I always attended Parent’s Club but I never volunteered because I’m not all that organized. I could never understand those women who volunteered in the classroom, ran the rummage sale and baked cookies for the fundraisers. If one of my five daughters didn’t bake we would never have had desserts.
So there I was sitting in the back row. The girls’ classes get points if a parent shows up, and the girls pushed me out the door every third Wednesday. So in a way, I blame them for what happened. The president said that Father Leahy wanted someone in the Parent’s Club to be charge of the parish census. I was thinking about my middle daughter, Susan, and wondering if she had found her shoes. Susan is a lot like me when it comes to remembering things. That’s when I heard my name.
“I think Jean Shepherd would be a good choice as chairperson of the parish census."
The president said, “Jean, could you do it? This is not a hard job. I’ll help you. Everyone will help you.”
She was talking to me. I said, and I remember this clearly, ”No, I can’t do that, I don’t have time.”
Someone said, “If everyone pitches in it won’t take more than 15 minutes. Everyone can spare 15 minutes, don’t you agree?”
The next thing I knew I was in charge and people were congratulating me. On Sunday my name was on the front page of the bulletin right along with the priests, the deacon and the janitor. Father Leahy, who had never called me, rang up to say how delighted he was that I was in charge.
But there was one person who was dubious — my husband Sean. Sean is an accountant, so he believes that rules are good and the more the better. In our house he does the ironing (ironing has definite rules), shops for groceries (there are apparently plenty of rules for groceries), and calls my mother on her birthday and hands me the phone.
When I told him about the census he looked at me with a stare of total disbelief.
“The parish census? You are in charge of the census? Do you have any idea what the rules are for taking a census?”
I told him there was nothing to it and people would help. I threw in about it only taking 15 minutes.
He stared at me, “15 minutes! Who said that?”
“You don’t have to worry, I’m not going to ask for your help. It doesn’t have to be done until Easter and it is only September now.”
I had a plan. All I had to do was put a notice in the bulletin and ask people to come to a meeting. But I would have to do it after Christmas when I had more time. Then it snowed in January, and that’s not a good time to ask people to come to a meeting.
In early February I received my second call from Father Leahy. “How are you doing with the census?”
“Fine, I have a plan. I’ll be bringing an announcement by for the bulletin.”
On Ash Wednesday he traced a charcoal cross on my forehead and said, “Remember man that thou are dust…and wait for me after mass.”
I did wait, but the baby was crying and someone else had to go to the bathroom so I left before Father showed up. The phone was ringing when I came in the door. “It is six weeks until Easter.” He sounded crabby.
“I know that, Father, but it is only going to take 15 minutes.”
“The parish census.”
“Jean, have you thought this through? You need to divide up the parish into areas. You have to get a chairperson for each area and they need to get workers. You have to distribute forms…” His voice was rising.
I hadn’t realized all this but I was still counting on everyone. “Why don’t you put a notice in the bulletin and ask for everyone to come to a meeting on Friday after the Stations.”
He started to hiccup. He couldn’t stop. “I’ll call you later, hic-cup.”
I don’t know why, but the notice was not in the bulletin nor was my name on the cover any longer. But here is what happened. Father Leahy, Father Leo (the old one), Father Phil (the young one), The Parent’s Club president, Charlotte, and her mother divided up the parish without me even having to be there. I heard they went to all the houses by themselves and finished the Parish Census before Holy Week.
It was all done, and I had really not spent fifteen minutes. I told this to Sean who laughed so hard tears ran down his face.
But truth be told, I had really botched up the job of taking the Parish Census. After that I avoided Father Leahy, Charlotte, and Charlotte’s mother. I refused to go to Parent’s Club, so the girls pushed Sean out the door every third Wednesday instead.
But the census had been an interesting experience with my name on the front of the bulletin and all, and I decided I would like to broaden my horizons. I found Sean at the ironing board. “I think I’ll take a writing class.”
“A class. You know. Go to school and learn to be a writer.”
He almost dropped the iron, “Jean, you don’t even write letters.”
“I have to begin somewhere.” And then I told him the truth. “I haven’t said anything to you, but I feel really humiliated about my part of the census. I know it turned out wrong.”
There was a strange expression on Sean’s face. His eyes got all squinty and his facial muscles twitched but he didn’t say anything, so I continued with my confession-of-sorts. “What I was thinking was that if I could write something and become really famous then I would not be ashamed of the census anymore.”
He put the iron down and hung up his shirt even though it was only half-ironed. “A writing class,” was all he said.
The second week of writing class the teacher brought a surprise visitor. Mr. Anderson from “The Times Sunday Magazine.” He told us what he was most interested in was stories of famous people. If any of us would get him a good story he would publish it.
I thought about it all night and in the morning I woke Sean. “The bishop.”
“What are you talking about?”
Mr. Anderson said that if we will write a story about a famous person he would publish it.”
Sean sat straight up in bed. “How can you do that?” He nailed his words as if they were boards on a fence. ”You don’t know how to write. You don’t know anything about the bishop and besides, he’s not famous.”
I waited until 9:00 a.m. to ring the bishop’s office. I told the receptionist that I was Jean Shepherd on assignment from “The Times” and I wanted to do a feature on the bishop. She switched me to the parochial vicar, and just like that I was given an appointment for the following Wednesday at 10:00 a.m. I told this to Sean who stared straight ahead as if my words had not registered.
On Wednesday, after the babysitter arrived, I put on my Easter suit, my heels, picked up my clipboard with all the questions the writing class had suggested, got my purse and walked to the bus stop. All I had in my wallet was two bus tokens for coming and going, but I only planned to be at the bishop’s office for an hour.
The parochial vicar said, “This is Mrs. Shepherd from The Times.” The bishop stood up and shook my hand. The parochial vicar pulled out my chair. A nun brought us coffee. There were a lot of interruptions, and then the nun came in and told the bishop that he needed to attend a meeting. He said to me, “Would you like to come? You can see some of our inner workings.” It was a long meeting, and I grew apprehensive. I’d been there for two hours and my questions were far from answered.
When the meeting ended the bishop said, “Let’s break for lunch.” I had no idea what I was supposed to do. Did he go off by himself and eat alone? Would I be invited to eat with him? While I was trying to figure this out he said, “My kitchen is completely torn up this week and I’m eating at the cafeteria across the street, do you mind?”
“That would be fine.”
Should he be my guest? Actually he should be the magazine’s guest, but of course that was out since “The Times” had not exactly sent me there. Maybe he was inviting me to be his guest. I decided to brave it out.
In the cafeteria line I stood at the cashier’s and waited until the bishop caught up. Then I had to say, “You have to buy my lunch, I don’t seem to have any money.” I was not embarrassed. I was numb.
“My pleasure,” he said.
At home Sean asked, “How did it go?”
The bishop bought my lunch in a cafeteria.”
“I didn’t bring any money.”
He put his hand over his mouth. He sounded like he was strangling. His eyes filled with tears. He said absolutely nothing.
I stayed up all night and wrote the article in long-hand. It was 4000 words. Everything the Bishop said was so interesting, so I had no trouble writing it. I read it to the class the following evening. They hated it. “Boring. Way too long.” I rewrote it over and over before the class approved it. All the time I was working over it I had this voice in the back of my mind telling me this was really going to make up for the census.
My friend Doris said she would type it if I would do her ironing. Sean looked incredulous. “You are going to Doris’s house to iron?”
“I have to. I don’t know how to type.”
“That isn’t what I mean. You don’t know how to iron.”
Doris typed the article and I sent it off to the bishop’s office for his approval. After two weeks of watching for it in the mail I called to see if I might get it back. The parochial vicar cleared his throat. “Uh, Mrs. Shepherd, “The Times” doesn’t seem to know who you are.” So I explained about the class and everything.
I think he said, “Good grief.”
When I hung up I knew my career as a writer had ended. I knew the census would always hang over my head. I knew Sean was right to have no faith in me. The article was returned to me two days later.
When I opened the envelope I could hardly believe my eyes. The article was approved! The bishop’s staff had made twenty-seven changes in it, but it was approved. “The Times” ran a two-page spread with pictures. I received $50 and knew I’d found my true calling as a writer.
But there was one other problem. My oldest daughter, Mary Therese, was going to be confirmed, and I simply could not face the bishop. I’d gone to his office on false pretenses, he’d had to buy my lunch and rewrite my story. I would just have to avoid him the way I avoided Father Leahy. At the reception I stayed in the corner behind the piano. “What are you doing here in the shadows?” Sean wanted to know.
“Please get me some punch,” I said. “I’m happy here.”
Then my worst fears were upon me. From across the hall I saw the bishop and Father Leahy coming towards me and I was stuck in the corner with no escape. With a sense of dread I knew what would happen. Excommunication. All because of the Parish Census. I stood there like the criminal I was.
The bishop held out his hand. “The article turned out well, don’t you think?” He turned to Father Leahy,” You must be surprised by the talent of this lady.”
“I certainly am,” Father answered. He even gave me a smile.