The first time I noticed – no, not noticed, felt deeply in my gut
Was the day I had to deliver a package to Father Foley.
I was eight.
Getting picked to walk across our asphalt playground,
To cross Curtis Avenue and walk up to the white bungalow that was the rectory
Was a big deal.
In my navy gabardine uniform, red necktie tied once at the beginning of the school year
By my daddy. He slipped it over his head, tied, and over mine.
Every day I put it on that way.
At the end of the school year it was filthy from dirty hands, and lunch spatters.
The next year, I’d have to get a new one.
Daddy would tie it.
I’d have it for the whole year. Eight years of elementary school.
Those days I wore a plastic headband. And red knee socks that wouldn’t stay up.
On the rectory stoop before I knocked
I re-slid the headband
And pulled up my errant socks.
Pushed the doorbell, butterflies in my stomach.
In those days, the pastor was god-like.
Mysterious in black cassock and pom-pommed hat.
Father Foley. If he said it, according to my mom, it was The Law.
The rectory door opened.
Father Foley, god-man, looked down at me.
Sun in my eyes, I squinted. Did I mention I’d recently gotten glasses?
They were stylish for the day, black cats’ eyes, lined in white.
I held out the package. Said what I’d been told:
“Here Father,” I croaked. “Sister Mary Francis sent this to you.”
He took the package.
“And who might you be?” he asked.
His bushy white eyebrows furrowed.
“Marilyn Stevens, Father.” Should I curtsy?
I hadn’t thought we’d be having a conversation.
I’d thought: Hand Father Foley the package. Turn around. Go back to class.
The eyebrows furrowed further.
“You’re Steve Stevens’ daughter.” It was a statement, issued gruffly.
“Yes Father.” Would this be a good time to curtsy? No one told me how to actually do this.
“Oh … him.” Father Foley spat out the “him.”
“He’s the guy who wouldn’t help us with the church renovation.”
My limbs turned to jelly. If I could have dissolved into a puddle on the rectory stoop
I would have.
He was talking about my DADDY.
And he was being critical. Of my DADDY.
But Father Foley was the pastor.
And the pastor was always right. Right?
I turned, filled with shame. I felt my face grow scarlet.
The walk back to my classroom took months. Years even.
The long, green hallway. The heavy classroom door.
I slid into my desk. Sister was teaching diagramming sentences.
Diagramming sentences had been my absolute favorite activity ever.
I’d try to make complex sentences with multiple phrases
So my diagrams would fill the page.
Now I looked at the board as if I’d never seen a diagram.
My composition book, turned to a fresh page, stayed blank.
I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t want to breathe. I wanted to die.
Fortunately Sister didn’t notice.
With forty-plus third-graders, she was focused more on the occasional spitball
Or hair pull
That constituted discipline problems in our classroom.
Father Foley had criticized MY DADDY.
And Father Foley was always right.
Something. Was. Terribly. Wrong.
At the dinner table that evening I looked at the man to my right. My Daddy.
His glorious blue eyes flashed as he complimented my mom on her lamb chops.
He joked with me about eating peas with a knife – lining them up in a neat row
Then, raising the knife carefully
Raised the knife to his lips, letting the peas roll in.
BFF (Before Father Foley) I would have laughed
I would have attempted the knife-pea feat
And would have dissolved into giggles
As I failed miserably.
AFF (After Father Foley) I sat morosely.
Studied the sun-weathered hands
The partial fingers, a result of a saw accident.
Daddy had driven himself to the hospital
His fingers in a cup of milk on the seat beside him
Because Mommy couldn’t drive
And couldn’t handle emergencies very well either.
I was dizzy with contradictions.
This is the same Daddy I’d kissed goodbye this morning
Who’d made yet another bad pun
Who’d taken the whole neighborhood for evening truck rides.
But Father Foley had criticized.
My Daddy with the prematurely grey curls
Who built houses one-by-one
In our neighborhood.
Because, he said, then if folks had any problems with the house
They knew where to come.
To the big brick house on the corner.
Who taught me how to fish.
And dig worms.
And ride a two-wheeler.
And read in Polish.
Did Father Foley know
That my Daddy locked himself in the den, a heat lamp directed to his back
To ease the intense pain of his rheumatoid arthritis?
Did Father Foley remember
That my Daddy had worked tirelessly on the convent
And the addition to the school
Putting in hundreds of volunteer hours?
Did Father Foley notice
That my Daddy went to six a.m. mass every morning
And made nine-day novenas every October
In memory of his dearly beloved mother?
Today Father Foley criticized My Daddy.
And Father Foley was always right.
(C) 2011 Marilyn Stevens