In Rhode Island: Stories From Higley Hill

Me and Dad Brattleboro, VT

I started this blog over a week ago then abandoned it. I couldn’t find my way into the story. It is something that matters to me, but it’s also difficult to articulate so why was I writing it? Would it matter to anyone else? After all, that is why we share our stories, isn’t it? To connect, to not feel alone, to understand each other.

Sunday night, after all the hate in Charlottesville, and all the anger on TV news shows – pundits fighting with each other, right wing conservatives getting upset and testy when another pundit suggested there was even a hint of their culpability in all of this – I got a text from my Dad and it brought me to tears. So here we go, let’s try this again.

~~~

I slid into the pew next to my father as the organ music reached its final crescendo. My Dad smiled and leaned over to tell me my sister Maureen and I would bring up the gifts. He pointed to a small table in the aisle between the pews.

He knows I’m not a believer. He worries about my soul but I knew he was glad to see me. He knew about the high school reunion I attended that afternoon and even though the Mass was for my mother, who passed away a year ago, there was a possibility I might not leave the party. Because that’s the kind of girl I’ve always been. Rebellious, sacrilegious, not a fan of tradition and rituals. In gratitude and love for my showing up, he was bestowing this honor upon me, the giving of the gifts.

What I thought he didn’t know was how out of place I felt in church, how uncomfortable it was for me. I immediately fretted over whether I should bring up the large crystal decanter of wine or the two gold chalices. What if I did it all wrong? What if I dropped the decanter? Was I supposed to make the sign of the cross somewhere during the giving of the gifts? Would that be before I picked them up or after I gave them to the priest? All these anxious issues swirled through my mind like a tornado.

My Dad leaned over once again and whispered, “After you hand the gifts to the priest you wait until he returns to the alter. Then you genuflect and return to your seat.”

He knew! I nodded in acknowledgement as the priest, the commentator, and two alter boys marched down the side aisle and back up the center aisle. I think one of them was carrying a cross. I forget now that it’s days later and I am writing this all down. Maybe I was remembering my mother’s funeral, the last time I was in a church.

While the priest did things on the alter, sacred things, my family and the rest of the congregation in the almost full church followed along and made the sign of the cross, kneeled, stood, and sat as we made our way through rituals that are still familiar to me. I quietly listened and observed and wondered who might have arrived at the reunion after I left. It was taking place from two to seven and I left at four-thirty. I noticed the shorter alter boy stifle a yawn.

When I was thirteen I started skipping Mass. My Dad was a commentator back then and I’d purposely attend a different mass. I’d ride my bike the two blocks to the church, place it in the bike rack where it would be visible if he happened to drive by, and instead of attending Mass, I would walk to the back of the Catholic school with a book that was hidden in my large burlap bag on which were stitched the words ‘Paris Flea Market’. This was my substitute backpack at the time. A period in my life when my musical taste had finally turned from Bobby Sherman and the Monkees to Creedance Clearwater Revival and Iron Butterfly’s In A Gadda da Vida. A time when I realized I did not believe in God. So I spent the time I was supposed to be in church hiding behind the school reading Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, and Salinger.

Sitting next to my Dad in church that day, I knew my father noticed when I didn’t cross myself or repeat the words to the prayers and responses. It has always seemed hypocritical for a non-believer like me to pretend for a day.

I wasn’t entirely listening to the sermon. So many thoughts ran through my mind. I admired the large cross. The carving of Jesus Christ was beautiful. His sinewy arms outstretched, nailed to the cross. The crown of thorns on his drooping head. The look of world weariness on his sad face. At the top of the cross were the letters IN RI. When I was younger I used to think it meant In Rhode Island.

During the sermon the priest told the congregation the Mass was dedicated to Pauline McGowan, my mother, and he also mentioned Kathleen Schusler, my cousin, best friend, former roommate, and traveling companion who passed away at the age of fifty-one from breast cancer. It was her birthday that day. She would have been sixty-one. The priest then went on to preach about peace and kindness. He called for an end to all wars. He also mentioned that civility is disappearing from our dialogue and our everyday lives. Our leaders no longer practice kindness for the poor and the less fortunate.

Then it was time for the gifts. My sister sat further down the aisle in front of me. I waited for her to lead the way. At the table I chose the wine decanter so I could hold it steady with two hands. She whispered, “You give that to the priest first.” Everyone knew I was a bumbling heathen.

When it was time to go to communion even a few relatives who are also pagans participated. I stayed in the pew. It’s always an uncomfortable moment for me, sitting there alone as if wearing a scarlet letter. A for Atheist. “Oh that, Sheila,” I imagine them thinking. “She was always the rebellious one.” And I’m quite sure they are thinking that because they’ve often said it out loud.

At the end of the Mass, the priest wrapped things up with a short message. “Respect our Lord, Jesus Christ. Go in peace.”

The organist played the final hymn and everyone picked up a hymnal and sang along. My father once again whispered out of the side of his mouth and said, “This was your mother’s favorite hymn.”

I always knew my Mom hated war and I realized my father must have requested that the mass be dedicated to the theme of peace and civility. I remembered many of the words and I did sing along this time because I believed in the message that was so very relevant at this moment in time.

The following weekend hate marched through Charlottesville, Virginia. I was reluctantly riveted to the news coverage. I was filled with dread and fear. My heart ached.

It had been a week since I’d talked to my Dad. My cell phone buzzed. A text message. My Dad has gotten better at texting. He now puts spaces between the words.

“Thanks for being at moms mass think more of you for not taking communion than some who do who shouldn’t”

I have often written about my Dad the U.S. History teacher who taught me everything I know about American history, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. I’ve shared the stories of our summer vacations visiting Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields and the homes of U.S. Presidents. I’ve also written about political conversations we’ve had.

Our personal history has not always been easy but I’ve chosen not to dwell on it. I’d rather remember the lessons he shared that had a positive effect on me. At times, he can be opinionated and is not always tolerant. We have had our differences throughout the years regarding my life choices. Some criticisms he has made have wounded me.

Years ago at a book club I attended with Kathy, the group was discussing a book about two gay men. The conversation got a little heated and we argued about Truth with a capital T. Kathy, in her usual way, said something so clear and true it stayed with me for years and finally made its way into my third novel. I gave Kathy’s words to my character Liz in a scene when she and her husband Sam visit their eldest son at college during a parent’s weekend and he tells them he is gay. His boyfriend’s parents don’t take the news very well.

“Mrs. Fairchild had lectured them that day in the brew pub about her search for Truth with a capital T. But it was Liz who had the final word that afternoon when she told Mrs. Fairchild, “Sandra, I think we all need to capitalize the word Tolerance before we can find the Truth.” ~ Life Is All This by Sheila Blanchette

I went to my mother’s Mass that day not out of any religious obligations or beliefs. I am not going to have some sort of religious epiphany one day or a deathbed conversion. I went to church to honor my imperfect, very human father and in remembrance of my mother, who I also had my battles and disagreements with. I am their imperfect daughter who understands that we are all human and tolerance is something that can be learned. My father reminded me of that on a very difficult weekend in America when the lack of tolerance was on full display and the world was watching.

Let there be peace on earth
And let it begin with me
Let There Be Peace on Earth
The peace that was meant to be….

Brothers all are we
Let me walk with my brother
In perfect harmony.
Let peace begin with me
Let this be the moment now.
With ev’ry step I take
Let this be my solemn vow
To take each moment and live
Each moment in peace eternally
Let there be peace on earth
And let it begin with me

~ Songwriters: Jill Jackson / Sy Miller

Follow me on Instagram where I share short stories and photos.

Fathers and Daughters: Stories From Higley Hill My father was visiting yesterday. We watched the Red Sox double header and had dinner in Brattleboro. We talked about things like Calvin Coolidge, a blip of a president my Dad called him. He came up because he's the only president from Vermont, and you know, we were in Vermont. That led to the Tea Pot Dome scandal. It was a bribery that took place from 1921-22 during the Warren Harding presidency – a "nothing" president. The secretary of the interior leased Navy petroleum reserves at Teapot Dome in WY and 2 locations in CA to private oil companies at low rates with no competitive bids. Before Watergate it was our nation's greatest scandal. Of course that led to Trump and kept us busy while the Red Sox lost the 1st game to the Yankees 3-0. These are the kind of things I talk to my Dad about. These are the things he taught me. #resist #be##speakup #storiesfromhigleyhill #fathersanddaughters #teachyourchildrenwell #vermontlife

A post shared by Sheila Blanchette (@sheilablanchett) on

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