Unguarded Moments

Written By: Jennifer Clements

She is following her father down the aisle. Or maybe the body in the casket isn’t her father anymore. He’s in Heaven, or perhaps he’s in Purgatory? There are rules about how you get into Purgatory and how long you stay, rules she doesn’t remember after all these years.

This is the last place she wants to be. Which is probably why she’s obsessing about life after death. It’s not her father’s death that’s the problem right now—not grief, not even dealing with his menagerie of semi-domesticated animals. The problem now is feeling like her long-ago hard-won escape from the church will be revoked. It’s her irrational but persuasive fear that she will be lassoed and branded and returned to the fold.

She has to admit that the place itself, the church, is impressive—gilded fleurs-de-lis on the soaring blue vaults of the nave, flickering votives at the feet of Joseph and Mary. Most places from your childhood get smaller and sweetly pathetic, but this one has swelled as if to tap her on the shoulder and remind her of its absolute authority.

Beside her is Aunt Margie, only she’s also Sister Mary Agatha, and she’s ancient. Bent over her cane, she’s holding up the parade. The casket keeps getting ahead of them and then has to stop and wait while Aunt Margie creeps forward. She’d turned up in the vestibule just as they were about to start the procession, coming with a companion, the way nuns do, an unremarkable young woman whom Sister Mary Agatha ordered to stand aside, saying her niece would accompany her until after Mass.

She was named for Aunt Margie, but decided at five that Margaret was all wrong and chose to be Wren. She hasn’t seen her aunt since the time the whole family visited the convent, the summer after Wren did Confirmation. You lose track of people. Not recognizing Aunt Margie in the vestibule was partly how long it’s been and partly that her habit is gone. Flapping black elegance has given way to a cardigan and lumpy long skirt. Priests and cardinals and popes got to keep their plumage, but nuns subsided to thrift-shop drab. Wren had put a hand under Aunt Margie’s elbow as they took their places behind the casket, but a shake of the old woman’s vestigial wimple was the end of that.

It’s beautiful, this casket that is always just out of reach, carpentered of a wood that makes you want to run your fingers over it. Except that to find the casket, Wren had to stray from the Catholic part of the funeral home display—the Catholic ones were too Godfather for her taste. The unfortunate result is that it has a Star of David stamped on the lining in the lid, suspended now above her Catholic father’s face for all time. The funeral home said they’d cover it with a patch. They’re adept, these people, accustomed to dealing with a chilling array of situations and substances; adding a patch is nothing to them.

Her mother’s best friend reaches out a hand as they move forward. Wren sees a teacher from grade school. An old boyfriend where she feels an alarming residual attraction. They all give sober, encouraging looks. People expect a display of grief. She’s sorry to disappoint, but she’s focused on getting Aunt Margie down the aisle.

At the front, the usher steers them into a pew. Her aunt manages to touch one knee to the floor in genuflection. Should Wren do that? Would it be disrespectful? Before she’s figured it out, her body has decided for her, and she’s standing, waiting, in the pew, rehashing her two-days-ago discussion with the priest.

She was nervous, arriving at the residence. Something uncomfortably personal about it. As a kid she hadn’t even noticed the building was there, beside the church. Today, she arrived ten minutes early and, having no better alternative, spent the time in her car, reading the rental agreement. That and remembering how when priests visited Sunday catechism classes, you sat straighter and listened harder. They were more important than the nuns.

He was considerate at first, not sitting behind his priestly oaken desk but in a chair across from hers. He poured her a mug of coffee from the carafe on the stand. They talked about her father. Condolences were offered and accepted. They set a day and a time for the Mass.

“You’ll want to assist with the gifts,” he’d said.

The gifts. What were the gifts?

“Communion.”

She had to answer. “I don’t think that’s going to work. I’ve been away. From the Church.”

You could see his disapproval and that he wasn’t going to make it easy for her. He adjusted the crease of his black trousers. He said nothing.

Her old Sunday Missal, which she still had somewhere, frayed ribbons marking the weekly readings, didn’t call them “gifts.” She wanted to explain that.

He looked at the open appointment book on the edge of the desk where he’d penciled the time for the Mass. Maybe now he would erase it.

She felt guilty, ashamed, rattled, by her confession. Another kind of confession. If she did a real confession, she could be a Catholic again. He must expect that.

She’s annoyed that it’s still such a big deal to her, this thing that you’re not supposed to disappoint the Fathers. Obligations, duties, expectations. She had trouble talking after that. Whether to cross her legs was an issue; the nuns had discouraged it. They finished. She pushed the cup of now-cold coffee into his hands. She fled.

. . . and welcome him into your presence that he may enjoy eternal light and peace and be raised up in glory with all your saints. We ask this through Christ our Lord.

An aa-men rolls forward from the congregation. They sit. Aunt Margie arranges her clothing as if it is the wider skirts of a habit, tucks her hands into its invisible folds.

It had been exciting, important, having a nun in the family. She sent Wren prayer cards and blessed medals. Wren liked the medals; she wanted to wear them to school, but her mother said no. Wren could tell her mother was no fan of the Church. Marrying a Catholic, her mother had to promise that her children would be raised in the Faith and never come with her on Sundays to her own services. Wren’s father did her ponytail on Sunday mornings, and it hurt more than when her mother did it.

Visiting Aunt Margie’s convent that time was like going to church, only for longer, and to see somebody who was their own. She has a photo of that visit somewhere, everybody smiling. Her mother’s smile doesn’t look real. Wren is done up in a junior version of her mother’s narrow-waisted, full-skirted fashions. Aunt Margie’s soft face blossoms from its starched white frame.

Wren remembers her aunt showing them the school where she taught and the church where she prayed. She didn’t show them the parts Wren wanted to see, the secret parts, where she slept and where she took a bath. But Wren could imagine them; narrow beds in a row like Madeline’s orphanage. After the tour, Aunt Margie led them out into the sun where roses bloomed and where they had lemonade and cookies that weren’t as good as her mother’s.

She looks sideways at the old nun beside her in the pew, trying to find the face in the photo. They stand. They sit. They give the responses. She does whatever Aunt Margie does.

The priest climbs to the pulpit. He begins by saying that Gareth was a religious man, nodding at Wren. She can’t help but hear a comparison between her father and his apostate daughter.

And nobody ever called him Gareth.

If religious means strict, then her father was religious. She adored him, but you learned not to ask for anything, for a Coke or ice cream. He was often generous, but on his terms, and that was supposed to teach you something you needed to know.

“Gareth is an example to us, a man of faith,” the priest proclaims, “a man who never questioned the teachings of the Church.” He describes her father as one who knew his good luck, being born into the tradition that showed him the truth and the way when it came to confusing issues like birth control; he knew the Church would protect him from making terrible mistakes in unguarded moments.

“Too many think they know better,” the priest adds sadly. “Choice sounds like a wonderful thing.” He says that the Church offers no smorgasbord of beliefs; homosexuality, abortion—picking and choosing what evils to reject.

“It’s not easy being Christian, and it’s not supposed to be. Our faith is a fighting faith, a fearless faith. These times require warrior Catholics, not half-hearted ones or deserters.”

Wren is enraged. This man has hijacked her father’s funeral to condemn abortion and promote homophobia. He’s called her a deserter. She imagines a righteous exodus: fiercely buttoning her jacket and gathering her purse, a dignified march up the aisle, head high, others joining in behind her, a pied-piper triumphal departure into the immaculate June morning.

Or maybe it’s nothing to do with her, and he just says these things without thinking.

And, of course, she won’t really do anything. Not in church.

She thinks about the nuns the Vatican called radical feminists because they did not oppose abortion and because they called for women priests. That’s who Wren wants up there in the pulpit talking about her father. Be humble but not submissive, one of them said.

How do they do it, those sisters? How do they dare to question the fundamentals of God’s one true Catholic and Apostolic Church, when she, Wren, couldn’t even feel okay about telling the Father she was no longer a believer? When asked, the nuns said that yes of course they are Catholic; they are another kind of Catholic.

This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to His Supper.

Wren looks up. Communion. Everybody in the church will go forward. She doesn’t know what to do. Follow the tide, pretending she’s one of them, or sit, humiliatingly, with knees sideways, everybody climbing over her as they leave the pew and as they return? Aunt Margie is on her feet. Decide.

The nun puts a hand on Wren’s shoulder. “Stay here. This is none of your business.”

Wren watches her aunt move toward the rail, everybody patient with her slow progress. She is defending the sanctity of the ritual, keeping Wren from intruding. Wren should be offended, but instead she’s relieved. Problem solved. Sister Agatha has no idea she’s been helpful.

Leaning back, everyone around her gone, Wren feels something new. It’s what she felt as a child in this place. The magic that was church. Why you knelt and crossed yourself and said words that had no ordinary meaning. The shiver of bells, the incense.

What’s happening here is about more than vestments and communion wafers. It’s about decades of prayers and intentions. Little girls in white making their first communion. Doubt and regret, forgiveness and hope. All here, all human and holy. The priests who were corrupt or ignorant or lazy, but also the ones who made sacrifices to do it right. The saints. The martyrs. Her father is being initiated into whatever comes next. Rewards and punishments, strung in rows in the quivering air above her head like the strands of wedding pearls Wren’s once-baby fingers remember from clinging good-night hugs when her mother, smelling exotic, was about to go out for the evening on the arm of her handsome young husband.

The lines of people file forward and return. The priest prays his prayers and makes his bows.

And then it’s over, and everybody is standing, and they at the front are filing out of the pew and doing the procession in reverse. She touches the corner of the casket. What remains of her father is inside this box, with his face and hair done for the first time in his life. And the rosary. She told the funeral home to skip the rosary—she’d never seen him with one—but the place seemed to care a lot about it, so fine, okay. She wants to laugh with him about that. But he won’t be there when she gets back to the house.

Aunt Margie has taken Wren’s arm; maybe all the standing and kneeling has worn her out. Step by step, they move up the aisle, passing the same people who again give looks of solemn compassion. The priest waits at the back. Everyone will stop and speak to him. Everyone will tell him how inspiring it was, what he said about Wren’s father. There’s no way to avoid the encounter. She tries not to look at him.

They arrive. Aunt Margie pushes on her cane and on Wren’s arm to stand as tall as she can and to address the priest. It seems her aunt will be the one doing the talking.

In what remains of her teacher-voice, Aunt Margie tells him she was interested in his homily. He dips his head and smiles at her as his eyes slide sideways to check which parishioners are waiting in line. “Sister?”

“Well, Father, it occurs to me to wonder about the wisdom of never questioning the teachings of the Church.” The priest’s attention snaps from the line of well-wishers to her face, but she’s not done.

“Call me a radical feminist, but I think abortion and birth control and same-sex marriage are grand opportunities for warrior Catholics. Instead of one-size-fits-all, we can be more inclusive and come to a glorious crazy-quilt of belief. Let people participate in their own salvation. Don’t you think?” She smiles at him, plants her cane to move on, then looks up again.

“It’s our church too, Father. We’re not going away.”

It’s the word “crazy-quilt” that takes Wren back to that summer visit with the roses and cookies, back to something Wren has forgotten until now.

Aunt Margie was a grade-school teacher, and she understood little girls. She sent the others to look at the kitchen garden and drew Wren aside, telling her she was going to show her something special. Pulling aside layers of black and white, she demonstrated the hidden folds of her habit. She showed where she stowed her handkerchief and the rosary beads that rattled when she walked.

The nun watched the little girl’s face as she lifted one edge of her skirt. Revealed was her sewn-from-scraps patchwork petticoat. A blizzard of color: scarlet, chartreuse, fuchsia. She told Wren that the nuns made their petticoats from leftover clothes donated by parishioners, and since nobody ever saw it, well, she thought she might as well have a little fun. Wren wonders if the mother superior knew about it, whether she had seen the exuberance of Sister Agatha’s undergarments. Or maybe all the nuns had petticoats like that.

She feels a tug on her arm. It’s Aunt Margie, suggesting they move on. We don’t want to cause any inconvenience, she says with a straight face. Together, Wren and Sister Mary Agatha make a triumphal departure into the immaculate June morning.

Jennifer Clements

Jennifer Clements is an architect and psychologist who moved from San Francisco to an island off the coast of Maine to write fiction.

Her stories have been accepted by Gettysburg Review, Witness Magazine, Maine Review, and Prick of the Spindle. She also has earlier non-fiction and academic publications.