The other day I bought rye bread, the special little rye bread used for appetizers for cocktail parties. I ate it this morning for breakfast with Irish butter and I thought of the nuns in the convent behind our childhood home in North Camden in the fifties.
We lived in a tiny row house and the back of the house faced the backs of the beautiful big three-storied houses on State Street. Directly behind us was a convent, but I don’t remember the order of the nuns.
We weren’t Catholic, but we feared and respected the sisters. I remember them in their tall black habits with starched white “bibs”. Everyone knew they were way above the mortals in our neighborhood.
The nuns could see into our kitchen and when they stood at their kitchen window, they watched Billy and me wash and dry the dishes. My brother and I didn’t know we were being watched until the nuns told my mother. They said how nicely we behaved with each other and how they enjoyed seeing us do the dishes together. My mother basked in this unexpected compliment, but I worried if they’d seen us misbehaving. We were elementary school kids after all.
They didn’t see the occasional smack we gave each other with the damp dish towel or sopping dish rag? How we took breaks to fish out a maraschino cherry from the jar in the fridge? How we acted when we squabbled about who was the better dishwasher?
If you want to know the answer to the dishwasher competition, my younger brother was better. Much more thorough. I always ended up with one of two specks of pink Dreft on my dishes. That bit of powdered detergent didn’t last there long. Bill would see it and toss the dish back into the soapy water, chanting, “REJECT! REJECT! REJECT!”
Maybe the sisters saw our shenanigans and they remembered doing dishes as kids with siblings.
They occasionally called my mother to come to talk over their high wooden gray fence. One summer day they reached over with a package of expensive cookies and a loaf of cocktail rye bread slices. Someone had given them bakery goods and they decided to share with us. My mother was excited.
We looked at the tiny brown slices in awe and my mother told us that people used with cream cheese or cucumbers for cocktail parties. Our family never had cocktail parties–only barbecues with lots of Schmidts of Philadelphia. No cocktails.
We sat at our kitchen table and buttered the slices. They were good. A rich person’s treat, I thought.
I’d forgotten about them until the other day when I purchased them from Wegman’s. Why did I buy them? No, not for a cocktail party, but just for fun, in honor of those nice Catholic sisters on State Street.
Thanks for reading.
Marguerite (Wunsch) Ferra, Cramer Hill resident
Moved from North Camden to Cramer Hill