Lives of the Obscure

1919. Then nothing for twenty years
Until her first profession of religious vows
When she changed her name to Sister Joan Frances
Of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
At seventy my cousin published her only book,
Lenin to Gorbachev, a history of communism.
The Telegraph-Herald of Dubuque, Iowa
Records her death in this tiny obituary.
They call her a teacher — don’t mention the book.
She taught grade school in Butte, Montana and St. Paul,
College kids at Loyola University, Chicago.
Her mother’s name was Helen, like Helen of Troy.
Her father’s name was Sydney, like Sydney Greenstreet.
She had two sisters, Joan and Frances,
Who worked until retirement for the telephone company.
Her real name, the name I always called her, was Dory.
But she took her sisters’ names in 1942, her own name
Disappearing even from her book
Where Joan Frances Crowley is listed as co-author
With Don Vaillancourt. She’s signed my copy
Proudly with a fountain pen in turquoise ink,
“Affectionately, S Joan Frances.” The book is bright red
With three black faces sketched on the cover.
Lenin’s beard, Stalin’s mustache — they’re familiar —
But Gorbachev looks like a businessman,
A boss at the phone company. No author’s bio.
No mention of the little wooden monkey
Dory balanced on her finger to entertain me
When I was a child, afraid of her swishing black robes.
She coaxed me out of shyness with that toy
And I forgot her long veil and her pleated wimple
As I laughed at the monkey swinging on her knuckle.
Later, she wore skirts and blouses, loved teaching
Her history classes, and sent me her brand-new book
Full of facts and dates. Though I must have read it
Nothing much stuck. I thumb through it again,
Skimming over Marx and Dialectical Materialism
Wishing I could remember that funny monkey’s name.

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