By Dena Hunt - Valdosta, Georgia, USA - Pentecost/Assumption 2011
The gray-brown female cardinal perched on the fence, her wings fluttering against her body, as though she were having a hot flash. Her beak was slightly open, like parted lips, panting. Her bright red mate pecked on the ground nearby in a leisurely hop, occasionally choosing some morsel he found suitable for her and flying back to her open beak to deposit the food. Then he flew back to the ground again and searched for more until finally the couple departed for another location.
Catherine thought she found some kinship with Lady Cardinal. Some other species might ask why on earth she didn’t gather her own food, why wait for her mate -- who was taking forever and clearly keeping the best bits for himself. Moreover, he was easily distracted, in no hurry to bring food to her, while she waited for him, fluttering and panting. Catherine didn’t know why the female didn’t get her own food, but she felt that she somehow understood her. It had to do with something besides some answer to why; such answers always had to begin with because. She had grown weary of why long ago.
Watching the birds and squirrels through the kitchen window while she drank her morning coffee had become a ritual in the last few months since Frank died. It was the new ritual replacing the old -- when she and Frank had watched the morning news together with their coffee. And that ritual had been new at one time, replacing the one they followed before he retired. There had been others -- while the kids were still at home, when they were still in school, or when they were small. What would replace the birds and squirrels? Or was this the last morning ritual? Her whole life, including morning rituals, had always been patterned by the activities of those around her. Now that all her family were gone, it was apparently patterned to birds and squirrels. She smiled: Maybe others never really had anything to do with how she lived…
She rinsed her cup and put it in the dishwasher, puttered around the kitchen, wiping coffee stains from the countertop under the coffeemaker, dumping the grounds, rinsing the pot. What would she do today? She made a mental outline: shower, dress, go to Mass, go to the supermarket. She checked her brief shopping list on the little kitchen desk by the phone: milk, detergent, etc. Life was not very different now that she was alone, just some variation in its rituals. Everything was the same, really. Sometimes she worried a little about the fact that she was not lonely, or in need of finding some “meaning” in life since the departure of her husband and children. She’d even talked to Father Joe about it once, but he didn’t seem to understand her concern; he’d assumed that she was asking what she should “do” now and he gave her suggestions -- charity work, adult education classes, the Golden-Agers social group at church, etc. But keeping busy was not what worried her: how does one express concern about the fact that one is not concerned?
In the shower, she thought about what to wear -- as she always did -- and decided on jeans and the gray sweater, since it was still a little cool in this late April. She dressed, made the bed and opened the blinds.
Her friend Phyllis was supposed to call later. She had been widowed recently, too -- about six months ago. But her husband died after suffering over a year with pancreatic cancer, a year which had nearly killed Phyllis as well. He didn’t go suddenly as Frank had done with a massive heart attack in his sleep. After her husband’s death, Phyllis had sold the house, moved into a condo, and started traveling. She came over for drinks one afternoon last week with photos from her trip to Paris with a tour group. Catherine thought she looked tired.
“Are you enjoying yourself, Phyllis?”
“Oh, yes,” she answered, “but I wish I hadn’t planned this trip to Hawaii next week, so soon after getting back from Europe.” She was tired and it showed. “But what would I do if stayed at home?” She laughed a little, and Catherine smiled, but she thought the laugh sounded a little hollow.
They sat on the patio and sipped martinis as Catherine talked about the pink and white tulips along the back fence. “I think I like the pastels better than the bright red and yellow I usually put out,” she said, thinking that next year she’d include some blue forget-me-nots as a front border.
“Yes,” Phyllis answered slowly. Catherine wondered again whether her friend had done wisely in selling her home. The condo didn’t even have a balcony where she could have put a few plants, and Phyllis had always enjoyed gardening as much as she did.
Catherine combed her short salt-and-pepper hair and put on lipstick. Phyllis would not have waited on the fence for her cardinal-mate to bring her food.
She drove the Highlander to Mass. Frank had bought the car a year ago, but it was too big for her and her small purposes -- going to daily Mass, to the supermarket a couple of times a week, and once in a while into Atlanta for shopping. She decided she’d give the car to her son John. He had a fishing boat it could tow; plus, the rear seat had DVD players for the kids. John would not have asked why the lady cardinal perched on the fence and waited. He would have known why. He was like his father: he knew things like that.
The Gospel reading at Mass that day was the part where Thomas had doubts: “I will not believe he has risen unless I put my finger inside the wounds.” And the Lord appeared to him and told him to do just that -- put his finger inside the wound on his side. Then he told him: “You have believed because you have seen. Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe.”
Did she believe? She didn’t know, had never really thought about it. She had been raised Catholic, married Catholic, and lived Catholic. Every Sunday, she recited the Creed: “I believe….” but she’d never asked herself whether she really did or not. It was a question like the “why” questions, questions that there seemed to be no really truthful answer to -- believe. She looked up at the crucifix behind the altar as she knelt with the communion wafer dissolving on her tongue. She never chewed it as she’d seen other people do. “Not a bone of him shall be broken,” she’d always remembered. I don’t really know what “believe” means.
She drove to Kroger’s market. Her daughter Mary Anne had announced when she was sixteen that she didn’t “believe” in God. Frank had been angry with her. “How can you say that? Don’t you know you’re breaking your mother’s heart?” Looking back now, she knew that it wasn’t Mary Anne’s loss of faith that made her cry. The truth was that she simply didn’t understand her daughter. She realized that Mary Anne was gone, her child was gone, and it was her awareness of the irrevocability of the loss, not her daughter’s disbelief in God, that made her cry, broke her heart. Her child had vanished.
She was different from her daughter. Odd how it happened sometimes that sons were more like their mothers and daughters more like their fathers. It had been so with her children. Thinking about her now, way up north in Philadelphia, she wondered when she had stopped missing her, stopped loving her…
She pulled the monster car into a space in the parking lot, gathered her purse and shopping bags, checked her list again. She hadn’t seen her daughter since Frank’s funeral, and before that, it had been several years. She was some kind of consultant -- Catherine had never understood what kind -- something about video productions for advertising or TV commercials or something, and she’d been living with her lesbian lover for -- how long? Catherine didn’t know. Mary Anne would not have waited on the fence. Phyllis would have thought about it first, and then she would decide to get her food herself. Mary Anne wouldn’t have thought about it at all. Catherine could understand Phyllis, but not Mary Anne.
She pulled a shopping cart from the long line of carts pushed together and got her list out from her handbag, poured half a cup of Kroger’s complimentary coffee and headed for the bakery section of the store. Frank’s anger with his daughter had never really abated since that day when she announced her atheism. Catherine knew -- even if Mary Anne did not -- that his anger proved that he loved her. She also knew that the absence of her own anger proved that she did not. How can you love someone you don’t even know? Instead of being angry, she’d grieved in silence and confusion. But that was twelve years ago.
“Good morning, Mrs. Luccio. What can I get for you today?”
“I need some wheat and some white, George. And half a dozen croissants too, please. How’s your family?”
“We’re all fine, thanks for asking. Louisa is getting ready to graduate next month.”
“Graduating! My goodness, it seems like it was just yesterday when she started school.”
George laughed. “I know, I know.” He handed her a priced bag of croissants and two loaves of bread. “How did that song go? It was in Fiddler on the Roof. ‘Sunrise, sunset’ -- I can’t remember, but that’s how it is. You turn around and they’re gone.” He smiled wistfully. Catherine knew that George would not have been distracted like the male cardinal feeding his mate; he would have been dedicated to his role as provider.
She pushed her shopping cart on toward the canned goods. Frank had been distracted. More than once. He had his first affair when the kids were still small. It wasn’t just one thing, but several put together: Frank was an accountant in a large firm just outside Atlanta. All the clientele were local, but suddenly he was having to fly to St. Louis for visits with a client. And there was the laundry on his return. A sudden loss of interest in sex. Daydreaming looks. Once she put denial behind her and let her heart break, she wondered what to do. She didn’t want a confrontation -- nothing good could come from that. Then, suddenly, it was over. Frank became very affectionate -- even doting. He looked sad sometimes, and he spent two hours with the priest in Confession.
It happened again a few years later, and it was quite different from the first time. He was irritable, frowned all the time, became short-tempered with the children. That one must have been more intense, less romantic, maybe. It hadn’t lasted as long as the first, and he returned. That was when she understood his distractions, really. He didn’t actually want what distracted him. He actually wanted someone who was sitting perched on the fence -- waiting for him.
The last affair happened less than two years before he died, and it was Phyllis. Phyllis was struggling with her dying husband. They had no children with whom she could share the physical or the emotional burden. And Phyllis wasn’t the kind of woman who could find comfort in the friendship of other women. Catherine was her only close friend. Edgar had been her whole life. Catherine didn’t mind the affair, pretended not to notice the “dinner meetings with clients," the Saturday all-day errands. It ended when Edgar died. Phyllis started traveling, and Frank died not long after Edgar. Phyllis was in Fiji when it happened; she sent Catherine dozens of roses.
She stopped at the butcher counter and bought a package of thinly sliced prosciutto to make the little croissant sandwiches that Phyllis liked so well. At the checkout line, she picked up the special gardening issue of Southern Living.
That afternoon, after putting the groceries away, Catherine prayed a rosary while she sat on her patio, trying to meditate on the mysteries and not think about the garden -- plans, chores she needed to do. She smiled. “I get distracted too, don’t I, Lord. I’m sorry.” She thought briefly again about whether she believed. “I don’t know, Lord. But I love you. I hope that’s enough.”
Her prayers were interrupted when she heard the phone ring in the kitchen. She knew it was Phyllis, and she was going to ask her to lunch tomorrow, to have the little croissant sandwiches, and maybe a little wine.