Apart from a healthy birth," Elisabeth's father had told her, "no good news comes after dark." He should have known. Tall and portly, Dr. James LeRoy was Three Rivers's most popular general practitioner.
Her own birth, on the first day of the new century, had come after dark. Her father had told her the story so many times it was as if she remembered being there. "Your mother went into labor so quickly that I had to deliver you myself. I hadn't planned to. I didn't trust my instincts over my emotions. Your mother was - "
"Vera!" Elisabeth blurted.
"Yes. She was young and frail and worked hard to produce you, a healthy child. But her own vital signs - "
"She was sick."
"And what did you do, Daddy?"
"Hmm. I'm not sure I recall."
"Yes, you do! The bundling part."
"Oh, yes. I bundled you in a blanket and allowed you to exercise your lungs in the parlor while I tried to save your mother."
He nodded. "I begged her not to leave me, not to leave us. All she wanted was to talk about your middle name and her own epitaph. I pleaded with her to save her strength."
"And what did she want you to call me, Daddy?"
"We had settled on Elisabeth, after her own mother," he said. "It had seemed too soon to worry about a middle name."
"But she thought of one."
"Yes, sweetheart. 'Call her Elisabeth Grace,' she said, 'after the grace that is greater than all our sin.' And on her tombstone - "
"I know, Daddy. It says, 'My hope is in the cross.' "
"If I hear that story one more time, I'm going to vomit!" first-grade classmate Frances Crawford hissed, shaking her ringlets. "All you talk about is your dead mother."
Breath rushed from Elisabeth, and her eyes stung. "Little girls oughtn't say 'vomit,'" she managed. "Daddy says the proper word is 'regurgitate,' but at least say 'throw up.' "
"'Daddy says regurgitate,'" Frances mocked.
"Regurgitate," Elisabeth corrected, but Frances skipped away. Elisabeth pursued her. "You're lucky you've got a mother!"
Frances stopped to face her. "Just quit bragging about your father and quit bein' so - so - churchy!"
This time when Frances ran off, Elisabeth let her go. Churchy? They were in the same Sunday school class! But Elisabeth was churchy?
Three blocks from Dr. LeRoy's rambling mansion on Hoffman Street - not far from Bonnie Castle - the slender steeple of Three Rivers Christ Church rose above the first ward. That pristine monolith, old as the church itself, came to serve as a reminder of God's presence in Elisabeth's life.
Her father had often recounted how she talked every day about going to Christ Church. She toddled along to play in the nursery when he attended Wednesday night prayer meetings, Sunday school, and morning and evening services. "You skipped on the way to church and tried to pull me along faster," he said. "And once there, your eyes shone at the little sanctuary, the pictures on the wall, and every nook and cranny that seemed to offer something of God."
Her father and his older, widowed sister, Agatha Erastus, raised Elisabeth. Aunt Agatha did not share their love of the church. "I cannot worship a god who would take my own daughter at birth and my husband in the prime of his life," she often told her brother in Elisabeth's hearing.
"You're depriving yourself of God," Dr. LeRoy said.
"Housework, cooking, and looking after your little one is more than fair trade for food and shelter," she said. "Getting scolded is not part of the bargain."
"I worry about you, Agatha," he said. "That's all."
"Worry about yourself and your motherless child."
"I thank God you're here to help, but don't be filling Elisabeth's head with - "
"You'd do well to not associate God with my coming here, and when you start worrying about who's filling your daughter's head, start with the man in the mirror. I saw the reply from the last missionaries she tried to lecture."
Elisabeth saw her father blanch. "I'll thank you to keep out of my mail," he said. "Now I'd like to be alone a while."
"What's she talking about, Daddy?" Elisabeth said. "We heard back from the missionaries?"
Her father hesitated. "Show her!" Agatha crowed. "You're always telling her honesty is the best policy. Show her the effect she had on the missionaries."
Dr. LeRoy waved his sister off, but Elisabeth followed her father into his study and insisted on seeing the letter. He sighed and handed it to her, but she could not read cursive writing. He read it to her.
"Dear Dr. LeRoy, my husband's letter of thanks precedes this, so I trust you know we're grateful for every kindness from you and from the church. I feel compelled, however, to exercise Matthew 18 and inform you that the letter from your daughter, well intentioned though it may have been, was offensive. For a six-year-old, and a girl at that, to take it upon herself to counsel us and admonish us to remain strong and true in our faith evidences naivete and impudence of the highest order . . ."
Her father had to explain what the words meant. "But I was just trying to 'courage them," she said, tears welling.
"I know," Dr. LeRoy said, gathering her into his arms. "People just don't expect it from one as young as you.