Sunday Prayers


Prayer was a dress-up occasion when I was a child. We did it on Sundays in black patent-leather party shoes, white cotton socks, white cotton gloves, and freshly pressed linen dresses with puff sleeves, smocked bodices, and grosgrain ribbon at the waist. Organ music by Bach or Praetorius reached the loftiest spaces of the nave, and deep-voiced men intoned with piety: “Let us pray.” We wondered if we had forgotten something. Were we fully prepared to become fervent?

No, we must not have been, for our minds wandered. Our ears heard, “Hallowed be thy name,” but our thoughts strayed like children distracted from a well-trod path by ducklings in the pond just over there. And if we caught a phrase or two—“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done”—we shrank back in shame; our hearts were not in it. “Thy will” must surely be something onerous, like being kind to our loathsome brother; keeping our room clean; befriending homely, awkward children; and putting all of our allowance in the offering plate. “Thy will” would never be anything pleasant or fun, according to our Sunday-school teachers, at any rate, whose own children were shrill and quarrelsome and picked their noses.

Our Sunday-school teachers described a judgmental Jesus, frightening us with too-frequent readings from Revelation and making a hash of the parables in the Gospels so that we thought we would burn in hell like the tares among the wheat, never mind that we didn’t know what “tares” were. Our teachers didn’t talk about the magnificent Jesus who loved us no matter what we did or, worse yet, what we thought. They didn’t quote John 16:33: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

We thank you, God, for helping us hang in there! We are grateful for the wise teachers who read to us from Romans 8:26: “…The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know how we ought to pray, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans too deep for words.”



Murder Threats on YouTube

Rock engravings in Gobustan, Azerbaijan, dating from ten thousand years BCE

Rock engravings in Gobustan, Azerbaijan, dating from ten thousand years BCE

Because of the greatness of your strength,
your enemies, O God Almighty, cringe before you.
Before you all the earth shall bow,
shall sing to you, sing to your name!”
Let our joy then be in you,
for you, God, rule forever.
Your eyes keep watch over the nations;
let rebels not rise against you. —from Ps. 66

Free Speech or Hate Speech?

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Loreena McKennitt 2009

Loreena McKennitt 2009

Sister Alma Rose is appalled. She doesn’t like being appalled. It’s not her style… though she suspects that Loreena McKennitt would be appalled as well.

On May 18 (“The Purest Race” in Sister Alma Rose Has the Last Word), our dear friend Fanny McElroy cited vitriolic antisemitic comments related to a “sophisticated, beautifully crafted” fan-created video found on the popular media-sharing website YouTube. Fanny discovered the antisemitic comments when she added her own comments, praising the video’s creator for beautiful work. The video accompanied  folk-singer Loreena McKennitt’s song “Night Ride Across the Caucasus,” first recorded on McKennitt’s 1997 album The Book of Secrets.

In just a few minutes’ browsing of other videos, Fanny came across murder threats against Zionists, Chinese, and people of unspecified race or ethnicity.

Click here for video, comments, background, and a brief, anonymous survey on how you feel about these threats and other comments. You can, of course, view the information without taking the survey. It is short, however, only four yes-or-no questions; and your anonymity is guaranteed if you choose not to enter your name. 

Children's puppet theater

In keeping with the Caucasus region’s tradition of children’s puppet theater, “Stories from Our Yard” uses locally-designed puppets to deliver its message

What does YouTube permit?

Here is an excerpt from YouTube’s Community Guidelines:

We encourage free speech and defend everyone’s right to express unpopular points of view. But we don’t  permit hate speech (…which attacks or demeans a group based on race or ethnic origin, religion, disability, gender, age, veteran status, and sexual orientation/ gender identity). [Emphasis ours] …Predatory behavior,  stalking, threats, harassment, intimidation, invading privacy, revealing other people’s personal information,  and inciting others to commit violent acts or to violate the Terms of Use are taken very seriously. Anyone caught doing these things may be permanently banned from YouTube.

Wedding dance, Georgia, the Caucasus region

Wedding dance, Georgia, the Caucasus region (Source:

Fanny says that the principal subject of McKennitt’s song, according to McKennitt’s album insert, is alchemy, while the video seems to depict a traditional wedding among the peoples of the Caucasus (more at “The Purest Race“).  “The video makes artistic use,” says Fanny, “of what appears to be, but probably isn’t, old black-and-white footage, blurry, flickering… mixed with vivid new footage. Some of the same landmarks appear in ‘old’ and ‘new’ footage, which consist mostly of wedding scenes, dancing, and people on horseback, probably underscoring the continuity of culture over time. It is beautifully done, with — I think the phrase is ‘high production values.'”

Endangered Ateni Sioni church in Georgia dates from the 7th century

Endangered Ateni Sioni church in Georgia dates from the 7th century

The antisemitic comments on YouTube refer to neither alchemy nor wedding, Fanny reports, but rather to the nationalist biases and aspirations of the “Caucasians” (that is, the peoples of the Caucasus).

On May 17, Fanny flagged the comments and reported them according to prescribed YouTube procedure, informing YouTube that the comments violated YouTube Community Guidelines. She resubmitted her objections a few days later. To date (June 8), YouTube has not deleted the comments and has not responded to Fanny’s report.

Fanny writes,

Please. This is important. We are asking you to take a brief (4-item) survey (anonymous unless you choose to give your name) about vitriolic anti-Semitic & anti-Chinese YouTube messages. You’ll see a mere handful of ugly postings, but such messages are abundant on YouTube in defiance of YouTube guidelines.

Is this abuse of free speech? A big unfunny joke? Were the rules changed when my back was turned? Or is it felt that people not allowed to speak openly will go underground? I imagine there’s already plenty of “underground.” Please take the survey and share this request with others. Thank you…. Fanny

MOI, Fanny

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Catholic Things

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Father Dooley's temporary church

Father Dooley's temporary church

Religious Differences

Sister Alma Rose is not a Roman Catholic, but she is telling Father Dooley and me that she used to want to be a nun “in the worst way.” (Ha ha.)

“Oh?” Father Dooley says interestedly, raising one eyebrow, which, I don’t know HOW he does that, but of course I don’t know how to whistle, either, though I can do cartwheels one-handed. “What changed your mind?”

I have made Father Dooley promise to always keep me informed of his whereabouts, if one of us moves out of Hilltop, so that when the Pope allows priests to get married I can get to his city on the next plane. Father Dooley's, not the Pope's

I have made Father Dooley promise to always keep me informed of his whereabouts, if one of us moves out of Hilltop, so that when the Pope allows priests to get married I can jet to his city on the next plane. Father Dooley's, not the Pope's

“The wardrobe,” Sister Alma Rose says, “because, really, can y’all picture what I’d look like in one of them outfits? A giant beetle, is what I’d look like.”

Father Dooley laughs and says that many nuns just wear regular street clothes these days, and Sister Alma Rose says that would take all the fun out of it. Like, why be a doctor if you’re not going to wear a white lab coat and a stethoscope?

Father Dooley is spending a lot of time sitting on Sister Alma Rose’s porch this fall because his church, Saints Peter and Paul, had a bad fire and no one can go into the building.

They are having church, or, whaddayacallit, Mass, and, I guess, Confession and Catechism and the Inquisition and the other stuff that Catholics do, in an empty warehouse that used to be Hilltop Elementary School when Mama and Daddy were kids.

But Father Dooley’s paper files and computer and desk, et cetera, all got burnt to a Frito, and he has this lackey priest-in-waiting who is taking care of that little administrative problem while he, Father Dooley, sits on Sister Alma Rose’s porch and drinks Mr. Truman LaFollette’s indescribable lemonade.

The Catechism Lesson, Jules-Alexis Muenier 1890

The Catechism Lesson, by Jules-Alexis Muenier 1890

But Father Dooley is not slacking off, oh, no, he is here on church business, because we are talking about Catholic things, two in particular: (1) the execution of heretics by means of setting fire to them, and (2) the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours), which, unlike Father Dooley’s office, is extant.

Transubstantiation is NOT “a way for commuters to get to work”

Lady Jane Grey (above) and Queen Mary each believed that the other's soul was damned. And they MEANT it! The Reformers had piled up a lot of grievances over the centuries during which the Roman Catholic Church had amassed power, money, and land. It was the rule rather than the exception for popes and cardinals to have mistresses, if not secret wives and children. Priests lined their pockets with "indulgences" — money from their Flocks for the wiping away of sins.

Lady Jane Grey (above, looking a bit peaked) and Queen Mary each believed that the other's soul was damned. And they MEANT it! The Reformers had piled up a lot of grievances over the centuries during which the Roman Catholic Church had amassed power, money, and land. It was the rule rather than the exception for popes and cardinals to have mistresses, if not secret wives and children. Priests lined their pockets with "indulgences" — money from their Flocks for the wiping away of sins.

Father Dooley and I have been debating the following question:

Why did Lady Jane Grey have to die?

And the short answer, we agree, is that Lady Jane, a Protestant, made quite a point of NOT believing in transubstantiation and a few other points of Roman Catholic doctrine at a time when a VERY Catholic queen, Mary I, was on the throne in England. (That’s “Mary the First,” not “Mary Eye.”)

Transubstantiation is the alleged changing of the bread and wine served at holy communion into the actual body and blood of Christ.

NOW: It’s not like Catholics believe that the bread turns into, like, skin and fingers and toes and the wine gets all thick and red and has little platelets swimming around in it. Father Dooley says that the substance of the “host” and the wine changes but not their their appearance or texture.

I, personally, do not care, and neither does Sister Alma Rose, who dislikes discussing doctrinal issues.

She says that we all believe in the same God, who created the universe as an expression of divine love, and that God knows and cares about us each individually, and that God makes his love known to us through grace… and if we can agree on that, why aren’t we having a big ecumenical party and celebrating instead of arguing about minor details?

A medieval Mass being celebrated by a bishop

A medieval Mass being celebrated by a bishop

Father Dooley says several things in response, which I will summarize:

  1. Everybody DOESN’T agree with that, what Sister Alma Rose says, and in fact some of it could be considered “doctrine.” (Sister Alma Rose snorts.)
  2. Our actions have consequences: Like, if you stick your hand in a pot of boiling water, your hand will burn.
  3. We are all screwing up (Father Dooley’s words) all the time, acting in unloving ways. Love is a miracle, a gift of grace, and cannot be deserved. If we always got what we deserved, we would be crackers.
  4. Jesus’ life and teachings, death, and resurrection are proof of a higher law, which is that God’s love is greater than the law of consequences; or, rather, that God, through Jesus, paid the piper so that we wouldn’t have to go around weighed down by guilt and anxiety. This only works if we admit we behaved badly (confession) and want very much not to keep behaving badly (repentance), and if we accept the sacrifice (communion) and are grateful for it. That is the freedom Jesus promised; that is the Good News.
  5. We are likely to take communion more to heart — to be blown away by the liberating acceptance of God’s sacrifice for our sakes — if we believe that the bread is Jesus’ body and the wine is his blood, than if we are just eating stale bread crumbs and drinking grape juice.
  6. This is not all just a matter of collecting chits for the Afterlife. Salvation is here and now, overcoming sickness and all manner of other here-and-now penalties for less-than-perfect behavior.

Well, I say to Father Dooley, this is all fine and good, but I still don’t think it’s worth having your head chopped off over. Transubstantiation is not even in the Bible, after all. Jesus said, at the Last Supper, “This is my body, broken for you,” but he was always speaking metaphorically, saying stuff like, “I am the vine and you are the branches,” et cetera.

The  Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, 1498

The Last Supper, by Leonardo da Vinci 1498

The Nine Days’ Queen

King Edward VI of England, William Scrots, c. 1550

King Edward VI of England, by William Scrots c. 1550

Lady Jane Grey was the Queen of England for nine days in 1553, after Edward VI and before Mary I, “Bloody Mary,” as she came to be called. (For more information, see “Historical Background,” below.)

Lady Jane did not want to be queen. She was only sixteen, and she was indeed a staunch Protestant, but a group of greedy grownups, including her own parents, made her marry this awful man, Lord Guilford Dudley, and then persuaded the ruling council to name her queen, and so queen she was, for nine days, until Mary Tudor swept down upon London with several thousand of the faithful, and, voila, Mary was queen and Jane was imprisoned in the Tower of London, convicted of high treason, and sentenced to death.

Mary and Jane were cousins, and Mary really did not want to execute Jane, knowing that Jane was made queen over her own objections. Mary told Jane she would let her off the hook if Jane would just convert to the True Faith, Roman Catholicism, and to tell you the truth, if I’d been Jane, I would have said, fine, okay, but I would have had my fingers crossed and then I would have gone back to my cozy life of studying Protestant doctrine and having my servants do my laundry and cook my meals. But Jane, a better woman than I, or a more stubborn one, refused.

A 15th-century representation of the Tower of London. Shown is the White Tower, begun by William the Conquerer in 1078. The White Tower still stands, but it is now part of a large complex of buildings that comprise "The Tower"

A 15th-century representation of the Tower of London. Shown is the White Tower, begun by William the Conquerer in 1078. The White Tower still stands, but it is now part of a large complex of buildings that comprise "The Tower"

Jane was mostly concerned with doctrinal issues. She could not accept the Roman Catholic belief in transubstantiation — plus, she had an illegal English translation of the Bible, and she was studying Greek and Hebrew so that she could read the original biblical texts rather than translations. The Catholic Church didn’t want lay persons reading the Bible at all, because if they read it than they would begin to interpret it.

Verdict: A sad waste of a young life

My debate with Father Dooley is no debate at all, as it turns out, because we pretty much agree about Lady Jane.

“Two things,” says Father Dooley, holding up two fingers so I won’t forget that he has two points to make.

“First, it’s hard for our modern ecumenical way of thinking to understand how radical it was to depart in any way from Catholic doctrine. For centuries, the Catholic church had been the ONLY Christian church, and it was not used to being disagreed with. In fact, when Henry VIII broke with the church, the Pope excommunicated him, and all of England with him. Heaven, according to the church, was not available to those who had been excommunicated.

Death by burning

Death by burning

“Second, even in the context of her time, and I believe she was beheaded in the 1550s, Lady Jane could have saved herself in good conscience. As brilliant a scholar as she was, she was also very young and very new to the heady freedom of Protestant thinking. Even her Protestant teachers warned her that she was excessively dogmatic. It’s very sad, really, especially since Elizabeth would be queen within a few years, and the policy of her reign was one of tolerance.”

Mary Tudor — Queen Mary I, or “Bloody Mary,” as she has become known — was merciful to her cousin Jane in having her beheaded. Before the end of Mary’s reign, almost three hundred “heretics” would be burned on street corners, in full view of the populace.

Eternal damnation

Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer and founder of Christian Science

Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer and founder of Christian Science

Mary seems to have sincerely believed that her reign of terror was saving souls from eternal damnation — not the souls of those being burned, it was too late for them — but the souls of those who looked on, who heard the screams and smelled the charred flesh.

Sister Alma Rose has no patience with preachers of hellfire and damnation. She believes that we grow spiritually over a succession of earthly incarnations. Thus she does not believe that ANY souls are consigned eternally to hell. She likes to quote Mary Baker Eddy on the subject:

Does Divine Love commit a fraud on humanity by making man inclined to sin, and then punishing him for it? …In common justice, we must admit that God will not punish man for doing what he created man capable of doing, and knew from the outset that man would do. God is “of purer eyes than to behold evil.”  —Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, 356:25 ff.

To be continued… Praying the Hours (the Divine Office)

The Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves, c. 1440

The Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves, c. 1440

Historical Background — The Man Who Would Be Pope

Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII of England, was beheaded May 19, 1536, at the Tower of London

Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII of England, was beheaded May 19, 1536, at the Tower of London

I have been reading a lot of historical fiction about England (c. 1150 – 1600) lately, and I’ve read, like, five books in a row about Anne Boleyn

—because it’s so much fun to find out which authors think that

  • (a) Anne Boleyn was a world-class B-word (Daddy won’t let me say or spell the B-word that rhymes with witch, but then he also didn’t think that I should be reading about Anne Boleyn because if he had his way I’d still be reading Thomas the Tank Engine and playing with Barbies, which, excuse me, are way more obscene than Anne Boleyn), and (b) Henry VIII the longsuffering husband, as opposed to those authors who think that
  • (a) Anne Boleyn was June Cleaver in tights — no, wait, it was Henry who wore tights — and (b) Henry was a cruel tyrant.
Henry VIII, King of England, born 1491, reigned 1509-1547

Henry VIII, King of England, born 1491, reigned 1509-1547

The truth is that Henry was a spoiled baby, and spoiled babies are often tyrants. But because he was the King of England and not an ACTUAL baby, his tyrannical acts had lasting and tragic consequences, inasmuch as there was no one with the authority to send him to bed without his supper.

Henry established the Church of England, as separate from the Roman Catholic Church, with himself as the Supreme Head.

He’d been waiting six years for the Pope to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn and make her queen and force her by intimidation and other methods that hardly ever work to have healthy baby boys.

Finally, tired of waiting for the Pope, he said, in effect, “I’ll just make up my OWN church and marry Anne and dissolve the wealthy monasteries and seize all their stuff.”

But he, Henry, did not mean for church doctrine or worship to change at all. He was not in sympathy with reformers such as Martin Luther. The English Reformation, however, got away from him. Once started, it couldn’t be stopped.

* * *

The Succession


Jane Seymour, Queen Consort of England 1536-1537

Jane Seymour, Queen Consort of England 1536-1537

When Henry died, AT LONG LAST, his only legitimate son, Edward Tudor, became Edward VI, King of England.

Edward, whose mother was Jane Seymour (Henry’s third wife; she died a few weeks after giving birth), was only nine years old and he didn’t really run the country… a bunch of greedy grownups made all the political decisions.

But Edward was a committed Protestant and so while he was king the real Reformers in England were more active.

At age fifteen, after he had been king for only six years, Edward died of a lung disease (probably tuberculosis).

Then all hell broke loose.

Henry’s elder daughter Mary Tudor was next in line in the Succession (the list of who gets to be in charge of England when the current ruler dies; see diagram above), but everybody knew that she would restore Catholic rule and persecute Protestants, of whom there were growing numbers.

Mary Tudor, Queen of France, daughter of Henry VII of England, sister of Henry VIII, wife of Louis XII of France and then of Charles Brandon, 1st duke of Suffolk; Mary and Charles were the maternal grandparents of Lady Jane Grey

Mary Tudor, Queen of France, daughter of Henry VII of England, sister of Henry VIII, wife of Louis XII of France and then of Charles Brandon, 1st duke of Suffolk; Mary and Charles were the maternal grandparents of Lady Jane Grey

Lady Jane Grey was the granddaughter of Henry’s sister Mary, and she (Jane) had a legitimate claim to the throne if you took the position that Mary Tudor and Elizabeth, who was next on the list after Mary, were bastards (sorry, Daddy), which, technically, they were since Henry’s marriages to their mothers had been annulled.

As explained above, Lady Jane was basically manhandled to the throne by the evil John Dudley, First Duke of Northumberland, the father of Guilford Dudley, whom Jane was forced to marry. When the time of reckoning came, father and son were executed along with Lady Jane, though I doubt whether Queen Mary had many regrets about ridding the kingdom of those two.

Guilford’s brother Robert Dudley, First Earl of Leicester, was cut from different cloth. He was a man of intelligence and character (the rumors that he killed his first wife, Mary, have been judged by history to be false). He and Queen Elizabeth had been childhood friends, and it is generally believed that they had a lifelong love affair that was never consummated.

Eventually he married Lettice Knollys, a granddaughter of Lady Mary Boleyn, Anne’s sister.

I, Fanny

I, Fanny

Lost and Found

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Hafez (or Hafiz) the Persian

Hafez (or Hafiz) the Persian

You are healed when you can say to yourself, “I matter, I belong, I am worthy, I am safe, I can express myself, I am loved. —Deepak Chopra, The Deeper Wound: Recovering the Soul from Fear and Suffering, 100 Days of Healing

While I am sleeping, you silently carry off all my suffering and my sordid past in your beautiful hands. —Hafiz

The Suicide Note

God is good,” says Pastor Alexis.

Me, Fanny McElroy

Me, Fanny McElroy

Sister Alma Rose’s dear friend Pastor Alexis got ordained as a minister online and started her own church, Pilgrim Chapel, five years ago. Anybody can go there, it doesn’t matter what religion they are or what they believe about God.

Before she became a minister, Pastor Alexis thought constantly about suicide. “I once was lost,” she says with a grin, “but now I’m found.”

She wrote a long suicide note ahead of time, in case she ever did take the plunge, so to speak. This (below) is it… in all its sadness and beauty….

My name is Alexis, and I am sitting on the balcony of my apartment, twenty-three stories above a narrow red-brick street in a quiet residential neighborhood. My art-deco-era building is an anomaly among the tidy old frame and stucco houses with their privet hedges and children’s swing sets.

The wall that encloses my balcony is three feet high and about eighteen inches wide. I have sat on the wall many times, next to the pots of thriving geraniums and trailing lime-green ivy, my bare legs and feet dangling — half-hoping, half-fearing that someone will come along and give me a small shove. That’s all it would take: just a slight, accidental bump. I believe in reincarnation, and I am ready to be a child again.But I always swing my legs back over the wall, plant my feet on the warm concrete, sit at the pretty white wicker table, and drink the lemonade I have brought out in a large Thermos. I have remembered that there is something left undone. Perhaps I have not dusted, or finished a crossword puzzle, or called my niece this week. If my life is going to end, I want what I leave behind to be tidy.

I am 59 years old, and I am superfluous.

* * *

I had what most people would consider a happy childhood in a happy home. My parents were proud of me (I was an eager learner) and told me I could be anything I wanted to be – a minister, a U.S. senator, an arc welder — anything, as long as it made me happy. They were warm and affectionate, and I knew that I was loved.

That’s the way I see it when I look back, but there’s a layer of fear, like gray film, over it, as if I’m looking outside through a screen door. The fear began with my mother’s “nervous breakdowns” and my dad’s frequent business trips… with the times Mom spent a couple of weeks in the hospital, or when she’d check into a hotel for the sole purpose of drinking herself as near to death as she dared to go. She was sick for two years, when I was 4 and 5.

Sometimes, when Dad was out of town and Mom was sitting in the darkened living room, in the overstuffed chair, her legs splayed on the ottoman… drinking red wine, which turned her tongue and lips blue and carried her into oblivion… I pulled a blanket and a pillow out of the linen cupboard on the second-floor landing, dragged them downstairs and into the living room, covered Mom with the blanket, and tried to arrange her limp torso so that her head rested on the pillow. Then I put her cigarettes and lighter in a kitchen cabinet, so that she wouldn’t burn the house down.

I didn’t know that Mom drank because my sister had a serious heart condition and might die any minute, although she never did… and because my brother had barely survived polio… and because Mom’s own mother had died of pernicious anemia while Mom, too, was ill with polio… and because Dad traveled so much and was unavailable to share all the burdens. I just knew that I felt unprotected when Mom binged and Dad was out of town.

fcc_outsideI started going to the Presbyterian church two blocks away, alone, when I was 5 — drawn, I think, by the glorious music and the grand old sanctuary with its elaborately carved oak and its sparkling, intricate stained-glass windows, and also by the reassurance of ritual and continuity. The Sunday-school teachers, on the other hand, made Jesus sound like a jail warden, and I was afraid of him, and of going to Hell. But when he came to me in dreams, he wore Levi’s and a plaid shirt, and he was kind and comforting.

One midsummer evening, my mother announced at the dinner table that she was under doctor’s orders to quit drinking. She smiled broadly, dazzlingly, and said, “I have had my last drink.” It was the happiest day of my life.

It lasted for a few months, this feeling of security, this belief in happy endings, this euphoria. And then, early one Sunday morning, after I had spent the night at my cousin Lucy’s house, Aunt Cecily dropped me off on her way to church. She watched as I climbed the forty-seven steps to the big tile-floored front porch, and she waved goodbye as I pushed open the gleaming mahogany door, which was never locked.

I closed the door and inhaled a miasma of cigarette smoke laced with stale beer and something ripe and pungent. I am sure that my heart stopped, and that when it started beating again I wanted more than anything to turn around, go back out the door, and run. Anywhere. Just away from there. Away from what I might find when I turned the corner into the living room.

In the end, there was nothing else to do, so I stepped into the living room and all but tripped over Mom’s feet. She was passed out, face down, on the ottoman, her toothpick legs sticking out on one side, her head and arms dangling from the other side, a pool of vomit between her hands where they brushed the floor.

Feelings whose names I didn’t know suffocated me: revulsion, disappointment, panic, and something worse. I think of it now, perhaps melodramatically, as a loss of innocence.

That summer morning, I had no time to rage or mourn. I knew that my older brother and sister would be of no help; they were still asleep, and in any case they were inured to Mom’s binges. Dad was somewhere in western Nebraska doing a bank audit. I was on my own.

Something in me pitied my mother and was terrified. When I tried to wake her, she rolled over onto the floor. Her arm landed in the vomit, which splashed onto my feet and my white cotton pants, covering most of one leg.

Dr. Prentice, Mom’s psychiatrist, lived two doors away with Mrs. Prentice and their son, Frankie, who was my best friend. I ran out of our house through the back door, up the alley, through the Prentices’ back yard, and into their kitchen. Dr. and Mrs. Prentice were sitting at their white-enamel table, reading the Sunday paper and drinking coffee. Vomit dripped off my pants onto the shiny red linoleum floor. I stood there panting, unable to speak.

“Is something wrong with your mom?” Dr. Prentice asked gently. I just nodded, and he got up, kissed the top of my head, and left the room. Mrs. Prentice took me upstairs and helped me wash my feet and gave me a clean pair of Frankie’s pants to wear. She said that I could play in the guest room until Frankie woke up and that I could eat lunch there and play with Frankie all day. I looked out one of the guest-room windows and watched Dr. Prentice, carrying his black doctor bag, walk across the front yard and down the street toward our house.

An old-fashioned kitchen on display in Dover, Delaware

An old-fashioned kitchen on display in Dover, Delaware

Late that afternoon, Dad came to the Prentices’ to pick me up. Mom was in the hospital, he said. Thelma, our housekeeper, would stay with us until Mom came home. Thelma had worked two days a week for us since I was an infant. She was big and brown and solid and safe. She liked to refer to herself as my mammy. That’s the way things were back then.

Secretly I hoped that Mom would stay in the hospital forever. With Thelma, there were cheerfulness and peace and order. She ironed our sheets, and they felt smooth and smelled wonderful. She baked homemade bread and sweet-potato pie. My clothes were always clean and pressed and folded neatly in my dresser drawer. Thelma vacuumed and dusted, and she scrubbed the blue-linoleum kitchen floor and waxed it by hand, then polished it until it shone. And in the evenings, she sat me on her ample lap and held me tight and told true stories that her grandmother had told her about life in the Old South.

Mom was in the hospital for a month, and when she came home she’d gained a few pounds and her cheeks had some color that had been missing before. She had medicine she could take if she felt overwhelmed, but she didn’t use it very often. I knew, because when she had taken the medicine she slept late and we had to fix our own breakfast. She didn’t quit drinking, but she kept to her daily limit of two glasses of wine. Dad went to work at a different CPA firm, where the head partner promised that there would be no out-of-town travel.

At last, when I was about to start school, there was beginning to be an atmosphere of normalcy and predictability in our home. I buried my fear, but it never went away. I was always steeling myself against the next disappointment.

Our house was a gathering place, as some houses tend to be and no one is sure why. Mom enjoyed a houseful of kids — my sister’s friends, my brother’s, mine. Everyone loved her. She had become strong and healthy and competent. And still I was afraid.

It wasn’t until I was a wife and mother myself that I understood Mom’s despair. When I suffered my own breakdown at 22, Dr. Prentice and Mom helped me through it. Some time during my high-school years, Mom had become my hero, my role model. Dad had always been my rock.

Once, when I was in my early 20s, I heard Mom tell Aunt Cecily that, if anything happened to Dad, she knew that I would take care of her. I never had to. Mom died of a stroke when she was 59. Dad had a fatal heart attack five years later.

* * *

I married Lou when I was 24, four years before Mom died. Together Lou and I raised three happy, healthy children. Lou was a philanderer, and I knew it, but he was also a wise and loving father and we made a fine parenting team. We needed each other for that, and the kids needed us both, and, for me, that was enough.

Lou died of cancer five years ago, and I grieved. The children are married, with families and careers. They are scattered throughout the country, and I see them twice a year. My grandchildren are always shy with me at first; they don’t know me, and they certainly don’t need me.

I am 59 years old, and I am superfluous.

lemonadeAlmost every day I take my coffee or my lemonade onto the balcony. I sit on the little wall and wonder, with some detachment, what it would be like to just push off with my feet and go sailing into the air. Maybe tomorrow, I think. Today I need to launder the bedding.

* * *

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    On the way to town

    On the way to town

    A Walk into Town

    This morning I got up early and went across the street to Sister Alma Rose’s farmhouse because we had planned to walk into town. She had made cheese omelets and fresh-squeezed orange juice and coffee for our breakfast, and as we sat down to eat, the sun was clearing the long row of poplars east of the house, and I waited for Sister Alma Rose to say a prayer, as she always does, and this is what she said this morning:

    This is the day that You, our Creator, have made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it. Thank you for air to breathe and water to drink and bread on the table. That is enough, for us, for today. Praise the Great Source of all life, of all universes, who pours forth love. Amen.


    Sister Alma Rosalie of Hilltop Farm

    Now, when Sister Alma Rose meets someone for the first time, she always says, “How do you do? I am Sister Alma Rosalie of Hilltop Farm”—using all her names, you see, like in the Middle Ages when people said, “How, now! I am Will the Wainwright from the Swampy Glen, forsooth.” And folks would call him “Will Wright” or “Will O’Glen” or something, to distinguish him from Will the Cooper from the New Town on the Southern Bank of the River Muddlebury….

    Me, Fanny McElroy

    Me, Fanny McElroy

    Sister Alma Rose is rather prim in the matter of introductions, but she manages to be gracious and warm at the same time. I introduced her to Daddy’s Auntie Pru—or, rather, I introduced Auntie Pru to Sister Alma Rose, because Sister Alma Rose is the elder of the two—one rainy morning on Sister Alma Rose’s big wraparound porch.

    Sister Alma Rose extended her strong, capacious right hand and closed it firmly around Auntie Pru’s small, bony one, and then Sister Alma Rose placed her left hand on top of their clasped hands and squeezed, causing Auntie Pru to wince, and it looked for all the world like a Venus flytrap devouring a moth.

    Then Sister Alma Rose smiled, and the rain stopped and the sun came out. I am perfectly serious.

    “How do you do?” she said. “I am Sister Alma Rosalie of Hilltop Farm,” which Auntie Pru already knew because I had just said so.

    Cucumber Sandwiches

    Cucumber sandwiches, Yum! Image by pirate johnny via Flickr

    But when Sister Alma Rose and I are chatting comfortably, after lunching on cucumber sandwiches made with barley bread and cream cheese, perhaps, on that wonderful porch, with its floor of wide wooden planks painted gray and with sky-blue soffit as the ceiling, she might say, “Sister Alma Rose has some cold lemonade in the icebox [she’s never gotten used to saying refrigerator] and I think there’s just enough for the two of us.”

    That’s the shortest her name gets: “Sister Alma Rose.” Nobody would dream of calling her “Sister Alma” or just “Alma” or “Alma Rose” or, Heaven forbid, “Rosie.”

    A lot of kids ask me about Sister Alma Rose

    “Fanny McElroy,” they say, “is ‘Rosalie’ Sister Alma Rose’s last name? What does she look like up close? Is she really, really old and wrinkled? Is she rich?

    “Why does she always wear those big dresses?” they want to know. “Who takes care of the farm? Is it that giant? Is he her boy friend? Is Sister Alma Rose Portia’s mama? Where does Portia go when she goes away?”

    I usually say, “Why don’t you go call on Sister Alma Rose yourself? She’ll give you fresh-squeezed lemonade, and you can see what she looks like and maybe you’ll meet Mr. Truman LaFollette, who is Portia’s daddy. Ask him to say, ‘Fee, Fie, Foe, Fum,’ if you like. And if you are feeling extremely rude, you can ask how old Sister Alma Rose is and how much money she has and where she gets it.”

    Sister Alma Rose's house at Hilltop Farm

    Sister Alma Rose's house at Hilltop Farm

    But they don’t go — not yet — though Sister Alma Rose is almost always sitting on her wraparound porch in a big wicker rocking chair painted grass-green, the same color as the green shutters on the enormous white house her grandfather built (the shutters that Mr. Truman LaFollette took down to paint and never put back up), the same color as the wrought-iron rail around the widow’s walk at the very top of the very tall house on the crest of the long hill that starts its upward course at the Wild Turkey River.

    If Sister Alma Rose doesn’t have a visitor, she knits or crochets, and she reads a lot of books about geography and anthropology. She is fascinated by people who live in faraway jungles and on islands where life hasn’t changed for hundreds and hundreds of years.

    The view from Sister Alma Rose's front porch

    The view from Sister Alma Rose's front porch

    But often she just sits and gazes contentedly at the countryside, a queen surveying her realm, as if God made the rich, rolling farmland and the slate-blue bluffs, the foothills covered with wild clover and goldenrod, the creek and the frogs and the clear blue pond, all just for her; and she smiles her gratitude.*

    A Walk into Town

    One hazy summer morning, when it was still cool but the air was heavy and promised afternoon heat, Sister Alma Rose and I walked into Hilltop early, just as the shops were opening. It is a downhill walk to get there, so of course it is uphill all the way home, and I was already looking forward to lemonade and canasta on Sister Alma Rose’s porch.

    Ning's magical pathway

    Ning's magical pathway

    Sister Alma Rose was going to buy tang kuei from her friend Ninghong, though Sister Alma Rose calls her “Jia Ning.” I don’t know why. Ning sells Chinese food and herbs out of the front room of her house on Poplar Street. It is one of the oldest and loveliest houses in Hilltop, but it might have been built yesterday, as sturdy and neat as it is. The tiny front yard is planted entirely in flowers—deep-coral hibiscus, white oleander, pink roses, yellow and red hollyhocks, and honeysuckle and orange trumpet vines draped over twin arches next to twin weeping willows that shade the large porch. In stark contrast, the house is a delicate eggshell shade, inside and out. The porch is cluttered with old-fashioned white-enameled outdoor furniture—a glider and chairs with deep-red cushions, and small café tables. On this particular morning, a man is sitting on the glider, singing to himself. He stops singing to smile at us, and his smile is sweet and warm, despite the conspiculous paucity of teeth.

    We open the front door, with its lovely oval of etched glass, and a bell tinkles. Ning is in the front room opening cartons with a box-cutter and setting the contents—bright yellow boxes of tea—on tidy shelves. Ning’s front room is one of my favorite rooms in all the world. The tall, narrow windows on three walls are open, and there is a heady mix of fragrances—the ginger and the teas and a breath of honeysuckle on the damp breeze. The wide-planked pine floor is polished like the surface of a lake.

    Ginger root

    Ginger root

    Ning emerges from behind the huge pine counter, as shiny as the floor, and squeezes my cheeks between her small, strong hands, kissing my forehead. “Good morning, sweet Fanny McElroy,” she says in unaccented English. Sister Alma Rose has told me that Ning was born in Hilltop, but the two of them always converse in Chinese—Mandarin, I think. Sister Alma Rose takes Ning’s little hands in hers, and I wince, as I always do, expecting to hear the crunch of bones, but Ning only laughs delightedly.

    The bell rings again, and we turn to see Ning’s mama holding the door open while Ning’s grandmama shuffles in, leaning heavily on a shiny black cane and smiling. I couldn’t say, precisely, but I think that Ning’s grandmama has just a few more teeth than the man on the porch. Ning’s mama is carrying a box, and when she sets it on the counter I see that it is filled with dozens of small drawstring bags made from colorful fabrics—purple, red, green, and yellow, some flowered, some striped.

    Ning is out of tang kuei, but her nephew will deliver it to Sister Alma Rose tomorrow. Ning and her mama and grandmama and Sister Alma Rose chatter for a bit in Chinese, and then Sister Alma Rose takes my arm and guides me to the door, and I turn and say zàijiàn, which means “goodbye” and which is the only thing I know how to say in Chinese, and Sister Alma Rose smiles her approval, and then we are on the porch.

    The man with the missing teeth is still sitting on the glider. He is wearing what looks like a basketball uniform, dark green, and his skin is a dusky black. He smiles at us, and we smile back. I notice that the whites of his eyes are mottled with red and that the hand he raises in greeting is unsteady.

    “Do you have a dollar for me today?” he asks. At least I think that’s what he is saying, but he has a thick accent and his speech is as unsteady as his hand. Sister Alma Rose reaches into her pocket and pulls out two quarters, places them into his hand, and then takes both of his hands and squeezes them, as is her way. I have a quarter and a dime in my coin purse, and I give them to him, and he holds onto my hand for a moment and looks deep into my eyes and says, “I am the blood brother of Jesus. Do you see the blood in my eyes? That is Jesus’ blood.” At least I think that’s what he is saying.

    Mr. Truman LaFollette always uses fresh lemons

    Mr. Truman LaFollette always uses fresh lemons

    “God bless you, then,” I say politely, and then Sister Alma Rose and I begin our trek up the hill toward home and Mr. Truman LaFollette’s lovely lemonade. It is already uncomfortably warm.

    “Sister Alma Rose,” I say, “do you know that man? What does he mean, he is the blood brother of Jesus?”

    She only smiles, so I go on, “Do you think he is a toper?” That’s what Uncle Lester calls someone who drinks too much alcohol. “Should we have given him the money? Maybe he’ll spend it on liquor.”

    Sister Alma Rose takes my hand, gently, for a change. “God tells us to give to the poor, Fanny. It is between them and God what they do with what we give them.

    “I have seen this man before. He is from Ethiopia, and he has had much trouble. It is good that he can smile. It is good that people smile back. A great deal is exchanged in smiles from the heart, Miss Fanny.”

    “But what did he mean,” I persist, “when he said he is the blood brother of Jesus? Can that be true?”

    “Well, Fanny,” says Sister Alma Rose, “it is not a lie. That I can tell y’all. But it is a mystery. Not all angels have wings.”

    She is quiet for a moment. Then she says, in her teacher voice, “Did y’all know, Fanny, that everyone on earth is your relative? We are all at least fiftieth cousins. And did y’all know that, in no more than one year, y’all breathe in oxygen atoms that have been in the lungs of everyone alive and everyone who has ever lived?” **

    We walked the rest of the way to Sister Alma Rose’s front porch in silence. Sister Alma Rose might be my twenty-ninth cousin three times removed, I thought. And perhaps the man on Ning’s porch is an angel of God.


    * From The Ancients, Part 1: Daddy Pete, by Mary Campbell
    ** From the 2005 book Pronoia, by Rob Brezsny


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