Wednesday, August 17, 2011
Here is one from my collection Stories of Freedom, about growing up in Freedom, Maine. I read this in an earlier draft at the Women's Writing Retreat at the Pyramid Life Center in 1996 and then in this version this past July.
One Sunday a few years after my family moved to Freedom, Maine, I was up at the church. Freedom was the kind of town where tracks in the snow left ruts in the lawn and that would be your driveway right there. I was up at the only church in town for the Mother’s Day morning service because that’s what my father said to do. My family used to live in the city and be Catholic but, the way Daddy explained it to me, my mother had a falling out with the Pope so we were raised High Episcopal. She apparently didn’t believe in infallibility and I didn’t even know what it was.
Things seemed all right when we lived near Boston until Daddy became really sick with malaria he originally picked up in World War II. He did get better, and the family might have made out better than we did, but Mommy got sick next. There was something wrong with her heart. They decided we’d be better off moving far away into a small, small town. We didn’t know anybody in Freedom; we just moved there on our own. They said it was good because we paid cash for the house. I thought that meant we had lots of cash, but now I think it meant the house didn’t cost much. We didn’t have a car to get to either the Episcopal or the Catholic church in Belfast, about fifteen miles away, so we went to the Freedom Congregational.
I went to the morning service wearing a light green cotton Sunday dress, the nicest one I had, because it was Mother’s Day. Daddy didn’t go. He said he was still Catholic, so he just didn’t go anywhere. I guess he was Catholic, because he had a picture of Kennedy hanging in our living room. Kennedy had been elected the first Irish Catholic president, the first president like us. Except that I thought that if John Kennedy met us, he wouldn’t think that we were like him.
I don’t remember where my brother went that day, but he didn’t go to church. I just remember sitting there alone surrounded by the other children. Special for Mother’s Day, all the dozen or so kids sat down near the front, so I did, too. The Mothers in church told me to sit there. I was the flowering city weed among sturdy country wildflowers.
We listened to the minister talk about the joys of motherhood, and we were told to be grateful for what we had. I guess we sang hymns about motherhood, and I guess I sang right along. I would have at least held an open hymnbook and mouthed the words. Wishing that I hadn’t come that morning, I kept looking at the front of the church, wanting to leave quietly. During the final hymn, each pew of children got a turn to file past open boxes of potted marigolds that seemed way down in front, even though they were only a few feet away. Each child picked one up to take home to their mother. I just walked past.
As I got to the back of the church, the Mothers questioned me. “Why didn’t you take a marigold?”
I would never say I didn’t have a mother, because I really did get one. I just didn’t get to keep her. I would never want to say that she was dead, because I just didn’t like to say that and wished that it wasn’t true. So I said, “I don’t have a mother at home that I could give it to, so I didn’t think I should take one.” Marigolds surrounded me as the Mothers remembered in horror why I was there alone.
“Here, take this to your father.”
“No, thank you. That’s all right. He doesn’t really care about flowers.”
They didn’t understand. I just didn’t think that it would be right for me to take a marigold meant for a mother. When I think of it now, there might have been part of it that I didn’t understand. I guess they weren’t leaving the church with their marigolds until I left with mine. Maybe that’s why the Mothers won. Just to be polite, I walked home with two marigold plants - one for my father and one for me.