New Reading Scheduled

I’ll be doing a reading at the Eastern Point Lit House Friday September 29, 7 pm to 9 pm.  Address:  261 Main Street, Gloucester.

Included – selections from Flight Path and Twentieth Century Limited, also two unpublished works:  my novel-in-progress Finding Botticelli [a masterwork disappears from a college art museum and mysteriously, the thieves leave behind what seems a very old, very fine rendition of Primavera], and the short story collection Don’t Look Down!  

Light refreshments will be served.

Hope you’ll be able to make it!

Jan

 

Goya and Winslow Homer: War Reporters

Here are some excerpts from Twentieth Century Limited, to celebrate the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ recent major Goya exhibition.  It highlights Goya as war commentator, as Winslow Homer was for Harper’s Magazine a half-century later during our civil war.  Reporter and television newsman Paul Bernard narrates.  The first selection showcases rookie reporter Bernard and his veteran New York Gazette colleague, Alan Mauro, in Bernard’s first visit to the newspaper’s “trophy room” and Homer’s war sketches.  The Spike and Kells are midtown New York watering holes frequented by reporters.  The second selection, some years later, depicts Bernard going through a difficult period.  He and Lucie Devereaux, his very good friend and formerly a curator at the Louvre, make the same pilgrimage.  Here Goya makes his appearance.

FROM BOOK ONE – AGE OF HEROES – pages 493, 525-527

The Gazette was founded in 1861 by one Peter McNeeley, a well-traveled Irishman who hit it big in the Gold Rush then meandered east looking for opportunity. Newspapers were in McNeeley’s blood, his family publishing a Dublin broadside for many years. The Gazette distinguished itself during the Civil War, opposing slavery and backing Lincoln. It was one of the first to assign reporters to the front lines, and through an arrangement with Harper’s Magazine, twice a month the Gazette’s front page featured a Winslow Homer sketch of a battlefield scene. Circulation soared, but by the turn of the century McNeeley’s unsteady heirs caused the paper to falter. To this day stories of that painful period surface during the hard times that periodically revisit the paper. By 1900 the Gazette’s circulation was as low as its reputation. Forced to bring in a partner, the family sold out within the year.

* * * * * * *

A benefit of the job I hadn’t expected, reporters have a lot of power and respect, even those relatively new to the trade. At social gatherings people often responded with an “aha” or “oh, really” when I told them what I did. That it was the Gazette added cachet. Our competitors the next street down referred to themselves as Timesmen but we had no such affectation. What we did share was an almost physical bond I could feel deepen as the months went on and I became part of the club. One night I had just filed a complex story I had to babysit to the end, don’t even remember about what. The early edition was on the presses and I was preparing to leave when I ran into Alan at the elevator.

“Heading to the Spike?” he asked.

“If you invite me,” I laughed. “Kells is more my speed.”

“Let’s do it.” I was reaching for the DOWN button but he leaned across and pressed UP. “But first I gotta show you something.” We exited on the eighth floor, space hallowed by the Publisher and Executive Editor. “Ever been here?” I shook my head. “I’m gonna give you the tour.”

We walked through the dimly lit area. Friday night, it looked like everyone had fled for the weekend. Treading across the carpet, a couple of turns and we found ourselves in front of a pair of heavy unmarked doors. Alan turned the shiny brass knob but the door was locked. He reached into his jacket pocket and extracted a huge key ring ? there must have been thirty keys on it, all shapes and sizes.

“In your spare time you must be the super.”

“Second job kind of thing. Helps in a high wind, too.” The key turned easily. “It’s always locked but we have our ways.” He pushed the door open and reached around for the light switch. “The inner inner inner sanctum,” he said, bowing and doffing an imaginary hat, “the Board Room of the mighty New York Gazette.”

The walls were a deep blue, lined with portraits and photographs, plush carpet blue but with a gold fleck. Rows of canisters with recessed spotlights were inset into the flocked white ceiling. Alan turned a knob and brought the lights to high. The largest conference table I’d ever seen, surrounded by upholstered swivel chairs, twenty by a quick count. At each place, a pad of paper and two black wooden pencils with a Gazette logo.

“The Board meets here first Monday of every month, but that’s not why this is interesting.” He walked down the table to the end with a larger, taller chair than the others and pointed at the wall. “Recognize this guy?”

Two large oil paintings, a rough-looking man with a handlebar moustache, a bag slung over his back, astride a small stream, hills behind him. Next to it the same man, older, in a business suit with high starched celluloid collar, holding up a Gazette in the original typeface. “The honorable Peter McNeeley, to whom we owe all this,” he said, sweeping his hand around the room. “That picture shows how he made his money, this one how he lost it.”

He sidled down the line of portraits, pointing to an even larger paintings of two ruddy-faced men, one with a full beard, the other with a moustache and mutton chops. “Sam and Marty, the Astell boys. The paper was going down for the count when they stepped in. If it wasn’t for them we’d be working for the Times.”

“Speak for yourself,” I said wryly.

“Yeah, I wouldn’t want to work for them either.”

“That’s not exactly what I meant.”

We worked our way around the room, stopping to admire others in the line of Publishers, Editors and Executive Editors, Pulitzer Prize winners. At the far end of the room we came to a gallery of reporters, pamphleteers, cartoonists, photographers and broadcasters who had added luster to our profession. Tom Paine, William Lloyd Garrison, Lippmann, Murrow, Shirer, Sevareid, Lowell Thomas, W. Eugene Smith, Bourke-White, Mauldin, Herblock. On the near wall a display of Gazette executives mingling with those they helped make famous or even more famous. Morgan, Rockefeller, Teddy Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson, Hoover, FDR, MacArthur, George Marshall, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, LBJ, Nixon. Queen Victoria, King George, Churchill, DeGaulle, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Fidel Castro on his 1960 visit to the U.N. Jimmy Walker, Robert Wagner, John Lindsay. John J. McGraw, Christy Mathewson, Ty Cobb, Ruth and Gehrig, DiMaggio and Rizzuto, Casey Stengel, Hank Greenberg, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Tom Seaver, Ted Williams (another foreign leader, I thought with a smile). Whirlaway, Man o’ War, Secretariat. Some early prints legended in white ink reminded me of my first photo album. Signed best wishes from all who could, florid hands and scrawls. One hoof print, Secretariat’s.

Circuit complete, we stood before three portraits. Tall, white-haired, crew-cut Tom O’Connor whom I encountered nearly every day. Executive Editor Walter Shoenweis of stern visage and low visibility. Franklin Astell III, Publisher and Chairman of the Board, the family resemblance obvious even when adjusted for his lack of facial hair. “Quite a show. It’s amazing.”

Alan ushered me toward the exit. I stopped to look at a display case next to the door. “The Homers, courtesy of Harper’s. You know the story?”

“I do,” I said, giving them a fast scan.

“You know, all of us, we get so wrapped up chasing this story or that story, we forget we’re part of something very special.”

“As the new kid on the block it’s good to be here.”

Alan pulled the door shut and turned to look at me. “What happens, you work here for a while, then one day you wake up and you realize there’s nothing else in the world you’d rather do. In fact, you’d do this job for nothing if it came to that – don’t tell Tom I said that. I come up here sometimes, to stay in touch, charge the batteries.”

“Thank you,” I said, pushing the DOWN button. “You’re right, I’m hooked.”

“I wasn’t at first.” Six… seven… eight. The light dinged on. “Something happened to kick me into gear, I’ll tell you about it sometime. Speaking of that we better get ours over to the Spike. We’re playing catchup tonight.”

* * * * * * *

FROM BOOK TWO – AGE OF RECKONING – pages 455 – 458

A couple of things helped get me back on track, and Lucie was in the middle of both of them. One Friday night she persuaded me to take a stroll over to the White Horse. In the bar area I recognized a couple of guys but they didn’t see me and I passed quickly into the middle room, taking a seat on a bench across from the window. Over drinks Lucie said there was something she wanted me to show her. When she told me what, I said it was impossible and anyway I wouldn’t be comfortable doing it.

“I’ve got it all set up. That Alan Mauro you fixed me up with…”

“I ran into him a couple of weeks ago. You didn’t like him, I remember.”

“Oh, he was all right.  It’s on for tomorrow night – he set it all up. All we have to do is show identification and they’ll let us in.”

“I’m not sure I want to do this.”

“Come on, you owe it to me, don’t be such un bébé.”

After resisting some more, I gave in. And so, at nine o’clock Saturday evening we found ourselves on the sidewalk outside the Gazette Building, my old building.

“Allons-y! It won’t kill you.”

Inside, the night security guard greeted me warmly and handed Lucie an envelope with her name. Inside was a key and Alan’s authorization. “Bring the key back or Mr. Latimer’ll have my ass. Sorry, miss…”

“Pas de quoi monsieur,” Lucie said, flashing a brilliant smile. He’ll have more than that of me if they catch me here, I thought. Lucie pressed the UP button on the elevator. When we stepped in I noticed my hand trembling as I hit eight. Thankfully nobody was in sight as we traced the familiar path. We came to the heavy mahogany doors and I took the key from the envelope, inserted it in the lock and we went in. From the console next to the door I selected a couple of switches and brought up the lights.

“Mon Dieu! C’est un musée!” Lucie’s eyes scanned the room, the huge table, the leather chairs, the deep blue walls, the portraits, the photographs. “It’s absolutely beautiful.”

“The Board Room of the venerable New York Gazette.”

“Why have you not brought me here before?”

“For one thing you never asked. For another I’m persona non grata here these days.”

“Not long ago you were part of this.”

“That was then, this is now.”

She walked over to the portrait wall. “Tell me about these people.”

I took a deep breath. “These large ones are Peter McNeeley, the founder.”

“The mountain scene is well done. The use of diagonals, the shading, it’s quite good. The other one is rather banal. I wouldn’t give you much for it.” She turned to the next two oils. “Who are these men?”

“The Astells. They put the paper on its feet.”

“Interesting. And these?” She crossed to the wall of black and white photos.

“The reporter’s hall of fame. All the greats…Lippmann, Murrow…”

“I recognize him…” she said, nodding at Murrow. She sidled down the wall… “ah, le grand Charles, bien sûr. Churchill, your Roosevelt…”

Something caught my eye. “Let’s go back…” I steered her back to the Gazette executives. “Tom O’Connor. He was our Executive Editor. I’m surprised they left him up here. I’ll introduce you sometime, you’ll like him. Frank Astell, he was Publisher at the time, he’s still on the Board. Okay, here we go!” We stopped in front of a large oil.

“Let me guess,” Lucie said. “Rudolph Latimer.”

“You win the booby prize.”

“He looks like an awful person.”

“It’s an excellent likeness… captures the inner man.”

“I can see why you and he didn’t get along.”

“For a long time we did get along. We made do.”

“But you didn’t surrender your soul to him.”

I laughed. “Let’s say I loaned it out. Not quite sure where it’s at these days.”

We walked around a few more minutes. I was getting antsy somebody would come upon us. “Had enough?”

“I think so,” Lucie said.

We turned for the door. “What are these? Oh! Winslow Homer!”

The other side of the door from the light console was a glass case with some dozen magazine illustrations, Homer’s sketches for Harper’s Weekly.

“I forgot to mention them.”

“That’s my art appreciator talking. These are the best thing in the room.” She bent over the case, the battle scenes, the camp portraits, the women waiting at home. “They’re amazing. ‘Bayonet Charge,’ that’s the most famous one, oh and ‘The Sharpshooter,’ that also. I’m familiar with them from reproductions. The sketches were from life, later he elaborated on them in engravings and paintings though mostly watercolors. Some of them appear to be originals, others are reproductions, from the newspaper, I’d guess.”

“They really put the Gazette on the map, that and its war reporting. McNeeley had an arrangement with Harper’s to publish them.”

“Remind me when we get back, I have something to show you.”

I felt buoyed by the visit. On arriving home I broke out a bottle of wine, Lucie made croque monsieurs and we lit candles for the kitchen table. As we sat over the last of the wine she left the room and returned with a packet enclosed in cardboards and tied with a string.

“One of my most prized possessions,” she said.

“A woman of mystery. I’ve never seen it.”

“Lots of things you haven’t seen,” she said, inclining her head. She untied the packet and moving the glasses aside, carefully took out the top few papers and spread them on the table. Pictures of war scenes, they were. “Goya. His Desastres de la guerra etchings.”

I looked, then stopped and really looked. “They’re really something. Death, torture, rape, all the fun things. These aren’t originals… no, of course not.”

She laughed. “Don’t I wish. No, very good reproductions. Goya covers the same ground as Homer but with much more emotion – can you see that? The anguished faces, the corpses, the gore. He held nothing back. Even his symbolism is violent.”

“The Spaniard versus the Yankee.”

“There is truth to that.”

She took the next few from the packet and lay them out.

“Is this a complete set?”

“Oh, no, there are eighty-two in all, I have only twenty. But when you’re considering a birthday present…”

I laughed. “I’ll keep it in mind.”

“If you ever needed a reason not to romanticize la France, which you have a tendency to do, these are it. France has contributed more than its share of misery to the world. These portray the rebellion against Napoleon in Spain.”

“Let me ask you something. Was tonight your idea?”

She paused. “No, not at first. I didn’t even know about that room. If you promise not to tell…?” I nodded. “Alan Mauro called me last week and put me up to it.”

“He did! Why?”

“He thought it would be good for you to revisit your history. It is still yours, you know. The Homers were unexpected, and these Goyas, they give it another perspective.”

“Which is?”

“The futility of war, the horror. The responsibility of observers, artists, journalists to show war for what it is.”

“In other words don’t squander the chance I have.”

She put her arm around my shoulder and gave me a kiss.

April 5 Reading – Podcast

Here’s a link to the podcast of my recent reading at the Gloucester Writers Center: http://gloucesterwriters.org/podcast/sandra-williams-jan-blais/

Sandra Williams, my co-presenter, went first, so if you’d like to hear her reading, start at the beginning.  My presentation begins at 00:22:31.

Enjoy!

Adventures in Travel, or Three Down, Six to Go

FULL CIRCLE

My first car was a Renault Dauphine – remember the Dauphine?  Pale blue or green, depending on the light, a glossy finish when new, I’m sure, but flat and chalky when I acquired it.  As gas was expensive I drove it sparingly, with one exception – it knew the way to New York and my girl friend’s house better than I did.

One early November day Dauphine and I were on the Merritt Parkway, the roadway patchy with wet leaves from an overnight rain.  Motoring along in the right lane, I kept my speed down and took care not to stomp on the brakes, avoiding clots of leaves or skating over them.

Somewhere this side of Stamford, down a hill and around a curve, with no warning at all I began to skid.  Snow experience kicking in, I turned the wheel the opposite way, but still I slid toward the center guard rail.  Passing one-eighty I had a good view of the road behind and was relieved to see the nearest vehicle at some distance.  Three-quarters of the way around, the tires started to grab, and as we passed full circle I was able to straighten it out.  Now traffic was closing fast so I moved over to the right lane and stopped at the next rest area to walk around and medicate with a candy bar and a cup of vending machine sludge.

Back on the road, I must have replayed those few seconds a hundred times.  What if a bunch of cars had been right behind me?  What if I’d gone through the guard rail?  As it was, I used the whole width of the road.  Molly wondered why I chugged that first beer so fast.  When I told her what happened she threw her arms around me and held on a long time.  Moral of the story: near-disasters can be fine…but leave the real thing alone.

* * * * * * *

A TRIUMPH OF SORTS

My next car was a Triumph TR-3B, light blue for sure – the photos prove it.  During the Sixties, the British sports car fad was in full swing, and Triumph produced one of the most fun to drive.  The pecking order was MG, the TRs, Austin-Healy, finally the Jaguar XK series crowned by the magnificent XK-E.

Quick and responsive, popular for sports car rallies, the TR-3’s gears compensated for its underpowered engine.  It was so low to the ground that leaning out the window you could file your fingernails on the roadway, if you were so inclined.  Triumph and I traveled everywhere, price of gas be damned (by now I had a decent job), in what seemed a manic attempt to touch every state in the U.S.

One dark evening in heavy rain, I had just crossed from Missouri into southwestern Illinois.  Near the Mississippi, parts of Illinois are quite hilly.  I’ve studied the map since and can’t swear exactly where this happened, though a good guess would be somewhere around Quincy.  I had been visiting friends in New Mexico and was bound for Chicago for the same, then home to Boston.

Straining uphill on a two-lane road in the downpour, I was stuck behind a very wide truck which, popping out into the left lane, I saw was also a very long truck.  Finally the way looked clear, though the bad visibility kept me from being absolutely sure, and so with less than complete conviction, I decided to go for it.

I pulled out and in a few seconds could read the name on the side of the massive vehicle – Coca Cola.  Even with the accelerator (sic!) floored, the best I could do was inch forward.  Suddenly in the windshield a pair of headlights loomed up ahead.  After a moment of indecision I decided this was a losing game and I had better get out of it, right now.  My only option was to decelerate and duck in behind the Coke truck, but now it seemed to be slowing down too.  Had he applied his brakes to let me pass?  Didn’t he know I’d changed my mind?

With the headlights a lot brighter, I glanced at my speedometer – down to thirty.  Little by little the Coke truck gained on me.  Now I could see the silhouette of the oncoming truck and I hit the brakes…hard!  Twenty…fifteen…at last Coke’s last set of wheels pulled past me.  I turned sharp to the right and cut in behind him.  Oh happy sight, the back end of that truck which only moments before I had never wanted to see again.  Warm, happy nest.  Our Lady Refuge of Bad Drivers, pray for us, Queen of the Highway, pray for us.

Shaking, I planted both hands on top of the steering wheel, thinking I would like to lean my forehead on it but I’d better not.  A moment later, with a roar and a plume of spray, the headlights rushed past and an eighteen-wheeler rocked my little boat in its wake.  In a moment we were on top of the long incline, cresting the hill I had so badly mismanaged.

That evening I had a stern talk with myself.  Never again would time pressure trap me like that, exasperation either.  I would respect my vehicle, demanding from it no more than it could give.

A few months later I traded in the little Triumph for a Porsche.  Result, a thinner wallet but a lot more peace of mind.

* * * * * * *

EVEN PEDESTRIANS GET THE BLUES

Some years later I moved to New York for a job.  In my spare hours I roamed the  neighborhoods, bistros, out-of-the-way joints.  Concerts and plays, too, mostly Off-Off-Off-Broadway, with the occasional splurge for a Cats or Chicago.  But museum-going came first.  I won’t say I was an intellectual, which sounds pretentious because it is until you’ve produced something notable which to that point I had not, but communing with the greats and their work on museum and gallery walls was at once encouragement and solace.

One day a friend and I were on our way to the Frick, my favorite New York museum, and exiting the Metro we realized we were much too early.  At the corner of East 70th and Madison, standing in front of a bakery window, we debated where to stroll to kill a few minutes.  Jenny was at the left end of the window, facing up Madison.  I was across the sidewalk, my back to the intersection.  Suddenly I felt myself falling!  I stuck out my hand but landed hard on my shoulder and rolled over.  When I looked up, the back of a yellow cab was sticking out of the bakery window!

Jenny!  As I got to my feet and saw her coming around the taxi, picking her way through the shattered glass.  “Thank God you’re all right,” she cried.

“What happened?”

“That cab!  It hit the window.”

“It must have blown me over,” I blurted, as if waking from a very bad dream.  “It didn’t hit me, I didn’t feel anything or hear anything.”

“What happened to your shoe?”

I looked down.  My left sneaker was missing.

By now people were milling about.  The cab driver was waving his arms, yelling that somebody cut him off.  A police cruiser roared up and two cops got out.  In the distance I heard a siren.  One of the cops went into the store, the other had the cab driver cornered and was grilling him.  I saw a crowd of people inside the smashed storefront as if somebody in there might be hurt.  The siren grew louder.

Then I noticed him.  A middle-aged man in a grey suit and a bow tie, red with a yellow stripe, came up to me.  “You are one lucky soul, I must say.”

“What happened?  Did you see it?”

“I certainly did.  The cab was speeding up Madison as they always do, suddenly he veered and ran up on the sidewalk here.  He didn’t miss your friend by much, either.  If someone hadn’t pushed you out of the way you would have been flattened.”

“Pushed me!  No wonder I fell.”

“It could have been a lot worse for you.”

“Do you see him now?” I asked.

The man looked around.  The crowd had grown considerably. “No, can’t say as I do.”

“What did he look like?”

“Tall, slim.  Oh, yes he was wearing a green hat with a feather.  Tyrolean – you know the kind.”

I scanned the crowd, saw no one looking remotely like that.  “You’d think he’d at least stick around to see how I was.”

The man smiled.  “Five gets you ten, that was your guardian angel.  As I understand, they tend to avoid display except when necessary, if delivering a message, for instance.  And I daresay he knows very well how you are.”

“Just did his job and left, is that it?”  I looked at Jenny.  “I guess I’ll count this is a wake-up call.”

“Well, carry on.  By the way, you’ll be needing this.”  He handed me my sneaker, “it was under the cab.   Have a good rest of the day.”

With that he strode away.  I watched as he approached 70th.  Just before turning the corner he stopped, pulled something from his pocket and put it on his head.  A hat…a green hat!

“Hey, wait!” I shouted.  “Stop!”

Just as I started after him a cop stepped in front of me.  “You the guy almost hit?  You okay?  You need medical assistance?”

“I’m fine.  Excuse me,” I said, trying to get around him, “I need to talk with somebody.”

“It can wait.  I got to take a statement,” he said, pulling out a pad of paper.  By now the man was out of sight.

Oh well, I thought, those guys are quick, I probably wouldn’t have caught him anyway.  Besides, flying was never my strong suit.

THE HANNA BRAUN AFFAIR – a new story

THE HANNA BRAUN AFFAIR

PRIVILEGED AND CONFIDENTIAL

It didn’t seem important at the time, a notebook they found in the woman’s backpack – black and white marbled cover, ruled paper, lined margins, pages filled with a precise hand, the letters identically inclined, ornate Ds and Qs as in a note from grandmother or a favorite aunt.  We found two blank books among her effects as well, provision for a longer life than she was accorded.

As for my role, I am the attorney administering the affairs of the indigent, Hanna Braun.  Our firm does its share of pro bono and this seemed a simple enough matter – no heirs, no will, no assets to speak of.  One day to inventory her apartment, another to file papers, however after my paralegal reviewed the notebook she said I’d better have a look.

From the notebook’s condition the woman must have carried it everywhere.  It is in the form of a diary, interesting enough for its depiction of her rather odd ways, but after reading it, I had no alternative than to involve the Cambridge police.  They asked me to prepare a summary to assist their understanding of this curious woman.  Be advised, this brief report contains excerpts only and is limited to those with a need to know.

Involving Mount Auburn Cemetery as it does, my interest was piqued – several ancestors of mine are buried there.  I might add, the woman’s unusual perspective has helped me better appreciate this great institution I had perhaps taken for granted.

* * * * * * *

1985 – October 27.   Arrival in Boston – at last!  Some weeks earlier I found a small apartment through the Globe classifieds, to which I had a mail subscription.  I never knew real estate listings could be so exciting!  From the train station I took the subway to Harvard Square, then walked it seemed miles to my new lodgings in what they call Huron Village.  I wonder if Indians might once have lived here (perhaps they still do?).  Though I associate Huron with the Upper Midwest and Canada – the eponymous Lake, for example.

October 28.  I discovered the Porter Square station is much closer than I had thought.  When Mr. Braun was alive he tried to run everything, and of course I let him think he did.  Now – glorious freedom! – I fend for myself.  I do give him credit, however, for despite the difficulty of his last year he managed to sell the pharmacy – a difficult task under the circumstances.  A young couple from Cleveland bought it and have moved to our town.  I was glad for the money because the house proceeds won’t go far, nor the insurance.  Mr. Braun’s lengthy illness depleted our savings, though I was able to salvage some small part of it.  My friends warned me that Boston is expensive, but no matter, this is where I must be.

October 29.  Today I visited Amy, my first visit since the trip with Mr. Braun.  A bus runs along Huron Avenue (there it is again!) and down a lovely tree-lined street with an island in the center, right up to the front gate of Mount Auburn Cemetery.  Armed with what I call my treasure map I found Amy in no time, and of course I had the photos from that first visit, my lifeline these fifteen long years.  She lies in the Lowell family plot on a steep hillside above Bellwort Path, some distance in from Walnut and down from Trefoil.  I do so love these names!  A simple gray slate slab marks her grave, with a friendly shrub behind, bare now, but fine shade in the summer, I imagine.  Her own personal parasol!  A low black iron fence encloses the plot.

Mr. Braun was so angry when I told him he had missed Amy’s stone, walked right past it – I didn’t mean to laugh but I did.  At times my husband acted the bully – the male runs amok is how Margaret described it and she should know, being his sister.  However I will say, even in Mr. Braun’s foulest moods he never once raised his hand.  He wouldn’t have dared.

It pleases me to see Amy in the company of women of spirit and accomplishment.   Isabella Stewart Gardner, for one, Harriet Hosmer, the freed slave Harriet Jacobs, even Mary Baker Eddy, though Amy was not religious, nor am I.  And of all people, Fanny Farmer – my favorite cookbook!  I didn’t realize she was here.  Poets and artists, too – Longfellow, Winslow Homer, even Amy’s ancestor, the overrated James Russell Lowell.  Unfortunately absent is her younger cousin, the excellent Robert, Poet Laureate of the United States and like Amy a winner of the Pulitzer Prize.  He is buried in New Hampshire.

November 15.  Recent days have been chilly and damp so I mainly stay indoors, reading Amy in the fine Untermeyer collection I have used many years.  Few of my students appreciated the merit of anthologies, but I believe they present the best portrait of the author – the brilliant work, the not so brilliant, the not very good.  After all, who is always at his or her best?  Some geniuses, I suppose, but they are few and far between.  Fascinating, seeing early effort mature into a solid body of work.  I was always excited when a student showed interest or better yet, promise, and on those rare occasions I would make a gift of the Untermeyer, accompanied by my hopes and best wishes.  Such unusual specimens were almost always young women.  In my experience, at the high school level, poetry holds more appeal for girls than boys.  Poetry is demanding and boys have no patience.

December 21.  My new friend two doors down has invited me to spend Christmas Day with her and her sister.  What people say is true – as you grow older it is harder to make friends.  I have been seriously considering a dog.  Amy herself kept dogs.  A dog would help me meet people, though I fear it would be too demanding.  A cat would be simpler but not as sociable, so I am in a quandary.  Everyone is wondering where is the snow?  Will we have a white Christmas?

December 24.  Strolling through Harvard Square, the lights, the hustle and bustle, I am convinced coming to Boston was the right thing.  Do I miss Ohio?  Not in the least.  Boring, borior, borissimus!  As for Mr. Braun, in all honesty I don’t miss him either.  Long before his demise the spark between us had gone.  This may sound cold, but my biggest regret is not insisting he buy more insurance.

1986 – January 3.  I wake during the night and through the curtains spy the first flakes.  Faster they fall – faster, fashioning cones of light, green, yellow, red, from the traffic signal at the corner.  Nothing moves.  At last it has snowed.

The snow creeps upon the city,

Coming gently,

Little crystals of no account

Dropping down between solid houses,

The warm streets melt it,

But soon their power fails,

The roadways disappear,

The sidewalks sink and fade,

From doorway to opposite doorway

Lies a prairie of sudden snow.

As I pour tea, the radio says seven inches fell overnight.  Bright sun fills my window and I am happy.  At last we will have winter views of “Sweet Auburn” as it is called, after Goldsmith.  I bundle up and make my way – carefully! – to the bus.  Then, alighting, through the Egyptian arch into an enchanted world.  From gorgeous color we have passed through nature’s dark palette to this blanket of white, all in such a short time.  I tramp through the plowed areas, a surprise in every snowy nook and cranny.  From a nature guide I found in a wonderful, musty bookstore on Church Street next to the Oxford Grille where I take some meals though I hear it may soon close, I identify tracks and make notes.  Squirrel, raccoon, fox and coyote, dogs of course.  No luck finding the lairs – the drifts are much too deep.  Though no expert, I think winter is best for viewing birds, those which haven’t fled the cold, that is, and high in the bare limbs I spot nests.  I must speak with the people I see carrying binoculars and cameras.  I should like to know more about Amy’s feathered neighbors.

February 9.  Amy’s Birthday!  When I first made Amy’s acquaintance I didn’t realize she was one of the Lowells.  Family wealth started her off nicely, but credit where it’s due, she made her own way.  On nasty days, with my new library card I pass the time in the Collins library on Aberdeen Avenue, the tree-lined street opposite the cemetery.  Another branch is closer but I feel at home here, everyone knows me.  I have even been invited to join a discussion group!  Winter offers wonderful gifts but it is hard on the joints, and I am happy to rest here after a long day.     

In the Collins I’ve learned more about the Lowells.  Amy’s older brother, Abbott Lawrence – both brothers were older than she – was for twenty-five years president of Harvard University.  He and his wife Anna lie next to Amy in the last row of the family plot.  The name of their father Augustus, textile manufacturer and philanthropist, adorns the enclosure’s imposing front gate.  His monument and that of her mother, side-by-side granite crosses, are the most prominent.  The oldest brother, renowned astronomer Percival Lowell, named for the clan’s seventeenth-century patriarch, is commemorated by a knee-high stump, a charming and humorous touch.  Percival is buried on the grounds of his observatory in Arizona.

March 18.  Last night Irene, a friend I met in Mount Auburn, suggested we visit an establishment called The Plough and the Stars down Mass Ave (you see, I am learning the lingo!) toward Central Square.  I never taught O’Casey, though had I lived here I daresay I couldn’t have avoided it.  A boisterous crowd – I felt out of place and we soon left.  I enjoy a spot of sherry now and again and a glass of wine with dinner, in company of course, but beer has never appealed to me, nor loud talking, nor Irish singing.  Despite Amy’s formidable appearance, she was outgoing and convivial.

Why should we strive to be Gods and Immortals?

Three cups, and one can perfectly understand the Great Tao;

A gallon, and one is in accord with all nature.

Only those in the midst of it can fully comprehend the joys of wine;

I do not proclaim them to the sober.          

April 6.  Each morning after greeting Amy, I climb to the imposing Washington Tower (after George) which rises from the summit of Mount Auburn, the cemetery’s highest point.  From this exquisite perch I survey my new world.  Harvard lies at my feet, the city of Cambridge as well, and the Charles snakes toward Boston and the ocean.  Clear days offer a panorama of distant hills and mountains.  Happily, a touch of warmth has returned.  Trees and shrubs are in full bud, a light-green carpet spreads everywhere.  Twin tall trees overlook Amy’s plot, a white oak and a black.  Spectacular!  These fine days I spend hours on a bench at the foot of the tower, reading, thinking, watching the hawks soar.

When I first arrived I opened an account at Bay Bank, a local bank.  The interest is minuscule but I am not disposed to risk what I have for a better return.  However my withdrawals have reduced the balance alarmingly.  Before long I shall be forced to take steps, but where to turn?  Substitute teaching?  Tutoring?  A part-time job?  I am happy to be in Boston, but in many ways it is a hard place.  How does a newcomer break in here?

April 19.  Another special Boston day.  People here do love their holidays! Schools are closed, many are off work.  I heard people discussing some road race – a big event, I take it.  I will look for it on the news tonight and see what all the fuss is about.  Last week I bought a television at the Central Square Salvation Army.  Twenty dollars seemed fair although the rabbit ears don’t work well, but I refuse to subscribe to the cable.  Next to banks and insurance companies, cable companies are my least favorite people in the world.

May 2.  I have been reading in Amy’s “Poppy Seed” poems.  They portray her love for the actress Ada Dwyer Russell, her life companion.  In my opinion, Amy’s work rivals Sappho and Ovid.  Just reading this gives me goosebumps.

Her breasts point outwards,

And the nipples are like buds of peonies.

Her flanks ripple as she plays,

And the water is not more undulating

Than the lines of her body.    

Hold your apron wide

That I may pour my gifts into it,

So that scarcely shall your two arms hinder them

From falling to the ground.

I would pour them upon you

And cover you,

For greatly do I feel this need

Of giving you something,

Even these poor things.

Dearest of my Heart!

I never fit in back there, and after that horrible Reverend (sic!!!) caused such a stir it became unbearable.  No one had the right to tell me what texts I could and could not teach!  Right then I made up my mind some day I would leave, knowing that parting with Margaret would be difficult.  The idea of Boston appealed to me – in many ways so Victorian, yet understanding, even lending its name to that beautiful friendship women can offer one another.  Though fair of face, Amy was no sylph.  An illness burdened her life with great weight.  Now, nearby, the warmth of her mind envelops me.

You may ask where Mr. Braun fitted into all this.  The answer is, he didn’t.  Candidly, our marriage was a disaster.  Being second cousins didn’t help, and his dour disposition was difficult to live with.  I’m not ashamed to admit that real blood courses through my veins.  We had no children – that I do regret, a little girl would have been wonderful.  My whole life I have been pursued by wagging tongues, but at last I’ve left them behind.  Fortunately I am blessed with a vivid imagination which provides solace and joy, though I have never had a true soul mate.  Amy is the closest this will ever come.

May 12.  Today we mark Amy’s death.  When she passed she was only fifty-one.  Such a loss!  Biographers say many considered her tendentious and difficult.  I beg to differ.  It’s not easy being a woman in the world.  If standing up for one’s rights provokes the ire of men, so be it.  A man’s opinion is no better than his character.  Bad tree, bad fruit.  Q.E.D.

May 13.  I’m not proud of my new “profession” but I do what I must.  I eat sparingly, so one trip a week to the big market across from the cemetery is sufficient.  Of course I pay for the larger items, but soup, tea, tangerines, that sort of thing, I take on long-term loan.  It is still cool enough to wear my long wool coat with the oversized pockets.  The summer will be a challenge, but my black purse, large as a shopping bag, should serve.  Occasionally in my former life I played this little game, for sport only, mind you, so I have confidence in my skills.  It helps, too, to have an innocent face.  This time the need is real, so I don’t give it a second thought.

Had Mr. Braun known about my little hobby he would have been terribly upset, but he never found out.  He was so concerned about what people thought.  A prig, Margaret called him, and I couldn’t disagree.  They say it is the woman who worries what will the neighbors think, but with us, not so.  I couldn’t have cared less about the neighbors, most of them.  Real friends don’t criticize.  Indeed, for me that is the measure of true friendship.

May 26.  Memorial Day (Observed).  The cemetery teems with life.  Flowers are everywhere, squirrels fat from their winter larders, the bold chipmunks and the hawks, always the hawks.  I especially like visiting a family of owls in their tree in what they call Consecration Dell, though they are shy and hide themselves well.

After visiting Amy I climb to my bench at the foot of the tower.  I think of Mr. Braun, gone now nearly a year, and in my mind I place a bouquet on his grave.  I seldom think of his end but today I do.  Unsuited as Mr. Braun and I were, we did share a life and we were accustomed to each other in our own way.  As Mr. Braun’s last illness came on I began to feel sorry for him.  Hardly a substitute for affection which even then I couldn’t muster, though I tried.

The medicines weren’t terribly expensive, but doctors and hospitals and home care and the prospect of a nursing home – soon there would have been nothing left.  The doctor said the cancer was terminal, but with Mr. Braun’s hardy constitution and just plain orneriness, he continued to hang on.  One month became two, two became four and so on.  Being around a pharmacy all those years, you learn things, you get ideas.

I shall never forget the look on Mr. Braun’s face just before he closed his eyes.  He nodded and a smile came to his lips.  He knew.  I caused him no pain, I would never have done that, but my first attempts were too small, too slow, so I had to increase the dosage.

But I covered my face and wept,

For ashes are not beautiful

Even in the dawn.

September 22.   For some time I have been feeling poorly.  This heat is intolerable.  The summer has flown and I barely noticed it.  As my building has no air conditioning, I take refuge in cool places.  I insisted they put in a window unit but all it did was make noise.  Consequently my entries the last few months have been rather sparse.  Such discomfort and shortness of breath is also new to me.  The doctor wants to order X-rays and tests – I will get around to that, but these days I have no tolerance for bad news.  Last week I filled out papers and wrote a check I couldn’t afford to Cemetery Services.  I have thought about this a long time.  I mean to stay here, near Amy.  In death I will be united with the one who has given me joy.

October 27.  Exactly one year.  The days grow short, the color is gone.  Once again somber tones have come, but the prospect of white makes it bearable.  I sit on the bench below the tower, occupied in thought.  Then as always, I proceed down the hill, turn on Bellwort, open the gate and go in.  I sit on the grass beside Amy’s grave.

My Dearest One, I say aloud, my hand on her stone,

…the hid joy of my heart! 

I love you, oh! you must indeed have known.

In strictest honor I have played my part;

But all this misery has overthrown

My scruples…

October 27.  Very late, cannot sleep.  A cup of tea does no good.  Why do I make these entries?  What is this need to leave a trace?  I am not religious – at times I wish I had been.  Somehow I never learned to pray.

* * * * * * *

On November fourth a Mount Auburn employee making his first rounds discovered Mrs. Braun inside the enclosure of the Lowell family plot.  She was lying on the ground, her arm draped across Amy Lowell’s headstone.  A pair of gloves was found beside her.  The previous evening was overcast and windy, and the temperature below freezing, with the first snow of the season.  According to the coroner, Mrs. Braun’s death was caused by congestive heart failure.  He surmised the end came quickly.  The tips of her fingers showed moderate frostbite.  There was no sign of foul play.

The Cambridge police have referred the matter to the police in Ohio which are conducting their investigation.  In light of certain statements in Mrs. Braun’s diary, the remains of her husband, Walter P. Braun, will likely be disinterred and examined.

Concerning Hanna Braun’s desire to be buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery, cemetery policy appears to permit it.  I will attempt to insure that this troubled woman’s final wishes are fulfilled, though Ohio may want her remains returned.  In that event she would probably be laid to rest beside her husband, an outcome which in my opinion would serve no useful purpose or public policy whatever.

Sworn and subscribed, this 17th day of November, 1986

For the firm of Carruthers and Caldwell, Attorneys at Law,

/s/ Milton R. Caldwell, Esquire

92 State Street, Boston, Massachusetts 02109

* * * * * * *

REFERENCES

Source:  The Complete Poetical Works of Amy Lowell, with an introduction by Louis Untermeyer.  Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. Cambridge Edition, The Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1955

“Snow,” Untermeyer page 573

“Drinking Alone In the Moonlight II” (Li T’Ai-Po), Untemeyer page 338-339

“Clear, With Light Variable Winds,” Untermeyer page 58  … “Obligation,” Untermeyer page 42-43

“Dreams in War Time IV,” Untermeyer page 237

“The Great Adventure of Max Breuck XL,” Untermeyer page 51

CREDITS

Excerpts from THE COMPLETE POETICAL WORKS OF AMY LOWELL by Amy Lowell.  Copyright © 1978 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.  All rights reserved.

PÈRE JOSEPH – Conclusion

PÈRE JOSEPH – Part Three of Three

Father Lemieux walked stiffly across the room.  Opening the heavy door, he saw a burly, silver-haired man seated at an imposing desk.  Except for a single manila folder the desk was bare.  On the wall behind, two large photographs – John Paul II, hands folded in his lap, the other a panoramic view of his outdoor mass in Boston.  He glanced at the side wall – photos of the Bishop and important personages.  On a sailboat with Jack and Jackie, palming a basketball with Red Auerbach, accepting a jar of jelly beans from President Reagan.

As the priest approached, the Bishop stood and came around the desk, his hand extended.  His simple black cassock was bound with a sash of episcopal purple, wound tight about his ample waist.  A heavy silver crucifix hung from a chain around his neck.  “Joe!  Sorry to keep you waiting.  The speeches went on and on – you know how those things go.”

Yes, the Father Lemieux thought, I know how those things go.  The oversized hand and firm grip brought to mind the celebrated high school athlete, All-State lineman at the Catholic academy across town from Joe Lemieux’ large public high school.

“I used the time well, Your Grace,” he responded impassively, “collecting my thoughts.”

“Good, good.”  The Bishop motioned him toward a crimson velour couch, “and let’s skip that ‘Your Grace’ business, no need for that here.”

The couch was set before a long window overlooking a courtyard.  Cautiously, Father Lemieux lowered himself onto an yet another overstuffed cushion.  The Bishop took up his position at the other end, birds on a wire.  Over his host’s shoulder the priest observed a tree stripped bare by the wind, an abandoned nest in the crotch of two white-streaked limbs.

“It’s been a long time,” the Bishop began.  “You’re well, I trust?”

Father Lemieux stared at the familiar, rugged face.  Since their encounter so many years ago that face had been a symbol of his failure, his loss that no amount of prayer had been able to salve.  The Bishop’s forehead was deeply creased, with wrinkles about the mouth and eyes.  Is that new, Father Lemieux wondered, trying to remember the last time he’d last seen the man close up.

“A touch of the flu last month, Your Grace, otherwise it goes well.”  Ça va bien, he said under his breath.

His host leaned forward, palms on his knees.  “Joe, I’ll come to the point.  I’ve got a problem and I need your help.”

Frowning, the priest shook his head.  “My help?”

“I don’t know how much you’ve kept in touch, but the last few years your old area has gone downhill and so has your parish.  To put it mildly, Ste. Anne’s is a disaster.”

But not as bad as when I was there, the priest thought, a dour look crossing his face.

The Bishop paused, fingering the crucifix which lay against his chest.  A large ring, symbol of his office, dominated his right hand.  “Of course you’re aware we closed the school.”

Father Lemieux nodded.  Overcome with grief and shame he had driven by the boarded-up building a few months ago.

“Thank God for the sisters,” the Bishop went on, “but even they couldn’t keep it afloat, and now,” his eyes narrowed, “now, it seems the parish itself may soon be a thing of the past.”  He pointed to the folder on his desk.  “My staff wants me to close the church,” he looked squarely at the priest, “cut our losses and get out.  I’ll tell you there is tremendous pressure on me to do just that.”

Father Lemieux swallowed hard.  Some inner-city parishes had been divided among their neighbors in recent years, victims of the city in transition, but he never thought Ste. Anne’s would come to that…or worse.

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

The Bishop opened his hands helplessly.  “So am I, but that’s the reality.  The old base that gave it such stability is gone.  Your people, les habitants,” his careless intonation grated on the priest’s ear, “a fraction of what they were.  Most of the newcomers aren’t registered with us.  God knows how many are even baptized, we don’t see them on Sundays, and now,” he rolled his eyes, “now we have competition from some fundamentalist outfit down the street.  For the life of me, I don’t know what anybody sees in that sort of thing, but there you have it.”

The Bishop sat back, his hands folded across his chest, steepling his fingers.  He raised the tips to his chin, then looked pensively at his guest who was staring at the ring.  “You never did think much of us, did you, Joe?  The establishment, if I may put it that way.”  He went on, not waiting for a reply, “no, you’re a rebel, plain and simple.  A long time ago you made that clear.”

The blunt words took Father Lemieux aback. “You surprise me, Your Grace.   I’ve never thought of myself as a rebel.”  He paused, “a man of principle, perhaps…”

“Principle?  We’re all men of principle!  Show me one who isn’t!”  The Bishop’s eyes narrowed and he raised a finger.  “But which principle?  That’s the question.”  He waved his hand around the richly appointed room.  “Admit it.  You could never stand this sort of thing, what it represents.”

A smile appeared at the corners of Father Lemieux’ mouth.  “In your words, Your Grace…George…what exactly does this represent?”

“Why, the service of God, of course.”  The Bishop chortled, “and you, even you, must admit this approach has shown a fair amount of staying power.”  The Bishop sat back, his face relaxed.  “But seriously, Joe, you’ve seen it – these days people are looking for something else, something they can identify with, be proud of.  How to reach them with our story, that’s our challenge today.”  Again he looked about the room.  “Style, appearances, call it what you will, these things do matter.  Folks down on their luck, ordinary people, they want us to be there for them.  The others, those who’ve made it big, they’re smart enough to fend for themselves – just ask them, they’ll tell you.  But the reality is, results alone aren’t enough, you need to look like you know what you’re doing, too.  Take that storefront next to Ste. Anne’s…Evangelical something or other – who’d want to get involved with a shabby setup like that?”

Father Lemieux thought a moment, then shook his head.  “I suspect Our Lord would be more at home in that storefront than in here,” he said quietly.

The Bishop leaned forward.  “See, there you go!  Centuries out of touch when we first met and you haven’t changed a bit!”  His face became animated and he jabbed his finger at the priest.  “Answer me this.  If you had to be in New York tomorrow on Church business, how would you get there?

“How would I get there?”

“What’s so difficult about the question?  How would you get there?”

“Well, I suppose I’d drive.”

“Exactly.  Or take the train, or fly, but would you go by donkey?”

Father Lemieux looked puzzled.

The Bishop placed his hands on the desk.  “I rest my case.  Next question.  Suppose Our Lord appeared to us right here in this room, and suppose He asked you how to reach people in the last part of the twentieth century.  What would you tell Him?  Would you say, ‘Lord, I know a building next to this pizza place, the rent’s reasonable.’  Is that what you’d say?  Of course not!”  The Bishop spread his hands. “But what would you say?  How would you advise Him to get His message out?”

Father Lemieux opened his mouth but the Bishop barged ahead.  “Why, you’d tell Him to get on television, of course!  Of course, that wouldn’t be the only thing you’d say, but don’t kid yourself, it’d be a big part of it.  And what a communicator He’d be, too, an absolute master, just like He was in His own time.”  The Bishop smiled.  “Don’t you see, Joe, these days just standing up in church isn’t enough.  You’ve got to do more, a lot more.”  He nodded at the photograph of John Paul and the huge crowd.  “The Church has to use all the tools, and believe me, that takes organization!  And money!”

“You may be right, George,” Father Lemieux replied evenly, “but I’ve always believed what really matters is the Lord’s life, His example.  As you put it, His style.  That’s the power, that’s what has endured.  The rest?  Display, that’s all – technique and display.”

The Bishop shook his head.  “Unfortunately, delivering that glorious message is much harder than it used to be.  Don’t you see, Joe, the Church’s genius is that it adapts.  It takes the best of this godless world and turns it to its own use.  Did it in the fourth century, did it in the fourteenth, does it today.  Only difference is the details.  You may think you’re unique, Joe, but believe me, a lot of people would like to crawl in that time warp of yours and come out in a simpler time.  God knows, I would.  You think I look forward to the speeches, the appearances, the politicking day after day, night after night?  Ah well,” he said wearily, “if you think so, others probably do, too.  Maybe I’m not doing such a bad job after all.”

The priest was smiling and shaking his head.  The Bishop looked at him.  “What is so funny, if I may ask?”

“It’s not funny,” Father Lemieux responded, “it’s sad, it’s terribly sad.”

The Bishop’s eyes narrowed.  “Meaning?”

“Meaning I’m agreeing with you.  You see, I agree with you, after all.  I am a rebel.  As Christ was a rebel, so am I.”

The Bishop slapped his knee with his hand.  “My friend, you are more deluded than I ever suspected, daring to compare yourself with the Son of God!”

Father Lemieux shook his head.  “If I thought I were anything but a pale shadow of Christ, yes, that would be the height of folly.  But to try?  For all of us to try?”  His eyes burned, “why, that’s the whole idea!”  He waved his arm about the room.  “Our principles are cheapened when they are so convenient, when they produce such luxury.  His message is lost when we let that happen.”

The Bishop reddened.  “You would condemn the Church because it’s part of the real world?  Because it tries to be effective?  Come on!  That’s a counsel of failure, a loser’s philosophy!”

Father Lemieux shrugged.  “No doubt that explains why you are here, Your Grace, and I am where I am.”

A heavy silence fell over the room, each man avoiding the other’s eyes.  Finally, the Bishop stood and walked back to the desk.  He turned, arms folded, wrapped around the file folder pressed to his chest.  He took a deep breath.  “Joe,” he said, a severe look at his face, “listen to me.  I say, can you still listen to me?”

The priest nodded imperceptibly.

“Why I brought you here today – once, long ago we both set out on a journey…”  He exhaled loudly, fixing the priest in his stare.  “Ah, hell…I’ll give it to you straight.  You’re going back to Ste. Anne’s.  You have six months to turn that place around.  If you can’t, it’s all over.  Do you understand?”

Father Lemieux’ mouth dropped open.  “Me!  Of all people, me?”  His eyebrows bobbed wildly.  “The priest who can’t do anything right?  The priest who fouls up everything he touches?  Those were your very words!  Or have you forgotten?”

The Bishop sat back against the edge of the desk.  “I wondered if you’d bring that up.”  Then he began to smile.  “You know, Joe, at least there is one thing we can agree on.  You were one lousy manager.”

The rebuke stopped Father Lemieux short.  The Bishop observed the shock on the priest’s face and he began to laugh, a deep, hearty laugh that rumbled on.  Father Lemieux tried to contain himself but he too sputtered then burst out laughing.

After a moment the men regained their composure, Father Lemieux taking out a handkerchief and wiping his eyes.  “So, well…I don’t understand why you want me to take on this…this job you say is impossible.”

“It’s very simple.  I don’t want to lose those people.”  The Bishop tapped his folder.  “If I split the parish up, no matter where I put those Hispanics and Asians they’re going to fall in a crack and disappear.  My other pastors are pushed so hard, nobody can give them what they need.  Don’t you see?  Their only chance is if we can keep the parish together.”

“Ah,” Father Lemieux, nodding, “I understand.”

“What I’m saying – it’s so bad, Joe, I’m talking missionary work – it’s a major reclamation project.  Maybe too major – it may already be too late.”

“But the finances, the books…”

The Bishop slapped the folder with his hand.  “Don’t you understand anything?  Get it through that thick Canuck skull of yours, if we don’t reach those people and fast, there will be no books!”  He leaned forward. “Look,” he said gently, “go there.  Show those people an example, your Frenchies, too, whatever’s left of them.  Get out on the street, listen to what they’re saying.  Find out what they’re worried about, make them see the Church wants them.  In other words, be a priest!

Father Lemieux was silent a moment.  “Do I have a choice?”

The Bishop tossed the folder back on his desk.  “None at all.  You start Monday.  The acting pastor, Frank Alves, he’s young but he’s a good man.  Trouble is, he’s drowning trying to do everything himself.  Bring him along.  If you can pull off this miracle, I want him ready to take over in a year.  We’ll carry you financially six months, then see where we are.  If anywhere.”  The Bishop’s face softened.  “You know, Joe, I have to admit, some things you did pretty well, in your own peculiar way, that is.”

Father Lemieux nodded.

“In fact, in some ways you were ahead of your time.  Otherwise, well, you were a royal pain in the ass.”  The Bishop put his hand on Father Lemieux’ shoulder.  “I leave you to figure out which is which.”

Dazed, Father Lemieux left the building, his mind in a thousand pieces.  This will take time to sort out.  I need to step back, think.  After so many years, what can I do?  How will I deal with these people?  I don’t know a word of Spanish or anything else for that matter, but there is no time.  Though perhaps that’s for the best.  They’ll have to take me as I am.

The priest walked slowly to the parking lot behind the Bishop’s house.  Reaching his car he paused, patting its scratched, discolored top.  “Well, old friend,” he said, “where we’re going we won’t stick out so much.”  He slid behind the wheel.  Grasping it with both hands, he said softly, his voice quavering, “we’re going home…at last, we’re going home.”

Standing at his window, the Bishop watched the battered vehicle disappear in a plume of blue exhaust.  So it’s Père Joseph again…or should I say José?  Desperate times call for desperate measures…he shook his head and smiled.  What have I got to lose?  And when you come down to it, who’s to say who was right and who was wrong?  What matters, the Church is still here…in spite of us all, it’s still here.

The intercom buzzed.  “Representative Crowley on three, returning your call.”

The Bishop dropped heavily into his smooth leather chair.  The stabbing pain from a few nights ago was back.  He closed his eyes and sighed, grasping his crucifix and chain, opening and closing his hand on the cool metal.  Then he kissed the cross, released it, and sighing deeply, picked up the phone.

“Eddie!” he barked, “how the hell are you?  What’s my favorite congressman up to today?”

PÈRE JOSEPH – Part Two

PÈRE JOSEPH – Part Two of Three

Father Lemieux settled into his role as a cog in St. Brigid’s large, smooth-running machine.  Suburban, active, well-educated, one of the area’s wealthiest parishes, filled with successful, important people.  Though he was saddened to see how little they had in common with his old flock – so many of them at the bottom of the ladder with little prospect of rising.

Immersing himself in his work, Father Lemieux quickly realized what thin gruel his message of kindness and compassion was for these high-powered people.  The bank managers and lawyers, the physicians and ad execs seemed perfectly comfortable living parallel lives – Sunday mornings for pious utterings, the rest of the week for grasping, elbowing, getting ahead.

He called attention to this anomaly, but it was disheartening how few struggling consciences he unearthed, especially as the moral dilemma was so evident to him.  For the most part theirs were the complaints of affluence.  If sin weren’t quite dead, it was fading fast, no longer a serious issue.  For his new people the guilt of choice was an inchoate, panicky fear of falling behind – in position, possessions, status.  Children’s achievement was an especially virulent foil, arousing frantic emotion among the parents, and sometimes irrational behavior.

Ah, the children…privileged offspring, so wise in the ways of the world, their normal anxieties fanned white-hot by advertisers promising a cure for every care, and all so attractively presented.  To Father Lemieux, the children’s lot was all the more poignant because it wasn’t of their making, played for fools by their elders and supposed betters for commercial gain.  He often wondered how far the children of Ste. Anne’s had progressed down this unholy track.

At first, the display at Sunday’s late Masses was irritating, but over time the color and variety grew on him.  Sometimes, waiting to distribute communion, he would wander through the parking lot, reviewing the latest offerings from Detroit and Stuttgart.  The usual funeral homes and restaurants underwrote the parish bulletin, but St. Brigid’s also featured car dealerships – Bob O’Brien’s Luxury Imports took a half-page opposite Crest Cadillac-Olds.  Also represented were the furriers and jewelers of Cherrystone Mall, along with his personal favorite, Claire’s Maison des Poodles.

His pastor’s lukewarm response to Vatican II was disappointing.  True, St. Brigid’s had altered its liturgy – it was more approachable and the stepped-up participation by lay men and women was healthy.  But Father Lemieux found little enthusiasm for the plight of the parish poor or wider social concerns.  Without much support, he assembled a group that met weekly to collect food and clothing for the pariahs of the parish – its failures.  Of them the prevailing attitude was, less said the better.  He quietly lent a hand in a neighboring parish which had taken in a number of Central American refugee families, but for the most part Father Lemieux felt awkward and out of place.  He no longer discussed controversial topics publicly.  As he withdrew his spirit shrank.  The best part of him was no longer needed or wanted.

Humbled by his fall, in the evenings his prayers were often overcome by loneliness and disillusion.  Why didn’t I become a monk, after all?  I certainly wasn’t cut out for the world.  Give them credit, he thought ruefully, my superiors saw that more clearly than I did.

He missed his quiet French people.  From a distance the dark passivity that used to drive him wild seemed almost a virtue against the Irish, the mainstay of St. Brigid’s, many of whom he found garrulous and rude.  These days he had little contact with Ste. Anne’s.  In the early seventies he buried his father and several years later his mother moved in with a sister north of the city.  The other brothers and sisters were scattered everywhere.

From time to time driving through the streets of Ste. Anne’s, he observed the influx of Latinos and Asians filling the vacuum left by the French Canadian exodus.  Signs on bakeries and variety stores were now in Spanish and some other, unfathomable script – Cambodian, he was told.  What difference would it have made if he had stayed, he wondered – his people would have moved on, anyway.

By the mid-seventies, a number of Father Lemieux’ colleagues had left the priesthood.  Several had married, unthinkable until only recently.  It took him a while to recover from a visit to the apartment of his close friend, the former Father Leo Mulcahy – now it was Leo and Marie.  Long repressed memories and sensations flooded back – thoughts of his youth and the girls he had loved in his own chaste way, more intense and agonizing because of the moral constraints which ruled his life even then.  In turn, these memories fed the doubts that arose from the muddle he’d made of his priestly career.  Why not me, he began to ask, thinking of his married friends – for all my sacrifices, what have I accomplished?  My superiors act as if I weren’t alive, these days I don’t even have the satisfaction of their hostility.  Which is worse, to be maligned or forgotten?

After a difficult period of prayer and reflection, Father Lemieux emerged from this episode refreshed and strengthened.  Surely, he thought, these difficulties are a gift from God.  He tries most severely those He loves best.

One Wednesday evening some time later, after his weekly groceries- and clothes-bagging session, one of the volunteers asked if he would join her for coffee, she needed his advice.  Across a table in a nearby sandwich shop, the woman, Carol, remarked how quiet and withdrawn he’d been recently.  He wasn’t ill, she hoped.

It was nothing, the priest replied with a shrug, and anyway, the situation had resolved itself.

Walking back to her car, Carol suddenly stopped and took his hand.  “I hope everything’s all right, Father,” she said, intently.  “You must know how fond we are of you.”

Startled, Father Lemieux looked away, masking his confusion and fright.

That night was torment.  He couldn’t get the woman out of his mind.  Sitting in his room with the New Testament as he did every evening, he turned the pages and tried to read.  She really was quite pretty.  He put the book down and closed his eyes…late thirties, perhaps…never married, I think.

Pretty?  Never married?   He shook his head violently.  What is this, some schoolboy crush?  I closed those doors years ago!  He looked at the Bible shut on his lap and let out a long breath.  What a fool, thinking I’m immune from temptation.  Even Christ didn’t escape temptation.

He knew what had to be done.  There was no choice but to absent himself from these meetings, at least temporarily, remove the source of difficulty.  Avoid the occasion of sin, I’ve always counseled – surely that excellent advice applies to me as well.  In our frailty we often lose a direct confrontation.

As the week wore on, however, the line began to blur.  More complex, these issues are, much more complex than they first seemed.  After all, he reasoned, this work is important, I can’t just walk away from people who need my help.  Furthermore, he thought with some annoyance, who am I to judge this woman?  It’s all in my mind, a product of my imagination.  Surely it was just a friendly gesture, nothing more.  In fact, a parishioner’s concern for her priest is commendable.   Such caring should be encouraged, not dismissed.

But what if there is more?  What if she’s really interested in me…he paused and closed his eyes…as a man?  He smiled and shook his head sadly.  A man.  I haven’t have the faintest notion what that means.

Wednesday came quickly.  As Father Lemieux entered the church hall, as usual the first to arrive, his heart was pounding and his papers shook as he removed them from his briefcase.  People began filtering in.  He waited…waited…finally setting the group to inventory the week’s donations.  He kept an eye on the door but as the evening went on and she didn’t appear, he felt a weight lifting from his shoulders.  How foolish, he thought, walking back to the rectory, so much worry about nothing at all.  By the time he closed the door to his room he was exhausted, disappointed and depressed.

He had just stretched out on his bed when the phone rang.  He rose and padded down the stairs in his stocking feet, lifting the receiver just as the answering machine was clicking on.  “St. Brigid’s,” he said, rubbing his eyes.

“Father Lemieux?”

“Speaking.”

“This is Carol, Carol Hennessey.”

His heart leapt.  “Carol, I…we missed you tonight.” He glanced about furtively.  Suddenly his mouth was dry.

“Sorry, something came up, I had to work late.”

The priest looked at the wall, a framed portrait of Jesus, his Sacred Heart encircled by thorns, drops of blood underneath.  “I want you to know we’re counting on you,” he went on sturdily, “we trust you’ll be there next week.”

There was a long pause.  “I was wondering,” the woman began softly, “I was wondering if you’d like to have dinner sometime.”

Numbed, he held the phone to his ear…the holy picture was going in and out of focus.  As he stared it became smaller, retreating into the wall until it disappeared altogether.  “Why, ah…yes,” he heard himself saying, “yes, I’d like that very much.”

“Would this Friday be all right?  At my place?  But if you’re busy…”

Commitments…I must have commitments…if I do I’ll cancel them.  He swallowed hard.  “That would be fine.”

“My building, the red brick apartments at Walnut and Ashby, you know, on the corner?  I’m number twelve.”

“I know the area.”

Another silence.  “Well, I guess I’ll see you then.  About seven?”

“Yes…seven.  Number twelve.  Thank you.”

He replaced the receiver gently.  Her voice continued ringing in his ear…no, not a voice, a bell.  So he’d been right after all.  Slowly, he climbed the stairs and at the top he turned.  Jesus was staring at him as if nothing had happened.

That night he slept soundly.  He dreamt of his family’s house, the room he and his brother shared until Marcel went into the army, the baseball posters, his airplane models, cold winter mornings and the smell of bacon frying.  All this came back to him.  When the alarm rang at five forty-five he sat bolt upright.  He had no idea where he was.

The tone for the day was set when he snapped at his server, slow to bring water for his fingers after offering the bread and wine.  Then a shouting match with the nun who ran the parochial school, some stupid point he insisted on.  Mortified, he apologized immediately.  The whole day he was distracted, replaying that conversation. Dinner.  You and me.  Yes, I’d like that, I’d like that very much indeed.  He flushed and his face grew warm.  What could I possibly have been thinking?  After toying with his evening meal, he stepped next door to the church and led a small group of the faithful in a desultory praying of the rosary.  An hour of aimless wandering around the rectory and he decided to retire to his room.

Did I bring this on, he asked himself?  Something I said, some signal of mine received by another lonely person?  What could it have been?  At any event it is my fault, he thought, closing his eyes, and what a coward I am to blame her.  That evening, Father Lemieux knelt beside his bed and prayed, burying his face in his rough wool blanket.  He could not, would not permit this…this farce to continue.  He pleaded with God to forgive him, accept his atonement.  When he looked up, the blanket was damp from his tears.

For a long time the priest lay awake.  He felt unclean.  Even after all this time, how near is the path not taken, how sweet that first step.  And at the end of that path, an unknown, intriguing world, its only certainty the steep price to enter.

Forcing his eyes shut, he began to pray.  Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.  He thought of the great saints, their trials and weaknesses, their penances…their penances.   Throughout his priestly life, at times of distress an idea sometimes came to him, a frightening idea.  He had never acted on it.  Sitting up he looked around the room…dark except for the crack of light above the window shade from the street lamp outside.  He turned on his bedside light – eleven-thirty five by the clock on his bureau – then turned it off.

The bureau.  He rose and crossed the room…of course, the bureau.  The bottom drawer held his few treasures and things he seldom used.  He felt around for the coiled leather belt and big buckle, a gift from one of his nephews, now grown, with children of his own.  He ran his fingertips across the cool, coarse brass, visualizing the engraved cowboy and horse, remembering the face of his nephew, so excited by the gift.  Little good such a thing is to a priest, he thought grimly, at least the kind of priest I’ve become…but perhaps it has its use.  As he lifted the belt by its end it uncoiled, the buckle hitting the wood floor with a bang.

Eyes now used to the dim light, he loosened the top button of his pajama shirt, then undid the rest.  He removed the shirt, laying it carefully across his bed.  Running his thumb over the sharp metal horn on the back of the buckle…such foolishness, he thought, shaking his head, but perhaps the fool is closer to the Lord than this weak man of God will ever be.  He grasped the end of the belt and sighed.  Suddenly he lifted his arm and swung the buckle up and over his head.  It thudded off the ceiling and struck his forehead a glancing blow.  Startled, he rubbed the spot.

He turned the buckle this way and that, then slid his hand down, shortening the leather strap.  Again he wound up and swung the buckle in an arc – this time it cleared the ceiling and struck him in the ribs.  Quickly, he whipped it around again – it made a sharp pain and he wondered if it had cut the skin.  Once more and the flat side smacked his back harmlessly.  Next time it missed altogether.  Frustrated, he leveled his shoulders and took a deep breath.  The next blow was by far the best, the spike striking his back and unmistakably piercing the skin.

Doggedly, methodically he kept on, accepting the failures with equanimity – many more than the successes, a necessary part of the plan.  Pause, tense…explode.  Pause, tense…explode.  After a while the priest’s mind shut down and he felt no more pain, but from time to time a number floated across his mind…eighty-five…two hundred twelve…four-fifty.

By five hundred his arm ached but he kept on until his shoulder, numbed, could do no more.  He dropped the belt on the floor and fell face-down across the bed, instantly asleep.

When the alarm rang, he sat up, wide awake, and looked around.  The bedsheets!  Covered with blood!  A wave of embarrassment swept over him.  Of course they were stained – how could they not be?  He peered in the bathroom mirror, craning to look at his back and shoulders – a mass of welts and cuts.  He shuddered.  Wetting a towel he patted the parts of his back he could reach, moaning at the pain.  Late…no time to do more.   After shaving, he gingerly pulled on a clean undershirt, then a second, before donning his collar and vest.  He rolled the soiled bedsheets into a ball and shoved them in far corner of the closet.  After Mass he would change the bed before the housekeeper made her rounds, wash the soiled linens himself later.  No one would ever know.  He prayed God to receive his offering with favor.

During Mass he was unusually calm, feeling the presence of Jesus more strongly than in years…as if He were standing beside him.  The brief homily he invented on the spot – Christ’s sacrifice prods the sinner to seek God’s forgiveness.  At the Consecration he could barely raise the host and chalice but, he thought with a smile, today someone else is lifting my hands.

Removing the mass vestments, Father Lemieux thought of the morning ahead.   Housekeeping can wait.  His mind was clear, he knew exactly what to do.  Avoidance will be the strategy, deflection the tactic and not a hint of accusation.  He returned to the rectory and over a cup of strong coffee, lifted the hall phone and dialed the woman’s number.  Thankfully she was still there, just on her way out the door.  “Carol,” he said calmly, staring at the Sacred Heart, “I’m sorry but I won’t be able to accept your invitation…”  She began to reply but he kept on, “…but you gave me an idea.  I’m going to bring supper for our group next week.  I should have done this a long ago, you’re all so generous with your time.  Would you mind calling everyone to let them know?”

So Father Lemieux did not quit the group.  He continued to see Carol Hennessey across the piles of clothing and groceries.  It was as if nothing had happened, almost  – for when their eyes met he sometimes thought he saw a different look.  Embarrassment?  He hoped not.  Disappointment?  He couldn’t say.  What he did know, his spiritual armor now had a new layer,  though there was a small, happy place in his heart, also new, for he was grateful someone might still care.

As the eighties rolled along, the nation’s economic health worsened.  For a time the privileged areas of its cities and suburbs seemed immune.  St. Brigid’s was typical, viewing joblessness as an oddity, a mark of shame.  But the malaise couldn’t be stemmed, and soon everyone was talking about the unthinkable.  This neighbor laid off, that family on welfare, for the first time in her married life Mrs. So-and-So looking for work.  Among Father Lemieux’ parishioners an awful realization had set in – any of them could be next.  A cynical new expression was making the rounds:  Downsizing.

Ironically, with hard times, Father Lemieux’ ministry came alive.  Victims of the system they had championed, parishioners sorting through the debris turned to him for solace and advice.  He hoped his campaigns against selfishness would not be resented, and prayed for the grace to avoid cynicism.  It did fascinate him that, as incomes fell, the demand for his services increased.  Once again, Father Lemieux found himself in the mainstream, surrounded by human tragedy.

A buzzer rasped.  The receptionist put her phone down and smiled.  “The Bishop will see you now.”

{TO BE CONTINUED]

PÈRE JOSEPH

This story was written a while back and has been shared with a number of people, but this is its first “public appearance.”  Its central character anticipates Pope Francis, though who really could have anticipated this man and his astonishing example?  The story also resonates with scenes from Paul Bernard’s early years in Twentieth Century Limited.  Somewhat longer than most of the stories I’m posting here, it will appear in three parts over the next week or so.  I hope you enjoy it!  All the best, Jan

PÈRE JOSEPH

The priest crossed his legs and sank deeper in the overstuffed chair, staring at the door where he had entered nearly an hour ago.  A puddle on the parquet brought to mind the hurried search for his boots earlier that morning.  They’d better turn up soon, he thought, his soggy shoes warming his feet, if last night’s storm is a sign of the winter to come.

A few hours ago, as he was knocking snow from his shoes after the early Mass, the phone rang.  He caught his breath – at that hour nothing is routine.  A parishioner taken a turn for the worse?  An accident at the mill?  Not this time, for on the line was the Chancellor, number two man in the diocese.  The Bishop wanted to see him at ten sharp, no reason given.  Only after the priest hung up did he realize he hadn’t even asked why.

He put down the Catholic Visitor he had picked up on the way in.  Every Tuesday more copies than his parishioners could ever use appeared at his door, and he’d already spent enough time with this issue.  The priest looked about the room, really seeing it for the first time.  A cord dangling from the receptionist’s ear ran under her desk and back up to a dictation machine.  Several large pieces of furniture dominated the room.  An armoire (office supplies? coats?) stood beside a plush sofa, crimson like his chair.  The priest frowned…except for the crucifix over the door and an outsized photo of John Paul II, this could be any business office, any one, that is, within his limited experience of such places.

The Holy Father gazed over the room from his perch on the wall, his right hand raised as if to bless the fax machine immediately below.  The priest smiled, noting that the office copier was within range as well.  Since when did office equipment rate such pastoral attention?  What about those file cabinets against the far wall?  As he toyed with the idea it seemed less trifling – modern tools for modern work, after all.  Why should these be less worthy than, say, Gloucester’s fishing fleet a few miles up the coast, or New Bedford’s the other direction?  He nodded…the germ of a sermon, perhaps.

The receptionist whom he knew to be Mrs. O’Rourke, mother of several teenagers in the parish next to his, looked up from her typewriter.  “I can’t imagine what’s keeping the Bishop.  He’s always so punctual.”

Sighing, the priest uncrossed his legs.  You’d like to hope for better treatment, he thought, but this place metes out respect according to the recipient, like any other place.  And he knew the entry “Rev. Joseph A. Lemieux” in the Bishop’s appointment book promised neither the prospect of great service to the diocese, nor, any longer at least, risk of embarrassment.  After indulging these speculations he closed his eyes and his lips formed a silent prayer.  Unworthy, such thoughts – be rid of them.

The priest stood and began to pace, hands clasped behind his back.  His slender frame and the long, lean head of his father’s line made him appear taller than his five-feet ten.  The rough, blue-black jowls and chin were also of la famille Lemieux of Providence’s Ste. Anne de Beaupré parish, by way of the Gaspé several generations earlier.  Some years ago as he neared fifty, it happened that the priest’s dark hair turned gray, overnight it seemed, although the flash of white at the temples was new.  His bushy eyebrows, still jet black and formidable in repose, had an odd habit of twitching and jumping about when he was excited, a comical contrast to his usual earnest demeanor.

When he was twelve, this son of an unexceptional working-class family attended a retreat at a Benedictine monastery in Portsmouth on Newport Island, which changed his life, and after high school he opted for the priesthood, choosing the diocesan seminary.  But this brief encounter with the monastic life had inclined him toward simplicity, and against attachment and display.  Ever since, he had worn his hair cropped close, as a sign of commitment.  Time and experience confirmed his belief that self-indulgence was incompatible with service to God and His people, as well as threatening to the personal holiness to which he aspired.  Then as now, in Father Lemieux’s vivid imagination Christ was no mere concept, but a real person, whose saintly example was the only possible model for a man of the cloth, especially one living and working in the world.

Although he was personally content, in the seminary young Joe Lemieux’ demeanor prompted comments from classmates and even some teachers.  As he saw it, if his peers were able to reconcile a worldly bearing with their calling so be it.  His was not the only path, though he knew it to be the secure one, albeit more difficult.  With infinity at stake, what did the opinion of others matter?  Even so, as he took up his priestly duties, Father Lemieux made the effort to avoid attention, but some read his attitude as conceit and took it as criticism where none was intended, the more pointed, they felt, because it involved not merely words but deeds.

The receptionist looked up and shook her head apologetically.  The priest responded with a rueful smile.  His being here today, this room, this situation, was filled with an irony she couldn’t begin to fathom.

Years ago there had been another meeting with the same man on whom he now waited.  They were the same age, classmates, ordained together, but George Mulvaney was already a monsignor, a man of influence with important responsibilities – among them, clergy discipline.  Father Lemieux shuddered…so vivid, the memory, it could have been yesterday.

At the time he was pastor of the French parish of Ste. Anne’s, the church of his youth, his family’s church since it first arrived in the States.  Assigned right after ordination, he had been an instant celebrity, the local boy made good.  Full of energy and enthusiasm he was, nonetheless some aspects of this first ministry he found intimidating.  It was months before the young curé could accept being called “Father” by people three times his age, then there was the awkwardness of being credited with stature and enlightenment by those who knew him as a child.  But his parishioners’ humor and their wish for his success soon broke the ice.

The area of the city served by Ste. Anne’s had never recovered from the mill closings and job losses following World War Two.  Early in the century, mill work had been the magnet for les émigrés, drawing large numbers from the hardscrabble farms north of the border.  But as they had followed their dreams of a better life, after the war the mill owners pursued their own interests to the Carolinas and further south, leaving a disaster behind.

From his youth, the curé remembered the crowds streaming from the sprawling red-brick Wheeler mill at quitting time, and the Archambault just outside the parish.  But by the time he took up his priestly duties, boarded-up windows, broken glass and weeds in the walkways and graffiti were everywhere.  Unemployment was rife and hope a word without meaning.  With no work some had abandoned the fight and returned north.  Asking around, the curé found only a handful of his boyhood friends still living in the parish.  The lucky ones had fled, many to the military, some with the passport of a college degree.  For most, return was unlikely.

It was the fifties, and smarting from the Korean stalemate the nation was consumed by Communism.  Wandering the corridors of the parish school, the young curé observed the children huddled under their desks, covering their heads against the flash and roar which, it was said, could come at any time.  In the churches, prayers and devotions were offered for the conversion of Russia, whose antagonism was all the more terrifying because its godless center which, it was also said, encouraged all manner of unthinkable acts.

Curiously, in those schoolrooms and churches, little was made of the plight of European Jews in the Second War, and no mention at all of supposedly civilized Christians’ role in that monstrous blot on human history.  During the curé’s own schooling, little had been said about the Holocaust, but some years later when its enormity became widely known he was forced to examine his memory and conscience.  His own inattention he might attribute to youthful ignorance, but a seed had been planted.  People knew!  Even then, people knew!  Why were we not told?

The question haunted him.  When in seminary he discovered the extent of the official Church’s somnolence, following this ragged edge of his faith he discovered the thread of anti-Semitism running though the Church’s history.  For the first time in his life he felt real despair.  He prayed for enlightenment.  When men inflict such harm, why do people of good will stand by?  Then, recovered from his crisis, he vowed that whatever others might or might not do, never would he be silent in the presence of evil.  As his ministry gained confidence, the young curé began in his sermons to speak on the issues of the day, linking them with the commandments and the teachings of Christ.

Offering the first Mass of the morning, consoling the bereaved, bestowing the gift of grace on fresh life, the curé seemed born to the priestly life.  However, his vocation was demanding, and in the presence of pain and sorrow often he was unable to restrain the tears.  Ironically, one of the most joyful occasions was also for him the most troublesome.  As a youth Joe Lemieux had been sociable and well-liked, and upon graduating from high school his choice of career shocked those who didn’t know him well.  Now, joining a young man and woman in marriage, he glimpsed the world he had rejected, of love that touches and can be touched, of children bearing his name.  At such times a profound sadness would overcome him.

But such sorrows were short-lived.  The clouds moved on, reaffirming that this life was indeed his destiny, that he wanted nothing but to serve God and God’s people.  So, instead of loneliness, his evening hours were filled with quiet joy at being chosen for the work of the Lord.

Three years into his ministry, old Father Martin, the pastor for whom he had served Mass as a boy, died unexpectedly.  There was talk that the curé might succeed him but, young and inexperienced, this was out of the question.  However, several years later when the new pastor fell ill and was forced to retire, the curé stepped in, and within the year was confirmed in the position, at thirty becoming the youngest pastor in the diocese anyone could recall.

As the years passed, the people’s love for their pastor deepened.  His leadership was strong and his touch gentle, his life exemplary.  Old men and women reminisced about the time Père Joseph, for that is what they now called him, was a schoolboy among them.  His parents enjoyed a special place of honor in the parish.

Père Joseph’s personal life was austere.  He ate sparingly, taking an occasional glass of wine at dinner with company.  He had few civilian clothes and, save for working in the garden of the rectory, his only recreation was helping out with the CYO teams.  Seldom did he take a day off and he was never known to have a real vacation.  His old Ford wagon was cluttered with bats and balls, boxes of clothing, sacks of groceries for the poor.  Hard to believe this noisy vehicle with the blue exhaust had ever graced a showroom floor, a gift some years back from the parishioners, as an even more ancient Plymouth expired.

Père Joseph insisted that the French language be taught alongside English in the parochial school and used for church announcements.  This pleased his older parishioners, but irked the more educated and raised eyebrows at headquarters downtown.  In the mid-sixties Père Joseph enthusiastically embraced the reforms of Vatican II.  Simplifying the liturgy was an obvious step and he saw great possibilities in approaching God through one’s neighbor.  He devoured accounts of the proceedings, discussing Pope John’s aggiornamento late into the night with parishioners, arriving bleary-eyed for Mass the next morning.  Weekly sermons on the Council’s work were his way of preparing his people for the changes, a paean of joy for the first cool breezes seeping through the musty Church.

But all was not well.  As Père Joseph saw colleagues jousting for appointments to the wealthier parishes, contending for power and privilege, he became convinced that this gamesmanship reflected poorly on all the clergy and made their work more difficult.  As time went on he withdrew from acquaintances who were swept up in this competition and, increasingly isolated, he became less circumspect in his judgments.  This man of God who wanted nothing more than to pattern his life on Christ’s found critical thoughts invading his mind.  Although he prayed for relief, Père Joseph sensed he was turning into the antagonist he had vowed never to be.  His austerity became more rigid and his tart tongue cost him friends, not only among the rising stars but with colleagues whose only sin was a lack of focus in their priestly careers.

Finally the day came when Père Joseph realized he had become an outcast.  Some of his superiors and peers saw him as a troublemaker, others an oddity.  Indeed, the change in the man was so profound that this reputation privately pleased him.  He knew the common people of Ste. Anne’s, at least, shared his disdain of pomp and display, watching them nod as he took on the high and mighty from the pulpit.  Thus, what began as a compact between this plain man and his God, evolved into the crusade some believed he had intended all along.  Asked if the comments troubled him he smiled and shook his head, saying simply, “consider the source.”

After much thought and prayer, Père Joseph, along with a growing number of the clergy, began counseling leniency on the practice of birth control, believing this was properly a matter of conscience between a husband and wife.  He had known too many families with ten, twelve children, too many women worn to the bone, aged before their time, too many men crushed by the burden of support.  The act of love, he maintained, that supreme consolation for a man and a woman, should not be denied people with so few chances for a happy life as it is.  But Père Joseph insisted on a condition:  God has to be in the picture, or selfishness will inevitably prevail.  He saw the Church’s position on contraception as a disaster, clouding its credibility on the really tragic business of taking life through abortion.

Groping toward maturity, many teenagers distance themselves from church and parish.  But on their way out the door, some of Père Joseph’s young people paused for a second look.  His invitation to join parish councils was novel and, to some, appealing.  Others were attracted to his athletic program.  Over thirty and worse yet, a priest, still they sensed that this man listened, tried to understand what it meant to be overweight and unloved, or fifteen and pregnant.

Alcohol was a problem, reaching even into the elementary school.  To Père Joseph, it was bitter irony that the parents of these children professed surprise and dismay when their example proved more powerful than their words.  Not many yet were involved with drugs, though he knew it was only a matter of time before that scourge made its appearance.

The Saturday night mixers were the centerpiece of Père Joseph’s youth ministry.  Word was, Ste. Anne’s had the best collection of Beatles and Elvis records in the city.  But this officially-sponsored hedonism raised the hackles of parish elders – today’s youth were wild enough, out of control.  The pastor’s job was to restrain and mold, not encourage ferment.  Not so fast, Père Joseph countered – bridges must be built.  For better or worse, the future belongs to the young.

So, even among Père Joseph’s mostly loyal following, his successes bred detractors, and their complaints found fertile ground with his superiors already wondering what to make of this peculiar cleric.

“You’re aware, Your Grace, of the personality cult around the pastor at Ste. Anne’s?” went the whispers.  “Parish discipline is lax, his teachings unorthodox, his counseling liberal to the point of grave error…”  And the books!  The diocesan auditors couldn’t believe what they found.  Père Joseph’s approach had little in common with accepted principles of accounting.  “Nor does he mention the collections,” the auditors complained, “even on those rare occasions when he preaches the High Mass where the congregation is inclined to be more generous.”

That much was true.  Père Joseph always offered the first Mass of the day – for the widows, bulky or frail in their cloth coats and oxford shoes, for those who labored all night at the hospital or the firehouse, for those who rose early to open their shops.  When he did appear at Sunday’s eleven o’clock it was to distribute communion, not talk business.  That he left to his assistant pastor who, he said, had a better knack for such things.  A good portion of Ste. Anne’s weekly collections was quietly dispensed to needy families but, contrary to common practice, Père Joseph refused to publish a list of parishioners and the amounts they gave.  It is an odd charity, he maintained, that pits a man against his neighbor.

The oil company, groceries, plumbers, other tradesmen, he cajoled into forgiving debts.  A few parishioners down on their luck were always in residence at the rectory while Père Joseph found them jobs and somewhere to live.  They cleaned and painted, washed windows and shoveled snow.  But bottom line, Ste. Anne’s books were a disaster, its contribution to the diocesan fund appeal always too little, too late.  As for managing the parish, the auditors concluded, Père Joseph was less an underachiever than a non-participant.

The last straw, however, was Vietnam.  In his life Père Joseph had known only one Vietnamese, an older priest who returned home after the French defeat at Dienbienphu.  They corresponded regularly, and through his friend’s eyes Père Joseph came to know the unhappy results of America’s deepening entanglement.  In 1968 the letters stopped.  After a year of fruitless inquiry, Père Joseph’s fears were confirmed – his friend had been killed in an air strike on a rural village.  It was time to speak out.

For weeks he labored over his text.  It grew to a set of sermons which would hold Vietnam up to the Church’s teachings on Just War.  He would measure the effect of modern weaponry on civilian populations and evaluate the flimsy self-defense argument.  He would find America’s adventurism misplaced and immoral.

But there was a problem.  With its large emigré population, Ste. Anne’s was staunchly patriotic.  Père Joseph knew he would offend his old soldiers, their memories of battle dimmed and mellowed with time.  Inevitably he would need to attack his parishioners’ unwavering faith in their government.  But worst of all was the Faustian bargain at work in the parish, the nation.  The swift current of better times was sweeping everything along in its path.  War meant demand for clothing, for precision parts and tools.  Two mills had reopened and the machine shops were thriving.  Parishioners years down on their luck finally had a paycheck every week.  The merchants were ecstatic.  Goods fairly leapt off the shelves.

Père Joseph agonized.  Should he speak his conscience?  Or remain silent, let events take their course, let his people enjoy this deserved respite from hard times?  Then, one evening at prayer, as he meditated on the Church’s impotence during the Holocaust, the old shame and anger flooded back.

Even his staunchest supporters were dismayed.  After his first sermon to a stunned congregation, a friend close to the Bishop warned that complaints had been received.  Père Joseph thanked him for his advice.

The second sermon provoked a front-page article in the Providence Journal.  Alarmed, his friend called again.  The Bishop was personally looking into the situation.  The third and last sermon brought an official letter.  Henceforth, Father Lemieux was warned, he would avoid political topics.  Into the wastebasket it went.

That might have been the end of it, but soon he was voicing support for the parish’s handful of conscientious objectors and the young men who had fled to Canada.  Now he was reviled even more harshly than they.  Families had lost sons to Vietnam, went the attack, and more would die unless our fighting men had our full support.  This time Père Joseph had gone too far.

The blow fell in the very office where he now waited.  “Your pride and willfulness will not be tolerated.  We can no longer permit you to hold a position of influence.”  The face of his Monsignor Mulvaney, his classmate, was stern.  “I must remind you, Father, order and discipline among the clergy is not optional.”

No mention was made of Père Joseph’s accomplishments.  They paled against his poor management, against the Church’s need to speak with one voice.  “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church,” the Monsignor intoned.  “That’s where it starts, and that’s where it ends.  The Church has no room for free spirits like you.”

He would be relieved of his pastorate and transferred to a suburban parish, not even as assistant pastor, but a lowly curate.

Père Joseph had prepared himself for the worst.  His back was already bowed to accept the blow.  “Perhaps you’re right.  It’s not good to stay in one place too long,” he said, then fell silent.

Puzzled, the monsignor drummed his fingertips on the desk.  “That’s all you have to say in your defense?”

Père Joseph thought for a moment.  “Better that we get on with God’s work, whatever form it may take.  What I think is of no consequence.”

A few parishioners wrote angry letters, a delegation appeared at diocesan headquarters demanding an appointment with the Bishop but were shunted off to Monsignor Mulvaney.  Those with influence who might have taken Père Joseph’s side did not.  Indeed, they were pleased the irritant had at last been removed.

[TO BE CONTINUED]

 

Games People Played – a story for summer as it rolls along

GAMES PEOPLE PLAYED

Did your first school teach you everything you needed to know for life?   Paul Bernard reflects here on his time in the schoolyard.   Adapted from Twentieth Century Limited Book One – Age of Heroes

Thinking back, some things that seemed simple and straightforward were anything but.  Complex, they were, and full of meaning, though at the time I didn’t appreciate this.  Take some of the games we played.

In our schoolyard near the first grade windows, two walls came together at a right angle, perfect for a game of Squeeze the Lemon.  When a classmate was spotted in this area, somebody would take a run at him, leaping and crushing him into the corner.  Usually one striker at a time, though two were better, if harder to manage.  Sometimes a reluctant lemon (most of them were) had to be held, which called for excellent timing since the holder stood a good chance of getting mashed himself.  After maybe half a dozen rushes, the lemon would escape to nurse his wounds and another victim was targeted.  Girls were excluded, of course, and while there was no reason they couldn’t compete in say, horse chestnuts or picture cards, they’d no sooner do that than a boy would be seen jumping rope.

We collected everything, traded everything.  Superman and Batman were the best comic books, the Heap the oddest.  Pepsi caps with state outlines under the corks, Hoodsie lids with movie stars beneath peel-off waxed paper (girls collected these) and chewing gum foil you’d roll up, trying to build the biggest ball.  What a sad day when packages of aluminum wrap started appearing in our neighborhood grocery, pretty much ending this important collecting art.  And they called this progress!

Some years the horse chestnuts were so abundant you couldn’t help skidding on them hiding under the leaves.  Chestnuts were prized because they made a terrific game.  You stuck a nail through the hard gray mantle of the nut where the stem had been, then forced it down through the meat, taking care not to crack the shell.  Next, a shoelace through the hole, a double knot, wrap the lace around your fist and you were ready.  Five whacks for you, five for your opponent, then back and forth until one of the chestnuts broke.

Every time the chestnut made a hit it suffered damage even if it couldn’t be seen, so it wasn’t just how tough the nut was – your strategy mattered.  When cracks began to show in the opponent you could go for it, or you could back off using glancing blows to preserve your nut, though of course with the occasional home run swing.  One piece would chip away, then another and another.  When so few crumbs were left you couldn’t even tell it had been a nut, the game was over.  Sometimes the skin hid an internal fault and a nut would disintegrate from a single blow.  Legend has it, two nuts once exploded at the same time but I never saw that happen, nor did anybody I knew.

The winning chestnut, whatever its condition, had to stand all comers.  After a certain number of wins – I don’t remember the number – the naked and gouged nut, no more than a chunk of grayish-yellow meat, qualified as a kinger.  Some kids soaked their kingers in vinegar to harden them, but nobody knew if that really helped.  Owning a kinger made you a celebrity.  I had a kinger in sixth grade, which was fitting since King was my dog’s name and when it came to dogs he was a winner.

Picture cards were an important collectable and a game, both. You’d drop to your knees behind a chalk line in front of a wall, and gently sail your card so it skipped and slid precisely to the base of the wall.  Closest to the wall won, unless covered by a later throw which won everything.  Even better than a toucher was a card that stopped upright at the wall, leaning against it.  Covering a leaner was excellent but very rare.  Beat-up cards only – you never saw one with crisp edges and corners, still smelling of the pink gum it came packaged with.  A few cards were off limits like Williams and DiMaggio and Musial – if only I’d known to keep them!  But Johnny Wyrostek, Eddie Waitkus – that kind of card was common, also football cards which were inferior even when new.

After dinner, my father liked to relax in his red leather chair, reading the paper and smoking his pipe.  Sprawled on the floor I would sort and resort my cards and place them in the glassine pockets of my album.  After a lot of thought I decided by team was better than by name so Williams and Pesky and Doerr would be together like in real life, Sain and Spahn of the Braves and so on.  Some players had wonderful names, especially Spahn – Warrrren Spaahhhnn.  Just like my bank, the Old Stone Bank, his name sounded exactly like he looked – slow, graceful, with a leg kick that floated up and above his head.  “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain,” they said the summer the Braves won the pennant, though Cleveland killed them in the Series.

The Yankees, the despised Yankees…okay, I admit it, I had Yankee cards too.  Raschi and Rizutto and Berra – staccato sounds harsh to your ear.  Our neighborhood originally had been Irish, but growing up it was mostly Italian and I had many friends and enemies with names like that.  Wops, my father called them sometimes – not my friends but their parents, and only when they weren’t around.  I didn’t know why wop was so bad but my friends went crazy if I called them that when we were having a fight – usually just names and shoving but sometimes punches.  Wop.  It got them going every time.

So you see, as the acorn possesses the oak, my schoolyard had much to tell me about life, even if I wasn’t listening at the time.

More summer reading – enjoy!

WHAT YOU SEE IS WHAT YOU GET…SOMETIME

It was a tall mirror, oval, framed in dark wood, on a matching stand, the featured piece in the window of a second-hand furniture store styling itself an antique dealer.  Something to pair with a clothes valet if that appeals to you.  After a frustrating hunt for a parking space, my near-steady Sharon and I were hurrying to the new Woody Allen at the local fine arts theater.  In my view, Allen’s been repeating himself for years, plus many of his characters are truly insufferable, but Sharon thought anything he did was magic, so here we were.  We paused in front of the mirror and I commented how good we looked together, then we moved on.  A nice-looking couple in a nice-looking period piece, that’s all.

Coming out of the theater, Sharon was raving about the film, “Hollywood Ending,” a rerun.  It was okay, not great, one-and-a-half stars max.  No big names unless you count George Hamilton who my mother once had a crush on.  Approaching the furniture store I stopped short, yanking Sharon’s hand as she walked on, continuing her review.

“Why are you stopping?  Oh, that mirror.”

“Take a look…this is amazing.”

She peered at the window.  “What am I supposed to see?  It’s just us.”  Noticing the odd look on my face she added, “sorry, I didn’t mean it that way.”

“Don’t you see anything else?”

She shook her head.  “It’s us.  You and me.  Isn’t that enough?”

I continued to stare at the mirror.  My hair was gray, what was left of it.  I was bursting out of my sport coat, a couple of sizes too small.  As I unbuttoned the coat it fell open, revealing a paunch just like my father’s before his heart attack.  And Sharon!  In the mirror she was heavier, I mean a lot heavier, her face was pudgy and her hair cut short instead of long and flowing.  She could have been her mother.  We were in our fifties, at least.

“What’s going on?” she asked.  “Am I missing something?”

“Nothing, I guess,” I mumbled, shaken, “nothing important.”

“Do you realize you’re acting very weird?”

I took her hand, shooting a last look at the mirror.  “Let’s get going.”

That night I slept poorly, strange dreams I didn’t remember in the morning.  Distracted at the office, I couldn’t wait for the day to end.  At five o’clock I hurried to my car and headed back downtown.  Parking easily this time, I crossed the street to the furniture store, my heart pounding.  As I approached, I looked in the window.  No mirror!  It was gone!  Entering the store I roused the attendant who sat at a desk over some paperwork, an older guy with a gray mustache, the owner, I figured.

“That mirror in the window…what happened to it?”

“Which mirror?  We have several.”

“It was on a wood stand, dark wood.”

“Oh, that one.  We sold it.”

“You sold it!”

“Well, yes.  That is what we’re here for, you know.”

Feeling foolish, I caught my breath.  “Do you know who bought it?”

“Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t.  Anyway we don’t give out that kind of information.”

“Will you check?  This is very important.”

“Say, you are the nosy one.  What’s your interest in the mirror?”

“I saw it last evening.  I…I wanted to buy it.”

“That’s understandable, it was a beautiful piece.”

“Can you look it up?  Please.  I’ll make it worth your while.”

The man looked hard at me.  “All right, but no promises.”  He opened his desk drawer and pulled out a sheaf of papers clipped together.  Shuffling through them, he began talking under his breath.  “Today’s receipts…this afternoon, as I recall, right after lunch.  Ah!  Here we are.”  He held up a yellow sales slip.  “No name.  She paid cash.  If she used a credit card I’d have to make a decision, but as it is I haven’t the faintest idea who she was.”

“She?  What did she look like?”

“Oh, I don’t know.  Tall, maybe forty.  Said she had a matching piece, a valet in dark wood.”

I paused.  “How long did you have the mirror?”

“A few months.  Four, maybe five.”

“Did you notice anything unusual about it?”

“Unusual?  How do you mean?”

“When you looked in the mirror what did you see?”

He stared at me.  “You are a strange one, aren’t you?  You look in a mirror, you see yourself.  What else would you see?”

“But when?”

“Whenever you happen to look, I’d suppose.  Say, what kind of game is this?  If you look in a mirror you see yourself, if you don’t look in a mirror you don’t see yourself.  Seems pretty elementary.”

“Let me leave my card,” I said, deflated.  If you see her again, tell her to give me a call.”

“All right, that much I can do.”

“How much did you sell it for?”

“We were asking fifty, as I recall she offered fifteen.”  He glanced at the paper, “settled on thirty, she gave me a twenty and a ten.  Didn’t charge her tax.  Sometimes I’ll do that when I like a customer.”

“You liked her?”

“She was all right.  Reminded me of my late wife.”

I never mentioned the mirror again to Sharon, but I will say, for me that night was a wake-up call.  I rejoined the health club and began working out, even dug my tennis racket out of the closet.  Not long after, Sharon and I broke up.  Later I heard she moved away, but I have no idea what happened to her, where she ended up.  I always thought the mirror had something to do with our split.  Don’t get me wrong, it was mutual, but I didn’t try very hard to hold it together, either.  At the time, Sharon seemed kind of put out, but who knows what goes through a woman’s mind?

Hollywood ending, indeed.

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