Growing up, we lived an isolated life. Surrounding farms were miles apart. The poorer the soil, the more land farmers needed, so we grew up far from neighbors, a typical tenant family in the late 1940’s. Except for the once-a-year stampede through our kitchen of threshing crews—dust covered men, reeking sweat, who chomped through harvest meals like starving hogs freed from pens—the only outside person we saw regularly was the parish priest. Father James Simon, a young man fresh out of seminary, took the place of our regular priests when they went on retreat or vacation. He roved from small village to village hearing confessions and saying Mass.

My entire family held priests in high regard. Their word was law. Often, as Mom tried desperately to bring some order to the chaos in a small house with five children, she’d threaten that she’d tell Father James if we didn’t settle down. It worked for me; I behaved. But, I’ll tell you, it wasn’t the religion business that got to me. It was that he was so different from anyone I’d met that I couldn’t sleep Saturday nights before Sunday noon gatherings if Father Jim was invited to my grandparents’ farm.

My uncles—tall, thin Dutchmen, yardstick straight and serious—had thick shocks of bad-mannered hair greased back from their foreheads, baring cool blue eyes. Father Jim’s head was bald and shiny as Mom’s stomach right before Carey was born. His eyes, black as burnt raisins but liquid as coffee, held like a magnet when he looked at you, then disappeared when he laughed. And laugh he did, often, loud and musically.  Burnished round cheeks, the size of my brother’s yo-yo, would slide up his face, squeezing cat-whisker wrinkles at their corners. He stood shorter than my oldest teenage sister, a soft burnished pear among the bleached, gaunt men.

Sunday dinner was ready when he arrived after second Mass. He had removed the black dress and white over-frock he wore on the altar. A friendly raven, plumped and plumed, he was now all in black, narrow-collared shirt, and slacks without a wrinkle. He strode in on shoes shiny as mirrors bringing the sunshine along indoors. Before he sat down, he turned around and brushed off the chair seat with his fat little fingers and then, tucking his tail feathers beneath him, smoothed the seat of his pants. He didn’t seem to notice that he had the only napkin—a thick, bleached-white handkerchief that Grandma kept especially for him—as he pinched one corner and flicked it above his plate, letting it sail, fluttering like Danny’s March kite.  

            Everything changed when he entered the room. It was as if he gave the air permission to relax. His presence sliced intersecting grids, taut ropes that confined our family and our feelings. They sagged around us for that hour and we let down our guard and breath came easier. The men—my uncles and grandpa and Dad—all talked like they were on radio, their voices loud and excited, spilling over each other. But when he talked, they stopped. And listened.  Grandpa’s head cocked to the side just like our deaf cattle dog, Shep, did before Dad had him shot.

            I watched Father Jim when Mom stood next to him while she passed food from the stove. He lowered his voice like he was turning down the radio’s volume and said things over his shoulder that we couldn’t hear, things that made her smile. Sometimes she giggled like Donna Jensen in first grade. I remembered that and I didn’t like it. I wanted her to save those smiles and giggles for Dad instead of shoving away his hands like she often did when he came up behind her for a hug. I turned to Dad, but he couldn’t see what I saw. He seemed proud that Father Jim singled Mom out for attention.

            After dessert I helped clear the table but sometimes I managed to escape my turn at drying the bottomless stack of dishes. The men retired to the parlor, carrying straight- backed kitchen chairs which they grouped in a circle around the brown frieze sofa and the one padded armchair reserved for Grandpa. All feet were planted firmly on the floor except Father Jim’s. He crossed his legs, one knee on top the other, and sat back, lounging to the side. His polished shoe swung back and forth in a hypnotizing tick-tock rhythm that kept time with his story telling, even when he paused for approval. I tried to eavesdrop, though crops and weather and animal prices didn’t much interest me.

             My uncles rolled their own foul-smelling cigarettes but not Father Jim. He pulled a pipe or cigar from his crisp shirt pocket and took his sweet time lighting it. First, he bit off the end of the cigar and rolled it around and around in his mouth, his full lips pursing as if for a kiss. It embarrassed me to watch him; it seemed a private act somehow. His pipe tobacco was fragrant as gingerbread from Grandma’s cinnamon and cloves drawer. The smoke circled upward like an invisible artist was drawing ever wider circles until the paint ran out at the ceiling where it magically disappeared. 

             Three of my uncles were still bachelors who lived on the homestead and helped Grandpa with the farming. They were favorites to all of us children. Like everyday-saints, they brought us candy and the attention we craved. When we stayed overnight, we’d sit on their laps before bed while they played cards or rested on the porch in summer, watching the darkening sky for rain. It was comforting physical affection that we were more deprived of with each new baby Mom had.

            One Sunday as I lingered in the parlor doorway, two sisters snuggled onto uncles’ laps and Danny tossing jacks under Dad’s knees, Father Jim motioned me over to his side. I backed onto his lap obediently. The droning voices, the aroma of his pipe and the warmth of the sinking sun lighting up that dim corner soon put me to sleep. I know I awoke very soon because the sun was still streaming through the twisted bare branches of the lilac grove to the northwest. Father Jim was holding me from behind, his hands on my hips, and he was moving me around on his lap in a firm grinding motion. I didn’t feel comfortable sitting there, not at all like I did on my uncle’s laps. I slid off and straightened myself, but my breath was plugged up and I was afraid to move away.

            Everyone was dozing except Uncle Ted. He rose right up like a giant and, old as I was, he jerked me into his arms and carried me into the kitchen, rough, like I was a bale of hay. His face was stern; his eyes, hard as marbles. He held me square by the shoulders, looked me straight in the face and quietly asked, “You all right, Jen?”

I said I was, ‘cause I was, but I felt confused and guilty, like I had been caught doing something I wasn’t supposed to do. He took me into the bedroom where Grandma was napping and put me under the quilt next to her. Then he tucked me in all around even though I wasn’t a bit cold. For what seemed a long time, he sat by my side on the edge of the bed holding his head in his hands. Dad did that very same thing, when hail flattened the corn crop and those times before he told us we were moving again. Before Uncle Ted left the room, he took an old handkerchief from behind the bib of his overalls and blew his nose. Then he patted my leg like I was Shep. He sure missed that dog.

            After that happened, it took a long time before I’d look into any priests’ eyes. I didn’t care if they were funny and made people laugh or that they were smarter and knew more things to talk about. It didn’t matter to me that they were supposed to be holy men who could get you into heaven and save you from hell if you did what they said. I just didn’t want to be magnetized that way ever again.

Bernadine Lortis

Although writing secretly and sporadically for years, Bernadine Lortis did not submit until the death of her disabled daughter in July of 2016 freed time to concentrate seriously on this endeavor. Since, she has had fiction, flash and creative nonfiction, and poetry published in over 20 journals and anthologies, including Stirring, Mused-Bella online, Sliver Birch, Miller's Pond and Poetry Super Highway among many others. Degrees in Art and Education were occupationally driven. Always an advocate for disabled and less fortunate, she is an avid reader, gardener and dabbler in watercolor, and lives with her husband in St. Paul, MN.


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