“When my mother died, it was impossible for my father.” Paula rubbed one elbow as she spoke. “He would have died too, except for my brother and me.”
She shifted on the church bench. The bride and groom’s families occupied most of the pews in the front, so Paula and Andrea had settled for one of the back rows.
“I intended to become a saint and see my mother in heaven. Eventually the world got bigger, or maybe the three of us lived smaller. I wore a small St. Christopher medal and would often touch it.” She touched her collarbone as if the chain and medal still circled her throat. “My brother became a small criminal, stealing notebooks and pencils from Woolworth’s. He meant to write letters to Mom. He was angry. He smoked cigarettes. My talisman didn’t work.”
“I remember that year,” Andrea whispered. “You spent all your spare time in church.”
The college chapel where they now sat was small, modern, and brightly lit. The old Saint Joseph’s had been dark and beautiful and big. Grains of colored light had streamed through stained glass: Mary the mother assumed into heaven and the dove hovering above her youth and beauty. The windows here were clear with the endless sky outside.
Paula glanced around at the people in front, wearing their winter coats, sitting close together, their feet restless and scraping as they anticipated the happy ritual. In the old Saint Joseph’s she dipped her fingers in Holy Water and made a sign of the cross. She sat in a pew near the votive candles and inhaled the fragrance of the beeswax. On Sundays, the choir’s ‘Dies Irae’ floated upward on pure voices. She closed her eyes and imagined she was in heaven, though behind her eyelids there was only black.
“You wanted to go into the convent.”
“I wanted to become a Benedictine, to really live as a saint.”
The organist started playing the “Bridal Chorus” and people turned toward the back of the chapel.
Andrea leaned toward Paula. “I knew that you were unhappy then but I didn’t know how to help. I was involved in speech tournaments. I wanted to be a lawyer like Perry Mason.”
Paula smiled at Andrea and patted her hand. “You did fine.” She had misplaced the medal and only found it the other day in a scratched jewelry box, when their friend had asked for something borrowed for the wedding. Christopher wasn’t considered a saint anymore. Maybe she should have chosen a different saint back then – Ann or Joseph or Teresa.
During that year, while her brother was thieving and she was praying, their father was grieving. He was in a car accident in the middle of the summer and broke his left arm, but he was right-handed. They were lucky, and he soon went back to work. “We were all able to keep each other alive.” The music filled the chapel. Their friend, Caroline, walked down the aisle beside her father. She was regal in her wedding dress with seed pearls sewn on the skirt, and she held a bouquet of perfect, simple white babiesbreath flowers.
published 27 November 2013