Incidence and Coincidence ~ meeting Burl Ives, and Sister Mary Margaret




Burl Ives and Lady Mount Carmel Photos by Internet



Being incident prone is an engaging and often delightful part of my personal life adventures. These happenings are far from being detrimental, and are often quite entertaining. Indeed, especially in retrospect, a great deal of drollness gathers around the unexpectedness of an escapade being played out. Many years ago, a friend who had been (and still is) witness to some of these goings-on most seriously asked me if I’m disturbed by “your psychic phenomena”.

I answered her, “There is nothing psychic about these incidents. They’re merely a part of my life.”

Looking out of a city bus window and into the eyes of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon sitting in an open convertible next to us during their election campaign was not worthy of being called an incident. It was merely an interesting happening. We all waved at each other and smiled broadly; and, might it be said, synthetically, as the bus pulled away.

On the other hand, that same year, when I barreled out of Tiffany’s Jewelry Store in Manhattan early on a Saturday afternoon and knocked folk singer Burl Ives, who was hurrying by, off his feet, is more of what I consider an incident. I immediately lost my balance and there was a tangle of our two bodies and our various packages. Both our hats went flying, rolling, and bouncing along the concrete at the corner of 57th Street, just south ofFifth Avenue. I might mention we were both wearing almost identical fedoras.

None of the passersby even slowed down. They barely glanced at us. This was, after all, New York City.

We picked each other up, dusted each other off, retrieved our beloved hats, and properly sorted out the packages both had been carrying, laughing loudly and delightedly all the while.

“Want to sit a moment and catch our breaths?” said the singer. Accordingly, we sat down on the sidewalk with our backs against the Tiffany Buildingand gabbed for awhile.

None of the passersby even slowed down. They barely glanced at us.

In the course of the conversation, sitting comfortably on the sidewalk, it came out that I happened to be a folk music fan, and he was one of my heroes. He asked me, since I attended so many Hootenannies and concerts, if I sang. I said that neither teachers, relatives, nor friends allowed me to do so in their presence.

“So, when I’m home alone, I play the songs on the piano and sing them loudly. I do know the verses for dozens and dozens of song, you know.”

“Oh, it can’t be that bad.” Ives, a true gentleman, proclaimed. “Sing something for me.”

Barbara Allen? How many measures, sir?”

“Sing the whole song, m’ dear. It’s one of my favorites.”

“Why don’t I just do the first verse of Barbara Allan?

“With our hats here, Liz, maybe we should put them out to collect spare change?”

“Uh . . . no.”  We both giggled.

So, sitting on the sidewalk, I hesitatingly and softly launched into one of my favorite songs.

By the third or fourth measure, Ives started to quietly sing along with me. It made a difference! We soon finished the song as the verse is blessedly short.

None of the passersby even slowed down. They barely glanced at us.

“You are a very sweet girl, Liz. Please do me a favor?”

“Uh . . .  yes?”

“Quietly go along with someone who can carry a tune. You mightn’t want to sing on your own.”

We happily grinned at each other, got up, gave each other a bear hug, and went on our separate ways. He was singing “Barbara Ellen” loudly and joyfully as he literally danced down 57th Street.

None of the passersby even slowed down. They barely glanced at him.

I never met him again, even though I faithfully attended his concerts.

That, to verbalize a phrase, is a true incident.


A coincidence, however, is totally different experience.

Think of the tapestry of anyone’s life. It is definitely not an uncomplicated work. The interweaving and patterns are often incredibly complex – threads appear and disappear seemingly at random. Thread colors meld with other threads, and new colors appear. Patterns are repeated, of course, but a skilled tapestry maker can easily add unexpected detours, symbols, tales, illusions, and illustrations. The representations on the tapestry, then, can hold both predictable and unpredictable figures in the narrative being depicted.

In other words, coincidences surface in unpredictable ways and at unpredictable times.

Through the years that have flowed by, I always am taken somewhat aback when an unexpected iteration in the life-tapestry system comes home to roost. Some of these long-ago frayed threads of my life tapestry unexpectedly resurface without forewarning.

Fractals can be amazingly entertaining, and one never knows what pattern will eventually emerge.



            We lived in many places in New York City before we moved to New Jersey. That is yet another chapter or so. New York City has five separate boroughs. Around 1940 until August of 1942 we lived in Astoria, New York, in the Borough of Queens.

            During that time, my parents commuted by subway to Manhattan. Dad worked for his friend, running electric sock and hosiery-knitting machines. Mom worked nearby in a sweat shop somewhere else not far from him. She ran a heavy Singer factory machine, and was paid for each piece she completed.

I was a partial latchkey kid at the ages of six through eight. A neighbor girl named Joan was paid to take me to school and to pick me up to take home. We had to leave the house and join with other neighborhood children so I could get to school on time. At dismissal time, Joanie, who was about 13, would leave her school and pick me up to bring home every day except Wednesday. Her name was Joanie, and she attended the nearby Catholic School, Our Lady of Mount Carmel School and Convent. She stayed with me until mom came home.

On Wednesdays, New York City Public Schools had a policy of religious instruction release an hour before regular dismissal. Most of the students like myself walked to nearby churches or synagogues for ninety minutes of intense religious instruction. I faithfully attended Hebrew   School and learned how to read, write, and speak the language. The tenets of the faith were also drilled into us.

I was bored and frightened, too. We were all terrified of Yahweh, who apparently had a bad temper and didn’t hesitate to wreak revenge on those who crossed Him. When I shared my fears with my mother, her answer was, “That’s right, He’ll get you. And if HE doesn’t get you, I will!”

I was an excellent student who had lots of nightmares in the dark hours of the night.

On occasion I had gone to Catholic classes with several schoolmates, and found them a great deal of fun. Also, the concept of love and forgiveness appealed to me. The old time Catholic Lord was almost like the Jewish Lord, but He had several outs for us: Jesus, Mary, and the Saints. It was an appealing concept, and I was an excellent student.  As time went by, I attended faithfully every Wednesday, and didn’t go to Hebrew School anymore. Somehow everyone thought I was registered.

Since we were taught both the Old and New Testaments, I was able to tell my mother enough to satisfy her.

Lent came and went, and eventually Ash Wednesday arrived. Joanie and I went to church and walked up to the altar, where the priest anointed my forehead with ashes. I was terrified. My mother would want to know where the “dirt” came from!

As we retreated to the back of the church, I saw the holy water container. Quickly, I pulled out the handkerchief in my sleeve, dipped it in the water, and industriously began to clean my forehead.

A sixth sense caused me to look up onto a mountain of black flowing robes, hands tightly clasped in prayer, and the most disapproving mouth I had ever seen on a person. Good heavens! She was taller than my uncle, who topped six feet ten.

“I do not know you. I am Mother Superior.” Her voice dripped ice. “And what do you think you’re doing?”

I answered in a matter of fact tone that if I came home, “with that kind of dirt on my forehead my mother would kill me.”


Mother Superior then proceeded to give me crash course in Ash Wednesday. Then she grasped me by the arm and began to drag me to the front of the church.

“You are a disgrace as a Catholic. You will pay penance. You are a disgrace.”

I wailed at her, “I am NOT a Catholic! I go to religious school here because your God isn’t as mean as my God. Joanie lets me. She’s my babysitter.”

“WHAT?” said in a whisper. “What is your family name? Who is your father?”

“Brǘck. I’m Jewish. I’m JEWISH. Leave me alone, I’m Jewish.”

Mother Superior dropped me, stepped back and crossed herself. Then she tore the wet handkerchief from my hand and roughly rubbed my forehead clean, all the while calling loudly for Joanie. Joanie appeared and was terrified. They had quick, whispered conversation.

Then Mother Superior pointed to the doors. “Take her out. Take her OUT. Do NOT bring her back. This church is closed to that kind!”

Then she dematerialized into thin air, or so it seemed.

On the way home, Joanie threatened to kill me if I told my mother or hers.

It was too late.

Mom was waiting for us.

Apparently, due to a new policy of religious tolerance, the factory had given the women time off (with pay) because of Ash Wednesday, and she headed straight for the synagogue to pick me up. I wasn’t there. They hadn’t seen me since September and thought we had moved to another school and just attended Saturday family services.

She was frantic, but figured out from our past conversations and homework that I was attending religious instruction somewhere.

When we saw her on the front steps, Joanie and I both began to cry. Mom heard our story, then gave me a spanking in front of the whole neighborhood and sent me to bed without supper.

On Saturday, mom went to see Mother Superior and expressed her displeasure about admitting me into classes. I understood from overhead whispered conversations with my two Oma’s and father, that neither woman of either faith remained calm after the first thirty seconds.

Joanie was fired and I subsequently became a full-time latchkey kid. I was also put back into Hebrew School.

When I became an adult, I told my husband and children about the incident, but they didn’t believe me.


After I graduated with my BA in Education (1973) and became a teacher, I kept building upper level credits towards an eventual Master’s Degree. During the years, I had built up almost seventy or so unrelated Master’s Level credits from a dozen or so colleges. A series of rather explosive personal incidents occurred in those three years, but that is another chapter of these memoirs.

Georgian Court College, in Lakewood, NJ, and now known as Georgian Court University, was founded, and is sponsored by, the teaching Sisters of Mercy to provide comprehensive liberal arts education in the Roman Catholic traditions and responsibilities. The university has a special concern for women and is a dynamic community committed to the core values of Justice, Respect, Integrity, Service and Compassion, locally and globally. It was originally only open to women until the nineties. Close to a dozen former professors from other colleges, with wide faith-based backgrounds, who I admired and respected, all began teaching there after their retirements. As you can imagine, the academic standards are high. I decided to apply there for my degree.

Eventually, in 1991, I was accepted to and was formally enrolled in the Master’s Program in Georgian Court University. Graduation date was to be the summer of 1993! Those of us who graduated from the graduate programs felt we learned more in those few years than we had acquired in all our earlier academic experiences. It was indeed a heady experience. Coincidently, my Master’s Thesis advisor was none other than William Strunk of Strunk and White. We adored each other, and he became my first true writing instructor.

On the other hand, the process leading up to acceptance was one of the most traumatic events in my adult life.

Naturally, the candidate’s previous academic record and professional achievements are closely scrutinized before that person is accepted into an academic program on the Master’s level. Three professional recommendations specifically dealing with the candidate’s goals through the programs offered at Georgian Court are requested. There was also a detailed questionnaire to be filled out by that person.

The candidate is required to have clear short term and long term professional goals directly related to the degree. Additionally, the candidate’s personal life is looked at in great detail. Included in this scrutiny is a one to one personal interview with Sister Mary Margaret, the director of admissions. The paperwork was to be delivered in person to her and I was given a deadline.

Six weeks later, I left school early and I finally delivered my lengthy and somewhat bulky paperwork package to her in person. She was formidable and tall. Her height reminded me of a nun I had known when I was a little girl in New York City. The habit she wore did not soften her in the slightest. Her eyes, as a I recall, were a piecing green or blue, and they missed nothing. Her reading glasses sat on her nose, or were laid on her desk.  Her mouth made a one hundred eighty degree line across her somewhat wrinkled face. She and I made some small talk, myself stuttering and stammering. Sister in deep, confidently resonant tones, during which time I discovered she was nine years older than me and had lived in New York City.

Then she spent about ten minutes looking briefly through the paperwork. When she was done, she sent me into a waiting room and closed the door. After a half  hour or so, Sister open the door, and motioned me back to a chair across from her. I was told she would indeed interview me at length and to expect at least an hour or two of time devoted to the interview. We agreed upon a mutually acceptable date.

Sister Mary Margaret sternly warned that I should not get my hopes up until after she would make a decision. She also told me I would have to professionally defend the credits I had acquired if I wanted any of them to be accepted towards a degree.

“Very few credits are given, Mrs. Anderson. We do not tolerate frivolity on an academic level.” She said in her quiet voice, just as sternly.

“I am pleased to see you dress professionally. I trust you do not chew gum. If you smoke, I do not want to smell it.”

I stammered, “I stopped smoking almost twenty years ago.”

“Excellent. It’s a filthy habit.”

The humor of that choice of language didn’t occur to me until many years later.

We said our good-byes, shook hands firmly, and I left. Her voice followed me, “Do not be late.”

At the parking lot my shaking hand refused to turn the wheel of my car for a long time after I started the motor.

I was frightened out of my mind and the ten days before the interview consisted of sleepless nights and a great deal of junk food. Pizza with extra cheese is an superb comfort food.

Of course, I did arrive early, professionally dressed. I was promptly ushered into the office by Sister on the stroke of the hour. I told her about my fears. She nodded sagely. “Overconfidence is not a professional trait. Let’s get to work, we have a great deal of territory to explore.”

It was indeed a long, detailed interview. To my utter amazement, the time involved turned into a position of personal strength for me. In the first quarter hour, I noted that Sister looked formidable, but was kind and polite. She would listen closely and respond in context. As time went on, I started to become less frightened and began to open up about my joy of teaching as a profession. To my amazement, she and I agreed on many points. Conversations developed and were appreciated by both of us. Several times, when I recounted professional adventures, that one hundred and eighty degree line shaped itself into a smiling mouth. She would become instantly aware of it, and straighten the line.

The academic credits were next on the agenda during the second hour. As I outlined my purpose for each course, she would either draw a line through the course on a transcript, or say, “That is acceptable.” In the end, about half of my credits were accepted. I was ecstatic.

“Well, before I make a final decision, which I will do today, I’d like to know about you personally. First of all, are you a person of faith?” She knew about my religious history from our last meeting.

“I’m trying to be. It’s a great deal more difficult than I ever imagined.” I told her about my early adventures in religious school. “Yes, she said, “Ignatius Loyola said, ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.’ “

I smiled and said I was acutely aware of that statement. Sister actually smiled. “Yes. So it is.”

I told her of some ways that I “sneak” faith lessons into my teachings, and how well the students responded. She smiled broadly. “Excellent! You are indeed creative.”

Then she asked me about my other background.

I told her my history in brief, and she actually leaned forward. “How fascinating. Where in New York City did you live, and when?”

I started my list, and when I said to “Around 1940, we moved and lived in Astoria or several … “ She rose partially in her chair.

“Do you know where Our Lady of Mount Carmel is located?”

“Why, yes, I lived walking distance from it.” And then I told her about Ash Wednesday and Mother Superior. I mentioned that my husband and children didn’t believe it, so I never brought it up in front of them.

She stood up, pointed her finger at me and said, “It was YOU? It was YOU! Mother Superior told us all about you. She was deeply shocked by the whole experience and told Joanie NEVER to do that again. You got thrown out of  Wednesday classes when your mom came screaming in to the blessed Mother!”

“You, my dear child, were the talk of Our Lady for years. For years.”

You refer your husband and children to ME. I will tell them the truth!”

And then, to my everlasting surprise, she broke into peals of laughter interspersed with, “It was YOU. It was YOU!”

Tears came welling into my eyes. She ran around the desk, held me in her arms, and said, “My dearest child, what is the matter?”

“They never believe me. They always think I make these things up!” I wailed softly.

The line came back, and Sister Mary Margaret made the sign of the cross. “You must have faith in yourself and what you do. Do not ever forget that. Do you hear me?” Then she proceeded to explain the differences between incident and coincidence.

I nodded.

“You are now a student here in Georgian Court, and we will expect you to give 110%.”

I stared at her.

“Yes, I am proud to welcome you to our community. I will expect great things from you. And,” glaring at me, “as your advisor, I will see to it that you will produce them.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Sister Mary Margaret.”

“Yes, Sister Mary Margaret. Thank you. Thank you.”

Then she hugged me once again, and walked out to my car with her arm around my shoulders. With pride she pointed out her license plate: SR M M

We stayed close during my time in Georgian Court, and she was ever proud of what I would accomplish. I never saw that straight line on her face again when we were together.

At graduation, she handed my diploma to the college president and then beamed as, grateful tears running from my eyes, I accepted it.


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