Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Cardboard Fence - A November Epilogue


IN THE WINTER of 1950 from a basement apartment on Webster Avenue in the Bronx, a little girl of seven watched her father storm up into the street, propelled by her mother’s furious rage. She never saw him again. I never saw him at all, except in a single photograph, but pray often for his soul, wherever it is. He was the grandson of Irish immigrants - a kind, stocky man with troubled eyes and a love of music – a violinist. In the 40’s Roosevelt’s New Deal got him regular work with the Radio City Orchestra – between times he taught a little, took labouring jobs, began business ventures that petered out, married a beautiful girl from Buffalo with thick, blue-black Irish hair by whom he had two children, a boy - and this little girl.

The nuns at St Joseph’s school on Bathgate Avenue were austere and orthodox to a fault – the violinist’s little daughter learned her catechism, sang in choir, and waited in line for confessions every Saturday afternoon while her brother played stickball in the yard. She was bright, and the nuns, contrary to the 1950’s stereotype, were determined she should gain the most from such opportunities as this opened up for her, despite the little family’s practical dependence on the St Vincent de Paul Society. The Sisters coached and encouraged the little girl to gain a scholarship to a prestigious Catholic girls' school, run by Benedictine sisters in a northern suburb of the city. Her mother worked nights in a telephone exchange, while she travelled back and forth from school to the Bronx, dreaming on the “L” train of one day becoming a famous writer.

Her mother remarried (without dispensation) to a genial warm-hearted Jew, and moved with the girl to a more salubrious part of the Bronx. At seventeen, she had grown into the image of her mother, dark Irish beauty and dark Irish temperament. She resented the Jew and convinced herself she hated him; this alien interloper who had unaccountably supplanted her - by now thoroughly romanticised – father, and occasioned her mother’s excommunication. At the first opportunity she emancipated herself from the detested menage, by embracing the very thing that represented the death of her dreams: she “married an Irish cop” - a boy who had been besieging her since High School; he represented an “out” and she took it, though it meant the end for Columbia, where she’d already enrolled – the cop didn’t want an intellectual wife. She turned up for the civil ceremony in a black dress (this was 1961) and having burned her bridges with the Church, left him three months later following the first inevitable bout of abuse, running first to her brother’s artist’s studio in City Island (a portrait of her still hangs over a bar there) and then to the West Coast. San Francisco. 1962.

I met her by chance twenty-five years ago. Her lover, a little Scots guy playing the penny whistle in a damp November Athens street (an Oxford classics graduate as it turned out) invited me for dinner. We climbed the stairs in one of the old Plaka villas and the door was opened by this extraordinary figure, straight out of Hemingway: rich blue-black Irish hair, delicious smart-talking Bronx contralto well seasoned in whiskey and cigarettes; big jewellery, disreputable dressing gown, house impeccably tasteful, bohemian chaos; a nice little dog called Parnell. I was 24 and straight out of Glasgow. It was irresistible.

One day (some time after the whistle player’s departure) she asked me “Where d’ya keep slopin’ off to Sunday mornings?” I told her I went to Mass. Her face softened. “I ain’t been to Mass in twenty-odd years”, she said. “I heard they changed it all – what a stoopid thing to do!”. I told her that in Athens at least, things appeared to be much as they’d always been. She announced she was going to come with me. Sunday morning arrived and Julie was in a panic. She dressed as conservatively as she was capable and sat silent and pale in the streetcar all the way down Panepistemiou to the Basilica. As we walked through the west door she suddenly stiffened and gripped my arm “My bra just busted” she hissed. “I knew He was gonna pull some stunt like this on me – “Hey, Michael” he’s sayin, – “look at this!”” Mass was in Latin with Asperges and plainsong, but versus populo. “When’s he gonna turn around and get on with it?” she hissed during the Offertory.

Eighteen months later we were married in the same basilica of St Denis the Areopagite, and thus began an eight year theological argument, Julie kicking against the pricks, detesting “the changes”, me full of a new "Trad's" zeal and a young man’s inexhaustable curiosity. We moved to Sussex, and began trying to reconcile ourselves to English life; Julie also to later middle-age, a prospect that did not appeal to her remotely. Her drinking got heavier and then out of control. In the autumn of 1994 she started complaining of headaches and blurred vision. She flew suddenly into terrible, desperate rages which left her drained and weeping. By December she was diagnosed with an inoperable tumour in the brain, secondary to advanced cancer of the lungs and liver. “Get the priest” she told me.

By great good fortune I had made friends with a young curate, very recently ordained, who offered the Tridentine Mass privately. He brought the Blessed Sacrament to the house, heard Julie’s confession (which took most of the evening), gave her the Viaticum and the last rites of the Church. She emerged beaming with a radiance that hardly left her during the remaining six weeks of her life, despite the occasional bouts of fear and desperation. She took up her rosary almost, it seemed, at the point at which she’d put it down at seventeen. She told the priest and me on different occasions that she wanted to unite her sufferings with those of Our Lord for the conversion of sinners such as herself. He drove fifty miles from his parish to sit by her side into the early morning after her last admission to hospital. Her very last words were “Holy Spirit, give me strength”, after which she lost consciousness and died two days later, on the eve of Candlemas, 1995. She was 52.

I asked Julie what she wanted on her headstone. She thought for a bit and then said “Finally settled down” in that delicious wisecracking Bronx accent. That’s what it says. Below that, a line from the Song of Songs: Surge, amica mea et veni – "Arise, beloved and come."


Fr. Stephen Freeman said...

Thank you for the good writing, for sharing the story of such a soul. May God bless your blogging!

Moretben said...

Thank you, Father.

Dan H. said...

What a well-written and touching story.

Banshee said...

That was beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Not only:-
Surge, amica mea, et veni....

But also:-
Pulchra es, amica mea,
Suavis et decora filia Jerusalem.
Pulchra es, amica mea,
suavis et decora sicut Jerusalem.


Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

Thank you for posting this.