Sister Angela is wearing the softest robe I have ever touched. Her hearing aids are out and her dentures crunch as they settle. She is beaming at me from the dark, her face soft from sleep, her small body laundry-scented. Getting hugged by her is like being told I am good enough. As the earliest riser, she makes the coffee, putting it in a thermos to stay warm for the other sisters. She finds her cane and leads me into the kitchen, asks me to choose my cup from the guest section, and points to the coffee and milk.
As we eat breakfast around the kitchen table, the sisters keep asking to make sure I have everything I need. They each have a designated chair, a special cup, a favorite breakfast, a bottle or container or small suitcase of medicine. The fridge is covered in magnets from national parks they’d visited on yearly camping trips before Sister Angela turned eighty. One magnet says, I’m smiling because you’re my sister. I’m laughing because there’s nothing you can do about it. The Superior is the last to come downstairs and first to leave the table. I don’t remember what she eats because I’m scared to look directly at her.
It takes about an hour and a half after church to make sandwiches and decide who’s going to Niagara Falls. There are attempts to pressure Sister Teresina into coming. She is even smaller than Angela, hunched and beautiful, hair close cut.“You do whatever is best for you,”says Sister Angela. “But we are best,” says Sister Maria.
It looks like I came here to visit the Falls, but really, I came to see the sisters. We met at a monastery—they were there to pray, I was there to write—and when they told me where they lived, I let the Falls become a catalyst. Each day the musicians, writers, and painters at the residency were split by gender—the men ate lunch with the brothers inside the monastery, and the women walked up a steep hill to the women’s house. There, Sister Maria and Sister Angela, delighted at the fresh blood, put on a great show for us, full of gossip, back talk, and demands for dessert. I loved them from the start.
The sisters keep their passports in their purses at all times and chat patiently as we idle at the border connecting Buffalo, New York, to the Canadian side of the Falls. They have been here with every single out-of-towner since immigrating from Hungary in the seventies, but somehow they’re still having a royal time. They stack the passports neatly and hand them to me. I sneak a glimpse at their birthdates. Maria is seventy-six and Angela is ninety-two. We pass through quickly, the picture of holiness, with Maria buckled into the back seat, leaning between us to snark.
My life has been marked by strong relationships with elders: people over eighty with vivid memories and delicate boned hands that teach me skills and slowness. From my grandparents, my neighbors, the furniture maker I apprenticed with for years, I learned that technology can be a tool like any other, no more or less important than the chisel I learned to carve dovetails with, the pen I use to write. The night before our Falls excursion I tiptoed from the bed that Sister Maria had given up for me into a side room devoted to her letter writing. The table and desk were stacked with received cards and outgoing cards and blank cards, pens lined up, stamps everywhere. I felt a new version of “at home”—a window into myself that, these days, I mostly find in older people. I thought of the classic Greetings from Niagara Falls postcard, a stamp and signature to send love across oceans. The card a tangible object made from thought.
The Falls, picturesque and overly pictured, speak out over a great expanse of land built for tourists: the city-park landscaping, the endless cement, the thirty-dollar parking, the hordes of cameras facing out, all of us slow-walking toward the water. It may be marketed as a natural wonder, but underneath it is a network of machine and technology. A careful tool of presentation, drawing us toward it through a maze of strip clubs, casinos, themed restaurants and souvenir shops. The Falls themselves can be turned up and down like a faucet. As I watch people watch the water, lined up against the barrier with their families and phones, I want to be awed, but I have done too much research. I know the truth hidden by the rush of water, and I can’t quite imagine what the Falls looked like before they began to be curated by those in search of money, those in search of awe, or at what point in time the natural was overtaken by the artificial.
I feel a restlessness once I have gotten as close as I can to the brink. The sun bears down and the mist barely reaches us. We are all sticking our torsos out as far as we can without falling, trying to get closer to the roar, which is soft, a background note to the chatter and video calls and heat dampening everything. The vista I came here for feels disappointing and muted next to other moments on this trip: evening reading in separate rooms, mouthing prayers I don’t understand, getting ready to go, waiting in the line of cars to cross the border. These moments that I wasn’t waiting to capture, that weren’t trying to be beautiful or powerful or impress me with their controlled force, were when I felt the most delight. I yearn to get back to the sisters’ house, where the internet doesn’t yet exist. Where we can eat cookies with Mozart’s face on them, read under too-bright a light, and where the most attention-grabbing moment will be the delivery of a crate of oranges, putting the whole house in flutter.