Bernard lived with his aunt, a widow without children, for the spring semester of the third grade. He was familiar with his aunt’s home where she held Christmas Eve parties late after Midnight Mass. His parents enrolled him in the nearby parish school.
His aunt would send him on errands to the grocer. On his first errand he brought back a loaf of bread, among other items as requested, and his aunt frowned. “See how you’ve pressed this loaf? It is ruined. How can I toast it? You think my money grows on trees! You’re selfish!” On future errands he paid special attention to the bread.
Realizing Bernard didn’t have a rosary, his aunt gave him one. She pointed out the five sets of ten beads for the Hail Marys separated by a bead for the Our Father. She explained the three sets of five mysteries that one had to think about when reciting the prayers. Although eager to learn and fascinated with the beads’ magic, Bernard was confused. He had more questions than his aunt had time for. One night he walked into her bedroom holding the rosary. “I don’t know if I skipped one. My fingers slipped. Does it count? Do I have to start over?” She told him to go back to bed and not bother her. The next day he was sent to the rectory after school.
In the rectory Bernard was told that his aunt wanted the priest to talk to him about “scruples”. Bernard was embarrassed and he didn’t remember what the priest said, but this was his first realization that the magic was very deep. Over the decades he came to understand that it was not just Catholic or Buddhist rosaries or Hindu mantras. The magic included every single word humans said or even thought to each other. He looked back on that five-minute visit with a parish priest as a life-changing miracle.
After that semester, his parents took him back to his old school. The parties at his aunt’s stopped. In a few years, his aunt moved to a drier climate for her health. He did not see her again, except unexpectedly once many years later when Bernard rented a house with five other graduate students.
As Bernard was heading toward the kitchen, he saw the top half of his aunt appear about ten feet in front of him. She was walking away as she turned to him. Her words appeared in his mind: “I’m sorry.” What could she be sorry for? Bernard remembered the deformed bread. He mentally thought, “It’s OK.” She vanished.
Three days after seeing his aunt, his mother called him. She told him his aunt died a few days ago. They were just informed. His aunt did not want his father to drive the distance to the funeral and what little she had she left to the church.
Bernard told his mother that his aunt appeared to him. He didn’t tell her about his aunt’s message. He never told his parents about that damaged loaf of bread and he didn’t want them to think badly of her now. Simply saying he saw a ghost would be enough of a shock and maybe worth a joke the next time they met. He didn’t mind. He was too old to be sent to the priest.
I met Bernard when he was retired living in a high-rise condo. Looking out the window at a party, we saw two pigeons playing like children over the tops of houses as the sun set deepening the shadows. They reminded him of his father and his aunt, now both deceased. He found it hard to imagine either of them as children although now he had no problem imagining them as birds. It occurred to Bernard that maybe his aunt’s message wasn’t for him but for his father, her brother, and he failed in his task that day to pick up the phone and tell his dad that he should give his sister a call.
After hearing this story from Bernard, I teased him. “Hey! Did all this really happen?” He thought for a while and said, “I suppose this story is a mixture of truth and fiction. The part I can’t forget, and the part you probably found unbelievable, is the part that actually happened. The rest, the parts you probably found believable enough, are the parts I can’t remember so well. It is as close to the truth as I know but telling the full truth about anything is thankfully impossible and unnecessary.”
We placed our palms upon the casket’s lid.
He used a marker tracing out a place
Where we could write some parting words. We did
The best we could while scrambling for some grace
To honor with farewell one so well-hid.
What words we wrote no readers need to face.
Eventually our hearts will come around
Since all’s still good above and underground.
Linked to dVerse Poetics hosted by Paul with prompt “underground”.
Photo: “Indoor Plant” by the author