Sunday in the Park
It has been anything but a quiet week here in Park Woebegone. Out on the Highway to Heaven, the faithful were preparing for The Season. At The Church of Ralph Lauren they were busy practicing soft rock hymns and polishing the golden altar, shinier than a foil egg on Easter morn. The newest and oldest tribe, at the proposed site for Temple Shalom Shalom, had decided to Pass Over the required water hook-up with the county and were suing over rates that resembled usury. And down the road a piece, at St Mary’s of the Many Assumptions, some newcomer parishioner had decided to collar himself a priest. But I’m ahead of the story.
Regina Reilly was sitting in her pretty-nice condo, that abutted the golf course and had appreciated obscenely in the 20 years she had owned it, when she picked up the morning, big-city paper and saw the photo of that nice priest in four-color, there on the front page, above the fold. Regina had just celebrated her 82nd birthday with her daughter’s family here, where she had settled after her husband, Tom had passed, just as they were getting ready to retire 20 years ago. He had been a newspaper reporter first, and then editor of the small weekly paper in the small town outside Seattle. Tom had taught her so much about life through his job. About social injustice, speaking the truth about fairness and, above all, kindness. That’s why the photo startled her, right away. In her lifetime, news above the fold on the front page was reserved for a declaration of war or an assassination of a president or a walk on the moon.
So she read on and discovered the mass the nice priest started a month or so ago for gay folks was being discontinued. Which was unfortunate. Her hairdresser, Dennis, and the young man who did her nails, Jeremy, had mentioned they had attended last month. The first time they had been inside any church, they said, in a couple of decades. Being gay and being welcomed wasn’t — how did they say it? — mutually compatible. Regina had nodded her wet head in understanding, but really, she was thinking about the word gay and how she missed using it. For her, spring colors were gay, and the time they had for her granddaughter’s bridal shower was gay. But like so many words that had come and gone in her day she learned new meanings for old words and discarded old meanings. Her husband did that. Told her, showed her, really, folks were folks and all wanted the same things. A roof over their heads, a family to love, a decent job. Men and women didn’t need modifiers he used to say. It’s just all so much easier to call migrant workers, migrant workers. And we-want-a-seat-at-the-lunch-counter-men, men. She missed Tom. Missed his sensible kindness.
She went to the back of the article, which continued inside the paper, and that’s when she read a parishioner who had lived here about a year had decided to — what was the expression she had heard her hairdresser use before? — out him. Out the priest. Out that kind, Bob fella. The mass affronted this newcomer’s sense of decency and the priest was the problem, this Clarence O’Malus had concluded, not the loss of the disenfranchised, marginalized former parishioners in a church whose attendance worldwide was diminishing — the priest was the problem. And then she re-read this line several times to be certain. This man had sent some of the priest’s writings, "proving" he was gay, to The Vatican. The Vatican! Straight to Rome. Straight to Hell! Regina said out loud. Why was this any busybody’s business? She was angry and she knew Tom would have been furious at such a personal, mean spirited, well, betrayal, really. Bob had devoted his entire life to serving his community. For God’s sake! she said, to no one, again. This was a man who entered the seminary as Vatican II was just beginning to take root and unfold. When women were burning their bras and sleeping with anyone proving they, too, could have the morals of any alley-catting man, and nuns were hemming up their habits, and priests were still only given the single track in and the single track out of religious life.
Regina wasn’t a Catholic herself. Her father’s people had been. She and Tom had raised their girls as Country Club Christians- dressing up each Easter, enjoying rituals at Christmas. Tom didn’t enjoy the tenets of organized religion — he always said all major religions, at their core, were about the Golden Rule. That was good enough for him. But Regina missed her Catholic roots and enjoyed the theater of church. And nobody does theater better than the Catholics, except maybe the Pentecostals. So ever since she moved to Park Woebegone she had, on occasion, tucked herself into a back pew at the Catholic Church. The old church, at first, up in Old Town, made of stone, a simple place. That Irish priest then, whoa, he was a character. Her son-in-law had a few bar stories about him and his "housekeeper." But for as long as Regina had been alive, priests had had "housekeepers" and parishioners had, well, looked away.
When the new church was built, (what had it been now, a decade ago?) and Bob had taken over, he stirred things up. He forced the town to look at the service folks working the long hours and making the town work. Immigrants, like her own people, though hers had come from Ireland and Italy. The Hispanics, that was what her daughter had said and she had nodded. Her Tom would have just called them marginalized workers. She had met Bob about then, it still seemed so casual to call a priest by his first name that way, but that’s how he introduced himself, when he was seated next to her in the theater. He was a handsome young man in blue jeans, cowboy boots and a clean, pressed, flannel shirt. A tall man too, he had to step over her to get to his seat. When the play started and they found themselves laughing at the same lines she took it upon herself to offer an introduction at intermission. I’m Regina, she said simply. I’m Bob, he replied. It wasn’t until later that year when she attended mass on the anniversary of Tom’s death, that she noticed the same cowboy boots sticking out under his long black cassock and put the two together. That Bob. Father Bob.
Regina put the paper down, she had to really, she was shaking again. Damn. She was so angry. And so sad. Her shaking was getting worse.
It was just last month she had noticed the shaking increasing, but she still had managed to keep it so far, from her daughter. She wasn’t afraid really, she had lived a good, long life. Anxious, was more like it. She didn’t want to have be cared for, she didn’t want to lose her mind, her functions, her independence. She had been driving back from the Whole Natural Wild Food store out at the Junction, where they had the pills for her joint pain, when she decided to pull off the road into the parking lot at St. Mary’s, the new one on the highway, where so many churches had been built since she moved here. She didn’t know why, exactly, but she parked and wandered in and sat down in the narthex in front of the fireplace just to watch the snow for a minute. Bob had come out of the kitchen, walked over and pulled up a chair. He was dressed in cowboy boots, jeans and a flannel shirt, again. Hi, he re-introduced himself, I’m Bob. And Regina didn’t know why but she started to cry. Told him she missed Tom, told him about the shaking, told him it was a secret. He had taken her spotted, fragile hands inside his tanned, strong ones and told her it was OK to be scared. He was scared, too. He had cancer, he confessed and soon he would leave for a couple weeks. Go back to the Mayo and they would see what they could remove. Then he asked if she wanted to pray and she did, very much. So he said a simple prayer for her and with her. Then he wrote down some doctors she might want to call. It was an act of such kindness, Regina remembered. Such kindness.
She tried to stir the honey in her tea but the spoon kept, involuntarily, hitting the sides of the thin china cup. So she set the spoon down, right down on the sensational newspaper article that would have made her Tom so angry and she tried to focus. On that afternoon last month, in front of the fire, and the sense of peace she had when she drove away from the church. She touched the clasp of her mother’s old pearl bracelet, the one that nice Ron had repaired yesterday for no charge. Oh honey, he said, waving his hands, that is such a treasure and so are you. Just promise me if you ever want to sell that beauty, you come to back to me. This was a town of such kind people, mostly, really. She was lucky to have landed here. So she fingered those pearls as she pushed the paper aside and began a whispered prayer of her own. Dear God, she asked, What about Bob? And she sat there, on that Sunday in the Park and made her way around her bracelet with tears rolling down her translucent cheeks, touching each smooth pearl and repeating& What about Bob? What about Bob?
And that’s the news this week from Park Woebegone where all the men are good looking and the women are smart and the children are expected to be above average&
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