You Lead. I’ll Follow – By Grace Gannon Rudolph
Let’s get this straight before I begin.
I no longer belong to an organized church. I was raised a Catholic but even as a kid I never felt like one. However, I always thought that God was my real father. My real father, the one who paid the bills, mowed the lawn in summer, shoveled the sidewalk in winter, and fooled around a lot, divorced my mother when I was a child. I knew mom was okay but, according to Sister Mary Claire my third grade teacher, dad was doomed to the bottomless pits of hell, not because he was divorced but because he had remarried. He remarried three times after divorcing mom. Once would have done it for any ordinary person but dad was not an ordinary person; he was a driven man. He believed in giving any project his all and that, with a little extra effort, things could move forward faster, even if it was a jump start on the road to perdition.
I was not an easy kid after the divorce; temperamental, moody, given to wild mood swings. I was mad at everyone including God. To tell you the truth, I knowingly put the burden of my care and upkeep on God because I felt it was His fault that He let my parents divorce at a time when no ones parents divorced; especially Catholic parents. Catholic parents were supposed to grit their teeth and stick it out through thick and thin, infidelity, misery, and mayhem and offer it up for the conversion of Russia.
Years later, after Russia was converted and my father had died of renal failure, I forgave him and befriended his third wife who was a clone of mom. By then I was a tall, slim, long-legged blond who secretly enjoyed the wolf whistles and cat calls I got as I walked by iron workers on their lunch breaks; hard-hatted men who sat on I-beams on the building going up across the street from the ad agency where I worked. They swung their booted feet back and forth while washing down huge sandwiches their wives had packed in black metal lunch buckets, with bottles of beer. I glanced at them from the corner of my eye and pretended not to notice.
I had a good job as a Secretary/Gal Friday at the agency and had an income that paid for a small one-bedroom apartment in what was then a run down area off Boston’s North End. The apartment had a small black iron balcony that over-looked the harbor and was close enough so that I could walk to work in three-inch heels.
Although I didn’t consider myself a card-carrying Catholic, on my lunch hours, I often stopped by Saint Anthony’s Shrine on my way to or from the shops downtown to rest my feet. The Shrine was a mid-way stop off. The chapel was hushed and dark and I could catch my breath and let my mind wander. Soft wisps of incense, left behind by years of morning Masses, permeated the wood in the pews and the drapes on the confessionals; it clung to my hair and clothes. The calm statues and the flickering ruby red votive candles at the side-altars made my brief visits soothing. I could close my eyes, release my mind, and imagine myself to be a Buddhist monk. In summer it was cool. It was warm in winter. The chapel was a nest of peace, a safe haven for one or two homeless men who slept in the pews towards the back of the church, lulled to sleep by the humming voices of the elderly women dressed in black who half sat, half kneeled towards the front of the chapel whispering prayers as they wove their rosary beads through their gnarled fingers.
Even as an adult I still had my deal going with God. When I said an Our Father I meant it. Actually, it was usually a My Father. I was thirty-three years old and felt genetically programmed to make a doomed marriage so I didn’t ask for a good husband, or for smart, good looking kids. I was realistic. Sometimes I asked for help finding a good pair of heels in Filenes’s Basement; and found them. After reading Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl, I said the prayer and began writing funny notes to my boss in hopes I would dazzle him with my pithy wit and he would let me try my hand at copywriting; it worked.
But one warm spring day unexpectedly, without the prayer, a miracle happened. Hazel, the woman who worked the switch board at the office insisted on setting me up with a blind date. Hazel’s brother Gregory was a pharmacist who had lost his wife to breast cancer two years earlier. He had a five-year-old son named Amos, a split level ranch on the South Shore, a Mustang convertible, and to top it all off he was six-foot-three with green eyes and salt-and-pepper hair.
On our first date we went to a five-star restaurant that over-looked a marina where he moored his small sail boat. The round tables in the restaurant were small, but large enough to accommodate a bowl of pink roses and lilies-of-the-valley. In the soft candle light the crystal and china gleamed and twinkled against the crisp white linen table cloth. I glanced over the right side of the menu, ignoring the left-side, and I thought “I’ll never see this guy again,” then ordered like the Turks were at the gate. Use to having a small glass of wine now and then, I threw discretion to the wind and ordered my first martini. It was a success. I ordered another. We lingered over dessert, ignoring our waiter who, arms crossed over his chest, stood near the kitchen door glaring in our direction. Finally he approached the table, gave us a tight smile and told us through clenched teeth that the kitchen was closed.
We walked for hours that night while Gregory told me about Amos, a little boy who wanted to be Santa Claus when he grew up. Gregory slowly walked beside me with his hands in his pockets and his head down and told me this was a real concern because eventually, when the truth came out, Amos would never trust him again. He was right and I told him so. He stopped in his tracks so fast that I was several paces ahead of him when I realized he wasn’t beside me. I turned and found him staring at me, stuck mute by my lack of empathy. “When I was five-years-old,” I walked back to him and linked my arm through his, “money was tight and mom explained there was no Santa Claus.”
His eyes rounded and after three failed attempts to compose himself he was finally able to say, “When you were only five-years-old? But that’s the end of childhood.”
We began walking together again. “More than that.” I went on to explain that after a long angry argument I finally accepted she was telling me the brutal truth and then I immediately launched a reality check on the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. Each check was met with the same sad shake of her head. It wasn’t until I said, “Then, there isn’t any God. That’s a lie too.”
“What happened then?” Gregory asked.
“I was told to get the pancake turner, spanked, and sent to bed without supper for being fresh.”
Gregory bowed his head again. Occasionally our shoulders touched as we strolled along the cobblestone walk. “That wasn’t very helpful,” he mumbled. At thirty-three I had no contact with children but the two martinis and the soft spring night empowered me. I could solve any problem in the world. I told him exactly how to let Amos down easily and still retain his trust. I don’t remember what I said that night because it was so many years ago.
On our second date Gregory asked me to marry him. On our third date, after Amos, a tow-headed, brown eyed boy with a mischievous grin had been put to bed, I accepted.
Three weeks before Christmas that winter we were snow bound. The tree was up waiting to be decorated, Christmas carols played softly in the background, and a fire snapped and danced in the fireplace. Dusty boxes of ornaments rested on the floor. Gregory was working on a present for me in another part of the house and, while I waited for him to finish, I sat on the couch trying to keep Amos awake so he could help trim the tree. He was already in his red Mickey Mouse pajamas, and I had my arm around his shoulders as I read The Grinch that Stole Christmas. Suddenly, he reached out his hand and covered the page. “Stop!” he said.
“I need to know something.”
“Will yah tell me the truth?”
“Is there a Santa Claus?”
I bent over so that we were face to face and after a long moment I realized that Amos had not blinked. Not once. “Where’s your father?” I asked softly. Amos held his arms out from his sides, palms up, and shrugged. I stood up so quickly the book fell to the floor. “Gregory,” I shouted. “Where are you?”
That was years ago and I still remember it as though it was yesterday. I can still hear Gregory pounding up the stairs from the work shop in the basement, two steps at a time, a saw in his right hand and nearly tripping over the piece of wood he clenched in his left fist. I can still see his eyes wild with fear because of the terror he heard in my voice.
When Amos was six I enrolled him in the local school around the corner from our house. Once he was settled into a routine I decided to get a part-time job as a teller at a nearby bank; mother’s hours. On the day of my interview I packed Amos’ lunch and then walked him to school. On the way home I felt like I might be coming down with the flu. I had to fight back the toast and coffee I had for breakfast that morning each time I felt it pushing its way up my throat. I let myself into the house and, without bothering to close the door, rushed to the bathroom and threw myself on my knees in front of the toilet and began to vomit. Then, my legs so weak I could barely walk, I stumbled in to the front hall, slammed the door, and called to cancel my appointment. By the afternoon I felt well enough to walk to the school to pick up Amos but once I got home I stretched out on the couch and put a cool wash rag on my forehead. I lifted a corner from my forehead when I felt Amos’ presence at the end of the couch. He looked like he was about to cry and shifted from foot to foot. He was wringing his hands and biting the corner of his lower lip. “What is it?” I asked.
“Are you going to die?”
“Of course not.” I opened my arms and Amos curled onto the couch beside me and sobbed.
After what seemed like hours his cries became sniffled and he put his hands on either side of my face. His nose was almost touching mine. I could feel his soft moist breath on my cheek as he said, “Are you telling me the truth?”
Rearing back on one elbow I said, “Of course. Cross my heart and hope to …” Startled, we both looked at each other and then began to laugh.
When Gregory came home that night Amos and I were in the kitchen baking chocolate chip cookies. After sweeping Amos into his arms Gregory came to stand behind me, put his arms around my waist, and kissed my neck. He asked how the interview went. I told him I had rescheduled because I thought I was coming down with the flu. “How do you feel now?” he asked.
“Fine, but lately I feel a little queasy when I first wake up.”
He became very still and said, “Are you sure it’s the flu?”
For a moment I didn’t know what he meant and then I said, “Oh my God. I haven’t had my period in over two months.”
Rachel’s delivery was difficult and long. When I first saw her sweet, small face I began to weep. Not tears for joy but tears of sorrow. Her eyes rolled around like loose marbles inside her head. “My sweet baby,” I said, kissing her forehead. “How will we ever get you married?” The nurses, my doctor, and Gregory exchanged nervous glances.
“What do you mean?” Gregory finally asked.
“Look at her eyes.”
The nurse laughed and lifted the baby into her arms. “Her eyes will be fine,” she said. “You’ve been on quite an adventure, haven’t you, Peanut?” she said, and then to me she said, “This isn’t uncommon. Give her a few minutes and she’ll be fine.” And she was. For years.
Amos was very protective of his sister. He was her teacher, her best friend, her mentor, and defender. Rachel bloomed. A popular child, she excelled in school, starred in sports, and was a gifted watercolorist. The two of us took classes together for years until her junior year in high school. That’s when Rachel began to rebel.
Amos was in college and sharing an apartment with two friends. He worked in a bank during the days while taking evening courses in financial management at Harvard. He was on the fast track to becoming a financial manager at his bank. “And what do you want to be when you grow up, Rachel?” he teased his sister one night as we sat around the dinner table.
“A nun,” she said. After a long silence she looked up from her plate, aware she was the focus of our undivided attention and said, “What?”
“I told you you should have sent her to public schools and not to St. Patrick’s,” Amos said, shaking his head and spooning more lasagna on to his plate.
“Do you think nuns are allowed to smoke?” I asked. Rachel’s smoking was a worry Gregory and I shared, and Rachel denied. While Rachel, fork half-way to her mouth, glared at me I pushed on. I was possessed; unable to stop myself. “I know you keep the ashes and cigarette butts in the bottom of that watercolor box we gave you in the first grade.”
“What were you doing snooping around in my room?” Rachel stood up so quickly her plate would have fallen to the floor if Amos hadn’t reached out to steady it.
“I wasn’t snooping,” I began, but she was already out of sight and stamping up the stairs to her bedroom. After a moment there was a muffled slamming of doors.
I threw my napkin on the table, pushed back my chair, and stood up but Gregory motioned me to sit back down. “This too shall pass,” he said calmly and gave me a reassuring smile. “Can you pass me the salad?”
“Mom, she’s a teenager,” Amos said. “Remember? I went though this too.”
“You never said you were going to become a nun,” I shouted.
Amos shook his head several times, shoveled in a mouthful of lasagna and said, around it, “Yeah, that’s true.”
The next week Rachel began getting mail from a Blessed Heart convent in Pennsylvania. She began leaving her bedroom door open and the washed out watercolor box on her dresser, an open invitation to snoop, along with pamphlets and letters from the convent. When she was accepted into the novitiate as a postulant we felt the best defense was no defense. “She’ll grow out of it,” Gregory said.
“She’ll get homesick and be home in a week,” I said.
“Where’s that paint box?” Amos said.
But she didn’t grow out of if. She received her white veil as a novice and, after seven years, her black veil when she made her final vows. She was sent to teach in the slums of New Orleans and I was almost tempted to go back to Church on a regular basis to pray for her safety. I was heart sick with worry.
I took the subway into Boston on the pretense of treating myself to a shopping spree at Filenes’s but stopped at Saint Anthony’s chapel. It seemed different than I what I remembered. The homeless still slept in the back pews but there were more of them; curled in to the pews, their belongings in black trash bags doing double duty as pillows. The muttered prayers up closer to the altar were drowned out by the mumbled conversations throughout the chapel. The Zen-like peace was gone. The hustle of the city had crept inside and invaded every corner of the chapel. I couldn’t concentrate, I couldn’t pray. I felt adrift; lost. Unable to say the simplest of prayers, ‘You lead. I’ll follow.’
Amos met Lily the year after Rachel moved to New Orleans. Lily was a tall blue eyed, brunette, a recently hired loan officer at the bank. It was love at first sight; not just for Amos, but for me and Gregory as well. She seemed like a part of the family from the first night we met her at a small Argentinean restaurant near Kendall Square. Their wedding in October was joyous celebration that began with a high mass at St Ambrose, her parish church. Her Uncle Ralph, an elderly Franciscan, performed the ceremony and later offered the grace before meals at the hotel reception. Watching them dance the Electric Slide with their friends, bridesmaids, groomsmen, and several aunts, I turned to Gregory and said, “You know what I’m thinking?”
“No. But I know what I’m thinking.”
“I wish Rachel could have been here.”
I covered his hand with mine. I tried to smile but my eyes filled with tears and I could only shake my head in agreement.
When Noah was born two years later I thought he was a gift from God. A perfect baby, he grew into the perfect toddler. His other grandmother and I vied to baby-sit him. He often spent an over-night so Amos and Lily could enjoy the night out without having to pick up a sleepy baby when they got home. One evening, before they left they stopped at the bedroom door and watched. I was kneeling beside Noah as he said his night prayers. He began with his usual, “Dear God – He or She – God bless…” and then began the litany: “mommy, daddy, grandma, grandpa, nana, papa, Zeus (his Siamese cat), Growler and Bing (his Alaskan husky dogs)” and on and on until he began to add Superman, Spiderman, and Wonder Woman. “That’s it,” Lily said, cutting him off and lifting him into bed. She tucked the sheet under his chin. “He’s just stalling.” She kissed him on the forehead and shook her finger at him with a grin.
After they left I sat on the edge of the bed and said, “Next time we’ll wait till they’re gone before you say your night prayers, deal?”
“Deal,” he said.
We slapped our palms together to seal the pact.
We had a special bond, Noah and I. In the fall we raked the leaves in the back yard into a pile and jumped in them; in the winter we went sledding on the hill behind the elementary school; in the spring he chose the flowers and helped me plant my window boxes and, in the summer we fished in the pond behind his house. When we went for rides he would ask me to open the sun roof then he’d put back the passenger’s seat, put on sunglasses, put his arms behind his head and say, “Put on jazz.” At five his heroes were Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and Louie Armstrong.
When he entered high school he seemed to drift away but came back in his junior year when he discovered graphic arts. In his sophomore year he had started his own business, designing web sites for a real estate agency in the mid-West, and a bookstore in Boston. When the checks began arriving I became concerned.
“He’s not into dealing drugs, is he?”
Amos had the company that serviced the bank’s computers do background checks and then met me for lunch. “It’s okay,” he said, “Everything’s legit. When you work over the ‘Net you’re judged by what you do. No one knows he’s a high school computer geek. They just think he’s a genius.”
I enrolled in an evening art class at Bridgewater State College. I had continued to paint over the years and had moved from small impressionistic paintings in pastels and water colors, to large abstract works in oils and acrylics. Gregory had turned the guest bedroom into a studio where I kept my easel, and supplies and my paintings began to cover the walls of our home.
One afternoon Noah stopped by my studio with a flyer from the Erin Art Gallery, a gallery that had recently opened downtown. The gallery was hosting a show and invited artists to submit their work. “Let’s do something together,” Noah said. “You do the background; I’ll lay on a graphic design.” I frowned. “Come on,” he said. “It’ll be fun.”
“What’ll we do?”
“Well, since it’s the Erin Gallery let’s do something Irish.”
“Wouldn’t that be a little obvious?”
“Sure, but, he lowered his voice and push his nose to one side with his forefinger, we’ll ‘make ‘em an offer they can’t refuse.’ And besides,” he laughed, “you always said you wanted to go to Ireland, didn’t you?”
“When I was a little kid you used to talk about it all the time. Have you changed your mind?”
“I think you just made me an offer I can’t refuse.”
After he left I diluted my acrylic paints with water until they were almost transparent and laid a soft wash of emerald green hills on a fresh canvas. I layered in a splash of sea beyond the hills and a drift of clouds in a blue sky up above them. In the lower left corner I brushed in a hint of gray stone walls that I hoped would give the feeling of an edge of a memory close to disappearing.
A few days later I was sitting on the stool in front of the easel trying to decide whether or not to put the work aside and begin something new when I heard Noah come into the room.
“That’s great, Nan,” he said. He leaned against the wall tilting his head from side to side. He held a sheet of Plexiglas in his hands, the same size as my painting.
“It’s blah,” I said, putting down my brush and wiping my hands on my paint spattered apron. I shifted on the stool until I was facing him. He nodded and I felt defensive. “Of course this is just the beginning. It needs something more.” I nodded at the Plexiglas he was holding. “What’s that?” I asked.
“This was our project. Remember?”
“And you bring,” my voice trailed off
“Computer generated magic by a graphic artist that someday you’ll be proud to say, ‘I knew him when.’”
“Humble, too,” I said as he turned the Plexiglas and put it on the easel, a ply over the wash. The photo was of Hannah, his auburn haired Jewish girlfriend. She was facing into the picture on the right side of the painting as though studying the scene. The side of her face was visible and he had used a smudge brush to spill a spray of freckles across her cheek bone. Her hand was raised to her head, her fingers tangled in her windblown hair, a claddah ring visible through the thick curls. The effect was dreamy, impressionistic; yearning. In the lower left hand corner of the painting Noah had digitally remastered a thematic cloud of Irish icons that scrawled across a three-dimensional span of a mossy gray stone wall fence; Celtic crosses, shamrocks, harps, and Ogham, an ancient script he chose to look like graffiti. It fit perfectly over the wall I had painted.
“Isn’t that too much?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
I could see he thought I disapproved because it covered my work until I pointed to a small rectangle almost obscured at the base of the fence. “Isn’t that a business card?” I got closer and studied the card. “It’s yours.”
“It is.” He grinned, “But it’s art. You said so when I first designed it. You said,” he threw his head back and squinted his eyes, “Ah yes, I remember now. You said you wished you were half the artist I was.”
“Are you serious? I said that?” He nodded. “Are you really going to let that stay in?”
“I have good vibes about it,” Noah said.
“Good grief. Next you’ll be telling me you’ve heard the banshee. Noah, you’re half French, half German. Get over yourself.”
I stepped back from the painting and rested my hand against my heart. Tears came to my eyes. “It’s beautiful,” I whispered. I hugged him and then we stood together for a few silent moments looking at the piece. Finally he draped his arm over my shoulder. “What should we call it?” I whispered.
“The Hills of Inishfree,” he whispered back.
“Deal,” I said.
“How’s work going?” I asked.
“Listen, Noah,” I said. “I know you’re an agnostic and I know how you feel about God – you’re not quite sure whether or not He, or She, exists,” Noah gave me an affectionate but cynical grin, “But,” I hurried on, “Why don’t you try the prayer I use. It’s powerful. Doors always open.” He tilted his head, and I could see by his smile that he was humoring me by not fleeing out the door. Undaunted I hurried on, “The prayer goes like this: ‘You lead. I’ll follow.’ Try it.” He shook his head and turned to go. “Okay,” I called after him. “I’ll say it for you but the doors will open for me and God’ll just throw you a crumb.” Without turning around, he waved good-bye and disappeared.
The following Friday we put the piece in a two-inch riser casing and Noah took it, along with a small watercolor seascape of Good Harbor beach, to the gallery.
The following Monday I got a call from the owner of the gallery; someone had bought the watercolor.
The following Wednesday I got a call from Hans Waite, the curator of the Boston Art Museum. The museum was mounting an exhibit of regional artists and wanted to include The Hills of Inishfree. “By the way,” he said, “Could you give me the contact information for the graphic artist?” I told him about the business card in the corner of the painting and he laughed.
“Can I ask why you want to contact him?”
“We’d like him to do a workshop during the exhibit.”
After I hung up I immediately speed dialed Noah’s cell phone. “Hey, Noah,” I said, “You know that prayer I told you about?”
“Well God threw good luck my way and what might, or might not be, a crumb to you.” I could hear him chuckle and could picture
Author’s Note: You Lead. I’ll Follow was written by Sister Mary James who came to the United States from Ireland at the age of 17 to join the Sisters of the Blessed Heart. Upon her death at age 82 Sister James’ Hospice nurse, Lily Hummer, submitted the short story to the Thomas Literary Journal where it appeared in the spring, 2000 issue.