Keeping Fed

Betty stood on the snow-patched sidewalk, frozen fists clenched in her threadbare coat pockets, frowning at the new church.

Well, it wasn’t new – it was probably older than her Catholic church – but it was new to her. It looked almost as forbidding as the cathedral, despite its smaller size. Its dark, rough-hewn stone brought to mind woebegone Dickens characters, and its hulking square tower cast a cold shadow over the street. She could imagine the interior: dark wooden pews, stone walls bare aside from a cross (empty, not even a crucifix), no incense, no Mary. They would sing dour hymns (which she wouldn’t know) and endure a boring sermon (which she wouldn’t agree with).

And yet it had to be better than mass.

George had left three weeks ago. The first Sunday, she stayed home, making a plan to keep herself and their – her – four kids fed in between bouts of silent sobbing.

The second Sunday, though, they went to mass. She thought she knew what to expect – after all, everyone knew George was gone, and everyone knew Betty wouldn’t be allowed to take communion. She thought she was prepared.

She wasn’t.

She’d sat rigid in the pew, alone – except for Jim, who stayed seated with her in silent protest – staring straight ahead while her other children and everyone else took the elements. The people she’d known all her life never so much as looked at her as they passed by. Even the crucified wooden Christ seemed to avert his gaze. Unworthiness and mortification crushed her.

Thoughts and possibilities raced through her mind on the walk home: they could try the other Catholic church, they could move East, she could go back and give Reverend Stevens a piece of her mind, they could try a Protestant church, she could never try church again…

That one was the most tempting.

Initially Betty suggested they keep going to mass, but the children unanimously refused.

“If they don’t want you, we don’t want them,” was Jim’s declaration.

“Well, you’ve got to go to church somewhere.”

“No, we don’t.”

A small part of Betty agreed with him, but she told them the family would continue going to church and that was that.

She just needed to find a new church first. Easy as pie.

And here she was, reluctant to even step inside. She knew nothing about Protestant teachings – never mind being barred from communion, what if divorced women weren’t even allowed in the building? What if she had to go up in front of everyone and “confess her sins,” like the annulment tribunal had wanted her to do?

What if they find out you voted for McGovern? a voice hissed in her mind. What will they think of you letting the kids listen to Fleetwood Mac? What kind of mother are you? What kind of Christian?

Hasty footsteps brought her out of her darkening thoughts. A woman in a long plaid coat was hurrying down the sidewalk towards her, her young son trotting alongside.

“Tommy, run in and find Daddy,” the woman said, herding him towards the church. She stopped to catch her breath. Betty self-consciously adjusted her plain knitted hat, noting the woman’s faux-fur-trimmed coat and fashionable stacked-heel boots.

“He had an accident on the way here,” the woman explained with a sigh. “I try to get him to go before we leave, but he just refuses!”

“My youngest was like that,” Betty said. “Don’t worry, it won’t last long.”

“Well, thank goodness – my washing machine won’t be able to take much more!” They both laughed, which almost made Betty cry again. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d smiled, let alone laughed.

“Are you waiting for someone?” the woman asked.

“Oh – no, I’m just –”

“First time here?”

The whole story tumbled over itself in her mind as Betty tried to sort out what to say. Finally, she simply said, “Actually, yes.”

“You want to sit with us? We’re usually in the third pew back on the right.”

“Oh! Thank you, I’ll – I’ll just be a minute.”

The woman hurried inside, leaving Betty staring at the front door.

They’ll find out, the voice whispered. They won’t want you. What church would want you?

The first chords of the organ drifted outside, tones of comfort echoing back to simple childhood and warm Christmases and her children’s baptisms. They would need this, yes – but to her surprise, Betty needed it, too.

She took a deep breath and followed the song inside.


8 thoughts on “Keeping Fed

  1. I’m trusting that I don’t need to know the cast of characters yet. I’m just supposed to focus on the fact that Betty feels out of place in a church that frowns on Fleetwood Mac and divorce. You’ve planted great clues all along to tell me what I need to understand her struggle. Fleetwood Mac and McGovern make me think we’re in the 70s. “Annulment tribunal” makes me think parallel universe (are there such things?). I love “the whole story tumbled over itself in her mind.”

    • Yup, the 70s! An annulment tribunal is (or maybe, hopefully, just was) a real thing in the Catholic church – to the best of my understanding, even if you were legally divorced, you couldn’t be divorced in the Catholic church without going through the annulment process, which could take over a year. This is based on the experience my pastor’s mother had in her church when her husband left her. I was very afraid of painting the entire Catholic church with the same brush so I’m hoping her personal struggle was the main focus here. Thanks for your comment!

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