Last Wednesday was a beautiful day. There was a bright blue sky with just enough fluffy white clouds, the sun shining like spring and very warm for January. I walked into the church and for that one second, it was a typical Wednesday Mass at Nine AM.
Except it wasn’t.
The usher said, ‘good morning,’ and handed me the program: Celebration of Christian Burial. I’d been to many of these in the last year or so from attending the regular morning masses, but this one was different. On this one, I saw my friend’s name and with a long breath I took one step from the hum of the gathering space into the solemnity of the church itself and stopped short.
There, in Shirley’s seat was her red scarf and red wool hat. I’d seen her wear it at least a dozen times in the time I’ve known her and it took a moment to realize that it wasn’t her sitting in her usual seat. Someone had set up the display on a table and with the scarf and hat they included a rose and a rosary and adjacent to it was a floor candle just in front of ‘her’ pew.
I was quickly admonished for not doing so immediately, but I was expected to sit in my usual seat, which happened to be directly behind hers. The last thing I wanted was the first thing I felt at the start of my church visits: people watching me. I wasn’t family, but at the daily 9am Mass, Shirley and I always sat together and walked out together with two other women and I uncomfortably felt as though we were being watched.
‘My’ seat had been there since Easter 2012 when I began to attend the daily Mass. I either sat immediately behind Shirley or two seats behind her, depending on who got there first. Eventually, the other two ladies who alternated with me for that seat joined me in the one pew.
It was kind of funny. No one in the Mass really knew me, but they all knew that I was part of this foursome, an odd group if ever there was one.
I picked my seat originally because of Shirley.
The first time I entered the church, I did it almost the same way I did last Wednesday: haltingly, unsure, would anyone look at me? Gee, I hoped not. But after so many steps, there is that point of no going back, even for the anxious.
I walked in on that first spring morning, and tried to look around without looking around, and immediately took notice of Shirley’s jacket. It was a black jacket and so the muted multi-colored embroidery of leaves and flowers and stems stood out against the dark wooden pew. She was wearing a pale straw cap, not quite a pill box but not quite a cabby’s cap either. I would find that she always wore a hat, and when she didn’t, she felt that she should have been. If not a hat, then a scarf for over her head. The blue paisley one went with her pale blue raincoat. She was always put together and I envied her scarves and necklaces, gifts from her daughter.
But more than that, she was lovely. Warm and welcoming and really joyful with so much faith that it seemed easy to share and as much faith that I gained on my own, I accepted the faith offered to me by my friends, Lorraine, Arlene and especially Shirley, my first church friend.
I sat behind her that first time, and said nothing.
When she stood, I stood.
When she bowed her head, I bowed my head.
When the priest said, “Peace be with you,” and she reached her hand out to me, I clasped her hand and repeated the words rotely. Her hands were warm and it was that touch, the memory of that light handshake in the morning that got me through the rest of the day.
Every morning she would already be there. I began to recognize her car, parked in the same space in front of the church. I’d walk in, expecting to see her, and was never disappointed. I’d walk slowly down the center aisle, hoping no one would notice me, and slide in behind her, slowly moving more and more to the left so that when she turned her head she might see me.
I watched her lips move quietly, near silent as her fingers worked one bead and then the next as she said the rosary. When she finished, she dropped them gently into a little change purse-shaped pouch, snapped it closed and slipped it into her handbag, almost immediately taking out her glasses to read the Missalette, which would come later in the Mass.
After a time, when she turned to put the rosary away, she would look at me and smile, and say ‘good morning’ to me. I would respond in kind. I never said good morning before that, but church brought out the good morning in me, and each Mass was a good morning. It kept me going when I needed to keep going.
I began to ask Shirley questions about things around the church. Why were some lights in the large cross certain colors while others were not? Why is that cloth red today when it was green yesterday? I don’t remember most of the questions; there were several, and Shirley always answered them. We chatted every day. We walked out together, often all the way to her car and I’d wait until her door was closed and the engine started.
She talked about her family often – her daughter in California, her son in Florida. My family is from Long Island, and she mentioned that her brother also lived there, not far from where I had grown up. I found out that her other daughter was murdered – a victim of domestic violence. When she told me about her, I told her about my friend Brittany who had just been murdered in 2011. The first anniversary was coming up, and was actually part of the reasons I had begun visiting the church in the first place.
She was always happy to see me, and when I missed a day, she hugged me and told me that she missed seeing me. She made a point of turning around, smiling and saying hello. More often than anything else, we talked about the weather and Father Jerry’s humor in the morning, the four of us often laughing quietly and quite possibly rolling our eyes at times.
I’ve always sat behind her. How will I know where to sit now?