent B’s.

Where my enjoyment of Sister Laurence, fondly if irreverently nicknamed, “The Big Nun”, blossomed was in my junior year in a semester of Non-Vascular Plants. We studied all the families of plants that lacked veins – algae, fungi, mosses, and liverworts. She ran the class as an independent study, having us learn with her guidance, articles, and labs all that we could on our own. I was fascinated with the topic, especially encountering these plants mostly through a microscope. I had never realized that there were so many kinds of algae, fungi, and mosses all around me! I started seeing them and enjoying them everywhere! And liverworts were like a whole new Lilliputian world that I could never have imagined!

As I recall, we had to choose one phylum as a focus, and I chose mosses. Sr. Laurence arranged for me and my friend, Mike, to go over to the University of Cincinnati to visit a bona fide “bryologist” who lived and breathed mosses. He showed us how to distinguish certain species by examining microscopic parts on the tiny bracts. The spore capsules, with their crown-like caps that split when they dried to release the fertile spores filled me with wonder at the intricacies of Nature. What a delightful world, I thought!

Two times of particular gratitude stand out for me in my four years with Sr. Laurence.  Sophomore year brought relationship questions that baffled me. I just wanted to get away from there! My escape route from school was the Greyhound Bus station in Cincinnati. I could reach it via the local bus that stopped near the college on Turkeyfoot Road. The two-hour bus ride to Dayton, Ohio would take me to the downtown terminal. From there, I could either walk a couple of miles or call my dad to pick me up.

This day in my memory, though, I took a detour to the fabric shop in downtown Cincinnati. I loved fabric, especially imagining what could be made with it! Certain colors, patterns, and types of cloth caught my eye and begged me to make something!  That day, what called me was a vibrant, tightly woven plaid of red and turquoise. I got enough to make a blouse, choosing a pattern with a western-style yoke. I added pearl-faced snaps instead of regular buttons. With delightful fabric in hand and lifted spirits, I decided I’d rather get back to my dorm room and start sewing than ride the bus home, so I headed back to the Dixie Terminal building and caught the Turkeyfoot bus.

The next day, I met Sr. Laurence in the hall outside the Biology Lab. No one else was there. She handed me a book, and said, “I noticed that you looked sad yesterday, so I wanted to give you this.” It was a book of poems, all about seeing the blessings in things and letting troubles go by, that sort of thing.  I was amazed, “How did she know?!, I wondered. And then, “Did she know what I was going through?” She didn’t ask questions, or offer advice, or even invite me into her office for a chat, she just gave me that book. At that moment, I knew that I had someone compassionate watching out for me even when I didn’t realize it.

Another time that stands out for me is our Field Trip to the Smoky Mountains for the Wildflower Convention. Just a small group of us went, and my mom went along as a chaperone and car provider. All of us students camped, and as I recall, Sr. Laurence just met us at the Visitor’s Center for the walks. Nonetheless, I enjoyed getting to be with her outside the classroom and introducing her to my mom, who was equally fascinated with the plants we were discovering on our walks. I believe this was the first time I had ever seen Liverworts, those unusual primitive plants that thrived only in the moist, thin soil of shady, rocky glades so prevalent in the Smoky Mountains. I’m so grateful that Sr. Laurence set up that trip for us to open that door into yet another world of enticing diversity.

I have stayed in touch with Sister Mary Laurence, visiting her a couple of times in the past few years. The last time was In December, 2012 when I was driving with my oldest son and my partner between Chicago and Atlanta. With just an hour’s notice, she welcomed us to join her for lunch at the Convent where she lives with her community. With her bright eyes and clear voice, always a teacher, she directed us into the dining room where we were greeted warmly by the other sisters.  She could tell me what many of my former classmates were doing as if it was just yesterday and we were back in that Biology Lab under her compassionate tutelage.

I have a book of hers that I will always treasure, even though I have had a copy of my own since my first class in Botany back at Thomas More College. It’s not the book of poems, it’s A Guide to the Wildflowers and Ferns of Kentucky, by Mary W. Wharton.  She had called me out of the blue one day and said, “Regina, I have a book I want you to have. What’s your address?”

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