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Joan Wester Anderson
I used to teach an adult education class called “How to Get Published.” I gave tips about freelancing, but most of all I emphasized the importance of being willing to write daily, even if not “in the mood,” and to accept professional criticism, rejection, or suggestions for revisions with appreciation and a lack of ego. Inevitably, in every class, there was at least one student with breathtaking potential. Someone who could write rings around the rest of us but who also, I suspected, would never be published. The reason: an unwillingness to do the hard work of revision. “I like it the way it is,” would be the student’s argument—and his ultimate downfall.
How I wish I knew about Jon Hassler then. What an example his struggles would have been for my students!
Hassler was born and grew up in the remote and freezing plains of northern Minnesota, where weather and isolation teach the hardy residents to depend on one another because they must. (Perhaps Garrison Keiller’s fictional Lake Wobegon, “where the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average” paints as familiar a portrait as any.) A beloved only child, whose mother had an eye for life’s quirky elements and often called them to her son’s attention, Hassler eventually became a high school English teacher. As a young adult, he taught in one Minnesota town after another as he became a husband and father of three and worked to complete his master’s degree. “Nobody ever recommended I write,” he commented offhandedly in a later interview. Yet, at age forty, when he could ignore this quiet desire no longer, he bought himself a notebook. And despite his crammed schedule (he was now a college English professor and coping with what had become a difficult marriage), he spent the next five years writing, rewriting, and collecting an astonishing eighty-five rejection slips from literary journals, with a scant six stories accepted for publication. As one who often wrote in the midst of family chaos, crashes and screams, my mind boggles. From where does someone in Hassler’s situation carve the hours, the vigor, the determination to follow his dream with little or no external support?
Hassler makes no secret of the answer—for if the frigid north honed and strengthened him physically, his love for the God he knew through the Catholic Church bore him spiritually toward the success he ultimately achieved. Hassler’s own belief that his writing was a holy mission, that each of us serves God best by using the talents he has given us, convinced him to keep trying. A literary agent coming across one of those six published stories eventually opened doors to book authorship.
Hassler’s first book, Staggerford, published in 1977, introduced readers to the small Minnesota town that has become the background for most of his work. Everyone who has lived or spent time in a small, typically Christian-based community will recognize Staggerford’s charm and the classic characters who inhabit it. Most are kindly, but there are always a few troublemakers who deliberately stir up placid waters, spread gossip, and otherwise help to further the action. These characters are out in force in Dear James, published in 1993.
Newcomers to Jon Hassler’s fiction can start with any of his books. Since all his novels have common elements, one can pick up Dear James, for example, and quickly “catch up,” flowing easily into the tide of whimsy, plot, and observations both humorous and touching. For example, the primary character in Dear James is Agatha McGee, a spinster and a starchy but beloved parish grade-school teacher, who struggles to hang on to her beliefs as changes in the church and culture swirl about her. In her earlier appearance in A Green Journey, Agatha met a kindred soul, James O’Hannon of Ballybegs, Ireland, via a letters-to-the-editor column, and began a transatlantic correspondence with him. The two initially connected through their concerns over the state of the post-conciliar church. Ultimately, their communication became more personal and, for Agatha at least, deepened into an unacknowledged love. Impulsively she traveled to County Kildare to meet her soul mate in the flesh. But her surprise went terribly wrong, for she discovered that James was a Catholic priest ready for retirement, facing his later years as a staunch celibate but also longing for a close (albeit platonic) relationship that up till now had been denied him.
Shocked and humiliated, Agatha fled for the shelter of Staggerford, only to discover that the diocese was closing her cherished St. Isadore’s Elementary School. What would she do with the rest of her life? A despairing Agatha, at seventy, saw only loneliness ahead.
Now, as Dear James begins, she has continued to write to James as a way of venting and sharing—but has torn up each letter instead of mailing it. She will not breech the barriers now between them; to do so would be scandalous! James, on the other hand, has found a new ministry and a unique way to be useful during his remaining years. He longs to share these ideas with Agatha. James is devastated that he wounded her by his cowardly refusal to inform her of his priesthood; he now writes to her frequently, undaunted by her refusal to answer, hopeful that she will relent.
Like the Staggerford novels, the popularity of Jan Karon’s best-selling Mitford novels—which are set in a small town, feature a clergyman, Father Tim, and are spiritually flavored—and other similarly themed series seems to indicate a yearning among many American readers for more hopeful and uplifting books. But for Catholics, there may be more to the Staggerford series’ popularity than that. Dear James covers familiar ecclesiastical landscape; we’ve been there, we’ve asked the questions about celibacy, female priests, and sacrifice versus good works; we’ve debated the appropriateness of liturgical “reforms,” and we’ve even experienced the same minor frustrations that the Staggerford community faces. (“Call me Dick,” says the new bishop, which drives Agatha up the wall.) Wisely, Hassler makes no attempt to “sell” a certain position or turn ordinary conversation into personal treatises; instead, he simply tells the story, which results in a pleasant intimacy—we could be sitting around our own dining room tables having these same conversations. We probably have.
Another charming aspect here is the respect shown to the elderly. Today, seniors are often portrayed as illness-ridden, perhaps crotchety, and definitely “out of tune.” But ask any seventy-year-old what age she feels on the inside, and she’s likely to say, “thirty-five or forty.” People like Agatha and James are losing their physical strength but have not changed all that much in spirit—and from this realization comes a certain comfort. Dear James also includes examples of intergenerational friendships, again typical in a small-town environment. Agatha’s relationship with a mentally exhausted Vietnam veteran is especially touching. And it is a small sleeping boy, his face nestled comfortably in Agatha’s lap, who will open the door to her next great journey. Soon she will understand, as James already does, that God is the great Recycler, that none of our experiences are ever wasted, and that he will make the wholeness of a new life out of broken pieces of the old—as long as we are willing to offer those pieces to him.
Hassler knows this well. For the past eleven years he has been ill with a little-known Parkinson’s-like disease that, although he can still write about three hours a day, has weakened his vision, voice, and gait. He falls often, and actually does better riding a bicycle than attempting to walk. However, he is still adding to a body of work that includes twenty fiction and nonfiction works; one of his novels was made into a television movie and several others have been produced as plays. (Hassler continues the adventures of Agatha McGee in his most recent novel, The New Woman.) How many bouts of depression has Hassler overcome to continue to find meaning in his work? How many times did he wonder what God possibly had in mind? How many rewrites did his own life require?
We’ll probably never know. Despite an obvious inner discipline, Hassler today seems self-effacing and humble, with the same gentle wit we find in his fiction, not prone to complaints or arrogance. His effort has no doubt been a hidden one. But oh! How I wish my students had recognized it.
Joan Wester Anderson’s sixteen books include Where Angels Walk, The Power of Miracles, and In the Arms of Angels. She lives in Prospect Heights, Illinois.
Dear James, she wrote in blue ink on a page of cream stationery.
It’s been snowing all night and my lawn lies deeply buried. There’s a round cap of snow on my birdbath, and all I can see of my wheelbarrow is the black rubber handle grips poking out of a mound of white. The snow was a foot deep when I got out of bed, and now at noon it’s closer to two. I should have thought to put away the wheelbarrow. My garden hose lies buried until spring.
Agatha McGee wrote these lines at her desk in the sunroom, a small room facing south off her dining room. The blanched, unforgiving light falling through the eight close-set windows gave her forearm a chalky appearance as she pushed up the sleeve of her sweater to massage her arthritic right elbow.
Again this year Lillian and I are having a few lonely-hearts in for Thanksgiving—a holiday foreign to you? Lord knows I’m in no mood for entertaining, but I will put on my best hostess face and proceed, not only for Lillian’s sake and the others’, but also because as far back as I can remember, wisely or unwisely, I’ve striven to be predictable. Changeableness I’ve always equated with infancy or a disordered mind.
Agatha carefully blotted her spiky handwriting and turned the page of stationery facedown as Lillian Kite, her lifelong friend, neighbor, and culinary advisor, approached from the kitchen, where both of them had spent most of the morning. Lillian was a stout, red-faced woman of seventy years—Agatha’s age exactly. Buttoning her quilted down coat tight to her throat, she came to a halt beside Agatha’s desk and said, “I turned the oven way down and put the deviled eggs in the refrigerator. I’m going home and put on my party dress.”
“What would I do without you, Lillian?” Agatha capped her fountain pen and watched Lillian wrap her head in a bulky knit scarf of her own creation. The colors were green, gold, and pink.
“Wow, look at it come down, would you!” Lillian drew aside the sheer curtain beside the desk, and the two women silently gazed outside, transfixed by the thickly falling snow, the first serious snow of the year, a soft, windless blur piling itself into deep layers on the angular rooftops and across the shadowless yards.
“Will they come out in this?” asked Lillian.
“The streets ought to be passable as long as the wind doesn’t blow.”
“Even the congressman—he’ll venture out?”
“He’d better. He practically invited himself.”
Myron Kleinschmidt, home for the congressional recess, lived down the street in a house as large and old and nearly as attractive as Agatha’s. Though not a customary guest at this dinner, he’d turned up yesterday at Agatha’s door with a bereft and invitation-expecting look on his face. All of Myron Kleinschmidt’s expressions were calculated, in Agatha’s opinion; his very posture seemed a pose. Over coffee in her kitchen he’d told her that his wife had stayed in Washington in order to help plan a gigantic prayer breakfast for congressmen’s wives. This was quite possibly a lie, thought Agatha; she knew Elena Kleinschmidt to be wholly without spiritual tendencies. He’d also hinted that if she’d care to come out of retirement for a few months, he had an important position to offer her in his next campaign for office. To this she replied as politely as possible that she’d have to wait and see who his opponent was.
“Don’t be surprised if he poops out,” said Lillian. “He was always the awfulest pantywaist.”
Agatha, amused to hear Lillian resurrect this obsolete term, went back in memory nearly forty years and pictured the pantywaist in her classroom. Myron had been a small, round-faced sixth grader constantly seeking her approval for his meticulous penmanship, his arithmetic solutions, his clean fingernails.
This winter marked the midpoint of his seventh term in Congress. Three times she’d voted for him; four times she’d preferred his opponent. “You must be very proud of him,” people habitually said to her, Myron being the only public figure among her former students, and her response to this was a noncommittal smile. She didn’t bother explaining that when she was a young woman her father had come away from several terms in the state legislature with a healthy skepticism, not to say cynicism, about politics, which he’d passed on to his daughter. How could you be proud of anyone devoted to a profession founded on compromise?
“Toodle-oo,” sang Lillian, letting the curtain drop and tying the woolly scarf tightly under her chin as she departed. “Back in a half hour.”
“Don’t forget your pickle fork,” called Agatha.
She heard the back door close, then the outer door of the enclosed porch. The aroma of turkey drifted through the house. The snow continued to fall. She sat imagining, not for the first time, how gratifying it would have been if Lillian were the sort of friend you could open your heart to. Lillian was a dear and virtuous soul, but she seldom spoke—or listened—from the heart. If I could talk to Lillian, Agatha mused, there’d be no need to write these readerless letters to Ireland.
She uncapped her pen and resumed.
Tis will surprise you, James—I’m going to Rome. It surprises me, for I’d never foreseen myself as a pilgrim. I always said let others tramp through the Vatican and kiss St. Peter’s toe of bronze, I’ll make my devotions right here in my dear little church in Staggerford. Let others join the crush in St. Peter’s Square watching for the pope to put his head out the window, I’ll draw my nourishment, thank you, from the sacraments as administered by Father Finn. Not that I haven’t known pilgrims who found the trip spiritually satisfying but I’ve talked to a like number over the years who confessed to being let down. Roman traffic is a threat to life and limb, they’ve said, and the Italians are loud and demonstrative and pretend not to understand English even while selling you something expensive. If you succeed in seeing the pope, they’ve told me, you’re too far away to make out his features, and he repeats everything in ten boring languages.
But there’s been a change in this old heart of mine, James, a change in this old head. Since last June there’s been an ill wind blowing through my life. For forty-eight years, as you know, St. Isidore’s Elementary was my station, my vantage point, my mooring. Now I have no station. I’m adrift. The days seem to double in length and the nights are endless. Each morning I’m out of bed in time for school with no school to go to. Evenings I feel so useless with no papers to correct that I’ve begun watching TV.
Have you ever been truly acquainted with gloom, James? There’s a rancid smell in my basement left over from the day last spring when my foundation sprang a leak and rainwater spread through the laundry room and storage room, collapsing cardboard boxes and soaking into the woodwork. The lingering effect of gloom is like that. It spreads and soaks in. I can’t get it out of my head that the closing of St. Isidore’s Elementary prefigures the shutting down of Christendom. I keep foreseeing the day when the church will be reduced to a few wretched old folks like myself searching for a Mass to go to, and a few wretched and persecuted old clergymen like you, James, going around in disguise saying Masses in cellars. There’s an ill wind blowing, as I’ve said, and the sturdy old vessel of my faith, afloat for seventy years in the safe harbor of St. Isidore’s, is being tossed about on a sea of despair.
So I’m going to Rome.
You see, it was while thinking black thoughts like these one day last week—an unsettling day of warm winds and continuous thunder and intense self-pity—that the idea came to me. Hadn’t I taught generations of children about the efficacy of the pilgrimage? Canterbury. Lourdes. Fatima. What right had I to be disdainful of shrines? A voice from somewhere spoke to me—the first hopeful voice I’d heard in months—and said I needed a landmark beyond St. Isidore’s steeple. If I could see St. Peter’s tomb and St. Peter’s high altar, if I could see St. Peter’s successor in the flesh and hear his voice (never mind what language) and receive his blessing, the vessel of my faith might be set on course again.
But it’s not easy putting an idea into effect when you’re depressed, and I probably would have done nothing about it if Father Finn, within twenty-four hours of this impulse, hadn’t suggested that I accompany him on his brother’s ten-day tour of Italy. His brother is a professor familiar with Italy and tour groups. I demurred at first, but Father Finn was rather insistent (as I secretly hoped he would be), and we’re leaving the day after Christmas.
Agatha looked at her watch. It was time to change for dinner. She scanned her wardrobe in her mind’s eye and decided to put on her bluish-gray suit with something colorful at her throat. She would wear her silver bracelet and her red enamel pin. She hoped that by the time her guests arrived, she would have somehow called up in herself a holiday kind of happiness.
She waved the sheets of stationery in the air, drying the ink, and then she read what she had written. It met with her approval, the handwriting legible, the phrasing clear. She added her signature, blotted it, and then carefully tore the letter in two, tore the halves into fourths, tore the fourths into eighths, and let the pieces flutter into the wastebasket. Since returning home from Ireland three years earlier, she’d written perhaps a hundred letters to Father James O’Hannon, continuing a habit formed during their days as soul mates, but she never put any of them in the mail.
A late-morning trickle of hot water gurgled through the rusty radiators of the Morgan Hotel and woke French Lopat out of a bad dream. It was the same old dream about war—babies and young women dead in a village—that French had been dreaming for ten years or more. He uncurled himself from around his pillow, and as he lay on his back, shivering and waiting for the dream to evaporate, he remembered, with an unfamiliar twinge of cheer, that today was Thanksgiving. He’d be warm all afternoon.
He threw off his heavy pile of covers—the top layer was the shag rug off the floor—and pulled on his socks. He crossed the cold, rippling linoleum to the window, raised the tattered shade, and looked down on Main Street. Snow had been falling all night apparently, for the ruts of passing cars were deep in the street. He squinted through veils of falling snow and read the digital clock in front of the bank: 11:15.
Searching through the heap of clothing on top of his dresser, he found his best shirt, red and blue flannel, and his best pants, black polyester. He pulled on his pants and carried his towel and his razor down the dim hallway to the bathroom, where he switched on the light and gazed for a minute at the tall, sad-eyed man in the mirror, wondering if people he met on the street sensed the damaged spirit behind the dark, bony face. “Nothing wrong with you a good long rest won’t fix,” the medics had told him. “Almost a year of duty and not a scratch—thank your lucky stars.” Coming up on ten years and still resting, French told himself as he filled the sink for shaving, and because this thought amused him, he smiled at himself in the mirror and opened a painful crack in his chapped lower lip.
Despite his haggard, unlovely appearance, French Lopat was photographed hundreds of times every summer, and his face was featured in countless photo albums across the United States. It was a rare tourist traveling U.S. 71 north to the Minnesota lakes who didn’t stop at the information center in Staggerford and there encounter French sitting near the door—outside in good weather, inside in bad—wearing a feathered headdress and a beaded leather vest and permitting himself to be photographed with strangers. don’t touch the indian, said a sign on the wall behind him. Small children were his most common companions in these snapshots, but he also posed with fishermen, honeymooners, and retired couples. Never with Indians. Sometimes in the fall there were hunting parties with guns. Now and then a carload of teenagers from Minneapolis with funny haircuts. Once he was photographed with the lieutenant governor and his wife, and another time with an entire wedding party dressed in their gowns and tuxedos. The bride that day was such a beauty that French never forgot her. Nor would he ever forget how drunk the lieutenant governor had been.
French seldom changed his expression for the camera. He’d learned over the years that it was only sentimental old ladies who wanted him to smile. Almost everybody else seemed to prefer—indeed, seemed entranced by—his natural expression of stone-faced seriousness. Some travelers became so absorbed that they actually bent forward and examined his face like a page of fine print, and what they read there they misinterpreted—French was sure of it. How could they possibly know that they were looking upon the dispiriting effect of a war in southeast Asia? He could tell from their questions that they chose to see instead the silent endurance of the American Indian through seven generations of abuse. “Does the Bureau of Indian Affairs do you more harm than good?” “Is the American Indian Movement still a viable organization?” “Do you live in a tepee?” To these and all other questions, French responded with ten or twelve syllables of a language none of the tourists understood.
Nor did French understand it. Arnold Ulm, executive secretary of the Staggerford Chamber of Commerce, assured French that what he memorized each summer was an authentic Ojibway message, and although French spoke it with conviction, he had no idea what it meant. Further, he held no opinions about the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the American Indian Movement. He’d never lived in a tepee; indeed, he’d never lived among Indians and was not acquainted with any of the Ojibway people from the nearby reservation who came into Staggerford to shop. He was not even certain of his Indian ancestry, but his skin was dark enough to convince non-Indians. He was unaspiring enough to work for sixty dollars a week from the middle of May until the end of September. During the off-season, when the information center was locked and the windows boarded up, French collected a biweekly unemployment check amounting to half his summer pay.
Having shaved, he carefully combed his thinning hair straight back from his high forehead and then returned to his room. He put on his moccasins, his flannel shirt, and his faded red stocking cap; then he slipped into his snug plaid sport coat and his long black overcoat. The stocking cap he had fished, with permission, from the lost and found box at the Hub Cafe. The sport coat and overcoat came from the Salvation Army store. Every second summer the Chamber of Commerce supplied him with a new pair of moccasins.
Downstairs in the dusty lobby he found Grover, the clerk, arranging a meager display of gum and candy bars on the registration counter.
“Snow,” said French.
“Lots of it,” croaked Grover, a man so stooped and hollow-chested that his suspenders stood away from the front of his shirt. “And it ain’t over.”
The lobby was dimly lit by a pair of table lamps. The woodwork was black with age, the flowery colors in the drapes and wallpaper had long ago faded to a uniform gray, and the buffalo head mounted over the radiator had a cobweb hanging from its chin whiskers. Grover was perfectly bald.
“Cold, too,” French elaborated.
Without raising his eyes from the candy and gum, Grover told him, “Not so bad—twenty-two.” Like French, Grover was a war veteran who had chosen to live out his life in the Morgan Hotel. Grover’s war had been against Hitler, his wounds caused by shrapnel. His room was on the ground floor, number 2, behind the stairway.
Bracing himself to go out, French crossed the lobby to the glass-paneled door, but didn’t pull it open. Watching a woman in high boots cross the street, he noted her clenched, frozen look as she waded through the snow. Chilled by the sight, he retreated to the radiator to store up some warmth. He said, “Colder tomorrow, I suppose.”
“Always colder, the day after snow,” replied Grover.
Pressing his backside into the radiator and feeling heat soak into his coat, French said, “Had that dream again.”
“Hmmm,” said Grover.
“Gets me down.”
French liked to linger in the lobby when Grover was on duty. A calm, patient man, Grover. As often as you cared to tell it, Grover would listen to the story of the worst twenty-four hours of your life. He seemed to understand how it could happen that between one midnight and the next, in a hot, steamy land halfway around the world, a pall could settle over your days and make nothing but sleep and idleness seem useful anymore.
“I’m invited out to dinner,” French said with a humble little chuckle.
“I know it,” said Grover. “Miss McGee’s.”
“How’d you know?”
“It’s Thanksgiving, isn’t it?”
Grover’s memory always amazed French, who never recalled from one year to the next how Grover spent his holidays.
Grover finished arranging his candy display. “They say she ain’t herself.”
“So I hear.”
“You seen her lately?”
“Never changed her storm windows?”
“Not this year. She never called me.”
Grover shook his head sadly. “It’s the school closing down did it.”
“Yup,” French agreed.
“Come summer, this here will be all tar, where we’re standing.”
“I know it,” French grumbled, sorry to be reminded that the Morgan was scheduled to be demolished next June to make room for a parking lot. This was one of several developments aimed at keeping downtown Staggerford a viable trading center. Installing public toilets in the basement of the city hall was another. Still another was the renaming of Main Street and Fifth Street, which intersected at the stoplight. The signs at each corner now said rodeo drive and fifth avenue, though no one called them that.
Grover came out from behind the counter and crossed the lobby to his favorite chair. “I hear she’s going to Rome,” he said.
“Rome?” French doubted this.
“Rome,” Grover insisted. “To see the pope.”
Lillian Kite returned wearing a mismatched pair of earrings and carrying a pickle fork. “It’s a Christmas card out there,” she puffed, entering through the enclosed back porch and stamping snow off her shoes. “It’s coming down like feathers and it’s an honest-to-goodness Christmas card.” In the kitchen she removed her down coat and revealed the same showy violet dress she’d been wearing to this dinner for the past six or eight years, a belted, many-pleated garment she’d made from a mail-order pattern. On her feet she wore a new pair of tan, square-toed ground-grippers.
Agatha’s eyes went straight to the earrings, one a gold disk, the other a pendulous creation of blue enamel and rhinestones. “Lillian, your earrings don’t match.”
“I know it. I’ve got two sets for dress-up that I just love, so I decided to put on one of each.” Tying on a fresh apron, she explained, “Lyle gave me the glittery set our last Christmas together, and Imogene gave me the gold set the last time I was down to St. Paul.” Lillian’s husband, Lyle, had died many years ago. Imogene, her only child, was employed in the State Department of Education.
“They’re very nice,” Agatha said as the doorbell sounded, “but they look funny together.”
“Look at them one at a time,” Lillian suggested.
At the front door Agatha found Father Finn standing on the porch looking sleepy and guarded. “Father, you dear man, why aren’t you wearing a hat?” She stepped across the threshold and brushed snow off the shoulders of his coat before inviting him in.
“Pleased to be here, Agatha,” said the priest untruthfully. He hung his coat and scarf in the closet and followed her through the living room—dark oak woodwork, creamy lace curtains, ancient furniture highly waxed, embers smoldering in the fireplace—and into the dining room. “Nasty day,” he said, rubbing his hands.
“The streets are passable, are they not? I’ve invited the Jubas and the congressman.”
“They’ll make it, the plows are out.” He looked puzzled. “The congressman?”
“I don’t recall him at this dinner before.”
“My house is open to any lonely-heart, never mind his politics. His wife is spending Thanksgiving in Washington and he’s feeling neglected. Are you all right, Father? You look a little peaked.”
“Never better,” the priest assured her, scanning the table and taking pleasure in the exquisite meal it seemed to promise. The tablecloth was lace, the napkins blue linen, the goblets Waterford, the sterling engraved with an elaborate M. “Nothing wrong with me a turkey dinner won’t fix,” he added, calling up a smile and a chuckle in an attempt to display a joviality he didn’t feel. Having gone to bed very late because of his visit to the bishop’s house in Berrington, and having risen at six out of habit, he’d summoned his deepest reserves of willpower in order to give up a nap in favor of Agatha’s invitation.
“Promise me you won’t step outside this winter without a hat on your head.”
Not that a good night’s rest ever quite prepared him for Agatha. This woman had a way of putting him on his guard, making him feel somehow less intelligent than he was, less mature, less capable of running a parish. He would turn sixty in the spring, yet in Agatha’s presence he often felt clumsy and newly ordained. And today, augmenting his discomfort, he was conveying a letter he wished he’d never read. It contained a message of great delicacy from a man across the sea, a message directed at Agatha’s carefully hidden heart.
“You’ll have to be more assertive with Sister Judith, Father. You’ll have to stand up to the woman and tell her that Jesus never said, ‘Our mother who art in heaven.’ ”
Nodding his head in halfhearted agreement, Father Finn listened for voices, peered into the kitchen, and was sorry to find that he’d arrived before everyone else but Lillian. He prayed that the doorbell would soon intervene.
“Or did he?” Agatha chirped sarcastically. She was moving around the table, fussing with the napkins and silver. “Have Bible scholars uncovered some new evidence, Father, that Jesus actually said, ‘Our mother who art in heaven’?”
“Not to my knowledge,” said Father Finn.
“I thought not.”
He watched her line up the butter knife beside the butter plate, poke a spoon into the cranberries. He was sorry to observe that she wore a taut, unhappy expression and looked a little shriveled around the mouth—signs that she was still dogged by depression. Her gray suit was stylish, and the paisley scarf at her throat a cheerful shade of red, but there was obviously nothing festive in her spirit. There were those in the parish who’d predicted this emotional nosedive. They were certain Agatha would fall into despair when, as principal, she lost the fight to keep the school open. After all, they’d said, her time on its staff measured only a little less than half a century—who wouldn’t be devastated? Father Finn had told them they’d be surprised—they didn’t know Agatha. But he, in the end, was the one surprised.
“Help yourself to a drink, Father, it’s a day for a hot brandy, is it not? Would you like me to heat some water?”
“No, thank you, Agatha.” Turning to the sideboard to examine the bottles of spirits, the priest recalled how last spring he’d never for a moment doubted that Agatha would avoid despondency, because Agatha in his experience was strict with herself, and resilient, her spirit tougher than the average person’s, larger somehow, more forceful. People’s spirits, Father Finn liked to think, were vessels of their Creator’s breath (this was a favorite image of his, often repeated in the pulpit on Sundays), but the analogy always used to fail him whenever he thought of Agatha’s spirit. Her spirit had been more like a wind tunnel.
“And desecrating the Lord’s Prayer isn’t the worst of it, Father—far from it.”
No, it hadn’t been despondency he’d feared for Agatha when the parish council, strapped for money and bullied by the bishop, voted six to one in favor of dismantling the school and dispersing the faculty and students. No, what had made him nervous was the prospect of all her pent-up energy turned in his direction. Without the school as her preoccupation, he’d foreseen her becoming the parish’s full-time, freelance troubleshooter. Well, it hadn’t happened. Apart from her habitual potshots at Sister Judith, she’d pretty much given up meddling in parish affairs. In fact, she seldom appeared in public anymore, and when she did, she looked unrested and distracted. Neighbors were amazed night after night to see the flickering light of her television. It had been this report of her watching late-night talk shows that alerted Father Finn to the seriousness of her despair and prompted him to invite her along on his brother’s tour of Italy.
He suppressed a sneeze, wiped his nose with a dingy gray handkerchief, and said, “A month from yesterday, Agatha.”
“I’m already packing,” she replied flatly, holding a match to one of the candles standing tall in sterling candlesticks.
“And looking forward—as I am?” He was conscious of begging the question, but he had to ask. Given her lack of enthusiasm, he feared she might be regretting her nonrefundable deposit.
“Yes, indeed,” she replied evenly, conveying no excitement. “Has your brother met his quota?”
“He needs three more, with less than a week to find them.”
“And if he doesn’t find them?”
“He’ll take us anyhow, pay his own way.”
Actually it had not been for Agatha’s sake alone that he’d extended the invitation. His brother, Albert Finn, PhD, professor of physics at Rookery State College, was an inveterate traveler who this year was touting “Galileo’s Italy,” a ten-day tour of Rome, Pisa, and Florence during Christmas break. The trip was designed for college students, but having failed to attract the required number of participants, the professor was soliciting travelers not seeking college credit. He had to generate a total of fifteen fares if he, as their leader, was to fly free. Father Finn, due for a vacation, had quickly signed on, and a few days later so had Agatha, bringing the roster to twelve.
“We’ve heard a lot of piffle over the years from Sister Judith, Father, but lately I’ve been fearing for her sanity.” Agatha held a goblet up to the brilliant hanging lamp and buffed away a fingerprint. “She told her study group the other day that they should think of Creation as God laying an egg.”
“No!” said Father Finn, feigning disbelief.
The doorbell sounded.
“Yes, she did.” Agatha drilled him with her small blue eyes. “She actually said that.”
“Well.” The priest suppressed a yawn.
“God laying an egg, just think of it,” she said, and left him to chew this over alone in the dining room.
Father Finn, never sorry to be left alone, stood at the sideboard reading the labels. Scotch. Brandy. Two kinds of wine. An expensive bourbon. A rather poor brand of gin. The same half-empty bottle of apricot-flavored vodka he’d seen here at this dinner for at least twelve years. What guest from ages past had drunk apricot-flavored vodka? He scooped ice from a bucket and uncapped the bottle of bourbon, but before filling his glass, he gave himself over to an enormous, eye-watering yawn.
The voices at the front door—a female shriek and the growl of an old man—belonged to the Jubas. Impolite of him, he realized, not to hurry into the living room and allow himself to be fallen upon by Sister Judith and to shake the fat, limp hand of her widowed father, but he didn’t have the stamina to face them quite yet, didn’t feel quite ready to withstand Sylvester Juba’s gloomy complaining, didn’t feel up to the relentless chatter that filled any room Sister Judith occupied. Should you have the misfortune to be seated between the Jubas at dinner, you got it from both sides nonstop, dark pessimism pouring into one ear, excited twaddle pouring into the other. You had to be careful which chair you chose.
The priest trickled bourbon over his ice and carried the glass to the table. He pulled out a chair and sat down heavily beside the cranberry dish. Oh, to be home on the couch, drifting pleasantly toward sleep while the Vikings and Lions silently fought it out on TV. He yawned a larger, longer yawn than before and wished he’d had the good sense last night to decline the bishop’s invitation to dinner.
Summoned by Bishop Baker on short notice, he’d driven to Berrington and stayed late into the night despite the forecast of snow. He and the bishop had begun their discussion of parish matters over dinner at a place called Ivan Z’s (low lights, high prices, tasteless food pretentiously served), and at nine o’clock, when a jazz trio struck up music too loud for conversation, they had sat there for an hour listening to it, the bishop (a jazz nut) obviously enthralled, and Father Finn (a tin ear) unmoved and uncomprehending. Then the bishop had invited him back to his house, where he foolishly stayed until after midnight, sipping a nightcap and discussing Agatha McGee. Agatha’s ears must have burned. The bishop entrusted him with secrets about her.
It had taken forever to drive the forty miles back to Staggerford through the dizzying snowfall, and when he got to bed, he couldn’t sleep. His brain reeled with all he’d learned about the woman he’d assumed he’d been reading like an open book. Agatha in love? Preposterous. And yet the bishop had shown him the letter, had given it to him and charged him with showing it to Agatha. A man named O’Hannon. A priest, no less, from Ireland. It caused Father Finn to wonder how many other open books he’d been misreading all these years. A lifetime of shepherding your flock in the general direction of their eternal reward while imagining that you understood them heart and soul—but really, what did a priest know?
“It’s simply a marvelous, marvelous snowfall,” Sister Judith Juba was gushing in the other room. “And your house, Agatha, it sits here looking exactly like a Christmas card, how ingenious of you to set your enameled cream can out there on the porch, I always thought that touch of crimson was perfect in your garden, but wintertime it’s simply marvelous on your front porch.”
It was Sister Judith who, in her capacity as associate administrator of St. Isidore’s, had recently led a prayer for a dead parishioner at the Carlson Case Funeral Home beginning, “Our mother who art in heaven.” She’d been doing quite a lot of other novel things as well, thought Father Finn, though novel was not the word commonly applied to them. Blasphemous and stupid were adjectives you heard fairly often from the traditionalists, while the more forward-looking parishioners called her innovations liberating and fun. “Novel” was Father Finn’s term, he being a tolerant, noncommittal man whose job it was to keep the ship afloat through heavy seas.
He sipped his bourbon. He sneezed softly. He blew his nose. He unwrapped a cigar and wished he could smoke it. Holding it between his fingers and imagining curls of smoke rising from its tip, he wondered whether Agatha had her facts straight, wondered whether Sister Judith had actually described creation as God laying an egg. He wouldn’t put it past her. And when did Agatha ever not have her facts straight?
“Oh, there you are!” cried Sister Judith, sweeping into the dining room and patting him on the head. “I knew if I followed my nose I’d find you. Where there’s smoke there’s clergy, I always say.”
True, she’d been saying it forever, every time he unwrapped a cigar in her presence, a presence that had been fairly easy to avoid during the several years when she was teaching at St. Isidore’s and living in the convent; but since going off to graduate school and returning to Staggerford with a degree in pastoral ministry and moving in with her widowed father and setting up her office in the parlor of the rectory—all this at Bishop Baker’s behest—Father Finn was seeing and hearing altogether too much of her.
Rising to his feet and displaying his unlit cigar, lest she accuse him of violating Agatha’s smoking ban, he said, “Let me fix you a drink.” Confronted with Sister Judith, a toucher, he liked to be busy with his hands.
“A drink would be lovely,” she replied, playfully blocking his way to the bottles and intercepting his cigar on its way to his mouth, snatching it out of his hand and holding it at arm’s length. “Horrid, smelly habit, Skipper, lit or unlit.” As he reached out to retrieve it, she backed away, which gave him the opening he needed to escape to the sideboard. She joined him there, inserting the cigar into a pocket of his cardigan and linking an arm through his as they surveyed the liquor.
“Scotch and water?”
“Sounds heavenly,” she said, releasing his arm.
He made the drink powerful. Alcohol, he knew, ate away at her intensity. He liked her better lit.
“Cheers, Skipper.” She raised the glass to eye level, as though inspecting it for impurities, lowered it to nose level, smelled it, then sipped. “Honestly, isn’t this dinner a bore? If it weren’t for my father—”
“Look at that!” cried Sylvester Juba, waddling into the dining room with Agatha at his side. “Here’s the pastor exactly where you’d expect to find him, guarding the booze. Judy, mix me a stiff one—you know what I like.”
Sister Judith and her father, who lived together in the massive old Juba house on Juba Street, were the remnants of Staggerford’s first and most prosperous lumbering family. To look at them, thought Father Finn, you wouldn’t know they were father and daughter. Sylvester was short and stout. Sister Judith was tall and shaped like a stick. She wore, in and out of season, flimsy slit skirts and silky low-neck blouses, as if to display the figure she wished she had. Her blouse today, under her black leather vest, was burgundy and half unbuttoned. She was a tiresomely perky woman in her early forties, though she looked older than that, her bony face deeply etched with the lines of her perpetual smile, and her brown, unruly hair turning gray. Her green eyes, magnified behind thick glasses, had an unsettling effect on Father Finn. They seemed to signify something desperate or unfulfilled in her soul and gave the lie to her cheery demeanor. He’d seen eyes like hers in the faces of abused children and old panhandlers—the large, importunate eyes of those who spend their days begging in vain for kindness or money or love.
“Bring on the bird,” ordered her father, whose holiday attire was a lint-collecting wool suit deeply wrinkled at the elbows and behind the knees, and a necktie spotted with food. His lapels were decorated with the tiny metallic emblems of the Rotary Club and the Knights of Columbus. Father Finn was struck by the effect of gravity on the old man’s flaccid face—jowls and wattles wagging, bags hanging darkly under the eyes, eyelids drooping, the corners of the mouth turning down. There was the rumor going around, perhaps apocryphal, that the old man watched TV with his eyelids held open with Scotch tape. Another rumor had him sweet on Agatha McGee.
“Nice seeing you, Sylvester.” Father Finn extended his hand, which the old man gripped briefly, then cast away.
“Agatha, bring on the bird,” Sylvester repeated, leaning over the table and peering into a bowl. “What’s this mushy concoction?”
“We don’t eat till everyone’s here,” Agatha told him. “That’s delicious fruit salad—Lillian made it.”
He was poking his finger into the creamy dish to snatch out a peach slice when his daughter slapped his hand away and gave him his drink. “Now behave!” she ordered, giggling.
He retreated sulkily to a corner of the room and scowled at his daughter, at the priest, at Lillian Kite, who came in from the kitchen bearing a plate of deviled eggs.
As Lillian explained to the priest and the nun about her earrings, Sylvester Juba settled his eyes on Agatha McGee, his heart’s desire, and saw that she was growing old pretty fast this fall. In her white hair he saw only a trace of its former gingery hue. She’d always been small, but now she was scarcely a wisp, and there was a slight hunch in what for a lifetime had been the straightest back in town. Well, it was no wonder she looked down in the mouth. He’d been told (not by her; she never told him anything) that overseeing the breakup of the parochial school had left her up a stump.
Watching her move over to the sideboard and pick up a decanter of her homemade chokecherry wine, he pictured her as Mrs. Sylvester Juba, mistress of his fourteen-room house on Juba Street, joint owner of his stocks and bonds, inheritor (along with his daughter) of his property in town and his acreage out in the country. Every house needed a woman, and his daughter was scheduled to abandon him, because her term at St. Isidore’s was a one-year apprenticeship. Soon Judy would be called to some parish in greater need of her pastoral talents, perhaps the cathedral itself in Berrington, and where would that leave Sylvester? Up a stump.
Last June, soon after the school closed, he’d met Agatha coming out of church and asked her to be his bride. She’d laughed and said, “Oh, Sylvester, go on!” as though he’d told her an off-color joke. Did she actually think he was joking? He intended to propose again today, to prove he meant it. With six months to think it over, she might have come to see the wisdom of their union, was likely waiting for a second chance. She could very well be short of money—such a big old house to maintain and pay taxes on. Without students to dote on, she no doubt needed companionship. Throw in with the Jubas and she’d get not only a husband, but a daughter in the bargain. Sell the McGee house and the three of them, even in today’s soft real estate market, would be richer by sixty thousand dollars.
Agatha, refilling the wineglass Lillian had been sipping from since midmorning, and then pouring herself a generous amount, was aware of the old man’s bleary eyes upon her. She’d been the object of Sylvester Juba’s tiresome attention off and on since the death several years ago of his devoted wife Twyla. One foggy, drizzly morning last June, on the steps of St. Isidore’s, he’d gripped her arm roughly and said loud enough for several others to hear, “How about we get married, Agatha?” She dismissed him in a tone meant to convey, despite her embarrassment, a breezy nonchalance. Some of the people on the steps turned and smiled; one or two actually laughed out loud. She had slipped out of his grasp and darted away, hiding behind her umbrella because she felt herself blushing. She knew he wasn’t joking, and that’s why she was so mortified.
It occurred to her now, sipping wine, that nearly sixty years had probably passed between blushes. In the seventh grade she was one of five pianists performing a Sunday afternoon recital for parents and friends in St. Isidore’s gymnasium when she struck an erroneous and ugly chord at the end of a dreamy piece by Debussy. She was so ashamed of herself for this mistake that instead of acknowledging the applause with the curtsy and smile she’d rehearsed, she turned scarlet and shot into the nearest cloakroom, where she hid until everyone was gone. She never went back to lessons. She never touched a keyboard again.
“Cheers,” said Lillian, lifting her replenished glass. “Cheers everybody.”
The priest and the nun clinked their glasses with hers. The priest said “cheers” and the nun said, “Where’s Imogene spending the holiday?”
Lillian drank, smacked her lips, and said, “Friends in the city.”
“There’s a subject for your series,” said Agatha, determined to suppress her unsociable feelings by being chatty and helpful. “Imogene’s just the type.” Sister Judith wrote an occasional column for the local Weekly entitled “Career Women of Staggerford.” Agatha had been featured nearly a year ago, the postmistress last spring, Louise Meers of the city council in July, and Marsha Skoog of Marsha’s Ready-to-Wear this fall. She was running out of subjects.
“Hey, you’re right,” said the nun. “Imogene’s always been out there on the cutting edge. Exactly what is Imogene’s job these days, Lillian?”
“Imogene doesn’t live here anymore,” answered Lillian in a voice slurred by wine.
“I know she doesn’t, but she grew up here. Staggerford informed her.”
“She says I should move to St. Paul.”
“What does she do exactly?”
“She’s with the state. She says it’s time for me to sell my house and move to St. Paul. She says why wait till I’m too old to enjoy the city.”
This was news to Agatha. Bad news. Certain that her neighbor had only the vaguest concept of city life and how she might fit into it, she asked, “But would you enjoy the city, Lillian?” She foresaw Lillian’s loneliness if she moved. She foresaw her own.
Lillian drained her glass before replying. “Guess how many channels Imogene gets.”
“Dozens, I’m sure,” said Sister Judith. “Is she in what you’d call a managerial position?”
Lillian, ignoring or not hearing the question, trained her eyes on Agatha. “Guess how many channels.”
“Twenty-one,” Agatha responded, having been told more than once. It wasn’t Lillian’s mind she would miss; it was her good heart, her dependability, the light burning in her window whenever she glanced across the alley at night.
Sister Judith gripped Lillian’s elbow and gave her a little shake, as though to bring her out of a dream. “Tell me,” she insisted, thrusting her toothy smile up close to Lillian’s face and narrowing her eyes, “what does your daughter do for the state?”
“Library work,” replied Lillian placidly. “She’s always been in library work.”
“But what’s her title?”
Lillian, momentarily woozy, pressed her nose flat against her wineglass and smiled vacantly.
“Imogene’s called a purchasing coordinator,” Agatha explained. “She’s in the Department of Education and she works with schools on their book acquisitions.”
“She’s always reading,” Lillian added. “How anybody can read with twenty-one channels is beyond me.”
Agatha, already bored with her guests, lowered her eyes and gave herself up to a bit of fantasy. She imagined James in the room. He was mingling with her friends and storing up impressions to be shared with her after they were gone. This was a habit she had, picturing James lifted out of County Kildare and set down in Minnesota and comparing his view of it with hers. Lillian Kite’s a good old shoe, she imagined him saying, you’re lucky to have her out your back door, Agatha, but don’t you wish once in a while she’d come out with a stimulating word or two?
James, unlike Father Finn, would be wearing his Roman collar (Irish clergymen were seldom caught out of uniform), and of course he’d be the most handsome man in the room, with his steel-gray hair and his sea-blue eyes, and everyone would be struck, as Agatha had been struck in Dublin, by the deep, ringing tones of his voice. And your so-called nun, Agatha—isn’t she repressing a great lot of something or other in that narrow little breast of hers? She strikes me as someone with a need she’s trying to ignore by running on about nothing. And her father’s a case as well, standing there in a kind of alcoholic stupor. Pardon me for asking, Agatha, but what possessed you to invite the Jubas?
She would explain to him, then, about the bond between the McGees and the Jubas, their friendship going back to the 1890s, when Agatha’s father came to town and set up his law office across the street from the sawmill belonging to Sylvester’s father and uncles. The Jubas and McGees had been together for Thanksgiving dinner for most of the twentieth century.
James would chuckle then. His retort would be something like, Ah, the tyranny of tradition.
“Don’t laugh,” would be Agatha’s response, a statement directed at James in her imagination but now uttered aloud in her dining room, and attracting—since no one was laughing—a curious glance from each of her guests. She felt her face go red. “The rolls,” she said, hurrying into the kitchen, “I forgot to brown the rolls.”
In Hassler's "A Green Journey," I fell in love with Agatha and James--two lost souls who find each other late in life. I couldn't wait to get my hands on "Dear James" to find out where their story went from there. Hassler's characters are forever etched in my mind. His writing is poignant, heart-wrenching, heartrending, and heartwarming. Is it ever too late to fall in love?
for fans of The Bridges of Madison County and Nicholas Sparks readers