In which Claire and Emma receive a visitor
Saturday afternoon found Claire sitting in her bed, laptop in her lap, finishing the next day’s sermon. Emma was in the kitchen, trying to figure out the recipe for a dessert they’d had at Cinghiale the night before. She thought it might be good to take to Trystene and Robbie’s on Friday.
The doorbell rang.
“Ems ? Can you get it? Rex is snuggled up with me and I can’t move.”
“Nice excuse, Morag.”
Claire heard Emma open the front door, and then squeal.
“Auntie Martha! Oh my gosh, I can’t believe it’s you! Did you and Mom plan a surprise? Oh my gosh! I am so glad to see you! How long are you staying? Please tell me you’re staying with us! Rex, down! This is our dog, Rex. He loves you already. Rexie, down!”
“Hi, sweetie! Are you ever a sight for sore eyes! Your mom didn’t know anything about this – it’s my big surprise! I hope to stay with you guys a couple of nights, if that’s okay. Where is your mom anyway?”
“Mom! You’ll never guess who’s here!”
As if I can’t hear anything, Claire thought. I guess I should have listened to Martha’s voicemail.
“Martha – this is a surprise.”
“Hi, doll. Yeah, well, I left you a message.”
“Did you? I guess I forgot to listen to it.”
Emma watched her mother and her mother’s best friend engage in a strange and strangled conversation. “Um, I’m in the middle of cooking something and I’m going to go back to the kitchen. I’ll probably be there for a while. And I’ll be running the mixer so I won’t be able to hear anything. Like, if you needed me or something.”
Claire shot Emma a grateful look and watched her go to the kitchen, then turned to Martha.
“Really? You just show up on my doorstep with my daughter standing right there? I haven’t said a word to her. Thank you so much for putting me in this position.”
“Listen, Claire, I will be in town for a few days, and I can stay at a hotel if you would prefer. I miss you. I miss Emma. And you and I are overdue for a long conversation.”
In the course of the next ten seconds, Claire’s mind went into overdrive. There’s a part of me that never wants to see Martha again. There’s a part of me that wants to scream at her and another that wants to hear everything she has to say. I do not want to take her away from Emma, who adores her and needs an adult woman like Martha in her life. I hate her. I love her. I am furious with her.
I have to forgive her. I have to.
“Okay, you can stay here. The pull-out couch in the living room is the best we can offer.”
“Thanks, Claire. I promise I will be as honest as I can be with you.”
“That would be a nice change. I need about fifteen minutes more on my sermon. Why don’t you go into the kitchen and catch up with Emma for a bit.”
Claire returned to her office/bed and worked on the last paragraph of the Beatitudes sermon.
The beatitudes are as revolutionary today as they were when Jesus spoke them two thousand years ago, and in hearing them again, we are invited to become rebels for God. So I challenge all of us to live by the beatitudes. Pick one, and every day, live by those words. Be a peacemaker on the playground, at the office, around the dinner table. Pass the salt, light the candles, and be the word Jesus utters this day.
Meh, good enough, Claire thought. Now to go practice what I preach.
“What are you two up to?”
“I was telling Auntie Martha about Cinghiale and the dessert we had there.”
“Oh, I think you’ll get to try it once Emma figures out the recipe.”
Martha, true to form, brought a great bottle of wine that paired perfectly with the stew Claire had put in the slow cooker that morning. As the three ate dinner, Claire’s fury melted away and her longing to talk to her best friend grew.
“Hey Mom? Marsala invited me over to watch a movie. I know it’s kinda late, but can I go? I promise I’ll be home by midnight.”
“That’s fine. Just text me when you leave her house.”
“Deal. Bye. Bye, Auntie Martha. I’m so psyched you’re here!”
The door clicked close, and Martha turned to Claire. “Do you want to talk now or do the dishes first?”
“Let’s do the dishes. I suspect that once we start talking we won’t stop till Emma gets home.”
“She seems really good. God, she’s a great kid.”
“I know. Most days I just try not to screw things up.”
“But you will, you know.”
“Yes, I know. And then I’ll send her to live with you.”
“So you’ve forgiven me?”
“Not entirely. But I’m working on it, because Jesus told me I have to.”
The wine glasses were drying on the counter and the dishwasher was humming. Rex had settled himself into Claire’s lap, and Martha began.
“Claire, the first thing I want you to know is that it was a happy accident that we met at that yoga class and became friends. I really do work at the State Department, and my job informs my work with the Saints of Francis, but the two are distinct things. I had nothing to do with your getting the job at St. Rahab’s – again, it was a happy coincidence.
“But yes, I knew that you were coming to serve a church that is one of our hubs. And Alice did ask me about you, once she found out we were friends. I’ve known Alice and Bill Carr and Sandy for about ten years. Frank is new to the group.
“And Toledo. Oh, Toledo. Before I moved to Minneapolis, Toledo and I were engaged. Tom – that’s what his close friends call him – Tom and I met in D.C. We started dating, and we fell in love, and we moved in together. We agreed we wanted to get married, but the reality of the demands of our jobs and of the Saints was too much. Neither of us was willing to quit, and I was going to be transferred, and he wasn’t willing to move and I wasn’t willing to stay where I was, so we ended things. But he is a really, really great guy. If I were to be perfectly honest, I would say there’s a part of me that’s still in love with him. But the fates have something else in mind, I guess. You weren’t supposed to find out any of this.”
“But I did.”
“Yes, you did, and now we all have to figure out what to do next. Have you made any decisions?”
“I think you should talk to Tom.”
“We’ll see about that. Here’s the thing, Martha: you all say you are doing all this good in the world, but you are hurting people along the way. You’re lying to them. You lied to me, your best friend. How do you reconcile that? ‘Cause it seems to me you’re all hypocrites. How many secretaries at St. Rahab’s were forced to quit because of your little bulletin pranks? Those women needed those jobs.”
“Does it help to know that we were part of them finding new jobs?”
“A tiny bit. But really, it’s the pretense of the whole thing. Inedible Prune Drop cookies? The church tunnels? Toledo’s accent? What the hell is that all about?”
“I know there’s a lot to explain and it’s going to take a while. Part of the pretense, as you call it, is our way of dealing with really hard and tragic and frustrating work. We help people who are at the end of their rope. Sometimes they let go, and we are left feeling useless and incompetent. Sometimes we fail. The silly stuff is just a way to lighten the load. I know it’s not much of an excuse. But there it is.”
Claire understood more than she wanted to admit. In the first church she served she was an associate pastor, and her colleague had a wicked sense of humor. The church also housed an AIDS clinic in Sunday School rooms that hadn’t been used in decades. The pastors were the de facto chaplains to the patients there, and the work was often heartbreaking.
Because there was an AIDS clinic on the premises, there were free condoms in every bathroom. (That had been an interesting discussion in the church council.) One year Claire came back from vacation and hanging from her ceiling were dozens of condom balloons, a festive – and safe – welcome back. It would have been funnier if the condoms hadn’t been pre-lubricated.
Claire understood that some tension needed to be cut with a knife (or popped like a condom balloon.)
Their conversation went on until Claire’s phone chimed and Emma texted that she was on her way home. Claire and Martha made up the folding bed, greeted Emma and said goodnight. Claire told Martha they would talk more after church.
“Wait a second. Is there a meeting tomorrow?”
“Yes, but just of the core group. I promise the bulletins will be fine and there will be no Prune Drop cookies.”
“Okay. Well, goodnight.”
“Goodnight, Claire. I do love you, you know.”
“I know. Good night.”