I open the gray metal box. Where others keep grandma’s opal from Australia or silver certificates, I keep one hand-written letter. In my father’s unique penmanship, the long “y” of sorry reaches down and captures a memory: My dear daughter, ...what happened long ago.... It is 1957. I am 11 years old. I wake one morning unable to breathe, covered with what looks like hives. The family doctor comes to our home. “What did she last eat?” He guesses that I am allergic to peaches. “Perhaps the fuzz,” he says.
My breathing difficulty continues; I feel as if someone is sitting on my chest. It must be asthma.
I can no longer play on the volleyball team at St. Anne’s school. But I want to be part of a team, so I join the Boy Savior Club. He’s the best person to have on your team anyway. One day a week I wear the turquoise badge of membership on my navy blue uniform. The boy/God is looking at me while holding a tablet of Roman numerals. He is pointing to “IV.” I know it is the Fourth Commandment: Honor thy father and thy mother. I want to obey, but things get all mixed up when I get home.
At night, when everyone is asleep, my father slips into my bed. I turn away from him and face the yellow wall and do not move. His rough hands, hands that trim produce all day, are feeling their way under my nightgown. I am not an artichoke. I am not cabbage not a carrot tomato or turnip. I go through all the fruits and vegetables that I can think of—in alphabetical order—until the touching stops. How long can I hold my breath?
Soon he brazenly begins to kiss and feel me even during the daytime—between rooms in our house, when no one else is around. “You know if you tell your mother, she’ll divorce me,” he warns, he threatens.
Divorce would be just about the worst sin on our block, a cul-de-sac of lovely homes, where our destiny is knotted as tightly as Ozzie and Harriett Nelson and their family.
We are a family of six children: three girls, three boys. I am next to the oldest. My mother is always cooking and doing laundry. “Raising her brood,” as the neighbors say. The only time my mother takes a break is when the last clothespin grabs the last diaper. Then she leans on the fence and shares some innocent story with Rita, who is a nurse and lives in the house behind ours.
I think my mother is a saint because she hardly ever complains. Yet I cannot approach her, even as my body changes. She shows me a purple box in the linen closet. “Do you know what these are?”
Thanks to my best friend, Ida Lou (who is two years older), I do know. Sometimes on a Saturday, I am allowed to spend the night at Ida Lou’s house. Her family is Southern Baptist, from Oklahoma. Her mother and dad are watching Oral Roberts or Billy Graham.
“Thank you, Jesus!” I hear it booming from the small television and stop to watch members of a congregation fall over in a fainting spell. “Thank you, Jesus!” We never pray that way in the Catholic Church. We say Deo Gratias, which is like old Shakespeare for “Thanks be to God.”
Saturday nights in my own home, we watch Perry Como on the Kraft Music Hour. He is crooning with his gentle tenor voice, and his notes go right into my soul, as deep as anyone could ever go. He is wearing a cardigan and smiling down at me as I lie on the green braided family-room rug. I imagine with deep longing that Perry Como is my father. I just know that he would sing and soothe me to sleep with “Catch a Falling Star.” So I put that falling star in my pocket.
As my friends are falling in love with the “Jailhouse Rock” of Elvis and the “Turn Me Loose” of Fabian, I enter high school. I am surrounded by happy nuns: Sisters of St. Louis, Sisters of St. Joseph, Sisters of St. Francis. They are all brides of Christ and seem to have no cares, except to see that I learn history, algebra and at least three verses of “The Highwayman.” I work part time in the school library. One day Sister Mary Benedict, the librarian, hands me the novel A Girl of the Limberlost, by Gene Stratton-Porter. “Would you like to have this book? The binding is cracked.”
It is the most beautiful book that I have ever seen. Interspersed between pages of text are scenes from the story. Each old-fashioned photograph has a tissue insert, which makes it seem as if I’m opening a gift as I turn the page. Walking home from school that day, I read the first chapter. “Wherein Elnora Goes to High School and Learns Many Lessons Not Found in Her Books.”
I make my sophomore year sound like Chapter XXII: “Wherein Elnora Reaches a Decision.” Only Elnora never says what I blurt out one night in the middle of mom’s roast beef dinner.
“I’m going to be a nun!”
Little green peas are falling off spoons and the butter dish is levitating. Silence. Then my father says, “And when did you decide this?”
I shrug because it seems as though the thought has always been a little voice in me. Only now I give it reality by saying the words out loud. Then, to myself, in my new teenage voice. I keep repeating, “I will marry Jesus. I will marry Jesus.”
In the midst of my special rejoicing, a miracle happens. My father stops coming to my room at night. And the daily kissing comes to an end. The subject does not come up again, until I receive the letter I am holding in my hand: For many years I’ve known in my heart that you had forgiven me, and while I longed to, I could never bring myself to ask....
I do not hate my father. I think I forgive him, but always with so much sadness. It has been more than 20 years, but still I miss my childhood. I want to know what joy in my youth might have produced in me.
At 54, my father’s body is being eaten by lung cancer and a brain tumor. Once a heavy man, now he is very thin. He can give me nothing but an opportunity to use the grace I am blessed with. “As you forgive others, your heavenly Father will forgive you.” They are such simple words, but how they swell in our soul when we must put them into practice. That’s the teaching I am being asked to learn as I reread the only letter he has ever written to me.
I know there is a theory that says the place in which we are wounded is also the place where we are called to heal others. Perhaps it is true.