St. Mel’s Church is indeed in Fair Oaks, California. I have, however, improvised the names of the priests and nuns in the story below – not to protect their innocence, never in dispute, but because I frankly cannot remember them.
Sometime in the early 1960s, which seems in retrospect such an innocent time, probably because we still had Camelot ensconced in the White House, my husband said he wanted a divorce.
We had a ranch house, children, an Edsel and various pets. A divorce seemed like more trouble than our troubled marriage. Tom couldn’t find a place to rent that didn’t have soiled carpets, and my anxiety attacks became nonstop. So we settled on a period of detente, and to deliver us from the locus of our discontent, Tom planned a family trip to Europe and, characteristically, took control of the itinerary: first stop Ireland. We would fly to Shannon on Aer Lingus, thus starting our Irish experience en avion.
Air travel was so primitively, gloriously simple then. A friend put us on our plane shortly before departure, and everyone except me headed for window seats. I sit on the aisle preferring to be the inconvenienced one rather than the inconveniencer for, say, trips to the bathroom. We were in the configuration of three seats, next to me a Catholic priest and daughter Martha at the window.
I believe the kids and I were the only non-smokers on the plane. The pilot who came back at intervals to jolly-us-up was smoking and the attendants, then of course stewardesses, smoked discreetly in the back. The priest offered me an unfiltered Camel before lighting up. I declined with a “No, thank you,” having always felt that “I don’t smoke” sounded judgmental.
“So where are you going?” he asked.
“We’re touring Ireland for starters,” I replied, indicating the children and Tom, now chatting with one of the attractive stewardesses. The priest showed no surprise at our apparent lack of familial cohesion.
“That’s all very well,” he said, “but you can make a lifetime of Ireland alone. I myself am going home to die.” I must have seemed alarmed because he quickly added, “In God’s own sweet time.”
He looked hale, hearty in his early 80s, I thought. There was an awkward pause in which he lit another cigarette and ordered a drink. Martha wanted root beer and I asked for a cup of consommé. “Bring her a Bovril,” he interjected. “You know it?” As a reader of British and Irish writers, I “knew” it but had never tasted it. “Armies have subsisted on it,” he reassured me.
He had been a parish priest in Minneapolis, and like many Irish priests and nuns who were part of the great hejira to the United States, he preferred to return to the mother country to spend his last years.
We talked of Irish poets; he disliked the then wildly popular Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. When he asked where we were from, I simply said “California,” always having considered it a nation state.
“Ah,” he said gleefully, “then you know my sister!”
“Well, it is a big state … ”
“So, what part of California?”
“You know her then!”
“It’s still a big …”
“And where in Northern California?”
“You see, I’m right, you know her.”
“But still,” I demurred.
“So is it Fair Oaks?” he asked.
“Well, that’s close. We’re right next door.”
“Aha, I told you. She is at St. Mel’s. I call her Chaucer’s Prioress and she hates it, so don’t you. Just ask for Sister Mary Peter at the convent, or maybe at the school where she’s the principal. Brilliant, it’s settled and you’ll go,” he enthused. I wondered if he would first permit a detour through Europe.
On our return to California, a less dysfunctional family, the furthest thought from my mind was Sister Mary Peter. Kennedy had been killed. We’d been stopped at various places on our trip by people wanting to express their enthusiasm for the glamorous occupants of the White House. Martha’s red patent leather shoes and the impractical beige of our raincoats branded us as American tourists. Now our country was plunged in grief, but one day shortly before Christmas, an errand took me past St. Mel’s, and my promise to the priest weighed on my conscience. I phoned the church convent and of course she answered.
“You sat next to Francis, you poor dear. He’s a nonstop talker. My telephone bill is a scandal.”
“How is he?” I asked.
“Alive,” she laughed. “You know his intention then, but our family is hard to bring down. So, when are you coming to take tea and talk with us?” We set a date but then —
“You know Kohler’s pork store?”
“Well, yes,” I said, wondering at this non sequitur.
“Bring us some bratwurst and then we’ll have a proper tea.”
“How many do you want?” It was apparent that Sister Mary Peter was “She-who-must-be-obeyed.”
“I should think a dozen will do it,” and she hung up.
Tea at the convent was indeed proper. Belleek china, sugar lumps, cream, scones and the aroma of the cooking bratwurst brought priests and nuns out of the woodwork.
“I could smell those brats clear in the parking lot,” Father Fagothy said.
I was quizzed about my absence at Mass. I chose the coward’s way and said I was from St. John’s Parish. A verisimilitude because although we live within the geographical confines of St. John’s Parish, I am a secular Jew. I did not, however, want to inject schismatics into what was a delightful reprise of my Irish experience.
I left with the vague promise to return. I didn’t. I heard some years later that Sister Mary Peter and St. Mel’s other nuns had joined the great repatriation of Irish-born nuns. As for Ireland, I cannot think of a better place, in God’s own sweet time, to be finally brought down.