The Big Brick Review 2016 Essay Contest: Honorable Mention ($50)

Building on the narrative of our brick at a time.


Surprise Night

by Elizabeth Osta

FOR THOSE OF us living at the Motherhouse over the summer, a new twist includes Surprise Night, an idea put forth by the directors. The concept is simple.  Each sister, postulant or novice, is responsible for planning a surprise activity on Saturday night during the summer months.  It's to include dinner and an activity for the evening.  The reason though never stated explicitly is to give twenty-something women a way to deal with summer Saturday nights – the classic ‘date night’.  

My idea, when my turn arrives, comes from the era – fondue!  At the two fondue dinners I attended prior to entering the convent, I remember being charmed by the small cubes of red beef and bread chunks speared on sticks and dipped into hot, bubbly oil.  One of the two parties stands out in memory because it took an extraordinarily long time for us all to be fed, the oil not hot enough.

I have devised a simple solution.  I’ve decided to heat the oil early so it will be ready for our tabletop sharing. 
My plan is to serve the fondue supper at 6 p.m. and follow it up with two 16 mm movies of the Madeline books:


“In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines,
 Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines…
And the smallest one was Madeline.”


The Sisters of St. Joseph are from LePuy, France and French sisters are tending the children in the Madeline books, a strong connection for the evening’s entertainment. Madeline's spunky personality along with her irrepressible and mischievous nature makes her seem a perfect performer for an evening of fun.

Prior to the evening, I make arrangements to get a film projector from one of the classrooms. I contact the public library and arrange to pick up the films on Friday afternoon, just after I stop for groceries. I even borrow two fondue pots from former work colleagues who are delighted to contribute to a night of fun for the nuns.

The Saturday July morning dawns brightly into my window, the birdsongs, especially cheerful. I'm determined to one day learn their songs, one from another.  After Lauds, Mass, breakfast in the refectory, and completing my morning charge of setting tables, I head straight to the fourth floor kitchenette. I pull the cellophane wrapped beef from the frig. Burdette's Meat Market has been a great resource in helping me get the right cut and grade of meat. It's lean, the white rivers of fat running through the red meat tiny. I'm pleased.  I find the wooden cutting board and begin to the slice the meat into bite-sized chunks. The knife glides easily through the sinewy material, the large ceramic bowl filling up more quickly than I expect, the thin blue stripe around the top of the bowl almost covered with the uncooked beef.

Next I cube two large loaves of Italian bread into appropriate sized chunks, putting them in a breadbasket I've lined with a paper napkin.  I pull a sturdy oval blue bowl from the wooden dish cupboard and fill it as I cut up vegetables - broccoli, carrots, green peppers and white mushrooms.  In the center I tuck a bowl of French onion dip. With the final addition of cheddar cheese and crackers on a tray, I think I am ready for the evening.  I've even set the table and put one of three Madeline quotes at each place, a sampling of some of my favorites:

I'm Madeline, I'm Madeline, and though I'm very small; I'm Madeline, I'm Madeline, and inside, I'm tall.

And as one day became another, most of all, they loved each other.

In the middle of the night, Miss Clavel turned on her light and said,
"Something is not right." And afraid of a disaster, Miss Clavel ran fast and faster.


After lunch, I return to the kitchenette.  I fill a medium sized saucepan three quarters the way to the top, set it on the electric burner and turn it to low. This, I think, will assure that the oil will be hot enough.  I'm satisfied that everything else is in order and go down to my room on the second floor. I sit on the edge of my bed, which has been made since early morning and review the Madeline books that are on the bed stand, confident that this little character will help make the evening one of surprise and delight.

I take time to complete a reading for my formation class and then change into a clean blouse and skirt for the evening event.  I check the time and decide to return to the fourth floor. Dinner is scheduled for five-thirty so we don't interfere with the silent retreat. Over one hundred sisters are gathered to attend the retreat, an experience which I have learned is based on the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius. There is no talking from morning to night. The retreat master, a priest I'm not familiar with, gives lectures and instruction. No conversation accompanies them.  The participants come and go in silence, a practice that helps clear the mind and open the soul. The house has been pleasantly quiet without the ordinary hustle, bustle and buzz. 
It's early but I think it won't hurt to set up the projector and make sure the films are ready to go.  As I stroll down the hall, one of the novices, Kathy Neuberger stops me and says, "I thought you might want to know. There's smoke coming from the kitchenette."

“Oh," I say with confidence, "that’s the oil!” I'm glad to know the heating process is working, if a little ahead of schedule. I scurry down the highly polished hallway that has had an industrial buffing machine applied to it earlier in the day, one of the many "charges" accomplished for the day. As I enter the community room and open the adjoining door to the kitchen, I can see what Kathy means. A light fog envelops the room.  I immediately turn the oil off and open the window to air the room.

As I turn back to the stove, the four-quart aluminum pan, which is three quarters full of oil, bursts into flame.  I stand back aghast.  Flames are hot, red and orange and high. Quickly, I search for something that will cover the pot, hoping to extinguish the flames. No luck. I have chosen the largest of the saucepans, never considering the need for a lid. 

I have vague knowledge about oil fires and try to remember if baking soda is the right agent.  I know there is a red fire extinguisher in the hallway. Something makes me think it might not be the right kind.  I study the situation and think about moving the pan, which is precariously close to the wooden cabinet that holds the dishes and glassware.  The red flames force me back.  Would a blanket work, I wonder.  Aha, I’ll call the fire department and see what they advise.  I am aware of the more than one hundred professed sisters, the ones who have taken vows, who are on a silent retreat and I don’t want any alarms disturbing them. 

I go into the office across the hall where there is a general use phone. On the desk, I find a list with emergency phone numbers scotch taped in place.  Ah, Fire Department, Pittsford. That's it.

“Hello,” I say in as calm a voice as I can muster, “this is Sister Betty from the Sisters of St. Joseph Motherhouse on East Avenue." The male voice on the other end is quietly receptive to my call. "Yes, Sister," he says, "How can I help you?" 
I'm calmed immediately knowing that help is at hand. I proceed to tell him my dilemma.  

"I’ve got a pan of oil that’s caught fire and I'm hoping you’ll be able to help me figure out how to extinguish it.”

“Yes, that’s right, the Sisters of St. Joseph Motherhouse. Uh huh, East Avenue.  I don’t necessarily need a fire truck. You see, there's over one hundred sisters on silent retreat here, so if you can just help me figure out how to put the fire out, I think that will be enough." The voice on the other end continues to be soothing.  I go on, "You see, it’s in a pan that’s near a wooden cabinet and there’s no lid for the pan and I’m on the fourth floor of the building.”

I listen, my knees beginning to shake.

"Yes, there's an elevator but the flames are pretty high. I don't think I can carry it safely. Uh,huh, I’m here.  Yes, there is a red fire extinguisher.”

“Oh, don’t use it?  It would make it worse? Okay.  Well, what can I do?  You see, with the retreat going on, I really want to avoid any fire trucks coming.  Can you send just a station wagon?”

“They’re already on the way? You automatically send them when a call comes in?" I ask, a new level of panic reaching my voice.  “How soon?” 

I feel an alarm go off within me, my heart pounding in my ears, my stomach churning. 

Can they come without sirens, I'm about to ask. . But it's too late.  Through the opened windows, I hear the distant yet familiar whine.

“Uh, thank you, officer, I’d better go now!” 

I return the black handset to the receiver, take a deep breath, and brace myself.

I dash into the hallway and head for the stairway, taking them three at time, hoping to meet the trucks as they arrive, hoping to ask them to be quiet. 

As I round the third set of stairs heading to the first floor, I turn to look down the main hallway, its polished black and white tiles gleaming, hoping no one had been disturbed.  A sea of moving black and white greets my glance as it advances toward the doorway. The retreat is silent no more.  My eyes dim momentarily and I whisper a forbidden expletive. I know I am too late to keep a lid on anything. 

And afraid of a disaster,

Miss Clavel ran fast and faster.

I look into the yard and see not one, but two big red fire trucks, ladders and hoses in place. There's also a small station wagon.  Others are ahead of me on the steps of the building, directing the firemen.  I confirm it is the fourth floor. I step aside as one after another, five firemen, clad in brown rubber suits, hats and boots, troop up the stairs, tan hoses unfurling from their great folds. No one speaks. They move quickly.  I follow back up the stairs to the kitchenette and arrive in time to see one of the firemen spray foamy liquid from a yellow canister into the red, orange and black shards licking up out of the pan.  Flames leap to the floor; the fireman sprays once again.  I note the charring of the wooden cabinet once the fire has been extinguished, reassuring me that my initial fear was not unfounded. 

As I look about me, I notice smoke has enveloped the community room and the dining room that are located on either side of the kitchen.  I watch as the firemen lift the pan and along with their hoses, move toward the doorway.

I follow them to the hallway. I'm numb, not knowing what I feel.  I ask about fire extinguishers and learn that using the red one would have been a mistake that could have caused the fire to spread. "You did the right thing by calling us, Sister," the red-faced lieutenant says as he leaves.  

I see the Sister Elaine heading down the hallway toward me. Suddenly I realize that I am surrounded by most of the women for whom I was preparing dinner.  I stand transfixed and speechless.  I fight back tears.  Finally I whisper to anyone close enough to hear, "Surprise!"

Elizabeth Osta is the author of Jeremiah's Hunger (Borealis, 2011), an Irish historical novel as well as the forthcoming Saving Faiith: A Convent Memoir.  When she's not writing or biking the canal, she's looking up fondue recipes. To find out more visit her website at:  

"Fire" photo © 2016 Gregory Gerard


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