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Pastors' Wivesby Lisa Takeuchi Cullen
On the first day of my life as a pastors wife, I decided to buy a Star magazine.
Not People. Not even Us. No: Star, trashy Star, with its cover promises of fabulous people in unfabulous situations, page after page of full-color schadenfreude. You know. Porn for housewives. If I gave it any weight at all, which certainly I did not at the time, I would have to call it a $3.99 act of defiance. A purchase to attest things had not changed, I had not changed. That Ruthie Matters still belonged to a population that consumed celebrity gossip without guilt or thoughts of spiritual consequence.
Still, I hesitated. I stood there in the airport newsstand, my hand hovering over Jennifer Anistons chin. Funny thing about becoming a pastors wife: You felt watched. Not by God, exactly. Just . . . watched.
With a start I realized I was being watched, by the cashier, an Indian woman with chipmunk cheeks packed tight with chewing gum, black eyes steady and suspicious. It took a moment to comprehend why. I almost laughed. So much for my new status as a moral pillar of society. If a shopkeeper could suspect me of filching a supermarket tabloid, then clearly I did not yet reek of saint-type values.
I withdrew my hand, and the cashier turned back to help the next customer.
Hands in my pockets, I wandered toward the back of the store, past the blister packs of Dramamine and leopard-print neck pillows and twelve varieties of trail mix. Finally I reached the books. Books sold in airports fascinate me for their schizophrenic jumble. Jackie Collins next to Malcolm Gladwell smooshed right up against Jane Austen. Anyplace else, the reading public could expect some distance between pie recipes and the vampire apocalypse.
And here, in a stand-alone display labeled inspirational, were the Greens.
The Greens. Aaron and Candace Green, of Greenleaf Church, coauthors of Serve Your Marriage. It was the latest in a blockbuster series by Pastor Aaron Green, its premise the application of Bible scripture to serving your country, your worship, yourself. Unless youre in the market, you probably dont pay attention to books like these. I never did, either. Once you do, though, you realize theyre huge. Just last week I opened up the Sunday New York Times and saw that the book was number one in the self-help category.
Even among the other glossy titles by spiritual sorts, it seemed to me the cover of the Greens book popped. Against a white background, Aaron stood behind Candace with his hands on her shoulders, a full head taller than his wife. He looked as silvery and dashing as ever, but then anyone with a TV set knew what he looked like. The George Clooney of the pulpit, they called him.
The surprise was Candace. I forgot my resolve not to touch anything in the store and picked the book up for a closer look. Candaces face looked etched, her features exact, as if their creator had deliberated over every detail. Her hair was curled high and away from her face, tendrils spun like blue-black cotton candy, defiant of any notion of gravity. Her nose had one of those tiny squares at the tip, like its sculptor had completed it with a push. The inky plume of her lashes fanned out from around her beetle-green eyes. Her lips hinted, just hinted, at a smile. She wore a fitted black suit with a leaf-shaped emerald pin in the lapel. In bearing she resembled Jacqueline Onassis, as played by a thin Elizabeth Taylor.
The surprise was not her beauty, exactly. After all, Id seen her once or twice, when the camera panned to a close-up during her husbands telecasts. The surprise was that the woman transcended a two-dimensional surface. That scant smile was like a sorcerers wand: One flash and you performed as bidden. It scared me just a little.
Think that could be us someday?”
Jerry had snuck up behind me. I saw that hed already inhaled half his bag of peanut M&Ms, his in-flight comfort food. I glanced over my shoulder at the shopkeeper. But Jerry projected goodness, just radiated it. I was pretty sure no one had ever suspected my husband of shoplifting so much as a loose gumball. Sure enough, all I saw of the shopkeeper was the long braid trailing like an oil slick down her back.
Jerry took the Greens book from my hands and peered intently at the jacket.
I snorted. He glanced up. What?”
The thing about us,” I said. Becoming them.”
We looked at the book cover together. Yeah,” he said finally. Youre probably more of a Tammy Faye.” I took the book back and whacked him with it.
Hey!” he said. It says Serve Your Marriage, not Beat Your Husband.”
As he took my hand and led me out of the store, I found myself repeating this exchange in my head, sifting it for underlying intent. Was he joking? It sounds crazy, but I wasnt entirely sure. In our recent life together, Id lost my grasp of his meaning, my ability to read between his lines. Its like when youre channel surfing and you stumble upon a Sandra Bullock movie and youre happily settling in only to realize its dubbed in Spanish. On the surface, all was familiar. But at times like this I became aware I no longer felt fluent in our language.
As we lined up to board, I inspected Jerry from behind. He was even taller than I was, a discovery that had relieved more than attracted me when we first met. Its not that I minded shorter guys; its that they minded me. He still let his wavy dark hair grow over his collar, a style hed never bothered to change even when he worked on Wall Street. His cheeks were leaner, his jaw more often set. His eyes had taken on the cast of a hotel pool before a summer storm. But otherwise he looked like the Jerry Id met years ago outside Professor Bakers office.
Except he wasnt. He had ceased to be the Jerry I knew that morning in April when we woke to the rain machine-gunning the windowpane and he turned his face to me and said, I had the most incredible dream.”
The dream. Some might say that was the day I first became a pastors wife. When does a man become a man of God? Is it the day he joins a ministry, or the day hes called?
The word incredible caught me—Jerry wasnt given to hyperbole—but I grunted a sleepy huh” and pursued it no more as I padded out to start the coffee. He didnt mention it again until later that evening, when he returned from work with Thai takeout.
A new place called Basil had just opened down the block in a storefront notorious for the brief life span of its inhabitants. We called it the Cursed Corner. I took a mouthful of shrimp pad Thai and promptly spat it out.
Jerry frowned, upset. I said no cilantro. I said.”
Gah,” I said, flailing for water. Cilantro tastes like stinkbugs smell. No need to argue; its a fact. Curse the Cursed Corner!”
Once he refilled my glass and sat down, he clicked off the TV and turned to me. So about that dream I had,” he said.
I put down the beef satay (more or less a Slim Jim dipped in peanut butter), tucked one leg under the other, and smiled at my sweetheart. His dream. What dream?
He hadnt even asked me about my day yet, and that was unlike him. Not that I had much to report. I was between jobs, which is to say I was between careers, which is to say I had no clue what to do with my life. Ever since Id left my job as an assistant publicist at a book-publishing company, Id spent the days online, reading up on graduate schools. Journalism at CUNY. Film at NYU. Creative writing at the New School. No sooner would I work up the enthusiasm to download an application than I would alight on another, sparklier option. Its so hard to choose a future.
Still, he always asked, and he always listened. And Jerry was exceptionally good at listening. Hed put down the prospectus in his hand and look in my eyes. He laughed in the right spots. He asked pertinent questions. If I grew vexed, as I admit I often did, Jerry stroked my forearm with his thumb, a sensation I liken to what a cat must feel when its rubbed under its chin. It occurred to me only recently that as the middle child of five, I was wholly unaccustomed to anything resembling undivided attention. I never even knew until I met him that I had craved it all my life.
So I faced my husband that night to hear about this dream of his. For despite the casual wording, something in his tone indicated it mattered.
I had no idea how much.
Jerry took a deep breath. Its not that I remember the dream so much,” he said. There was a kind of lightness. Like warm light. Like someone was hugging me.”
I raised my hand. That would be me. Your wife. I was cold.”
He smiled. It was . . . I dont know,” he said. This feeling of coming home.” He was quiet for a moment, his eyes scanning my face like it held some sort of answer. I think I was called.”
By who?” I asked, reaching for a rice chip.
Jerry blinked at me.
Whom,” I said through a mouthful of chip. By whom.”
The silence stretched.
You know,” he said. By God.”
If my marriage were a timeline—the kind they run in newspapers to mark the meaningful moments in a course of events—this conversation would get a boldfaced mention. Everything up till then was B.C., Before the Call. You might wonder at how dense I was. How Id utterly failed to understand. But in my defense, B.C., this was not our language. Despite or maybe because of my Catholic upbringing, despite or maybe because of Jerrys theology degree and his ongoing exploration of faith, religion had heretofore existed in our marriage as an abstract. A topic of intellectual discussion. Words I would soon hear proclaimed at every turn—I was called,” I was saved,” I accepted Jesus”—back then, B.C., this kind of talk was nothing short of alien.
Later I would think of the Tower of Babel. You know the story. These people gather from all over the world and decide to build a structure that will challenge Gods glory. Of course, God doesnt like to be fronted like that, and in his fury he not only blows the tower to smithereens but smites the people with disparate tongues so they can no longer communicate. That was kind of what it was like for us. Like the marriage wed built was a tower God recognized as temporal. In the moment, I did not see. Facing my husband on the couch, bad Thai food congealing on the coffee table, I did not see the pillars and stanchions crashing down around us, the ruins that promised to swallow our marriage whole if we did not find each other soon and hold fast.
Meantime, I had questions. No sooner did I spit one out than another crowded up. What does that mean?” I spluttered. How do you know? What did God say? Are you feeling warm? Could it be stress? Or that homeopathic crap youve been taking for your sinuses, that weed of Saint Whats-his-face—”
Jerry took my face in both his hands. I loved those hands; I trusted those hands. Instinctively I nestled my cheek against his palm.
I dont know what it means,” he said. I dont know how I know it was God—I just do. He didnt say anything. It was more of a feeling. And Im not sick. Im not hallucinating. Ive never felt better in my life. In any case, Im not doing anything about it yet. I just wanted you to know.” And then he leaned forward and kissed me.
He just wanted me to know. It was one thing to know and another to understand. I pulled back to stare at my husband. And for the first time I wondered: Who are you?
* * *
It all happened so quickly. Months after Jerrys dream, on a Saturday morning in July, he called me over to his laptop.
Hold up,” I said, looking over his shoulder as I extracted the bagel clamped between my teeth. They advertise church jobs online?”
Jerry laughed. How else?”
I dont know. Maybe a holy grapevine. A want ad from above.” At least thats how it seemed to work in the Catholic church.
We looked at the listing together. It read:
SEEKING: Associate Pastor
Evangelical church (20,000 members and growing) in suburban Atlanta seeks gifted, motivated young pastor with finance and/ or business experience to assist in management of sizable endowment. Academic degree in theology accepted in lieu of pastoral experience. Pay commensurate . . .
In the weeks and months following Jerrys calling—though it still felt weird to call it that, and I avoided the word—we had discussed the implications. That maybe he would leave Wall Street. He had always said he would, sooner rather than later, and now he had somewhere to go. He had been called to serve. A church job made sense, as a start.
The question is where,” said Jerry. And I understood he wasnt referring to geographical location.
A Catholic is a Catholic is a Catholic. So I marveled at the way Protestants could flit from one denomination to another. Jerry had attended Presbyterian services growing up in a wealthy suburb of New York City, and over the years had sampled from a pupu platter of Protestantism: Episcopalian (too Catholic), Baptist (too emphatic), Charismatic (flat-out insane). He liked the inclusivity of the Unitarians, but not their loosey-goosey services; the work ethic of the Lutherans, but not the pole up their backsides; the politics of the Methodists, but not their lousy worship music.
You should start your own church,” I joked, then immediately realized this had already occurred to Jerry.
I need to learn the ropes first,” he said.
What kind of man contemplates starting his own church? Who are you?
Greenleaf Church, its called,” Jerry was saying, tapping the computer screen. In a place called Magnolia, outside Atlanta. What do you think?”
What did I think? My Wall Street Journalreading, NPR-listening, Yankees-loving husband was looking at a job opening at a Southern evangelical megachurch, and he wanted to know what I thought?
I said the only thing I could say with honesty. I think theyll love you.”
* * *
Flight 4502 to Atlanta,” called the gate agent.
Passengers surged forward. The family of four ahead of us was dressed in shorts and flip-flops, which I thought premature; ten-to-one the little girl in the sleeveless shift would throw a fit when the flight got chilly. The snowbirds to my right showed off the kind of bone-deep perma-tan thats a formal invitation for melanoma.
I caught myself. Judgy. Thats what Candace Green would think I was: uncharitable and judgy. Just what shed expect of a Northeastern liberal, not to mention a papist. No one needed to tell me that for a pastors wife, there were certain behaviors that simply would not fly. But someone did need to tell me which. Was there a handbook? Some sort of guide?
We settled in our seats, a window and an aisle. The middle seat remained open, just as the nice ticket lady had promised. People did things like that for Jerry. He smiled and the world turned to goo. Jerry took the aisle seat to stretch out his long legs, and before takeoff hed fallen asleep. This, too, was a gift, one I envied at least as much as his talent for public speaking and facility with names.
It was then I remembered, with disproportionate regret, that I had failed to purchase my Star magazine. I wanted to cry.
I looked out the window. There below was the New Jersey Turnpike, stretching like a concrete scar across the belly of my home state. As I always do during the ascent, I craned my neck to see if I could spot my hometown. It isnt far from the airport, but we were pulling south, not north, and in any case no landmark distinguished Hoogaboom from the air. Growing up, the compass Id used to orient myself was the Manhattan skyline to the east, in particular the World Trade Center. So direct and unobstructed was our line of vision that my father saw the first of the twin towers struck while walking home from Mels Bakery with a bag of doughnuts.
The horizon wasnt all that had changed in Hoogaboom, named in 1772 for a Dutch settler who could not have foreseen that his family name would one day be mocked by a late-night TV comedian as the dorkiest place name in America (over Hackensack and Ho-Ho-Kus—both, naturally, also in New Jersey). Two Catholic churches bookend Main Street still: Saint Anns for the Irish, and Saint Adalberts for the Polish. Our clapboard split-level home just off the main drag also housed the law office of my father, Frank Connelly. That central location and his social ubiquity meant he served many residents at one point or another, drawing up their wills or transferring their deeds. Old-timers called him Mayor, even though hed handed off that thankless post years ago to Stew Kozlowski of Kozlowski Funeral Home.
When the Koreans began to arrive in the 1990s, the town transformed seemingly overnight, Caffreys Drugs replaced by a bulgogi barbecue, Ankas Pickles now a Hello Kitty boutique. When longtime residents groused, my father played peacemaker. It was Dad who persuaded one of the first arrivals, Soong-sa Kim, to start the Korean Merchants Association. I remember Mr. Kim and other men knocking on Dads office door with Chivas and cigars to look at blueprints and discuss ordinances. Many of them retained him for counsel until one of their own opened up shop.
The signage issue crept up. Up through the late 1990s, the merchants advertised their wares in proud if sometimes odd English (korean burned cow, read a sign in the window of a barbecue joint). But some newcomers argued against having to explain their services in English, as they expected to cater primarily to their countrymen. The new lawyer in town, Stanford Lee, got all hepped up over their First Amendment rights. Dad talked him down. He liked to tell his children that had he not gotten Lee to settle, this case had Supreme Court written all over it. It could have been the case of his career, he said. But that wasnt Frank Connellys style.
Never let your ego decide whats right,” he told me.
That was unlikely. My ego had a hard time just showing up. As a child I distinguished myself in little, accomplished not much, and stood for nothing at all. I proved difficult to label, unlike my siblings. Tom, the oldest, was the smart one. Vivian, the second, was the beauty. After me came the twins, Paul, the comedian, and Michael, the athlete. But me—I was just Ruthie. Toothy Ruthie when I grinned, and then Juithy Ruthie during my abominable orthodontia years, when I both sprayed and lisped.
In college, I took the concept of liberal arts literally, giddily loading up on one bullshit course after another. Appalachian Anthropology. Symbolic Imagery in Animé. History of Hip-hop in the Harlem Renaissance. For one semester I rode the intercampus bus twice a week to the arts school to take classes in Tamenaibuga, an African friendship dance. I know.
Despite my lack of direction—or maybe because I could indulge it—I loved college. I felt for the first time independent and free and unique from my siblings. Even though all of us attended the same school, its teeming student body and scattered campuses meant I rarely ran into them. By the time I matriculated, Tom was in law school on a campus in a different city. Paul and Michael disappeared promptly into a fraternity and became known as the Tau Sig twins.”
In college the snippy rivalry that had characterized my first eighteen years with my sister mellowed into something resembling friendship. Vivian is eleven months older than I am, and we grew up squabbling over everything. Our shared bedroom, our shared Guess jeans, our one yellow Sony Discman. We looked somewhat alike and on occasion were mistaken for each other, an occasion that pleased only me. Vivian was beautiful. She had perfectly symmetrical features: a straight nose, puffy lips, and wide, lashy eyes. You could stare at a face like that and marvel at Gods work. People did.
If you drew a charcoal sketch of Vivians face and smudged it, you got me. As a teen, I spent many, many hours at my mothers vanity wondering how such tiny alterations in the features—slightly smaller eyes, barely rounder cheeks, a lower jaw just a tad askew— could create such a different effect. Boys did not fall speechless at the sight of me, as they did my sister. No one looked at me and praised creation.
In my senior year of college, I responded to an ad in the student newspaper for a part-time secretarial job at the political science institute, the one that lent the college a national reputation for its highly publicized polls around election time. At least, thats how I knew of Brandywine, a name I found weirdly inappropriate before learning it belonged to its deceased founder. The building was on the main campus, or rather off slightly to the north, set apart by an ancient grove of oak trees. A long, straight path led up to the brick structure, fronted by white columns and crowned with a white bell tower. The college brochure featured Brandywine on the cover; when dignitaries came to visit, politicians in particular, they spoke on its steps. In the fall, with the oak leaves turning, it looked like New England in the middle of New Jersey.
I got the job. I joined a rotating roster of students who assisted a political science professor named Stephen Baker, who wrote op- eds for the New York Times and had authored five books, all of them on presidential elections. Student groupies trailed him from lecture to lecture. When I reported my new post over Sunday dinner to Dad, he sat back in the dining-room chair and grinned. I felt proud. Though my parents never pressured me, I admit: I was anxious to find my thing. I didnt need to be the best. I just wanted to locate my place, to discover that one thing I did fairly well.
That thing, at first, was filing. Mostly I filed Professor Bakers notes, in manila folders in steel cabinets lining a long, cramped hallway on the institutes third floor. Bakers stuff kept spilling out of his offices, but given his value, Brandywines president allowed it. Also I sorted his mail: speaking requests; readers; media. The professor responded to all, but always to journalists first. The first time I overheard him taking an interview by phone, I was awed by his effortless eloquence, the way he spoke in sentences and paragraphs. Later, when I took charge of his media appointments, I learned he kept in his head a ready arsenal of reusable sound bites.
One day I came in to work to find a young man sitting across from my desk, waiting for the professors office hours to begin. I said hi and began opening mail. When I looked up, I found he was looking at me. He smiled.
I smiled back. I wasnt shy around boys, maybe because I never assumed a boys interest in me that way, or maybe because I had three brothers. I looked down at the appointment book and read aloud: Jeremiah Matters.” I looked at him again. That sounds biblical.”
He laughed. I go by Jerry,” he said.
I studied him. Poli sci, minor in . . . econ?”
Vivian had warned me freshman year against asking a persons major the second we met. Completely unoriginal, she said. So my own twist on this lame line was to guess. I swear I was right about eighty percent of the time.
Jerry laughed again. I liked to hear him laugh, to watch his long, still face ease open. More important, it meant he found me funny, and that was extremely attractive.
I sat up a little straighter and adjusted my sweatshirt. Athletic XXL,” the sweatshirt read across the front, though I was neither. Why had I worn it? It made me look like my sport was sumo.
Im taking Professor Bakers lecture, but Im not officially at the college,” he said. Im at the theology center.”
I knew of it. It stood among a row of affiliated institutes, not unlike Brandywine, that took residence on a leafy lane hugging campus. I walked past it every Tuesday on my way to Sociology of Scrapbooking. (I know.)
So,” I said, the biblical name fits. Either that or you were named after the bullfrog.”
He laughed again. Three times now that Id made this strange boy laugh. Only, now that I evaluated him, he wasnt a boy. I remembered then that the theology centers programs were graduate level.
Jerry leaned back, stretched his long legs, and cocked his head all at the same time. Like a cat. I liked that. He was comfortable in his body, not like the other male specimens I saw every day in the dining hall, all shuffling or preening or spastic.
And you? No, no”—he held up his hands—let me guess. Your name is Ruthie. And youre undecided.”
My eyebrows lifted.
He pointed. Next to my head, taped to the wall, was a scheduling calendar of all the students who filed and answered phones for Professor Baker. Under Thursday, from two to six p.m., highlighted in pink, was my name.
Okay, I guess I asked for that,” I admitted. But Im a senior, Ill have you know. I had to declare a year ago.” I said this last with resignation. Because he was right: I was undecided. In every way. Communications,” I volunteered. Whatever the hell that means.”
He tipped his head in apology for his assumption. Then he said, amicably and not ironically, Without communication, humans would still be monkeys.”
I relished the lob. So the theology center acknowledges evolution, then?”
Before Jerry could respond, the door opened and Professor Baker beckoned, still cradling the phone against his ear.
I felt the moment and the man slip away. How many times had I begun promising conversations with young men at the college only for class to end or the intercampus bus to arrive, and Id never seen them again? The college was so big, you could make and lose a friend a day. Besides, surely a guy this good-looking and this self-assured was merely making polite conversation.
I gave Jerry a quick smile and made myself look busy shuffling some envelopes. And when I looked up again, he was closing the professors door behind him.
I realized I was sweating under my sweatshirt, and I took it off. Underneath I wore a tight T-shirt. I shot off to the ladies down the hall to check my hair and face. Not tragic—not walking-dead tragic. I dabbed gloss on my lips and wished I had something to spritz in my ridiculous hair. There would come a day when I appreciated the rotini pasta that corkscrewed from my scalp. But there and then, I wished hard for sheets of silk I could ripple in his direction like a fishing lure.
By the time I scooted back into my chair, though, the office door was open and Jerry was gone. The professor was on another phone call. Or who knows; maybe hed never gotten off the first one. Baker was an affable guy, but that was also his problem—he couldnt not take a call or a meeting or a lunch, even if he had other plans, like a call or a meeting or a lunch. Once I began making his press appointments, Id learn his schedule book was basically a work of fiction.
My heart hurt. Of course, I thought as I walked home later. The oak trees around Brandywine had just begun to turn, the leaves paused between green and red, an intermission of color. Of course.
But as I reached my dorm, my cell phone buzzed. I didnt recognize the number.
Hello,” I said.
Its Jeremiah,” he said. Like the bullfrog.”
It took me a moment. Then it hit me: The scheduling sheet outside the professors office for his part-time assistants, the one Jerry had used to divine my name, had my phone number on it, too.
This time I grinned as I thought it: Of course.
* * *
So whats it like?” Vivian asked.
Whats what like?” I said.
Whats it like when the guy you married decides to marry God?”
Vivian burrowed deep in the sofa, her feet up on Pauls shoulders. Paul sat on the floor in front of her while Michael reclined in Dads orange Barcalounger, as far back as it could go. Tom stood near the old air conditioner in the window, banging it occasionally with his fist to keep the cool air pumping.
I faced my jury. I sat in a straight-backed kitchen chair I had pulled into my parents living room. I had picked Tuesday night to gather my siblings, when Dad would head reliably out of earshot to Bob Reinhardts poker night. Since Moms illness, we had taken to holding family meetings without him. It was just easier that way.
Vivians body lied. Her slouch, her loose legs, even her hair— the pose reminded me of a Ralph Lauren ad, the ones with the improbably gorgeous girls splayed artfully on some haystack. Viv looked the picture of relaxation, even, or especially, with the pregnant belly. But unlike the carefree eyes of the models in those magazine ads, hers told another story. And Vivian was furious.
I didnt have an answer. Id rehearsed obsessively for a week, and I didnt have an answer to that one. I felt my hand groping for Jerrys, even though I knew he wasnt there.
Hed wanted to come. Its me,” hed said. Were going because of me, and I ought to be the one to explain. I owe it to them.”
I refused, with more vehemence than Id known I felt. Theyre my family. If you come, theyll pull their punches. They wont say what they really feel, and then theyll stew about it, and then come Christmas therell be some confrontation. With shouting. And a flying ham.”
There was another reason I wanted him to stay out of it: I needed to spin the story. I would emphasize the job, not the calling. The financial management, not the pastoral duties. The place to crash in balmy Georgia, not the five states distance to New Jersey.
It did not go as planned.
I began as scripted: Jerrys taking a job at a church—”
I knew it!” said Vivian. She turned to the others. I told you all it was a matter of time.”
Tom stroked the air in front of him, a gesture that said to Viv: Settle. Then he faced me. So, is that it? He heard his calling, or whatever?”
I looked around at them, stunned. How did you—”
Tom shrugged. We talked about it once. Last Thanksgiving, I think.”
Yeah, yeah,” said Paul. When we were throwing the football out back.”
We were talking about how useless our degrees were,” said Michael. And Paul asked Jerry if the masters in Godology helped him pick stocks.”
I glared at Paul.
What?” said Paul, palms up. Joke. Anyway, he laughed.”
And then he said he thought hed use his theology degree one day, maybe soon,” said Michael. And Paul said—”
You gonna ditch the Street and go be a minister? ” Paul said.
Michael nodded. Then he got all quiet.”
Vivian was stretching her neck and working her mouth. Next to Jerry, Viv was the person I knew best in the world, and I could read all her signals. I braced myself.
What kind of church?” she demanded.
I shrugged. Evangelical, I guess.”
Its all so new.”
So what are you now—a pastors wife?”
By default. I suppose.”
And youll do what—throw tea parties and lead Bible study?”
I dont know yet. Its up to the Greens.”
The boys had been watching the volley between their sisters, back and forth, back and forth. Like an umpire, Tom held up a hand.
Whoa, whoa,” he said. The Greens? As in, Aaron Green?”
The dude on TV?” said Michael.
Hey, yeah,” said Paul, kicking the Barcalounger. We watched that one time at Tau Sig when we were too hungover to change the channel. Remember? Dude talked for, like, two hours straight, man. It was impressive.”
I just got that Time magazine with him on the cover,” said Tom. Him and Rick Warren and the pretty one with the teeth.”
My brothers looked at me with . . . not admiration, but something close. As if proximity to fame suddenly made our venture worthwhile.
So,” said Viv, cutting their awed silence. Are you converting?”
What?” I said, startled. Of course not.” Suddenly, though, I wondered: Did becoming a pastors wife automatically make you a member of that church? I tucked the problem away for later examination and continued, But its not like Im a practicing Catholic anyway.”
At that, Vivs eyes narrowed. The boys ducked and covered. Like me, they knew Vivs moods, and this one was going to rip.
What came out was something between a rumble and a hiss. How can you say that,” she said, after what we just went through with Mom?”
There it was.
After a moment, Paul spoke up. Aw, jeez, Viv,” he said softly. You dont gotta throw the Mom bomb, do ya?”
But it was too late. My ears filled with the wheeze of the balky air conditioner and my mothers voice.
* * *
Hes a keeper.”
That was what my mother told me the first time I brought Jerry home.
We were in the kitchen, Mom washing the dishes wearing yellow rubber gloves, the secret to hands still marvelously supple after thirty years of housekeeping and gardening. I wiped. Mom had made her roast beef, which Dad called roast beast, and which I knew signified the importance of the event. She didnt whip out that dish just any old day. Since Rupert Benedict, my disastrous junior prom date, Jerry was the first boy I had ever introduced to my parents.
Come to think of it, Jerry was the first boy I could properly call my boyfriend. He courted me. Seriously: courted. He asked me on actual dates. He paid for dinners and movie tickets; he opened doors; occasionally he produced a single red rose. We spent hours and hours walking around campus, talking about everything and nothing. We held hands. I crept toward this idea of we, a pronoun Id never before applied to a romantic unit, until it became easy, natural. That night at my parents house, he brought Mom a cake from Mels, because he remembered me mentioning she would beat down her own children for the bakerys chocolate seven-layer.
Yep,” I agreed, not bothering to hedge the happy. Hes a keeper.”
The next time I brought him home was over Thanksgiving, when all my siblings would be around. I had already taken him to meet my sister, over lunch at a sidewalk café in Hoboken, from where Vivian commuted to her job in Manhattan as a sales assistant for an evening-wear designer. Hed met Paul and Michael, too, when we bumped into them while strolling hand in hand in the vicinity of Greek Row. (They followed us for a while, strolling hand in hand as well.) Within minutes of arriving at the Connellys, Jerry settled into the Giants game with the boys while Tom told him about a case before the Trenton judge for whom he clerked. Later, at the table, Jerry cried laughing at Paul and Michaels reenactment of me throwing up on my date at junior prom. I didnt even mind. My family loved my beloved. Was there a higher joy?
Religion raised a bit of a bump.
It wasnt until Christmas that I let slip Jerry was not a Catholic but a Protestant of indeterminate denomination. Maybe I was naive. Certainly I was naive. Still, I felt his earnest faith and spiritual studies would preclude much dissension from my parents. Though I could not tell them this, his faith far outshone my own.
Well, Toothy,” said Dad in his Voice of Authority, to indicate this settled the matter, you can love a Protestant. But you cant marry one.”
Now, Frank,” said Mom, putting a hand on his arm.
Edith talked to Frank. This was a typical resolution to family drama: Dad would bluster, and Mom would talk him down, usually to a result in favor of the children. We could use some joy,” I overheard her saying.
It was right around the time of her first cancer scare. Breast cancer,” she scoffed when she telephoned me with the news. Its nothing. A little snip, a little chemo, and were all done.”
I was the first to marry of the five, in and of itself a first for me to be first at anything. Jerry consented to wed at Saint Anns, and my parents overlooked the denial of a full Mass, being that Protestants could not receive our Communion. Dad walked me down the aisle, Mom wore a silk scarf wrapped around her head, and my siblings hogged the front pew. The three boys had shaved their heads in solidarity with Mom, and only her frantic begging had stopped me and Viv from doing the same.
The cancer was not nothing. It metastasized to a cluster of lymph nodes in Moms right armpit, which the surgeon assured us he had successfully removed. When her white blood cell counts kept dropping, her oncologist switched chemo cocktails, then switched them again. For a time she seemed to recover, even spending a year taking only maintenance meds. That was a banner year for the Connellys of Hoogaboom, with the twins college graduation, Vivs wedding and the prompt arrival of her own set of twins, and Toms promotion to assistant district attorney in Trenton. Dad celebrated by renting a beachfront house for a week in Ocean City, where everyone gathered for a Fourth of July lobster bake, Mom lolling on a deck chair and beaming at her family as the fireworks splattered the sky.
Toward the end of the year she complained of pain in her right hip, and a scan showed the bone eaten through with cancer. From there the illness galloped from organ to organ, and within months Tom was signing her up for in-home hospice care.
We took shifts, the five of us, days at a time, whatever work or child-care duties we could get off, whenever we could drive over. As a nurse, Dad was useless. He trotted off in the morning to his law office out front, returning all jovial and expecting lunch. The grim faces of his children seemed to baffle him. He referred to the hospice workers as Ediths maids,” and kept alluding cheerfully to future events, chiding his wife that shed better get her butt out of bed if she still wanted that Easter trip to Dublin.
Im going to kill him,” Viv muttered. Im going to shove him into Moms coffin and nail it shut.”
I myself was an inadequate nurse. Left alone with my mother, I felt clumsy and inefficient, bumbling around the bedroom-turnedhospice straightening medical supplies and organizing get-well cards. Mostly, she slept. The morphine drip countered the unspeakable pain. One day, I glanced over in the middle of sorting Dads sweaters to find Mom watching me.
Come here,” she said, patting the side of her bed.
I just have to—”
Oh, Ruthie. Put the stupid sweater down.”
I put the stupid sweater down. I sat down next to my mother and began to cry.
Because,” I said. Because. I dont want you to go.”
Oh, baby.” Her satin hand rested on mine. You just need to remember—you are not alone.”
I nodded, over and over, like the bobble-head doll of Derek Jeter on the windowsill. Paul had secured it for her by shoving away ten-year-olds at a recent giveaway game. My mother adored the Yankee shortstop.
Do you know what I mean?” she asked, in a voice so loving it summoned from me a fresh gush of tears. You are not alone. You always have Him.”
My mothers faith seemed a simple but abiding thing, a fact, as irrevocably a part of her as—I would have said as a limb, but now her actual limbs failed her and yet her faith remained unbroken, unbowed. My faith, in contrast, had gone missing. I dont know exactly when or how. But somewhere between Sunday school and late-night dorm debates on the origin of species, my doubts had overtaken blind belief. How could I tell her this?
As the morphine pulled her under again, I sat by my mothers side, careful not to touch the parts of her body that hurt. I watched her drug-calmed face. I thought about her words. You are not alone. You always have Him.
Even though I knew she meant God, I decided my mother also meant Jerry. If I could not believe in Him, I could believe in him.
* * *
Jerry was stroking my forearm with his thumb.
He had slid over into the middle seat. I kept my forehead on the window and stared at the clouds, stacked vertically like teetering towers of coins. In time I turned to bury my face in his shoulder, taking a breath to stave off a sob. But it rattled out anyway.
Whats it like when the man you married decides to marry God? In the weeks since Viv had asked the question, I had pondered it over and over. If I were a woman who believed, I imagined my husbands betrothal to the church would work out like a happy three-way. For me, it was more complicated. But strangely, unexpectedly, it began to feel like a lifeline. A beginning. An escape from my trinity of loss—of my home, of my faith, of my mother.
When I felt it was safe, I lifted my head and looked at my husband. He handed me a cocktail napkin. I blew.
I miss her,” I said.
I know,” he said.
The plane began its descent. I reached for Jerrys hand. And told myself: You are not alone. You are not alone. You are not alone.
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