Days came and went. Rosana’s body healed, and with the help of a book of Catholic art, she
sketched an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus which Mother Maria-Ileana approved.
Each morning, Rosana rose with the sun, a habit made easier since they didn’t use the single
small light bulb in the house. She and Norma went to bed with the sun and rose with the sun.
She prepared breakfast from last night’s dinner leftovers or from food purchased at the store
Each morning, she set out Norma’s medications on the tiled counter and looked appraisingly
at the supply she had purchased before they left the United States. I’m going to have to get
to Bani at some point in the next six months and find a pharmacy, she reminded herself.
After drawing a bucket of water from the well, Rosana took a sponge bath, dressed, and took
in the laundry Norma had washed the day before and which had dried overnight on the line
she had rigged between the trees.
Setting out fresh clothes, Rosana woke Norma, helped her to the outhouse, aided in her
washing and dressing routine, fed her breakfast, and helped her down the steps into the
wheelchair in time to arrive at the Convent for morning prayer.
Rosana had been reluctant to join in.
“What? You come to paint his walls, but you won’t greet the Master of the house?” La Madre
had peered at her indignantly.
The next day, the widows knelt in the little chapel behind the rows of white habits. Rosana
and Norma didn’t know the prayers so they sat in silence as the voices of the sisters rose and
fell in an alternating chant.
When it was over, Rosana rolled Norma to the workroom where she sat and stitched hems on
baby garments, and repaired used shirts and pants which the Sisters distributed to the Haitian
refugees who often crossed the border with nothing in their possession. All day, Norma
worked in the quiet company of the Sisters, sometimes joining in their soft songs, sometimes
crying silent tears, allowing herself to be pushed to and fro between the Chapel and the
workroom as the ancient rhythm of daily prayer punctuated the work of the Convent.
Rosana spread the tarp – recently removed from its duty as shade provider on their front step
– over the cement floor in front of the wall. On a plastic dinner plate, she mixed her colors and
filled in the sketch she had already applied to the whitewashed cement block walls. Two
hours in the morning and two in the afternoon was the longest she could paint before her
stamina wore out, and she learned quickly to listen to her tiring muscles in order to prevent
having to paint over whole sections of work the next day.
Always, La Madre, in her travels throughout the Convent, would pause and watch her work.
Often, Rosana could hear her rosary beads clicking and wondered if the prayers were being
launched for her or for the success of the painting. La Madre never spoke during the hours of
work, but during lunch, after Rosana had enjoyed the luxury of a genuine flush-toilet and a
warm meal, she would grill the young artist on her former life in the United States, translating
occasional points for the benefit of her sisters.
That word had spread about Norma’s return with her daughter-in-law was obvious. Each day,
the number of visitors to the Convent increased until La Madre began enforcing visiting hours.
So many people crowded the entryway and visitors’ room that the Sisters could not be heard
above the talking, laughing, and noise of children at play.
“Rosana,” Madre Maria-Ileana called in a stentorian voice one afternoon in May as Rosana
washed her brushes in a jar of turpentine and water which La Madre had obtained from one of
her secret sources.
“Yes, Madre?” She froze, then turned halfway around to look at the Superior of the convent,
whose tone told her an important pronouncement was on the way.
“Come into my office, please.” The older woman turned and walked briskly down the hall,
clearly expecting Rosana to follow immediately. Removing the brushes from the jar, she
milked the turpentine from the bristles and laid them on the neatly folded tarp. This, she
rolled into a bundle and tucked it under her arm as she followed La Madre into the office.
Several brushes had disappeared today alone, and Rosana was not about to lose more,
although the last visitors had been sent home an hour ago.
“Sit,” Madre Maria-Ileana commanded from her seat, indicating a stiff-backed wooden chair.
Rosana sat, the rolled tarp in her lap.
“You have worked for three months and have painted three murals in our Convent, and they
are good. Yes?”
“They are good,” La Madre pronounced. “They are so good, in fact, that we have many more
visitors each day who wish to look at them. And at you.” The Superior paused for the weight
of the statement to sink in.
“You’re saying the visitors come to watch me paint?”
“Hah,” coughed La Madre. “They come to look at the American beauty who paints like a
classical artist – not that they would know that – and who gave up her rich life to take care of
her mother-in-law. That’s what they come to see.” She folded her hands and looked straight
into Rosana’s eyes.
Rosana shifted uncomfortably. “Um, I’m sorry?”
“This constant stream of visitors makes it very difficult for the Sisters to live their silence, and
although we are here to serve those who come to the door, these visitors are tourists who
have come to see a local phenomenon, not seek spiritual solace. You understand?”
La Madre threw her hands into the air and heaving herself from her chair came to stand in
front of Rosana.
“Rosana. You must not paint in the Convent until people stop coming here simply to stare at
“How will I stop them?”
“You cannot. That is the point. You must wait to paint more murals until the people are no
longer interested in you. Which may be next week or may be next year. However long, we
cannot function as a convent when you change it into a celebrity circus. Even though you
don’t mean to,” she added gently.
Rosana sat still, absorbing the news. No painting meant no food. No Sisters’ company for
Norma, no activity to keep her hands and mind busy. Most importantly, her practical brain
reminded her, they would have to find another source for food. Rosana felt her insides tighten
in a familiar fear. How would she take care of Norma? She looked up at La Madre.
“May we eat with you tonight?”
“Of course.” La Madre returned to her seat. “But these people bring up another issue, my
dear, and that is security. With so many visitors, your money and passports, jewelry, anything
of value is very likely to be stolen from your house. If you wish, you may store those things in
the convent safe, where we store our documents, and the chalice with the emeralds.”
It was an attempt to soften the blow, Rosana recognized. “Thank you, Madre. I will bring
those things up to you tonight.”
La Madre nodded, tight-lipped. “One thing more. I have spoken with the owners of the buses
that go from Palmar to Bani each day. They have agreed, as a favor to me, and probably also
to increase their own business,” she added, pursing her lips, “to allow you and Norma to
travel for free one day a week. In this way, you will be able to buy your groceries at a lower
cost in the big stores.”
Rosana smiled. “Thank you again, Madre. That will help.” But her smile, which did not reach
her eyes was met by a look of concern in the eyes of La Madre, who collected the rent for
Barto each month and knew the widows had very little left.
“Is there no one you can call for help, my dear?” whispered Madre Maria-Ileana. “Is there no
one in the United States who could send you some money? Just enough to keep you going a
The only name that came to mind was Olinda, whom Rosana had never called, although she
had promised she would when they arrived in the Dominican Republic. Rosana smiled again.
“We will think of something,” she assured her. God help me, she thought.
Rosana broke the news as gently as possible to Norma that night as they lay down to sleep,
the front door and windows securely locked, and their passports and the sum total of their
money, which amounted to fewer than one hundred dollars, installed in the convent safe.
Their chickens had been stolen, one by one, except for two who had been eaten by a local
animal that Rosana had tried to deter by throwing stones, but who always waited until she fell
asleep and then left the widows with only a few clumps of feathers. One of the buckets, too,
had been stolen, the night Rosana left it on the front porch to dry. Now, she upended it and
the cheap plastic replacement she purchased from Palmar in the kitchen sink after drawing
the last bucketful each evening.
“People take anything that’s not nailed down, she muttered, which wasn’t true, because a
“Welcome to Our Casa” sign she had painted on the panel of a cardboard box and nailed to
the door frame had been missing one afternoon after work.
“Maybe it would be better to find a little house in the town, Mama,” she offered as they stared
up into the dark.
“I don’t know, mija. The price is good here. The Sisters are nearby.”
“It’s true. But when I am gone to the fields for food, who will keep you safe from all the people
who come here? Maybe if we had a dog…”
“No!” twitched Norma. “We cannot afford to feed another mouth.”
“You’re right,” Rosana sighed, “you’re right. I think I should go back to the fields tomorrow and
pick up what I can.”
Norma was silent for a long moment. Then she rolled over to face the wall. “Go, mija.”