“If only your father had lived to see this day. His favorite son and precious daughter, in the calling of the Lord.”
My mother paused in the kitchen doorway. Although she faced Matthew Stephen and me sitting on opposite sides of the dining room table, her eyes reflected a scene very, very much farther away. Even as she paused in her mealtime bustling, her hands remained in motion, wrestling with each other, like over-tired children. Her voice skittered on the edge of shrillness; she was one of those women prone to gaining octaves as stress increased. She brought out more food than either one of us would eat in three days; the frantic mother robin, driven by instinct and the threat hidden behind gathering storm clouds, desperately trying to build a nest, not bothering to see if there was anyone to occupy it. From the corner of my eye, I saw my brother smile.
“What?” I could almost feel my posture slip back into a teenage slouch, my eyes sought the floor, while at the same time, my voice grew a defiant tone, bristling with italics. I tried to rein in this unexpected feeling of hostility and failed, by asking, with exaggerated interest, “Tell me, what is the proper form of address for a relative in the priesthood. Is it Father brother or Brother father or simply, ‘hey, Matt’?”
Like the sliding back of the screen in a confessional, my brother locked his smile into position and, a mischievous light in his eyes, said, “Well, my daughter…” His hand went to his face, in serous consideration, “sister Sister?”
“Are you two arguing again? Well, its good to know that some things never have to change.” Sitting down at the kitchen-end of the dinning room table, my mother stared intently at my brother. I watched with fascination as he turned from Matty to Father Matthew Stephen, the transformation no less undeniable, had he changed torn blue jeans and tee shirt for a Roman collar and a sincere expression. Looking around the table, Father Matthew Ryan bent his head in prayer, “Bless us our Lord for these thy gifts… including our prodigal daughter-slash-sister, who joins us for this fine meal.”
Set loose from whatever secret place I had it confined, something in me elbowed out my brother’s words and, instead, forced me to see the dining room from the perspective of a passing stranger. A young priest, tailored black blazer, black Michael Kors dress shirt and the white clerical collar, his hair short but stylish, the modern Catholic priest. A nun in full-on habit, the only human part of her being the face, isolated from legs and shoulders, breasts and arms. Only her eyes, nose and mouth were available to identify the young woman who provided life to the black and white cloth. And, of those three features, two were clearly engaged in conflict with an unseen opponent. And, finally, an older woman in a colorful floral print dress that highlighted the tired grey of her thinning hair. It was a timeless portrait of the devout family, separated by time, re-united by a threat to one; the power of family re-asserted.
I felt a familiar struggle grow within myself. I leaned to my left, lifted the tattered lace tablecloth, took aim and launched my right foot. I was rewarded with a look of genuine surprise on my brother’s face. I noted, with disturbing satisfaction, in a fleeting second the professional reflexes changing anger to a look of innocent surprise on Mathew Stephen’s face. To his credit, he swung his foot back in a shallow crescent and got a good clip to my shin.
“So, what is this all about?” I put the foreclosure notice on the table, weathered corners slightly curled, a spoiled garnish ruining the main course.
My mother was not an un-intelligent woman; she simply never felt the need to look beyond the circle of family. She stared at the sheet of paper; her expression was one of patient exasperation, as if, by my holding it, she was relieved of all responsibility.
“Well, I thought you would call these people and explain to them that there must be some mistake.” She sat much more erectly in her chair, an echo of a time when chores might be assigned while the children were captive at the dinner table.
I looked at my brother. He was focused on the food on his plate, looking disappointed at how little remained. The size of the morsel of food on his fork decreased steadily. Each slice he cut, more precise than the last. His only concern was that the food on his plate last longer than my increasingly terse conversation with his mother. White flags may be the universal signal for a truce, but a clean plate was very much the opposite, he wanted no part of the discussion. I wasn’t about to let him get off so easy, “Were you aware of this?” I felt the edge in my voice even before I saw it reflected in his eyes. I resisted the urge to run for the SUV parked in front of the house.
“Your Mother Superior is very highly regarded, not only in your Order, but in the archdiocese as well.” My brother folded his napkin no less carefully than had he been in the middle of saying Mass. I looked at my mother, but she was totally focused on the young priest sitting at her dining table. “You might’ve let us known that you found your Calling. I heard about your, rather radical change in lifestyle, from no one less than Bishop McLaren, himself. I gotta tell you, sis, it was embarrassing to have to pretend that I already knew my precocious sister had left her Ivy League school in the middle of her senior year and joined the Order at St. Dominique’s.”
The thought came, quite un-welcomed, that if I closed my eyes, it would’ve been very easy to believe that my father was sitting across the table. At least the father I had until I got to be about eleven years old, the sober father. After that time, which was so long ago, my father would not have been found in the dining room while the sun was still in the sky. He’d have been at work or with his friends in a bar.
I picked up the notice, “What I mean is why is this taped to the front of this house? I thought the mortgage was paid off years ago. I distinctly remember there was a party and everything.” I looked at my mother, “I was still in high school, when you and Dad burned the mortgage.” My left hand still clutched the crucifix and I focused on the slightly throbbing ache in my palm. My brother looked at me with an expression of ‘who are you to question me’? He seemed to be planning on getting angry.
“Given that your contact with the family in the last five years can be measured in hours, I don’t quite know where to begin.” He seemed to relax. The prospect of telling a story, an impromptu sermon, made his frown recede. He took off his horn rim glasses, the better to allow the sincerity in his eyes to show, the serious nature of what he had to say was not to be undermined.
“He drank it away, right?” My brother’s face was a storm of expressions. That I had the audacity to interrupt his soliloquy was making it difficult to play the role of older and wiser brother. I heard Sister Bernadine’s voice in my head, reminding me that the past exists only as a script that we chose to read from, a role to play.
“Yes. Sad to say, he was eaten by the American dream. The barrage of ads to use the equity in the house, got to him. The money was used to improve the house with new windows and a furnace and all. Unfortunately, the mortgage expert suggested that, rather than take a set amount money out, they should open a line of credit. You can imagine the rest.”
“Your father was a good man. His drinking, well, it was a strong man’s weakness.” My mother interrupted Matthew with a frown of annoyance, that grew from the old-school parenting advise of children-are-to-be-seen-not-heard. “You’ve always been a smart girl. I know you can do something to make these people stop sending us letters.” The strict tone that grew in my mother’s voice startled me, an indication of her being somewhere other than at the table with us. “Now that you’re finally done with whatever you were doing up in that… college,” she pronounced the word like she was holding it with two fingers, at arm’s length. “You can help your brother straighten everything out. This house is all that I have and I won’t ever leave. It’s good to see my favorite daughter and son back home. It’s like it used to be. I’ll get desert now.”
“You know there’s not likely to be anything that can be done about this, right?” Matthew Stephen sat back in his chair in silent acknowledgment of my assessment. “This is a foreclosure. It’s a legal process. She needs a lawyer, not a nun. A novitiate nun at that.”
Matthew leaned on his elbows, closing the distance between us. I repressed the impulse to turn my head to the side, and say, ‘tell me your sins’, the urge to laugh seemed very un-funny. The realization that I thought that would be funny scared me.
“Yeah, I know. I asked an attorney in my parish to look at the paperwork. He said it was in order. He had a bit of a reservation when he saw the name of the lender. Apparently this Bernebau Company has started to draw the attention of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. Nothing that’s even made it to the level of a newspaper story.” He looked at me with an expression of an invitation to confide in him.
“I repeat, I’m a nun-in-training. I’ll say as many prayers as I can. I don’t have any money, but if she needs money for an attorney, I’ll give you what I have, but that’s all. I’m Sister Margaret Ryan of St. Dominique’s…”
“Who helped the Chicago Police Department investigate a serial murder and provided a connection that implicated a multinational corporation in the death of a parish priest.” My brother, pastor of St. Cecilia, looked very priestly. “Father Noonan was very well-known and liked by the priests in this part of the country. And, as I said, your Sister Bernadine is something of a legend in her own right.”
I heard my mother call out from the kitchen, “I have pie and I have cake. Which do you want?” I got up, looked back at my brother still sitting at the table and said, “My sudden departure will not be particularly out of character. Tell her that I’ll make some phone calls. And for God’s sake she needs to stop throwing out registered mail. I’ll call you if I find out anything useful.”
In less than a minute, I was behind the wheel of the SUV that, in shiny gold lettering, identified the owner, if not the driver. Before either my brother or mother could get to the door I was down the street and headed south at an unsafe speed.