Ellen

ellenNext door to us in Milledgeville lived a pair of twins, Alice and Ellen. As teenaged girls, they were like Patty and her cousin Cathy on the Patty Duke Show, for those of you old enough to understand that reference. Alice lived out loud, partying and having fun. Ellen was everything refined and lovely, just what an upper-crust parent would desire.

Their parents, Mike and Bea, were my parents’ closest friends. She was old money; he was new. They owned the only radio station in town, had a full-time, live-in maid, and kept the local parish priest in their back pocket with large donations. Like my dad, Mike was an Irish Catholic, and his religion was a large part of his identity, which helps to explain why their world came to an end when Ellen became engaged to a Protestant.

Mike forbade the priest from marrying Ellen in her own church. He could do that; he had the power. When Ellen— who was completely in love with Don, a fine young man from a good family— married him anyway in his church, her parents closed their doors to her and vowed never to speak to her again.

As their friends, this whole situation was very uncomfortable for my parents, especially my mother. She had declined to attend her own brother’s wedding, because it was held in a Protestant church and Catholics were forbidden to enter non-Catholic places of worship. As time went by, and especially since she had had time to observe this sweet young woman and her beautiful love story, Mom had begun to rethink and regret her decision.

Within a year or so, Ellen gave birth to her first child, as young brides are apt to do. When she showed up at her mother’s door, aching to share this joy with her, Bea sent a message through the maid to say that she refused to see her. Stricken, Ellen came to our house, where my mother took her in and let her cry on her shoulder. I remember riding in the back of Don and Ellen’s car, caring for the baby, who was laid on a blanket in those days before car seats. Ellen was in the front seat tearfully asking Don, “What should I do?” My mother grieved for her.

Years later, when I married a Protestant myself, as did my sister after me, we were married in our own Catholic church. My father was unhappy at the time, but as our husbands became Catholics, he relaxed. My mother never spoke of the issue; she was a wise woman who learned from the suffering she had seen. Within five years, I left the church, and as a decades-old Protestant now, I have seen the same spirit of division from the other side. It’s as if we always think that 1 Corinthians 1:10-13 was written for other people, as if the Lord is only upset with division in the church if other believers disagree with us and our beliefs. Otherwise, surely we would find a way to avoid these thousands of denominations. As Jesus prayed in John 17:31, “May they be one, as you and I are one.” Not “may they be correct.”

Within a few years, Ellen had two more children, and her parents never saw them. She brought each and every one to her parents’ door, but always ended up crying at our house. She was still a young woman with little ones when she was struck with appendicitis and rushed to the hospital for what should have been a routine surgery. No one knew that she was allergic to the anesthesia, and by the time they realized it, she was dead. Don had called her parents to tell them that she was going to have surgery, and when her father arrived to find that she had died, he began shouting at the medical staff, threatening to sue the doctor and the hospital and demanding an autopsy. Quietly, Don said, “No, she will not have an autopsy, and we will not sue the doctor. It was an unfortunate accident. You would have no part in her life, and now you will have no part in her death.” Mike and Bea lived for many years after Ellen’s death, but they were broken people who never recovered.

The day after Ellen died was Mother’s Day. Bea loved flowers, and she delighted in the rarest blooms she could find. Ellen faithfully sent her mother flowers every year on Mother’s Day, even though they had not spoken in a very long time. Of course, she had ordered them several days earlier, so when the doorbell rang on the morning of Mother’s Day, Bea received a thoughtfully chosen gift from her dead daughter: a rare black orchid.

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Beeswax & Dust

Sacred Heart MilledgevilleScientists tell us that the most powerful trigger of memory is the sense of smell. When I catch a hint of a certain aroma, it transports me back to my childhood at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Milledgeville. It’s a warm combination of beeswax, old wood polished many times, dust in the carpet, and a lingering vapor of incense. To me, it is the smell of holiness.

Our church was tiny, the only Catholic church in this small, southern town. The congregation was filled with Yankee transplants and Cuban immigrants. We were the former. The church was hushed and quiet, and so crowded that we were often in the parish hall, which joined to the side of the sanctuary. Mass was still in Latin in those years, so there was plenty of time to look around and let a child’s mind wander. I dearly wanted to wear a beautiful mantilla like the “Spanish ladies,” but my mother said no. I had to wear a hat.

There were candles on the altar, of course, but also votive candles in a bank of red holders off to the side. A person had to put some money in the box to light a candle, and then their prayer was supposed to go up to God for as long as the candle lasted. I thought they cast a lovely glow, but when I later became a Protestant, and my family visited Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, I eschewed them as pagan, since there’s nothing in the Bible about prayers in candle flames, and because they were often lit to pray for someone’s soul to be released from Purgatory, another unbiblical notion. Besides, they were often in a little alcove in front of a saint’s statue.

My mom was not a spiritual person. She was glamorous, gregarious, and efficient. She was a Protestant before she married my father, so she went to Mass and said her prayers privately, avoiding the more mystical aspects of the faith. She didn’t deny them; she just didn’t care for showiness in religious matters. Mom spent decades of her life caring for sick and dying relatives, pouring out her precious days in service to those she loved, while never going a minute without eyeliner and lipstick. I mistook her practical faith for shallow belief. Two days before her death, her Birkenstock-wearing parish priest came to her hospital bed to give her the last rites. He said, “Margaret, do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and that he died on the cross for your sins?” She looked full in his face, eyes wide and childlike, and said, “I do.” This is one of those moments in my life that is forever fresh and crystal clear. I visit it occasionally to consider what it says about my mom and about myself.

Votive candles redA year or so ago, my brother and I had a day together in Manhattan, and we trekked down to the 9-11 Memorial and St. Paul’s Chapel, and then we went further down the island to the oldest church in New York, Trinity Episcopal on Wall Street. Whereas St. Paul’s Chapel is more tourist site than church these days, Trinity was quiet and filled with worshipers. We strolled the historic graveyard and quietly admired the beautiful architecture and pipe organ in the sanctuary. Off to the side, there is a little chapel room with a sign asking for complete silence. I sat down and spent a little time with others in prayer and meditation. Coming out, I saw a bank of glowing red votives. I lit a candle.

In Jewish tradition, it is usually the woman who lights the candles at the beginning of religious ceremonies, symbolizing the fact that women bring life into the world. Messianic Jews further interpret this ritual as a symbol that a woman brought forth the Light of the world. In any case, it is, as they say, a mitzvah.

Most evenings after dinner, around seven o’clock, I head out to my back porch to read my Bible and spend some time with the Lord. My porch has become a holy place. David will usually join me a half hour or so later. But before the Bible is opened or any prayers are said, I light a candle.