Love Leaps

SOMETIMES I THINK of Sister Alma Rose as being God’s Lap on Earth. She is large, brown, and solid, like the earth itself. In her presence there is comfort, capaciousness, and embrace; and when she actually hugs you, physically, you feel a tsunami of love, peace, and hope – which makes her sound like a wave-borne Christmas card, but those feelings come with wings, and the energy surge lasts at least until the next time you are hugged by Sister Alma Rose, or until you learn to treasure yourself as God and Sister Alma Rose treasure you.

Fanny

Me, Fanny McElroy

This is true for me, at least, and for everyone I know who has ever been hugged by Sister Alma Rose… though a Sister Alma Rose hug can literally leave you breathless, particularly if you are a certain height. No one, as far as I know, has ever collapsed during or after such an embrace, but I’d be lying if I said there’s never been some lightheadedness in the experience.

…All of which I put forth to explain why it is startling to see Sister Alma Rose weep. I’ve certainly known her to be angry, in brief but definitely daunting eruptions, but discovering tears on that face, which nearly always radiates the joy and serenity of a pure heart and a love-drenched soul, is… well, stunning – far more so than if James Bond, for example, were to break down sobbing when confronting Francisco Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun. One thing Sister Alma Rose and James Bond have in common – and the only thing I can think of at the moment, apart from their being larger-than-life human beings (quasi-human, in the case of James Bond) – is the sense of authority and competence they exude.

Father Dooley and his friend

Source: http://naturesperspective.com/blog/?cat=27

One October morning, unseasonably warm from a sun that seemed to still be straining summerward, Pablo and I (who were probably twelve at the time) were playing chess, dismally, I have to say, on Sister Alma Rose’s wonderful grass-green wraparound porch (a kind of metaphor for Sister Alma Rose herself, I often think). The little mutt, terrier mixed with mongrel, who had followed Pablo home from school the day before, was sleeping at our feet. Mr. Truman LaFollette had just brought out, in his silent, unobtrusive way, a pitcher of his incomparable lemonade and two big tumblers filled with ice. Sister Alma Rose was just inside the kitchen door, doing something culinary with butternut squash, I think. It was a sublimely peaceful moment, though the chess was desultory and we were ready to do something, anything, else – held in place by the sweet sunlight and the lively conversation of a pair of cardinals.

Thus bemused, we didn’t notice Father Dooley and a young woman I’d never met approaching until they were actually beside us on the porch. Mr. Truman LaFollette, with his spooky prescience, was already placing three more ice-filled tumblers on the big green table. Sister Alma Rose was right behind him. She and Father Dooley and the pretty stranger all sat down beside us at the same time, as if someone had called a meeting, although I know that they didn’t have an appointment, per se, because Sister Alma Rose had gleefully set aside the day for her “early harvest,” or it might have been her “late harvest.” I know next to nothing about butternut squash.

Father Dooley jovially introduced his companion as “Tina” and explained that they had formed a friendship through Alcoholics Anonymous and that he thought it was “a good idea” for Tina and Sister Alma Rose to meet. This surprised no one, because (a) we had known for years that Father Dooley was a recovering alcoholic, (b) Father Dooley gathers friends the way marmalade attracts bees, and (c) it’s always a good idea for anyone to become acquainted with Sister Alma Rose… nor did Pablo and I imagine for a moment that we should delicately depart and give the other three some privacy. It’s like we were part of Sister Alma Rose’s posse, you see, and people who came to visit Sister Alma Rose always seemed to understand that.

So the character of the gathering around Sister Alma Rose’s sturdy outdoor table wasn’t particularly unusual. What was extraordinary from the sitting-down moment was the vibes. To put it more elegantly, when Tina and I locked eyes there was a strange certainty – on my part and I was sure on hers as well – that we had been connected since time began. I don’t know how else to explain the electricity that flowed between us.

Tina’s story

On the surface, Tina’s background and mine could hardly have been less alike. I was born in a small, quiet town to parents who wanted me, loved and nurtured me, supported my interests, indulged my whims, and allowed my independence when it was wise to do so. Tina’s birth in an urban slum had scarcely been noticed by her alcoholic mother and heroin-addicted father. She was, almost literally, a throwaway.

Young as I was, I had visited Tina’s world, or one much like it. I’d been up close and personal with addicts and amorality and all manner of sordidness and uncompromising poverty. This is another story for another time. The important difference between Tina, at thirty, and me, at twelve, was that at the end of the day I always had a safe, cheerful dwelling to go home to. Tina, clean and sober for less than a year, had only recently found the comparative security of a shelter for the homeless.

Schooled in my family’s openness and Sister Alma Rose’s serenity and resilience, I am rarely horrified, but I was unprepared for the account of brutality I was about to hear. At Father Dooley’s invitation, Tina began her bleak narrative, but with an acceptance and a composure that seemed ever more remarkable as her story unfolded.

“I was an alcoholic by the time I was three,” she told us calmly. “I was younger than that when my father started raping me. Whenever he came around, I hid, but he found me. There was always alcohol in the house, even when there was no milk or bread. I learned very early that it dulled the pain and the fear.”

Mercifully, in my memory the details of Tina’s biography have dimmed. Trying to recall them is agonizing. I know that Tina and her siblings had lived among numerous relatives, each home more dysfunctional than the last. Her mother had routinely sold Tina’s “services” for crack cocaine. An aunt introduced her to a toxic array of street drugs.

What might have set Tina apart was an instinct to care for her younger brothers and sisters and, beginning in her early teens, for her own children. She didn’t say, but I suppose she went to school. I suppose there were ineffectual social-service interventions. Whatever the case, she learned to read and write. How she became so marvelously poised and articulate is a mystery. She spoke like Willa Cather writes. It astonished me.

At one point, I glanced at Sister Alma Rose. Her face was tranquil, but I saw the tears. She didn’t try to hide them. She didn’t even blot them with her apron. It occurred to me that she too had “recognized” Tina.

By the grace of God

When Tina could free herself and the children she protected the best she could, they became squatters, sleeping in abandoned buildings and eventually settling in a community of sorts, chronically homeless people making shift under a bridge. Worldly as I believed myself to be, I didn’t know that people actually live under bridges. Tina told us that, despite occasional attempts to roust them, the authorities pretty much looked the other way. Churches sometimes brought them food, blankets, and clothes.

An alcoholic and a drug addict, Tina managed to support her family by selling drugs. I don’t know how or where she met Craig, a thoroughly decent man who weaned her from the street and steered her to A.A. Father Dooley told us that Tina went to A.A. meetings every morning. At first, Craig drove her there directly from her job as a waitress at an all-night restaurant. At some point she got a driver’s license and a pickup truck and took charge of her transportation to work and meetings, never missing a day.

Ten months after she told us her story, Tina and Craig were married. Father Dooley says it remains “a solid marriage.

“They’re devoted to each other,” he told me not long ago.

I’ve never heard what became of Tina’s younger siblings or her children, some having been placed in foster care when Tina started rehab. It was her wish to reclaim them all, “by the grace of God.” Given her faith and determination, I’d be surprised if she didn’t succeed.

“Life throws all kinds of rubbish in your path, Fanny McElroy,” Sister Alma Rose once told me. “It puts up what looks like prison walls you can’t see over or around. Love leaps over them all.”

Country road

Walking into town

That enchanted sense of connection with Tina has never left me. As she and Father Dooley were saying their goodbyes on Sister Alma Rose’s magical grass-green porch, I took her aside. I’m not sure what words came to me, except that I “recognized” her.

“You’re an angel from Heaven,” I think I said, “or at least a very old soul. I know we’ll meet again.”

“Yes,” she said. “God is good.”

“Fanny McElroy,” I said to myself, “I believe you’re going to cry.”

It’s easy to say “God is good” when your life is rolling along like a wind-propelled tumbleweed and the worst thing you have to worry about is getting a below-average grade on a test you didn’t study for – which was pretty much the case for me when I was twelve. Coming from Tina, who had pretty much just landed on solid ground… whose yesterdays were grim and whose tomorrows were murkier than most… it was life-affirming. It was miraculous. It gave me strength and hope I would one day cling to.

“God is good indeed,” I said, with little idea of the magnificent truth of it, and walked home with Pablo and his little dog.

Everybody’s Magic

country road

'Henry was hiking on country roads, with no particular route or destination'

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Secrets of the Ancients Revealed

Me, Fanny McElroy, age 12

Me, Fanny McElroy, age 12

(Continued from previous post…) So I went home and began babbling to Mama — my little brothers were off spending a few days with Aunt Belle and her monsters, excuse me, her dear little ones, Tigger and Anja, who are just freely expressing their unspoiled innocence when they yank on your hair and stomp on other kids’ toys if they’re not allowed to play with them, and Aunt Belle, who is dear and kind and rather vague and stares in an unfocused way at Tigger and Anja like she’s not quite sure who they are or how they got there, literally wrings her hands — and then I had to start babbling all over again when Daddy came in, but he wanted a shower first, which was probably good because it gave me a chance to gather my thoughts, and then, wearing clean Levi’s and a purple (which is not Daddy’s color, it makes him look sallow) “Kansas State University Athletic Department” T-shirt and holding a bottle of Harp beer, he sat in the blue Morris chair that is Only His (Daddy says that by now the chair is perfectly molded to his butt)…

Antimacassar

My grandmother crocheted antimacassars and placed them on the "headrest" parts of chairs to prevent men's hair oil, specifically "Macassar Oil," from soiling the chair

…and Mama sat beside him in her grandmother Dolly’s overstuffed rocking chair, which I don’t know why she likes it because the upholstery is cow-patty brown and scratchy and covered with doilies and, I swear, an antimacassar, unlike Mama, who was, of course, not covered with doilies but was, rather, aglow in a white sundress with huge red polka dots and who was, uncharacteristically, drinking a glass of Rhine wine mixed with pineapple juice and a dab of peach brandy (a delicious punch she made for the wedding shower she hosted for her piano student Clarissa Whitney earlier that day, otherwise Mama rarely drinks alcohol, but gosh that punch is crisp and refreshing, and yes, I was given permission to have a small sip)…

(I really was)

President Obama delivering the 2010 State of the Union address

President Obama delivering the 2010 State of the Union address

…and she and Daddy held hands and looked at me expectantly, as if I were about to deliver the State of the Union address, so I said, “My fellow Americans,” and then launched into the story of Henry the Hiker and told them, Mama and Daddy, I mean, that he, Henry, is the spit and image of Matthew McConaughey, and about my premonition, and Pablo’s, and the 2000 newspaper article, with the photo of Henry, Ben, and Portia, reporting Henry’s disappearance, and my suspicion, confirmed by Sister Alma Rose, that Henry was one of the Ancients, and then Sister Alma Rose’s cryptic comment, which she refused to elaborate on, that Henry had not come to see her, Sister Alma Rose, but rather to see me, Fanny McElroy, 12 years old last October 4.

“What would he want with me?” I asked in great perplexity. “Oh, I know! He’s come to give me tennis lessons!”

Helen Keller, 1904

Helen Keller, 1904

That was supposed to be a joke, but no one laughed. Mama and Daddy had exchanged “significant glances” a few times, but they didn’t seem surprised by my “shocking revelations.” Sometimes I almost think Mama and Sister Alma Rose have this mental-telepathy thing going, because I can tell Mama about something that happened at Sister Alma Rose’s and it’s like she already knows, though either of them would die before they would betray a confidence, so I’m thinking Vulcan Mind Meld or else a convergence of highly developed women’s intuition.

Pray without ceasing

Growing up, I had known about the Ancients, in the same way you know about stuff like the Italian Riviera, and plantain (the fruit, not the weed), and Helen Keller: It’s out there (except for Helen Keller), and you have a vague idea what it is, and someday maybe you’ll care, but for now it’s just a Frito in the Massive Smorgasbord of Knowledge. In our house, if you had an odd sock, it was, like, “Maybe the Ancients took the other one,” and I used to think of them as Gollum-like creatures who slithered around and stole your homework or fiddled with your carburetor so your truck wouldn’t start — sort of like poltergeists in the flesh.

Portofino, the Italian Riviera; photo, Stan Shebs

Portofino, the Italian Riviera; photo, Stan Shebs

But from time to time I would overhear somebody — Mama or Daddy, Sister Alma Rose or Cousin Dulcie — saying “the Ancients” in a conversation that was respectful in tone, even reverential. So I came to believe that the Ancients were real people and somehow near, and eventually I just knew without being told that Sister Alma Rose and Cousin Dulcie had come from the Ancients, and, of course, dear, misguided Portia, who is fey, which means

(a) slightly insane
(b) elfin: suggestive of an elf in strangeness and otherworldliness; “thunderbolts quivered with elfin flares of heat lightning”; “the fey quality was there, the ability to see the moon at midday” — John Mason Brown
wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn

NOTHING AT ALL LIKE THE ANCIENTS: Gollum, as depicted in the most recent film version of The Lord of the Rings

Portia notwithstanding, knowing about the Ancients has always given me a warm, safe feeling, like these almost-angels are keeping an eye on things while we clueless more-mortal mortals lurch around trying to make sense of our lives and, ideally, help other people be more comfortable in their skin, but often not succeeding, as evidenced by the number of times (average 12.7 per day) that you hear someone whine, “But I was JUST trying to HELP.”

Sister Alma Rose seldom discusses the Ancients with me, but she has told me one thing I love: that they literally pray without ceasing — so I can be conversing with Sister Alma Rose, and I have her full attention, but at the same time, in another part of her brain, or maybe in her heart, or her gallbladder (an organ not possessed, according to Wikipedia, by lampreys), I don’t understand the physiology of it, she is praying for me, or praying that she’ll understand what I’m saying, et cetera, and she says that anyone can do this praying without ceasing, you don’t have to be a monk or an Old One, and it brings great peace and health and vigor, and, of course, love, and you never, ever worry. I’m working on that.

Lampreys. People EAT them. There are EYES looking out of those tentacles

Lampreys. People EAT them. There are EYES looking out of those tentacles. Photo: Drow Male

* * *

So when I finished telling Mama and Daddy about Henry, et cetera, Mama announced that she had decided that the time had come to tell me as much as she could about the Ancients, and my heart did a little cardiac happy dance and in my mind was the cover of some magazine like People with Mama’s picture and the teaser “SECRETS OF THE ANCIENTS REVEALED.”

Or not. In any case, I sat cross-legged on the ottoman and scooched it over near Mama and Daddy and waited for Mama to begin. What you will read below are Mama’s words, minus the “ums,” et cetera, though I think she must have been practicing because she hardly had to stop to scratch or sneeze, or lose her place and find it again, or anything….

The Legend of the Ancients

Little girl, all dressed up, playing in clover

'Get in touch with your inner child'

There are many tales about the Ancients, or the Old Ones [see “The Old Ones,” below], and most of them contain at least SOME truth. So shut down your skeptic’s brain and pay attention, with a willingness to be enchanted. “Get in touch with your inner child,” because this is a lovely story, and it is mostly true. I know, because I was there.

The Old Ones, in one form or another, exist in every culture, but this story is about the Old Ones in North America because the author has personal experience with them. It is said that they have been on this continent for at least three thousand years, but the author cannot verify that.

Mountains of the Ancients?

Mountains of the Ancients?

According to one legend, many centuries ago a group of mystically inclined Indians created a village at the top of the highest mountain they could find and dedicated themselves to Knowing God. Since they could not at the same time dedicate themselves to learning the warriors’ ways, they needed to make their homes in a safe, secluded place, and they wanted to be close to the sky.

Over the millenia, they learned the arts and sciences that were revealed to them, and, because God was in their hearts and they were compassionate, some of them left the mountain community and went down to live quietly among the valley people, teaching and healing. 

BlueRidgeMountainRoad-Istock

No one can find them unless they want to be found

A small group of Europeans — just a handful of families, the story goes — with much the same vision stumbled upon the Indian village in their search for a mountain refuge. (No one today seems to know how they got to North America from Europe.) The Europeans and the Indians compared notes, in a manner of speaking, and found that the Europeans knew a great deal that the Indians did not, and the Indians knew much that the Europeans did not, so that by combining their knowledge they became more powerful and more compassionate, and the two communities became one.

MotherDaughter

They are...

They are still there, in that original settlement. No one — no person, no army, no camera or satellite — can find them unless they want to be found. Small groups and individuals have been led there — escaped slaves and refugees as well as mystics, gifted healers, and gypsies.

They are a beautiful people, physically and spiritually. Many have golden brown skin, wavy chestnut hair, and whiskey-brown eyes, though it is not unusual to see a blue-eyed blond in the village.

Dad Lifting Young Son

...a beautiful people

The Ancients are fully human, though they use more than the five senses you and I were taught about; in fact, all their senses are highly developed, including intuition, the so-called sixth sense, as well as manifestation, healing, and tapping the collective unconscious. They can literally make quantum leaps, and time travel is old hat to them, though, by unanimous agreement, they do not visit the future.

None of this is “supernatural.” It is simply science, advanced knowledge, mastered by people who are in continuous communication with God. The author has been told that as long as the Ancients remain in their mountain home, they age very slowly. They are completely self-sufficient in providing shelter, clothing, herbal cures and other forms of healing, and food. Meditation is a way of life. Prayer comes naturally, easily… it is second nature. Negative stress is practically unknown.

Reincarnation — ‘enormous compassion’

But the mountaintop home of the Ancients is no Shangri-La. Like their “Ancient” brothers and sisters throughout the world, they live in harmony and bear good will toward all people. They dwell apart but journey into the larger world to bring peace and healing. As in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition,

…they are moved by enormous compassion to be
reborn again and again in order to help all
living creatures discover in themselves
complete freedom from pain and
suffering….  —Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche
Blonde in Autumn Grain Field

The Ancients are exuberant by nature; Portia is no exception

The mission of the Ancients is to share their gentle wisdom with all humanity, so they come, singly or as families, to live among us, often but not always in rural areas. They are your neighbors, teachers, mechanics, clergy, hair stylists, carpenters, architects, and landscapers.

Some stay for a year, others for a hundred or more. The latter have, apparently, exceptional tolerance for pollution, artificial pesticides, questionable food additives, the blare of media, and the accelerated lifestyle; but there is no question that they age much faster “down here” than “up there,” in spite of the serenity they gain from habitual prayer and meditation, which are, however, powerful protection from mental and physical illness and deterioration.

The Ancients believe, in a nutshell, (a) that the attributes they have developed and strengthened over countless lifetimes can and must be transmitted “down here” to certain people — those who are intelligent, intuitive, and generous of spirit — and (b) that, beginning with these people, peace, love, and joy will spread over all the earth.

Dad carrying young daughter on shoulders

...reincarnated through a family "down here"

The author has been told that from time to time one of the ancients is reincarnated through a family “down here”; such children might or might not remember their past lives among the Ancients. These little ones are usually looked after and mentored by one or more of the Ancients dwelling nearby for just that purpose.

The author has only a vague idea of how all this works, since she was not privy to the secrets of reincarnation among the Ancients. She was told, however, that most “reincarnates,” at an early age, remember their past lives.

The light sensor

The Ancients claim that everyone has, on his or her head, at the crown, a sensory receptor for light. This receptor opens and closes, like an eye, but on the general population it is practically invisible. If there is no hair on the head to cover it and someone happens to notice it, that person thinks little of it, believing it to be a freckle or a small mole.

man-with-outstretched-arms

'Flooding the body with light'

But the Ancients have “exercised” this receptor for hundreds and hundreds of years, for the purpose of flooding the body with light for healing, and it has evolved into a larger circular “discoloration” about half an inch in diameter and very slightly raised. This, apparently, is the only outward difference between the Ancients and “ordinary” people.

Having my head examined

Mama stopped talking and took a sip of her drink.

Fanny McElroy at about age 4

Sister Alma Rose has always known that I was 'unusual'

“Dear One, we’ve been waiting for the right time to tell you all this,” Daddy said, taking my face gently between his hands, “though Sister Alma Rose has been urging us along for the past month or two. You’ve been a happy, well-adjusted child, you see, and there was no need, and a small part of us — a very small part — hoped that she was wrong. But you’ve been drawn more and more to Sister Alma Rose, who’s known since she first laid eyes on you as a newborn that you were… um… unusual.”

My heart was thumping wildly. I was about to be told something important, crossing an invisible line that would change my life, in a good way but also challenging… a quest, maybe, like Frodo’s with the One Ring, but not so dangerous and not, I devoutly hoped, involving a fiery-eyed wizard and the undead on winged chargers.

Brand-new puppies

All must leave the warmth, familiarity, and perceived safety of the womb

For a moment, more than anything, I wanted to stay on the not-knowing side of the line and go on as I always had, but that would be impossible, just as it is impossible for a baby to refuse to be born.

I didn’t want to hear it. I couldn’t wait to hear it. I needed to hear it, because it would lead me to my place in Creation, and nothing would bring more good to the world or more satisfaction to my spirit than doing what God had meant for me to do.

And then I knew. I lifted my hand and held it over my head, above the crown. The feeling of warmth was unmistakable. I slipped my fingers under my hair and I could feel the raised half-inch circle.

“I’m one of them, aren’t I?” I asked, my voice shaking, looking at Mama, then Daddy, for confirmation, and their eyes told me all. “I’m one of the Ancients.”

Young girl happily dancing

One of the Ancients...

Sidebar: The Old Ones—Other Legends

A great many older religions may believe that Old Ones are the beings that existed at the creation of the universe and everything in it, possibly considered to be minor gods or deities or… co-existing with gods…. In The Dark Tower series written by Stephen King, the Old Ones (also sometimes called Great Old Ones) were a highly advanced civilization, called the Imperium, that ruled the All-World many centuries, or possibly millennia ago…. In The Dark Is Rising sequence by the British author Susan Cooper, the Old Ones are agents of the Light, born as men and women, whose task is to prevent the Powers of the Dark from taking control of the world.

“They are immortal but are not Gods and most do not appear different than late middle age humans…. Their abilities include time-travel, shape-shifting, and ability to speak and understand various languages without having learned them….

Madeleine L'engle's Murry Family series

Madeleine L'Engle's Murry Family series

“In Madeleine L’Engle‘s… science fantasy books about the Murry family, [the]… Old Ones are similar to the ones in Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series—humans born with unusual mystical powers and dedicated to a never-ending struggle against the powers of darkness and evil. In both series, the Old Ones are associated with an Old Music.” —Wikipedia

* * *

Spring and Easter cards

MAKE IT A SPECIAL TIME: Give these Spring and Easter "story" cards to friends and family

Passing Through

Sh-h-h-h: Limeade

Mr. Truman LaFollette's Incomparable Limeade Recipe

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Inhaling God in deep breaths

It was the laziest possible of summer afternoons, and Sister Alma Rose and Father Dooley and I were enjoying Mr. Truman LaFollette’s new recipe, which was new only in the sense that it was limeade instead of lemonade, which Mr. Truman said: weren’t we getting tired of it, meaning his incomparable lemonade, and we emphatically informed him that we were not, and he finally confessed that he was getting a little bored with always making lemonade, and I have to say that his limeade is so crisp and refreshing that I will be a little sorry when he gets tired of limeade and goes back to lemonade, or maybe he will try something exotic, like papaya limeade, which, whatever he concocts will be delicious.

Mr. Truman LaFollette always uses fresh lemons when he makes his incomparable lemonade. They are SO fresh that I think he must have a lemon tree hidden somewhere

Mr. Truman LaFollette always uses fresh lemons when he makes his incomparable lemonade. They are SO fresh that I think he must have a lemon tree hidden somewhere

I was happy and relaxed, but I had a mild premonition that something extraordinary was about to happen. I was just too whipped to have a strong premonition, or else I surely would have. Sister Alma Rose trusts and actually encourages my premonitions. “Heaven is talking to y’all, Girl,” she’ll say.

That morning, Sister Alma Rose had been up since before dawn “putting up” produce, tomatoes and peas, I think, and Father Dooley and I had ridden our bicycles to Beth Israel, which is the Reform synagogue in Hilltop, where we were taking a class called “The History of Judaism,” which is every weekday morning for three weeks, and I found it absolutely mesmerizing and was spending hours at the library reading everything I could find about Judaism, but on this particular day I had an extra lot of chores to do when I got home, and Father Dooley had an extra lot of confessions to hear, or something, and so we all felt as though we had earned an afternoon of lethargy, except that Sister Alma Rose was sitting at the grass-green wicker table shelling peas, which is her idea of doing nothing, while Father Dooley and I were sprawled bonelessly in the roomy grass-green wicker chairs with green-and-yellow flowered cushions. Or she might have been shelling beans. I remember reading somewhere that peas ARE beans, of a sort.(1)

THE SPANISH INQUISITION. St. Dominic Presiding Over an Auto-da-Fé, by Pedro Berruguete, c. 1495. An Auto-da-Fé (act of faith) refers to the sentencing of a heretic to die by being burned at the stake

THE SPANISH INQUISITION. St. Dominic Presiding Over an Auto-da-Fé, by Pedro Berruguete, c. 1495. An Auto-da-Fé (act of faith) refers to the sentencing of a heretic to die by being burned at the stake

Pablo had come and gone. He is taking French, which he does every summer, and he is in Advanced French now, so he and Father Dooley and Sister Alma Rose chatted in French, of which I know only enough to expostulate on la plume de ma tante, a topic that soon loses its charm, but when the conversation changed to Judaism, in English, Pablo got up and cheerfully bid us au revoir and climbed onto his bicyclette and rode off. Not that Pablo is uninterested in Judaism, but we were discussing the medieval Inquisitions, and Pablo is very tender-hearted. He was almost inconsolable when his labrador, Myra, dragged a half-dead gecko into the house. A conversation about the cruelties of the Inquisitions would depress him for a week.

Pablo and I are pretty sympatico, and as he was leaving, he leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Something’s up.” I nodded soberly.

Pilgrimage

The three of us were lounging in a comfortable, exhausted silence (except for Sister Alma Rose, who is always comfortable but never exhausted), enjoying the light breeze that floated across the shady porch, when we heard the crunch of feet on the gravel driveway, and I sat up and watched as a man approached, waving and smiling, and I knew that he had something to do with my premonition, and I said, “Thank you, Jesus,” in my head, because he was wearing cutoffs over exquisitely muscled legs and a very nice butt, and he had on a short-sleeved lightweight cotton plaid shirt, unbuttoned, that looked like vintage Eddie Bauer, and I could tell from his high-dollar shoes and backpack that he was a hard-core hiker, not to mention that he was neither sweating nor short of breath and he had just walked up a long, steep hill, which I knew because if he had been coming from the other direction we would have seen him on the road.

Peas in pods

Peas in pods. Image from Wikimedia Creative Commons, by Gaetan Lee at http://www.flickr.com/photos/gaetanlee/

It’s not unusual for strangers to visit Sister Alma Rose as they are passing through Hilltop, although usually they are from La Mesa or one of the other nearby towns, and they have heard of Sister Alma Rose, who has something of a reputation as a healer, a wise woman, an oddball, a guru, a saint, or one of the Ancients, depending on whom you ask, but if the person you ask is Sister Alma Rose, she will say she is a farmer. I had never seen this man before, I was positive, because I would have noticed him inasmuch as he looked almost exactly like Matthew McConaughey, or like Matthew McConaughey might have looked when he was nineteen, and I sort of but not devoutly wished that he would button his shirt because my newly discovered hormones were popping like fireworks in my chest. He was quite a package, with his hip, expensive hiker stuff and his suntanned not-too-hairy chest and sunstreaked, longish, curly hair and slightly cheeky grin, and his very, very blue and surprisingly sagacious eyes, and when he approached us on the porch he smiled directly at me and I smiled back and told myself very firmly to focus on him and not on whether my hair looked okay or did I have a parsley morsel on my teeth or was I drooling.

Matthew McConaughey

Matthew McConaughey, not just eye candy

But when he reached the table he stuck his hand out to shake Sister Alma Rose’s hand, and he spoke to her with something like awe, saying, “Y’all must be Sister Alma Rose,” and I waited to see if he would wince, because Sister Alma Rose’s hands are large and strong and her handshake is legendary, and he didn’t wince but he did raise his eyebrows. The soft, gentlemanly Virginia drawl almost finished me off, though I was able to smile and cock a finger at him and say, “Richmond,” and he smiled back and cocked a finger at me and said, “Bingo.” I’m very good at accents.

Mystical encounters

He shook hands with Father Dooley and then with me, and introduced himself as “Henry the Hiker.” I introduced myself as “Fanny the Drooler,” and he gave me a very fetching wink. Sister Alma Rose graciously gestured to the empty chair, and Mr. Truman LaFollette appeared out of nowhere, which is sometimes disconcerting, especially since he is nearly seven feet tall, with a frosty glass of limeade, and then he was gone before Henry could shake hands with him. When you’re not used to Mr. Truman LaFollette and he makes his ephemeral lemonade appearance, or, in this case, his limeade appearance, it’s a bit like being served by a ghost, and I saw Henry shiver, very slightly, but then he smiled, and I noticed that his teeth were perfectly even and almost blindingly white, and parsley-free, and that he had freckles, for Pete’s sake, and I thought, I am done for.

Patrick Henry delivered his 'Liberty or Death' speech at St. John's Church in Richmond

Patrick Henry delivered his 'Liberty or Death' speech at St. John's Church in Richmond

Because there was more to Henry than dazzling good looks. He was eye candy for sure, but he had an odd kind of quiet vitality, and life just rolled off him in waves. I never thought I’d say this, but even Sister Alma Rose seemed almost ordinary next to Henry.

He had just finished his first year as a seminary student (Princeton, Presbyterian), he told us, with a nod to Father Dooley, as if to say he didn’t have anything against clergy who were other than Presbyterian; and he had heard about Sister Alma Rose through our friend Ben, who had been Henry’s best friend since third grade, which indicated that he also didn’t have anything against black people, which was useful information because southerners sometimes have odd ideas about people whom Pablo refers to as “our darker equals,” ironically, because Pablo is very brown, as is Sister Alma Rose, for that matter.

Pable and I take this road to the library, though it adds a half-mile to the trip

He, Henry, was hiking on country roads with no particular route or destination, he said, other than his journey being in part “a pilgrimage” to meet Sister Alma Rose because Ben had told him that if anyone could help him clear his head, Sister Alma Rose could. His head needed clearing, he explained, because he had entered seminary confidently, with a definite calling, but after a year of study he felt that he had gained a lot of information but had lost his sense of closeness with God.

“I was a strange little kid,” he said, throwing us a killer grin, and, I surreptitiosly checked my chin for drool. “I was always praying. Not conspicuously, like falling down on my knees in the middle of a Little League game, but privately, first thing in the morning, last thing at night, and feeling like whenever something was wrong I could go to God and be wrapped in love and made strong. 

“It just came naturally. I’d start to pray, at home or in church, and right away I was just lost in love, and I was surprised when I found out that it wasn’t the same for everyone else. But I was never embarrassed about it, and sometimes kids would call me ‘Holy Henry,’ but they weren’t being mean, so I’d just smile and say, ‘Alleluia,’ or, ‘Bless you, my child,’ or something, and everyone knew it was just who I was.”

He looked inquiringly at Father Dooley, who had been gazing at Henry with a kind of reverence. “Unusual,” Father Dooley said. “Yes, I’d say it’s very unusual for anyone, of any age, to have mystical encounters on demand. In my own experience, God has been accessible enough to keep me inspired… to keep me excited about my work and to enable me to genuinely love and feel honest compassion… and I often know that I have truly encountered God in prayer, but just as often I get up from prayer dissatisfied, as if one of us showed up and the other didn’t.”

I had never heard Father Dooley speak so earnestly, not even in class.

“Oh, yes!” Henry said, obviously grateful to be understood. “That’s just how it’s been with me, almost since I started seminary. The second thing you said, I mean. One of us not showing up.”

Like breathing

MOI, Fanny

MOI, Fanny

To my credit, I like to think, I had stopped seeing Henry as a sex object and had become absorbed in his story and sympathetic with his dilemma. I pray a lot, and I feel loved and nurtured when I pray, but my Close Encounters with God, the kind that Henry had routinely, have been like lightning bolts out of the blue, huge and unexpected and infrequent gifts of grace.

“It’s like breathing,” said Sister Alma Rose, breaking the silence. She was still shelling peas, and I was reminded of Pablo’s mother praying the rosary, a rhythmic, repetitive, tactile exercise, with the added benefit of the peas being living things just off the vines and smelling fresh and earthen.

Sister Alma Rose looked appraisingly at Henry, and then she nodded, as if something she’d suspected had been confirmed. I had the feeling that there was a secret between them, like they were both members of the Scottish Rite or something, but then Sister Alma Rose went back to shelling peas.

Saint Jerome Praying, by Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516)

Saint Jerome Praying, by Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516)

God always shows up for gratitude

“Y’all can’t be somewhere God isn’t,” she said to the peas, “because there isn’t any such a place. But y’all aren’t always aware of God, just like y’all aren’t always conscious of breathing. Then y’all go to pray, and it’s like y’all are inhaling God in deep breaths, and he fills y’all up and yet he still surrounds y’all.

“And then Henry, he goes to seminary and he learns about the mechanics of breathing and respiration, and how the air supplies oxygen to the lungs, and the oxygen gets into the bloodstream, and into every cell, where it’s exchanged for carbon dioxide, which the blood carries back to the lungs and then it, the carbon dioxide, gets exhaled. Cells can’t live without oxygen, so breathing and all is pretty important.

“But it happens automatically. It’s not a rule. If y’all tried to push oxygen into your bloodstream and then force it into your cells and exchange it for carbon dioxide, and so forth, thinking that if y’all worked hard at it y’all could make it special, maybe sacred, y’all are gonna most likely hyperventilate. Because it’s already been done for y’all. What y’all can do, in prayer, is wonder at it and accept it gratefully and praise God with every breath. God always shows up for gratitude.”

Vanished

For a while the only sound was the slight crackle of fresh pea (or bean) pods opening and the soft plop of peas (or beans) falling into the bowl. Then Henry asked Father Dooley a question about transubstantiation, and thus began a lively conversation to which Sister Alma Rose contributed now and again, and I closed my eyes and listened to the pleasant hum of their voices, like bees in a patch of clover, and when I opened my eyes, Henry and Father Dooley were gone and the sun was low in the sky.

Then Mr. Truman LaFollette was setting a plate of fresh fruit on a romaine lettuce leaf in front of me, with my favorite snack (if we’re not talking hot fudge), sharp cheddar cheese and Triscuits, just within reach.

“Y’all’s mama says y’all can stay for supper,” Mr. Truman LaFollette said, in a voice so seldom used I thought he must have to scrape the rust off. And then he evaporated before I could ask where Sister Alma Rose was.

She appeared a moment later, looking thoughtful, and before she sat down to her salad she carefully placed a yellowed newspaper clipping on the table to my left.

“Don’t y’all be dripping any strawberry juice on that,” she said, and then she bowed her head, so I did, too, and she said, “God of wonders, we thank y’all for the gifts both substantial and mystical that y’all shower upon us, and we ask that y’all help us use these gifts to grow strong and wise and generous. Amen.”

Strawberries

Mr. Truman LaFollette won't tell me where he gets such FRESH FRUIT

I had to bite my lip to keep from giggling as she prayed, first because it always amused me to hear her address the Almighty as “y’all,” and second because her words invoked an image of strawberries and grapes and pineapple falling out of the sky.

“That’s it?” I said, surprised. Usually Sister Alma Rose prays until the food, if it started out hot, is tepid.

“It’s enough,” she said. “Read that newspaper, Missy.”

Without picking it up, I began reading the clipping, at the top of which was a two-column-wide black-and-white photo of a grinning Henry, flanked by a grinning Ben and a bemused-looking Portia, who is the daughter of Mr. Henry LaFollette and Sister Alma Rose’s cousin Dulcie, who had given birth to Portia back when she was Wanton and Wild, which is exactly what Portia is, though Dulcie has turned into a round, comfortable person who smells like talcum powder and who Does Good Deeds. Portia, I thought, was an odd person for either Ben or Henry to know. Sister Alma Rose once told me that Portia is an Aberration, one of the Ancients reincarnated who remembers nothing of her former life and has no idea that she has been sent to do anything other than seduce men and twirl in circles, looking and singing like a fairy child, in the woods.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci ("the beautiful woman without mercy"), a painting by Walter Crane (1845-1915)

La Belle Dame Sans Merci ("the beautiful woman without mercy"), a painting by Walter Crane (1845-1915) that always makes me think of Portia

The story was dated July 28, 2000, and I was startled to see that Henry looked exactly as he had looked that afternoon, even wearing the same shirt (I couldn’t see his butt; unfortunately it had been cropped out of the photo).

Somewhere in Tennessee

‘Seminary student vanishes,’ read the headline. The story went on to say that Henry Morgan McKenzie, Jr., age 19, son of the newspaper’s executive editor and his, the editor’s, wife of twenty-two years, onetime film star Julianne Morgan, had begun a solo cross-country hike just after his classes had ended the second week in May. The photo had been taken as Henry was setting off. As promised, he telephoned either Ben or his parents at least three times a week, but the last phone call had been made on June 2, from somewhere in Tennessee. Of course, law-enforcement personnel in three states were searching vigilantly, blah, blah, blah, but they had found no trace of the missing boy, who had been in excellent health and spirits, with no history of mental illness, blah, blah, blah.

Jessica Lange lookalike

COVER GIRL: Julianne Morgan, a respected actress and Hollywood favorite, before she gave up her career for marriage and children

Scotch-taped to the story was a brief piece published on the five-year anniversary of Henry’s disappearance. There was a small photo of Mr. and Mrs. McKenzie, with Julianne looking youthful and serene and Henry Senior appearing haunted. Their son had been neither found nor heard from, though his mother said that he visited her in dreams and she was at peace, but apparently nobody paid much attention to Julianne, least of all her husband, who said that she was “in denial and receiving psychotherapy.”

I sighed and looked wide-eyed at Sister Alma Rose.

“Poor Julianne,” I said. “But NOT ‘poor Julianne,'” I added, on second thought, “because she knows that Henry is okay. She’s probably thinking, all right, send me to a shrink if you want, but I know something you don’t, and I’d tell you if you’d listen.”

Sister Alma Rose beamed at me, as if I’d proven the unified field theory.

“Ben never mentioned him,” I mused, “or Portia.”

Sister Alma Rose and I both knew that if Ben had been worried about his friend’s disappearance, he would have come to Sister Alma Rose. Therefore, Ben had somehow been in touch with Henry, or knew where he was.

The Angel Gabriel (by Guido Reni) resembles Henry a little bit

The possibilities eddied furiously in my head. Henry had been run over by a semi and had come back as an angel. Henry had been a collective illusion shared by Father Dooley and Sister Alma Rose and me. Henry was one of the Ancients.

“Henry is one of the Ancients,” I almost shouted. That explained Portia’s being with him, sort of. And Sister Alma Rose had known. That explained the long, penetrating look she had given him.

“But why did he come to you? Was it just as he said? About wanting to feel close to God again?”

Sister Alma Rose ignored the latter two questions.

“He didn’t come to me, Fanny,” she said, taking my hand and squeezing it and probably breaking nine or ten small bones. “He came to y’all.”

The thing in me that had always thought I was weird and longed to be normal… it seemed to dissolve in that very moment.

“Oh, my,” I said, trying to take it in without knowing what “it” was, but sharply conscious that my hormones were alive and well and having an emergency convocation in what would someday, with luck, become my left breast. “What a world we live in.” And for the first time in my life, I didn’t have the least idea what to do next.

lemons

(1) Common beans can be used for shell (or shelling) beans, which have the pods removed before they are cooked or dried. The term can be used to refer to other species of beans, such as lima beanssoybeanspeas, or fava beans, that have their shell removed before it is eaten. Nutritionally, shell beans are similar to dry beans, but in the kitchen are treated as a vegetable, often steamed, fried, or made into soups. Wikipedia

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Elizabeth Anna's house outside of Hilltop

Elizabeth Anna's house outside of Hilltop

GRACE means you’re in a different universe
from where you had been stuck,
when you had no way to get there
on your own.
—Anne Lamott, Plan B

What’s So Bad about Feeling Good, Part 2 of a True Story

Elizabeth Anna

Elizabeth Anna today

Sister Alma Rose’s friend Elizabeth Anna is 65 years old. As I mentioned in “What’s So Bad about Feeling Good, Part 1,” Elizabeth Anna, who has been living in Wales or some place for the past several years, came back to Hilltop last month for a visit, and to decide if she wanted to move into the house outside of Hilltop where she was born and raised, which is a fabulous mansion with servants and poultry and some sheep and cows and lots of horses, not in the mansion, of course, although Elizabeth Anna says that it would have been just fine with her daddy if the horses had lived in the house, because he was a breeder of racehorses, like his daddy, and his daddy before him, et cetera, but he is deceased and so is Elizabeth Anna’s mother…

King Edward VI of England, son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour

King Edward VI of England, son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour

…who was descended from the Welsh noble Owen Tudor, whose wonderful Welsh name was Owain ap Maredudd ap Tewdwr, of which I am sure the pronunciation is not as silly as it looks, but the important thing about Lord Tudor, or whatever they called him, is…

…he was the grandfather of King Henry VII of England, who was the first Tudor on the throne, and after him came his son, King Henry VIII, he of the six wives, and then Henry died and his heir, a poor, sick little boy whom nobody really cared about because his mother, Jane Seymour, was dead, had to be the king, under the name of Edward VI, while powerful men ran the show and otherwise neglected him, and when he died his half-sister Mary became Queen Mary I, who started out being popular but, unlike her half-sister Elizabeth, Mary didn’t think that she could rule without a king, so she married King Philip II of Spain, and then, of course, she was supposed to have a bunch of strapping sons, but she was unable to do that, and Philip was canoodling with Elizabeth when he wasn’t away fighting in some war, and Mary became bitter and dogmatic, and she was nicknamed “Bloody Mary” because she had hundreds of people burned at the stake for not being Catholic

… and then she died and Henry’s bastard daughter Queen Elizabeth I was crowned and things in England got back to the way they ought to be for the forty-five years or so that she was queen, until she died in 1603, and that, unfortunately, was it for the Tudors.

Catherine_of_Valois

Catherine of Valois

But Elizabeth Anna is not exactly related to the kings and queens, just Owen Tudor, who had children like there was no tomorrow, including but not limited to six children with his secret wife, Catherine of Valois, who was also married to King Henry V of England, and this is the honest truth, but in medieval England that sort of goings-on was just about normal for the aristocratic set, as was the way Owen died, which was being beheaded.

Elizabeth Anna’s burden

Now, here is what Sister Alma Rose told me about Elizabeth Anna, and this is a true story:  She has had a very unhappy life. Her preposterously wealthy parents — who actually lived rather simply themselves, no fancy cruises, no showy diamonds or rubies or furs, and who were also very generous to the poor and suffering — were determined not to spoil this pretty little girl, though she was their only child and though she was growing up on a fabulous estate in a stunning house surrounded by rolling hills on which to ride her horse, Robin, named after Robin Hood, the legendary English outlaw, who, in the 12th century or thereabouts, stole from the rich and gave to the poor, according to folklore. And that maybe ought to have set off warning bells, not Robin Hood, but Elizabeth Anna’s naming her horse after him.

Robin Hood and Maid Marian

Robin Hood and Maid Marian

“Her folks taught her to be generous and to share,” Sister Alma Rose recalled, “and she was such a serious, conscientious little thing, she was always inviting the poor children of Hilltop to her house and stuffing them full of homemade bread and muffins and cream-cheese pie her mama fixed, and giving the little girls her pretty dresses and her dolls. And, Fanny, don’t y’all know that one day her mama heard Elizabeth Anna weeping piteously, and she asked what was the trouble all about, and Elizabeth Anna said, first off, that she, Elizabeth Anna, was the most selfish girl ever born and Jesus must hate her because she would never let the children ride her horse, Robin, and the other thing she was sad about was, she said, that she had given practically everything she had to the poor children until she was literally wearing the same too-small dress to school every day, but the little girls never wore the clothes she gave them and they still lived in their poor falling-down houses and they still weren’t getting enough to eat and Elizabeth Anna didn’t know what to do. And, Fanny, I have to tell you, a jealous, spiteful woman in her church, whom I went and had a chat with when I found out what she done, was just making everything worse, and Elizabeth Anna always came out of Sunday school trying to hide her tears.

Children in India, from www.colorado.edu

Children in India, from http://www.colorado.edu

“She told her mama that in the Sunday school class, her teacher was unkind to Elizabeth Anna because she was a little rich girl and she should be ashamed of being wealthy when children were naked and starving all over the world and here was Elizabeth Anna with her mansion and her horses and her rich parents who could give her everything she wanted.

‘Somebody should have helped

“This was a child who tried to take all the troubles of the world on her little shoulders at the cost of her own joy, and somebody should have helped her long before they did. But folks looked at her and all they saw was a little girl who could have anything that money could buy.

Mississippi Freedom Summer, from w3.iac.net

Mississippi Freedom Summer, from w3.iac.net

“Of course, coming of age in the 1960s, as Elizabeth Anna did, she was ripe for recruitment into the Civil Rights Movement, starting with the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964, and she was beaten and arrested more than once trying to help black folks register to vote, and her mama and daddy was so proud of her, not understanding. Because it was a wonderful thing that was done that summer, but Elizabeth Anna never should have been part of it, because she wasn’t strong. All she did was she got more and more depressed. She looked around and saw the pitiful way that many folks lived, and she felt like however hard she worked and however much she gave, it would never be enough. She told me it seemed like every time she did something to help one poor, desperate soul, ten more sprang up in their place.

Elizabeth Anna's sunroom

Elizabeth Anna's solarium

“And at the end of that summer Elizabeth Anna’s mama and daddy got a phone call saying that poor Elizabeth Anna had tried to kill herself with pills, which nobody knew where she got them, but somebody had found her passed out on the floor of where she and a bunch of kids was living, and got her to the hospital, and as soon as she was out of danger her dear mama and daddy took her home. They moved her bed into the big solarium, which was windows on three sides, and they filled the room with ferns and Elizabeth Anna’s pretty furniture and all her books, and that was where Elizabeth Anna lived for the next five years, with a psychiatric nurse called Eleanor, who was an angel if there ever was one, staying with her.”

‘Suffering is suffering’

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King giving his "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington, August 28, 1963

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King giving his "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington, August 28, 1963

Sister Alma Rose told me that for the first six months Elizabeth Anna didn’t say a word. She just sat in her chair, dressed in a beautiful old-fashioned white cotton nightie, looking out the window while Eleanor washed her and braided her hair and talked to her as if Elizabeth Anna were paying attention, which she might or might not have been. And sometimes Eleanor would say things like, “How much good would you be doing in the world if you had died? And look at you now, as sick with guilt as you’ve made yourself, could you even take a pen in your hand and write one single letter to a soldier in Vietnam? Or serve one single meal in a soup kitchen?”

Eleanor had her own pretty bedroom right beside the solarium. She told Elizabeth Anna’s mama that she, Eleanor, had been a social worker and she had loved the work, having, she said, “a stronger sense of who I was than that sad little girl in there ever had” (gesturing to the solarium) and being “called to the job out of love and not out of guilt.

Vignettes of Vietnam, epmediagroup.com

Vignettes of Vietnam, epmediagroup.com

“I quit because the bureaucrats and the regulations and the paperwork kept me from doing my real job,” Eleanor said, and then she went to school to become a psychiatric nurse, “and that was a calling too.

“Suffering is suffering,” Eleanor said, “whether the sufferer is rich or poor or black or white.”

After a year or so back home, Elizabeth Anna, who now says she rose from the dead by a miracle of God’s grace alone, because she sure couldn’t help herself — Elizabeth Anna asked Eleanor if she could find out about someone serving in Vietnam who wasn’t getting any mail, and Eleanor did, and that was the first of thousands of letters that Elizabeth Anna wrote to men and woman in uniform.

To be continued…

I, Fanny

I, Fanny

Mother God

Marriage_at_Cana_by_Giotto

The Marriage at Cana, by Giotto

Sister Alma Rose Prays the Rosary and Other Snarfles of Information about Sister Alma Rose

I have decided to be Sister Alma Rose’s Boswell. Please do not snicker, it will make me very cross. Sister Alma Rose is an Exceedingly Remarkable Human Being, and almost everything she does is memorable, probably when she trims her nose hairs it is memorable, although (a) I do not know whether or not Sister Alma Rose has renegade nose hairs, and (b) if she does, I am not present when she trims or plucks or however one extracts nose hairs, and (c) I do not at all like the direction we are going here, enough about nose hairs.

Sister Alma Rose prays to Mary the Mother of Jesus

Rosary

Image via Wikipedia

Sister Alma Rose is not a Roman Catholic but she uses the Rosary in prayer, although not in the approved Roman Catholic fashion, which is very complicated and involves Mysteries (Joyful, Sorrowful, Glorious, and Luminous). My friend Pablo is a Roman Catholic, and he goes to Confession as often as he needs to, even when he has ordinary sinful thoughts, such as, “I could just kill Yolanda,” who is his older sister, and who is so annoying that there are times when I could cheerfully strangle her with her own Rosary, though I believe that that is not an approved Roman Catholic use of the Rosary, and anyway, I only think about it, I would never do it, so how can it be so wrong?

Confessional

Confessional; image by celesteh via Flickr

I have asked God in my prayers to heal me of my antipathy toward Yolanda, who floats around in a miasma of piety and has been known to wear as many as three Rosaries and has consigned Pablo to hell for (a) saying “shit,” (b) refusing to make and serve lemonade for Yolanda and her equally annoying boy friend, Hans, (c) and so forth; but, as I have said, Pablo goes to Confession, and the priest, who undoubtedly knows Yolanda and sympathizes with Pablo, gives him, I don’t know, ten Hail Marys and ten Our Fathers as his penance, and Pablo, who knows more than the priest does of the depth of his loathing for Yolanda, doubles it.

Pablo and I suspect that Hans and Yolanda have had Carnal Knowledge of one another and we wonder if she has been forthcoming of this particular sin in Confession; I say no, Pablo says yes.

Hail, Mary, Full of Grace

An Our Father is the Lord’s Prayer, truncated; Catholics use trespasses instead of debts, and then they quit and start over, if they are praying the Rosary.

A Hail Mary is as follows:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen

Madonna and Child, Pompeo Batoni, 1742

Madonna and Child, Pompeo Batoni, 1742

Sister Alma Rose prays the Our Father and the Hail Mary when she prays the Rosary, but the resemblance to Roman Catholic tradition ends there. As we all know, Sister Alma Rose’s spirituality is somewhat eclectic, and her praying of the Rosary includes a litany of her own devising. If there were any who dared criticize Sister Alma Rose, they would be strict and solemn religionists and Sister Alma Rose would not care.

Me, Fanny McElroy

Me, Fanny McElroy

Yolanda has been heard muttering words to the effect that Sister Alma Rose is profaning the Rosary, which is silly, because there are no Rosaries in the Bible and a Rosary is an inanimate object with only so much power as the pray-er invests it with.

Sister Alma Rose Q & A

Pablo and I sat with Sister Alma Rose on her wonderful porch one Saturday afternoon in October, drinking Mr. Truman LaFollette’s delectable dark chocolate cocoa with marshmallows because it was a bit cool for lemonade. I had my notepad and a Rollerball pen in turquoise, and I asked Sister Alma Rose some questions and she answered them.

Me: Why do you pray to Mary the Mother of Jesus?

Sister Alma Rose: Well, Miss Fanny, one of the reasons that the Roman Catholic Church has elevated Mary the Mother of Jesus almost to divine status is that many of the peoples whom the Church was trying to convert in the early days practiced goddess worship, often associating the goddess with the earth—and even today we speak of “Mother Nature.” Those long-ago Christian missionaries knew that the better they could weave pagan and Christian traditions, the more likely the pagans were to accept Christianity.

Pablo — consigned to Hell?

Pablo — consigned to Hell?

I believe that women, in particular, need a feminine presence to pray to, one who represents the feminine attributes of our Father-Mother God. Some people are reluctant to pray to God the Creator; he is too big, he is unknowable. So they pray to saints and angels, who have been blessed with intimate knowledge of God and who will carry the people’s prayers to heaven.

Me: Thank you, Sister Alma Rose. Now then, how do you use the Rosary in a way that is different from how Catholics use the Rosary?

Sister Alma Rose: Well, Miss Fanny, as you know, I pray Hail Marys and Our Fathers using the Rosary. The circle of beads and the repetitive prayers are a form of meditation, the Our Father or Hail Mary being a mantra.

I would not say that I go into a trance, precisely, but rather that I let go of everything, worries and regrets and anxieties, until I feel purified and made ready to present my prayers to God. Then each bead becomes a prayer, first of praise and thanksgiving, then of petition or intercession—prayers for individuals who are sick, who are in torment, who grieve for loved ones, et cetera—and for myself, to ask God that my endeavors be not willful or prideful but loving and pure. And then I offer prayers of thanksgiving, that God has answered my prayers, knowing my need even before it was presented to him.

Me: Do you feel that you are using the Rosary inappropriately?

Sister Alma Rose: Prayer is never inappropriate.

And thus endeth my interview with Sister Alma Rose, and she proceeds to place two packs of cards on the table because she has promised to teach us to play bridge, because Pablo’s parents and mine play bridge together, and we think it is very grown-up, and it must be fascinating and intense because during bridge is the only time my father smokes cigarettes and takes the Lord’s Name In Vain.

Miscellaneous Playing Cards

Image by incurable_hippie via Flickr

 

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Charity, by Bouguereau, 1878

Charity, by Bouguereau, 1878

I, Fanny McElroy, ruptured my spleen last week. I did a belly-flop off Sister Alma Rose’s porch railing, which she has warned me not to do many, many times, at least a thousand.

Me, Fanny McElroy

Me, Fanny McElroy

When she saw me hit the ground — splat! — Sister Alma Rose started spewing prayers like a one-woman revival meeting, between calling an ambulance and calling my mama and calling Dr. Dierdre Barstow. “Sweet Jesus,” she hollered, “heal this foolish girl right now, even though Sister Alma Rose did tell her a thousand times not to climb on the porch railing.”

Here, for your elucidation, is a small description of the spleen:

In humans, the spleen is located in the abdomen of the body, where it has three primary functions: 1) Removal and destruction of old, aged red blood cells, 2) Synthesis of antibodies in the white pulp, and 3) Removal of antibody-coated bacteria and antibody-coated blood cells from the circulation. It is one of the centers of activity of the reticuloendothelial system (part of the immune system). Its absence leads to a predisposition to certain infections. —Wikipedia

The human spleen; click on image for source The human spleen; click on image for source

The ambulance rushed me to the hospital, which is, like, three feet from Sister Alma Rose’s farmhouse, and Dr. Deirdre Barstow proceeded to knock me out (actually, the anesthesiologist did that), cut me open, remove the spleen, and sew me back up.

Mineral water (photo by Walter J. Pilsak)

Mineral water (photo by Walter J. Pilsak)

I was never afraid. Sister Alma Rose has a Special Relationship with God, and her prayers are solid gold. Plus my mom was there, and, just as they were wheeling me into surgery, my dad arrived, wiping sweat and dirt from his face with his bandana.

After the operation, I had to swallow a tube through my nose! Right now there are tubes draining blood out of my abdominal cavity and transfusing new blood into my veins and feeding me — I cannot eat anything, I can’t even drink water! I am so thirsty! But I get to stay in bed and read for two weeks after I go home from the hospital.

“Anonymous” wrote the following sexist axiom:

God made mothers because he loves us and he wants us to be happy.
God made fathers because he wants us to be just a little bit afraid.

To be perfectly honest, I am more afraid of my mom than I am of my dad, and I’m more afraid of Sister Alma Rose than of my mom and dad together. I’m supposed to be at an age when I begin “distancing myself” from my mother. Some of my friends act like their moms are subhuman life forms from the planet Zongo.

But my mom is okay; she’s semi-with it but doesn’t try to be. Anyway, there was nobody I wanted when I woke up from surgery more than Mama. This is a poem I wrote for her today, because I am getting a little bored and I AM DEFINITELY READY TO GO HOME….

At first there were only a lemony glow
and a few pale shadows murmuring, and
then I remembered, because of the tube
in my nose, a suggestion of roses, and
something besides: eau de hospital
disinfectant, I guess. I felt wretched, and
that wretchedness was somehow
reassuring. I felt; ergo, I lived… had
emerged from that netherland
entered when someone had
covered my face with a cloth and
said, “Take a deep breath.”

rosebud_pink_gorgeousShe had betrayed me — the
nurse with the red, jolly face;
she had read to me kindly and
led me to death — not a final,
forever extinction, but
nightmarish darkness and sinking
in cold, nauseous, suffocating fog.

And then there were sunlight and
someone in white, and I wondered
if I were in heaven. Impossible, not
without Mama and Daddy, my
brothers, and Sister Alma Rose,
and lemonade, please God,
particularly.

lemonade

Then a hand, small and delicate, but strong —
I know that hand — slipped a
tidbit of ice throgh my dry,
burning lips; then the hand
stroked my hair. On account of
the tube in my wrist, I was
forced to lie still, or of course
I’d have reached for it.

But I knew it was you
by the touch God gives only
to mothers; for each of your
fingers, so slender, so soft, gave
its own benediction; tender and
eloquent, telling of longing and
love, reassurance and gratitude,
anxious solicitousness, and
fatigue; most of all, “All is well;
you are safe,” said your hands —
and your face, when the shadows
resolved, held a smile only
slightly uncertain and tremulous.

Is that how it was on the day I
was born years ago at a quarter
to noon? Yet again I am born
unto you in a hospital room,
with my person invaded by tubes and incisions,
delivered from death by invisible
arms with a power that surgeons
might only wish for.

Tuscany_sunrise

Then I drifted away again, lulled
by those strange, misty voices,
some soft and some deep. Gliding
smoothly to sleep, I heard you
and the angel of mercy beside
you, in white with her aura of
unearthly light.

angel_baroque_bernini

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    Light a Candle for Kristen

    Image copyright MatthewBowden, www.digitallyrefreshing.com

    Image copyright MatthewBowden, http://www.digitallyrefreshing.com

    Sister Alma Rose’s goddaughter, Kristen, recently married “Hubert,” a disabled Iraqi war veteran who is on medication for PTSD. He now seems to have abandoned her and her three-year-old daughter and left them with nothing — not even their marriage certificate.

    “I was just getting settled,” Kristen sobbed to Sister Alma Rose on the phone. To say that Kristen has led a tumultuous life is like observing that there are numerous people in China. Finally she thought she had found someone who would treasure her and bring stability to her life and her daughter’s, who were homeless until Kristen met Hubert.

    The three of them had been together for eight months before Kristen and Hubert were married in Las Vegas. She has few if any material resources; she feels terrified and friendless; so y’all are going to have to pray for angels to comfort and guide her… and her husband and daughter as well. Please, y’all light a candle for her tonight, and send her “love vibes” every time you think of her. These things are important. These things are powerful.

    Then y’all praise God and be thankful, knowing that his will for Kristen is already being done and it can be nothing but blessedness.

    If one thinks of a miracle not as the breaking of God’s laws but as His own using of His laws, then the world is full of miracles…. His will includes unlimited miracles. It is for us to learn His will, to seek the simplicity and the beauty of the laws that set free His power. —Agnes Sanford, The Healing Light, on the miracle of prayerful healing 

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    Praying for Many

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    Sister Alma Rose: How to Pray for Multitudes

    cartoon_interracial_group

    Sister Alma Rose Q & A

    Dear Sister Alma Rose — I am on my church’s prayer chain, and people in the church make prayer requests, usually for loved ones who are sick, many of whom I know personally but more of whom I don’t. Some of the requests are for “the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan” or “the beleaguered and starving in Darfur.” I also pray daily for my own friends and family. I do not know how to pray, genuinely and with love, for so many people. Can you help? cartoon_group_2
    —Signed, Baffled in Baltimore

    Dear BIB — Sister Alma Rose understands y’all’s frustration. Sister Alma Rose, being Sister Alma Rose, is often asked to pray for multitudes. When she was young and naive, Sister Alma Rose wrote everybody’s request on a separate slip of paper, and she put all the pieces of paper in a “prayer box,” and then she prayed for the box, in a manner of speaking.

    Or she would write the names on a list and then pray for all the requests in a bunch, but her heart wasn’t really in it and her thoughts would wander off to “Oh! The hyacinths are blooming” or “Oh! There’s a big stain on that cabinet; I need to remove it as soon as I finish off praying. Vinegar or ammonia, do you suppose?”

    Then, as she became more devout, Sister Alma Rose thought she needed to pray very specifically for everybody, and she would ask God to remove so-and-so’s plantar wart or heal a difficult relationship, but midway through she would get very antsy, because she can’t sit still for long periods of time, and she would “surrender” the whole clump of requests to God and go to the kitchen and bake some bread.

    cartoon_couple_making_listsSister Alma Rose does not know how prayer “works,” precisely, but she believes that there must be some kind of connection between the pray-er and the pray-ee through which the powerful energy of prayer travels, and since she does not know all of the people being prayed for and God does, and since God is the source of all energy, Sister Alma Rose finds that God is indispensable to prayer.

    Bright blessing

    Sometimes Sister Alma Rose gathers energy from God through meditation and then carries God’s blessing as a sort of shining angel. She floats with the sunrise to all parts of the world, and darts down, á la Tinkerbell, to embrace with light the person she is praying for. She holds an image in her mind, individually or in clumps, of those she doesn’t know personally.

    At the River

    Sometimes Sister Alma Rose visualizes those she is praying for being carried by angels to the Jordan River, or some other river, perhaps the Nile, where they (the pray-ees) are set down on the west bank to await the sunrise. Sister Alma Rose is there with them, and she sees them all. When the day dawns on the river, each person soaks up the healing rays sent from God, and the Holy Spirit carries all the pain and troubles away on a whirlwind, and thousands of birds sing for joy.

    Lovingkindness meditation

    Sometimes, after surrendering her own and everybody else’s burdens to God, Sister Alma Rose blesses her people (individually wherever possible, otherwise in clumps) using Susan Piver’s sweet, comforting lovingkindness meditation:how_not_to_be_afraid_of_your_own_life

    May you be happy
    May you be healthy
    May you be peaceful
    May you live with ease

    —Susan Piver,  How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life: Opening Your Heart to Confidence, Intimacy, and Joy

    Wafting Love and Warmth

    Sister Alma Rose always, usually, when she remembers, turns worries into prayers. When she is fussed about something, she surrenders it (the “something”) to God. When she happens to think about someone, or when she sees an unhappy face in the throng, she calls upon God to empower her to send waves of love and light to that person. It is not at all unusual, after sending such blessings through the ether, for Sister Alma Rose to receive a letter, a phone call, or a visit from the pray-ee that very day.

    Candle Prayer Ceremony

    candles_boxedcandles_prayercandle_book-261x388As often as possible, Sister Alma Rose lights candles in the evening for the people and situations she is praying for. Not everybody gets his or her own individual candle, or else Sister Alma Rose’s entire house would be turned into a huge candle mob, and it would not be safe for her cats, Tim and Henry.

    Alternatives

    One could also divide up one’s prayer list and pray fervently for, say, five people a day. Sister Alma Rose does not find this satisfactory, but that doesn’t mean y’all shouldn’t try it if it appeals to y’all.

    One can also, when praying the Lord’s prayer, specifically the part that says, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” use it as a vehicle for petitions and intercessions: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in Patricia; thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in Ephraim”; and so forth.

    Sister Alma Rose has also made strings of prayer beads, each bead representing a person or situation. She enjoys praying this way, as it engages several of the senses and Sister Alma Rose is less likely to become distracted.

    The very intention to pray is itself a blessing, and as Sister Alma Rose’s dear friend the Rev. Bruce Hurley used to say, God sorts out our prayers. 

    May God bless y’all, dear reader: May y’all be happy; may y’all be healthy; may y’all be peaceful; may y’all live with ease. Amen.

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    An Open Heart

    Missing Juliette

    Chakra Goddess (www.intotheheart.org, from www.karunaarts.com)

    Chakra Goddess (www.intotheheart.org, from http://www.karunaarts.com)

    Almost nothing matters except how much love I can give and how much love there is in the world…. I can rededicate myself each day to the intelligence, grace, and mystery of a truly open heart. —Susan Piver, How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life: Opening Your Heart to Confidence, Intimacy, and Joy

    Fourth Chakra (heart): Located at the center of our chest in the heart region, this energy-center is focused on opening to love, including the Divine manifestation of Love. intotheheart.org

    Me, Fanny McElroy

    Me, Fanny McElroy

    Sister Alma Rose and I had gone to visit our friend Juliette. “I am missing Juliette,” Sister Alma Rose had said, as if she had misplaced Juliette and we should do a thorough search of the house and grounds.

    I knew what she meant, though, because I was missing Juliette too. Juliette is all heart and wit and honesty. Plus I have sort of a crush on Juliette’s son, Ry, who is easy on the eyes and is kind and good and takes care of his mother. They take care of each other and of anyone nearby who needs them, and sometimes people not-so-nearby, all of which is a minor miracle, as you will see.

    The Brawl in Montreal

    Sugar Ray Leonard

    Sugar Ray Leonard

    Sister Alma Rose has a guilty secret: She enjoys boxing — as a spectator, of course, though I think she could defeat an opponent in the first second of the first round with one of her “don’t y’all be messing with Sister Alma Rose” looks. In 1980, she went all the way to Canada to see the famous “Brawl in Montreal,” the World Welterweight Championship fight in which Roberto Durán beat Sugar Ray Leonard in a 15-round unanimous decision. (I Googled welterweight, and there are actually several definitions having to do with horses and things, but in the above context, welterweight refers to a professional boxer who weighs between 141 and 147 pounds, which is not very big, my tiny mama weighed more than that when she was pregnant with me.)

    Actually, being a boxing fan is not Sister Alma Rose’s guilty secret, it’s mine, by which I mean, I feel guilty for her. She will tell anyone who cares to listen that she adores a well-matched fight and prefers a good, decisive knockout to a decision.

    This astonishes me. I cannot understand why anyone, especially someone who exudes peace and serenity as Sister Alma Rose does, would actually enjoy watching two people trying to beat each other to a bloody pulp.

    1st Lt. Alan Singleton lays in the ropes as team officials rush to his aid following his knockout by Lance Cpl. Charles Davis in the final fight of the 2000 All-Marine Boxing Trials. (Wikipedia)

    1st Lt. Alan Singleton lies in the ropes as team officials rush to his aid after his knockout by Lance Cpl. Charles Davis in the final fight of the 2000 All-Marine Boxing Trials (Wikipedia)

    All Sister Alma Rose will say is this: “Fanny, y’all should watch a fight some time. It’s a lesson in the human condition. A fighter gets knocked down hard, and before y’all can say ‘Marquess of Queensbury rules,’ the fighter is back on his feet, a little weaker but still eager to fight. If he gets knocked down again pretty quick, he’s a little slower to get up, but if the fight ended right then he could probably go out for a few beers with his buddies, have a shower, maybe get a massage, go to bed, sleep twelve hours, wake up aching all over, take it easy for a couple days, bingo, he’s good as new.

    “But if the fight hadn’t ended, if he keeps on getting knocked down before he regains his equilibrium, pretty soon he just can’t get up any more. He’s helpless, and if somebody don’t come in and take care of him, he’s still lying there on the mat. But maybe he makes a couple million dollars just for showing up, so he’s got folks on the payroll who’ll look out for him and probably see to it that he gets healed and gets his strength back so that he can show up for another fight down the road.”

    Frontispiece of the 1605 printing (Q2) of *Hamlet*

    Frontispiece of the 1605 printing (Q2) of *Hamlet*

    To be, or not to be–that is the question:
    Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
    The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
    Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
    And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep —
    No more — 
    and by a sleep to say we end
    The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
    That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation
    Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep–
    To sleep–perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub,
    For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
    When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
    Must give us pause.

    Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, scene i

    Her heart shines like the sun

    Sister Alma Rose says that “no mere mortal” can get punched in the gut over and over like Juliette, or be whomped repeatedly by “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” and remain standing “with an open heart,” which is why she is sure that Juliette is an angel from heaven, and Ry, too, who is technically, she says, an “angelino,” which, I don’t know what that means except possibly Ry is an apprentice angel, I’m just guessing, or maybe there’s an age limit and he’s not old enough. As I said, I don’t know.

    The front entrance of the Tomb of the Prophet Job in the Druze Mountain region of Lebanon (El-Chouf). It marks the place where God healed all Job's wounds. (Wikipedia)

    The front entrance of the Tomb of the Prophet Job in the Druze Mountain region of Lebanon (El-Chouf). It marks the place where God healed all Job's wounds (Wikipedia)

    I will tell you one — just one — of the series of disasters that afflicted Juliette, the way God seemed to keep punishing Job according to the Bible. Juliette’s grown daughter, Adrienne, Ry’s sister, took her own life, something like ten years ago. Sister Alma Rose says that many people never heal from a blow like that. They turn inward, they get bitter, they protect themselves from other scary stuff that might be out there. Sister Alma Rose once knew a kind, gentle woman, a butterfly collector, whose husband, who was a county medical examiner, shot himself in the head, and his widow went home to her mama in Chicago and about a month later her mama found her dead in her car in the garage, of carbon monoxide poisoning, with a note that said she had gone to be with her husband.

    From the Public Library of Science Journal, Oct. 17, 2006, published on Wikipedia

    From the Public Library of Science Journal, Oct. 17, 2006, published on Wikipedia

    Juliette, after getting blindsided for about the fifth time, almost caved. She stopped eating, more or less, until she literally could not stand up, and Ry found her helpless in her living room and hauled her off to the hospital, where she got rehydrated and “stabilized,” and then she spent a couple of months at a rehab center learning to walk again, and that’s been a year and a half ago, and even though she’s still not what you might call robust, her heart shines like the sun. She actively looks for ways to help her friends. She says, “I might not be able to do THIS, but I can do THAT,” and then she does it.

    More accurately, the Juliette-and-Ry team do it. He’s big and strong, she’s tiny and still a bit frail, though she’s getting stronger every day; so she scouts around for what people need and together they accomplish it.

    Open your heart

    Human heart with coronary arteries (Yale University School of Medicine, published on Wikipedia)

    Human heart with coronary arteries (Yale University School of Medicine, published on Wikipedia)

    I asked Sister Alma Rose, when we were walking home from our visit with Juliette and Ry, what is meant by “an open heart” and where can I get one. She stopped and turned so that we were facing each other, and she said, “Look at how y’all are standing, Miss Fanny, with your shoulders back and your heart exposed, so to speak. People talk about ‘deep in my heart’ and ‘heartfelt admiration’ and they might not know it but opening their heart is a literal, physical thing.”

    I’m thinking surgery and gore, and Sister Alma Rose seems to read my mind, because she says, as she has said many times before, quoting somebody-or-other, I can’t remember, “Things are metaphors for ideas, Fanny. If you want your heart to open up, and you gently ask it to, it will open up. If you ask it in the name of God to shine on the Somali pirates or on President Obama or on Jimmy Oakley, who has head lice, it will shine on them and the whole world will be that much brighter.”

    Barry Manilow (2008 photo by Matt Becker, pub. on Wikipedia)

    Barry Manilow (2008 photo by Matt Becker, pub. on Wikipedia)

    Sister Alma Rose has taught me to meditate on opening the heart and to pray by casting the heart’s love-beams, which sounds like a dreadful pop ballad by someone like Barry Manilow, but which is a real thing, because Sister Alma Rose can actually see, with her physical eyes, the light that shines from one person to another, which goes from you to the person you are praying for, though I can only feel it a little bit, like when I am going into a room full of people I don’t know and instead of feeling threatened and being shy and inward, I tell my heart to shine on them, one by one or all together, depending, and it always, always makes me feel friendly and open instead of afraid that nobody will talk to me or that my pants will suddenly decide to fall down. Although one time my pants did fall down; but that is another story….

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    Demon Lady Number Two

    Little Lea, C. S. Lewis's childhood home

    Little Lea, C. S. Lewis's childhood home

    If we really want to learn how to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo.C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

    I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish. —Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

    The Gospel According to Mrs. May Belle Mortimer, the Banker’s Widow

    Some people just have way too much time on their hands, Sister Alma Rose is always saying. 

    Sister Alma Rose is so full of love that it spills out of her like a tumble of wild roses on a venerable trellis. I don’t claim to be able to see people’s auras — though I wish I could, and angels, too — but Sister Alma Rose simply shines. She even glows in the dark — not like a ghost, or a firefly, or something radioactive… more like a wisp of cloud as it slides past the moon.

    wild_roses_istock

    Not that she’s a pushover. I’ve seen her good and mad a couple of times, such as when she and Cousin Dulcie were making plans to steal Janet, who is now Sister Alma Rose’s yellow labrador, and, further, to put the fear of God into the old drunk who used to beat her (Janet, I  mean, not Sister Alma Rose). But then, after Janet was safe, she (Sister Alma Rose, I mean, not Janet) prayed for that pathetic old man.

    Janet

    Janet

    My third-grade teacher was so mean I called her Demon Lady. Now I can’t even remember her real name. Let’s say it’s Mrs. Pflug (it was one of those names that always make me think of sinus drainage). She hated children, and she especially hated me, and I wondered why someone who was practically allergic to kids became a schoolteacher. She always called me “Frannie” because, she said, “Fanny” was “a hideous and nasty name.” And when we had square-dancing on Wednesdays, if there were more girls than boys (which there almost always were), she’d make me sit out, every time, without fail.

    Me, Fanny McElroy

    Me, Fanny McElroy

    Well, the Demon Lady was Troubled, and, as troubled people in Hilltop usually do, she made her way up the hill to talk to Sister Alma Rose. And the next time I plopped down on one of Sister Alma Rose’s grass-green wicker chairs on her grass-green porch and started complaining about the Demon Lady, Sister Alma Rose put up a hand to stop me.

    “I know I can trust y’all, Fanny, to keep this to yourself,” she said. “That poor woman had two daughters, and she was driving them somewhere and ran a red light, and a truck smashed into her car and killed one of those little girls and the other one was brain-damaged and paralyzed and lives in the nursing home in La Mesa. Y’all remind her of the daughter who died, Fanny. She told me that.”

    I just sat there, with one tear dribbling down my face, feeling sad and guilty. Sister Alma Rose took my hand and squeezed it so tight I thought I’d faint. Sister Alma Rose doesn’t know her own strength.

    “There’s a lesson here, Miss Fanny,” she said, mercifully letting go of my hand, which had gone numb. “Don’t never take nothing personal. Shine love and light on the person who wrongs you. Everyone has a story.”

    Meddling in the name of the Lord

    I tried to remember that advice when Miss Price and Miss Haggarty almost got fired from teaching, though, technically, it was Miss Price and Miss Haggarty who had cause for grievance, not me. As everyone knows, Miss Price and Miss Haggarty have been together for thirty years, and they are Beloved in Hilltop, which has a sort of don’t-ask-don’t-tell attitude toward these dear and generous women, though anybody who doesn’t have beet paste for brains knows that they’re not just a couple of old-maid schoolteachers who happen to live together for convenience, but Hilltop folks don’t think much, any more, about their intimate personal lives. They are very much a part of the mainstream in Hilltop, where almost everybody is good-hearted and chooses to see Miss Price and Miss Haggarty as a couple of grown-up Girl Scouts rather than Deviants Living in Sin…

    Miss Price

    Miss Price

    …except for Mrs. May Belle Mortimer, the banker’s widow, Demon Lady Number Two, who is just plain mean-spirited, even Sister Alma Rose says so. She didn’t have time to do much mischief when Mr. Bert Mortimer was alive and they had children at home, identical twins, Maureen and Darla, who were nice girls in spite of their mother’s unrelenting attempts to turn them into May-Belle-Mortimer clones. Probably in self-defense, Maureen and Darla married men who lived in New Zealand — I am perfectly serious — and then Mr. Bert Mortimer died, and May Belle grieved for about forty-five minutes and then turned her attention to Cleansing Hilltop of Sin.

    Miss Haggarty

    Miss Haggarty

    Unfortunately, Mrs. May Belle Mortimer was on the school board and had a particular animosity toward Miss Price and Miss Haggarty. The lavish parties she used to give when Mr. Mortimer was alive were the only parties in Hilltop to which Miss Price and Miss Haggarty were never invited. If Maureen or Darla was assigned to one of their classes, May Belle would try to get them transferred to different classes, until Maureen and Darla put their collective feet down and refused to budge.

    Gotcha

    About ten miles south of Hilltop there is a lovely golf course and park on a small lake — big enough for sailboats, but not so big that you couldn’t walk all the way around it in a couple of hours. As cruel fate would have it, May Belle was driving to her A-frame cabin, which she always referred to, with haughty ostentation, as “Mortimer Cottage,” one Saturday morning in April — the first warm, glittery, delicious-smelling spring day of the year — when she spotted Miss Price and Miss Haggarty walking along the lake path, holding hands.

    Spirea in full bloom (photo by Moja, GFDL)

    Spirea in full bloom (photo by Moja, GFDL)

    I can only imagine how ecstatic May Belle must have been as she pulled into the Bathhouse parking lot (tucking her petal-pink Town Car behind a clump of spirea), grabbed her fancy-schmancy camera with the telephoto lens, and surreptitiously, as if she were Sherlock-Frigging-Holmes, who never used a camera as far as I know, but anyway, May Belle took a slew of photographs of two kindhearted women, without a care in the world, walking hand-in-hand on a gorgeous spring morning; and naturally she presented these photographs at the next school-board meeting, announcing that the photos proved that Miss Price and Miss Haggarty were Perverts Consigned to Hell “and should be dismissed from their teaching positions before they can infect our daughters with their insidious lechery.”

    Nobody said a word, though a couple of school-board members laughed out loud, according to what Mr. Archie Appleby, president of the school board, told Sister Alma Rose. May Belle continued to loom triumphantly in the silence, until she looked around and saw that everyone had sort of inched away from her, lest they become infected by May Belle’s insidious spitefulness.

    “I move that we fire these practitioners of base depravity — immediately,” May Belle said in defiant rage. No one seconded the motion.

    “Well,” she said, perching a little unsteadily on the nearest chair, “I guess I’ll have to take this matter to the state department of education.”

    “Why don’t you just do that, May Belle,” said Mr. Appleby with quiet menace. “But first — May Belle, you got your camera with you?”

    May Belle said that her camera was in the car and Mr. Appleby asked her to please go get it, so she did, and when she came back in, all the other school-board members, the teachers and principals who were in attendance, and the newspaper reporter who always came to the school-board meetings, were standing in a circle holding hands — men with men, men with women, women with women.

    “If you’re going to the state department of education,” said Mr. Appleby, “you might as well not have to make two trips.” Mrs. May Belle Mortimer just stood there like a statue, Mr. Appleby told Sister Alma Rose, for what seemed like half an hour. He said, chuckling, that he had been afraid he would have to kiss Kevin O’Hara, the reporter, on the lips to break through May Belle’s paralysis, but eventually she just turned on her heel and walked out of the room.

    Heart beams

    I wish I could say that the incident cured May Belle’s homophobia and that she and Miss Price and Miss Haggarty became fast friends, but that isn’t what happened. Had May Belle shown any kindness or remorse, she would have been forgiven and welcomed back into the fold. As it was, she closed up her house and “Mortimer Cottage” and went to New Zealand “indefinitely.”

    Sister Alma Rose believes that there are some people, or more likely, she says, they are androids or extraterrestrials (like the slimy giant cockroach from Men in Black), who are evil through and through, without souls. “Mrs. May Belle Mortimer is not one of those beings,” Sister Alma Rose told me, “but I think she’s going to need a few more lifetimes to scrape the crust off her heart. There’s a lot of bad karma that’ll need redemption.”

    And Sister Alma Rose and I prayed for Mrs. May Belle Mortimer. I was a little worried that our warm, loving thoughts wouldn’t make it all the way to New Zealand, especially mine, which were tepid rather than warm, and if they weren’t precisely loving, at least I no longer wished that May Belle would be stricken with an agonizing and fatal disease involving flesh-eating bacteria.

    “Our prayers and compassion will be carried on angels’ wings, wherever they need to be received,” said Sister Alma Rose… and the glow of the setting sun seemed to cling to Sister Alma Rose for a long, long time after dusk became dark and the crickets began their evening litany.

    Milford Sound, New Zealand

    Milford Sound, New Zealand

     

    The Ancients, Part 1 — Daddy Pete

    The Ancients, Part 1 — Daddy Pete