A Short Story

WHY CATHOLICS ARE SO OBSESSED WITH SEX A Short Story “Why is it,” said Jessica, my long-time friend, a non-observant Church of Scotland member, “that the Catholic Church won’t just, er, enter the modern era? Why are they so obsessed with sex?” Um, I thought, here we go. We were sitting in a coffee place … Read more

Silverstream Priory

St Benedict’s Sons in Ireland Dom Mark Daniel Kirby, 62, was born and raised in Connecticut. Today, he is the Prior of a newly-established Benedictine monastery in Stamullen, Ireland. The Monastery of Our Lady of the Cenacle has an amazing vocations problem: they have far too many young monks (plus interested young men) for their … Read more

Dale Ahlquist Visits the Irish

Chesterton the Irishman “Most Irish consider G.K. Chesterton to be an Irishman and George Bernard Shaw to be an Englishman.” Dale Ahlquist, the intrepid head of the American Chesterton Society, visited Dublin to talk with the Chestertonians there about their favorite author. Here, Dale tells Regina Magazine’s Tamara Isabell about his trip, the Irish, and … Read more

Catholic Book Review – Finding Grace

‘Finding Grace’ in 1970s America by Dan Flaherty Finding Grace presents a penetrating retrospective on the radical changes of a turbulent eight-year span in America between 1972 and 1980. It tells the tale of a girl’s striving for sanctity as she comes of age during a time of revolutionary changes in the Church and in … Read more

“Sister Will See You Now”

by Beverly De Soto

“Sister will see you now,” came the dreaded voice of the School Secretary.

I stood up and swallowed hard. Heart pounding. Sick stomach. Weak knees.

I was six years old, and I was in a lot of trouble.

The Secretary tried to make me feel better by smiling kindly at me, but I was beyond comfort. I set my face grimly for the door of the Principal’s office.

To my eyes, Sister Mary Ruth was immensely old. She was also the Most Important Person I had ever met. Sister regarded me soberly from behind her large oaken desk. She wore a majestic Dominican habit, with huge bell-like sleeves. Her eyes were a watery blue through her wire-frame glasses as she leaned forward and folded her veined hands carefully.

“You were quite late to school this morning,” she stated flatly. “About an hour late.”

I nodded, and swallowed again. I thought hard for some likely explanation for this.

“Y-yes,” I began, nodding. “I’m really sorry, Sister.”

She nodded gravely.

“Do you want to tell me what happened?”

Actually, I did not want to tell her anything. The truth simply could not be told.

“Your mother called. She was upset,” she said carefully. Her blue eyes were watching me closely.

My alarm heightened. At the mention of my mother, hot tears burned my eyes. What could I tell Sister that would get me off the hook?

“I-I lost my rosary beads,” I confessed, finally. “It was r-really stupid of me.”

Sister nodded solemnly.

“You lost your rosaries…so what happened then?”

I nodded again, trying to control myself. But the hot tears started running down my face, unbidden. She pushed a box of Kleenex across her desk to me. I took one and blew my nose.

“Why were you late this morning?” she asked again, a little softer.

I shook my head, unable to speak. The tears were flowing freely now, sliding down my face in big rivulets.

“Now, now,” she said, and stood up. She walked around her desk and put a bony hand on my shoulder. She smelt of soap, and linen.

This was too much. I sobbed aloud, unable to restrain myself.

Sister opened the door and asked the Secretary to come in. They both stood over me, regarding me thoughtfully.

“Honey,” the Secretary said, crouching down beside me. “Tell Sister what happened.”

I had lost my rosary beads. This was the third time, too. I was wearing them knotted around my belt loop, in imitation of the Sister, like the other girls in my first grade class. But I wasn’t very good at tying knots, and the beads must have slipped off on the bus ride home.

At 7:30 the next morning, I couldn’t find them. This set my mother off. I don’t remember much of what happened next, only that she was screaming at me, and beating me wildly on my head and shoulders with a wooden spoon. I ran madly from room to room, trying to escape her. Finally I crouched down hopelessly in a corner in a vain attempt to ward off her stinging blows. She broke the spoon on my back, and when she retreated to look for another weapon, I fled.

In a cold panic, I raced down the street to the bus stop, only to see the bus pulling away. Too frightened to go home, I decided to walk to school, a mile and a half away. To be sure, I was scared to walk all that way alone, but I was more scared to return home to my mother’s certain fury.

So that’s how I came to be so late to school. And that’s why I was sent to the Principal’s office. But I didn’t tell any of this to Sister Mary Ruth.

“Your mother was worried about you,” she ventured, handing me another Kleenex. I shook my head, deeply humiliated. None of what had happened could be explained to other people, especially important people like Sister.

“I-I’m really sorry, Sister,” I tried apologizing abjectly, still crying. “I’m sorry for c-causing trouble.”

Sister Mary Ruth and the Secretary traded glances and then turned back to me. I couldn’t read their faces.

“Now, now,” Sister said again, with some finality. She handed me a glass of water. “Drink some of this. Calm down. You can stay here until you feel better.”

After a few minutes, she looked up from her work and told me I could go back to class. I slipped out, grateful to be off the hook.

Sister Mary Ruth was an Irish Catholic nun – one of a vast legion of such Sisters who ran US Catholic institutions for a hundred years from the late 19th through the end of the 20th Century. She ran a school of almost 400 pupils, in those days when class sizes often ran over 40 students.

Sister was a tough old bird, everyone knew. Her Sisters and her lay teachers all respected her enormously – as did the Catholic parents who scraped and saved to send their offspring to the Dominicans.

My parents were the exceptions. Married late in life, they were well-to-do. I was their only child. That my mother was abusive was something I could not articulate, not even to my father, who worked late most evenings. So I went to school, did my work, played with the other kids and tried to keep from angering her.

All these many years later, of course, I can imagine myself in Sister’s shoes. Old, tired, and faced with the huge administrative burden of running a school – and face to face with a child who showed clear signs of being abused.

In 1963, there were no child protection laws in effect. No agreements to call the police if child abuse was suspected. It would almost certainly be the child’s word against their parent. Sister Mary Ruth had only her prestige and the influence she could wield over my parents and teachers. This is what she did.

My mother received a call from Sister Mary Ruth that day. Though her verbal abuse continued, I cannot recall that she ever used an object to strike me again. Sister Mary Ruth must have made her point.

A few weeks later, it was time to crown the May Queen. We first graders were all excited. The school had two ravishingly beautiful long dresses which two privileged girls would wear as they carried the lovely crown made of flowers in the procession to the statue of the Blessed Virgin.

To my immense joy, Sister Mary Ruth made sure that I was one of the girls.

The next year, she would often come to call for me at the classroom door, and quietly ask me to read aloud for the students in the other classes. The idea was to show the older kids how well a little kid could read. It had the side effect of boosting my confidence immensely.

In the third grade, Sister became my teacher, and I blossomed under her tutelage. She let me read ahead, and rewarded me for finishing assignments early by allowing me to read the ‘Lives of the Saints’ series, pretty yellow books with lovely pictures, perched on the windowsill.

Sister Mary Ruth also had an ingenious system for teaching arithmetic called ‘memorization.’ And if we misbehaved, she put her system to work in earnest. Minor infractions rated writing one’s times tables from the twos to the fives. Major violations of classroom conduct could land you in your seat at recess, writing the times tables all the way up to the tens.

It was simple brilliance. We all learned our times tables and many years later as a young mother, I used it to great effect with my own kids. (They learned to behave – and learned their times tables, all in one fell swoop.)

All these decades later, I remember my year in Sister Mary Ruth’s classroom as a time of great happiness and security. So when she finally retired at the end of that year, I was sorry to see her go.

But like most kids, I was preoccupied with on my own concerns. I never thought of her much after that — until thirty years later when I chanced across a book written about the history of her Order.

Little did we suspect back in those days, but the book revealed how the Dominicans had sustained a body blow to their esprit du corps in the 1960s and 1970s. Radical young nuns had imposed a system whereby hapless older sisters were deprived of their habits and communal prayer. They were forcibly ‘re-educated’ in the ‘Spirit of Vatican II.’

The results were disastrous. Those nuns young enough to choose another life fled the convents. Older nuns like Sister Mary Ruth retreated to the Mother House, which quickly became an old age home. Many of the radical nuns eventually left as well. (The few who remained apostatized in place, using Church property and prestige to promote their ‘new age’ agenda.)

In a few short years the work of generations of dedicated Catholics was carelessly, even vindictively, undone. By the 1970s the schools that had been built for the Dominicans from the donations and hard work of generations of Catholics were shuttered.

This was all so deeply affecting that I could not quite believe it. I rummaged hopelessly through the book, searching for some mention of Sister Mary Ruth.

Against all odds, I found it.

Indeed, the Dominicans remembered Sister Mary Ruth from a time many years before I knew her. In fact, Sister Mary Ruth had made headlines in 1923 when she was a young principal of a newly-built Catholic grade school in rural southern New Jersey.

Catholics were emphatically not welcome there. Violent threats were made against the school. And when the Ku Klux Klan came to set the school on fire, they were met by a 23 year old nun determinedly wielding a rifle.

It was my Sister Mary Ruth.

She held them off until the police arrived.

So this is a belated tribute to a tough, tender Irish-American nun.

Sister Mary Ruth, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. What you did gave me the idea that I was smart and special, an idea which has sustained me in both my career and my family life. Your kindness has paid multiple dividends.

I know that you are with the God you served with such courage, devotion and wisdom.

Sister Mary Ruth, pray for us all. We need your kind among us once again.

WRITERS’ GUIDELINES

Regina Magazine is happy to accept unsolicited queries and articles, though as a start-up publication we regret that we cannot pay writer or photographers at this time. Contributors should familiarize themselves with the magazine (see About Us and Our Story) before sending their submission, and include with it a cover letter giving an explanation of … Read more

Jesus Lite in ‘Son of God’

by Teresa Limjoco “Son of God” is an abbreviated retelling of the story of Jesus Christ’s last years, which opens with an older St. John the Evangelist recalling his years with Jesus.  The script draws largely on St. John’s Gospel, but also shows Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem followed by quick flashbacks from the Old Testament … Read more

Latin Mass in a Star Trek Chapel

World-Famous Chapel at MIT Crammed with Students

About 150 young people squeezed into the interfaith chapel at Massachusetts Institute of Technology on February 9, some standing in the aisles and in the vestibules, for the Tech Catholic Community’s first-ever Traditional Latin Mass.

“This chapel does not exactly fit the profile of a traditional Catholic place of worship, to put it mildly,” said Jim Mc Glone, Harvard ’15, of JuvBos, which organized the TLM. “Nevertheless, with some advance scouting we judged that the chapel could accommodate a Solemn High Mass, and photographic evidence now shows that this space can indeed be transformed into a beautiful and fitting place for the Mass of the ages.  In the end, 150 came to that Mass, mostly students who had never seen a TLM before.”

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MIT STUDENTS ON THEIR KNEES AT THE CONSECRATION during the first-ever Latin Mass held in their chapel.

“As you can see from the pictures, the sanctuary is reminiscent of the Transporter on the Starship Enterprise,” blogged Gwyneth Holston, a Catholic artist who attended the Mass. “The very ugliness of the building made me ache with sadness for the poor engineering students who spend their days in grey classrooms and dismal labs. It is a milieu that considers aesthetics nice but superfluous and certainly inferior to ‘useful’ research and design.

“The sanctuary is reminiscent of the Transporter on the Starship Enterprise.”

“The positive result of having mass in such a depressing space is that every detail of the Mass exuded a soothing beauty. Candles, vestments, and incense are used because of the power of their symbolic value, not because they are the most efficient materials for lighting, clothing, and perfuming.”

The chapel was designed in the 1950’s by world-famous Finnish architect Eero Saarinen, one of the most successful practitioners of mid-20th Century Modernism.  Fr. John Cassani celebrated this beautiful Solemn High Mass, and Fr. Kwang Lee delivered the homily. The Schola Amicorum led the music.

“150 came to that Mass, mostly students who had never seen a TLM before.”

The Mass was made possible by Fr. Richard Clancy, MIT’s chaplain. Those interested in following JuvBos Masses and events can like them on Facebook or email juventutemboston@gmail.com to get monthly email updates. More about Gwyneth here.

Photo credit: Luciana Milano

Benedicamus Domino

A Short Story

by Beverly Stevens

“The most important thing is not to end up like my mother,” I was telling my therapist Dr Becker, who nodded at me in a slightly disapproving way. She disapproved, I knew, because it is not healthy for a woman to not identify with her mother.

Also, because there is nothing so wrong with my mother; she is like every other woman of her generation in Germany. They are called ‘the 68-ers,’ the university students of 1968 who rebelled against the Establishment and ushered in the modern Germany, leader of Europe. Here in Mittel Europa, at the beginning of the 21st century, the 68ers reign supreme.

I am seeing a therapist because, at age 32 and a successful gynecologist, I am despondent. You see, my partner Andreas  has left me. We had been together since university, in the early, wonderful, warm and giddy days when we brought our sweet Otto home. He was a lovely puppy; our child, really. When he died of old age twelve years later, our grief spilled over in a black pool, flooding our bedroom and the boredom of our life together.

You see, my partner Andreas has left me. We had been together since university, in the early, wonderful, warm and giddy days when we brought our sweet Otto home. He was a lovely puppy; our child, really.

It was not long afterwards that Andreas told me that he had accepted another position, a significant promotion at the Uniklinik in Hamburg, 500 kilometers from the university town where we have lived together since our student days. He said that it would make no difference to our relationship, and that the promotion was too good to pass up.

I have known him too long to be deceived by his lying. He gradually eased himself out of my life, and I let him go reluctantly, feeling helpless all the while.

Still, I didn’t become despondent until I learned about his new, Norwegian wife, and the child she was carrying. Andreas had never even spoken of marriage. I had always taken it for granted that we would be together wholly of our own choosing. Marriage seemed unnecessary, really.

And now he was beginning a brave new life. And I was alone. I felt so old.

My family was not very much help in all of this. My mother shrugged, tossed her long gray hair and tried to look sympathetic. She does not hold men to very high standards. She has had too much experience. My father was one of her serial relationships; growing up, I saw him twice a year when her current lover would drive me and my sister Sabine to Munich for a brief visit. Though a brilliant mathematician, he was a pot-head, pure and simple — and as soon as he could he buggered off for a decrepit farmhouse in Portugal, where he lives now, painting abstracts and smoking weed.

Our half-brother is ten years younger than me, an East German truck driver, like his father before him. And like his dad, he is blunt-spoken and hard-working. My mother is still living with his dad, though I know it’s just because she dreads being alone. He is not at all what she, a retired teacher, would have expected for herself. As for me, I respect both my step-father and my half-brother, but we do not agree on many things.

“You’re like all the other German women,” Stefan said, quaffing his Bitburger beer. It was Christmas Eve, at our parents’ apartment. “You think you’re too good for German men. That’s why German men are marrying foreigners. All of you women have no real interest in having a family. Feminism has ruined you.”

“You’re like all the other German women,” Stefan said, quaffing his Bitburger beer. It was Christmas Eve, at our parents’ apartment. “You think you’re too good for German men. That’s why German men are marrying foreigners. All of you women have no real interest in having a family. Feminism has ruined you.”

This was outrageous enough, but it was the later conversation with my 37-year old sister that put me over the edge. She had had way too much to drink.

“You think because I’m a teacher, that I’m pretty boring, don’t you?” she asked me, in a drunken, challenging sort of way. Everyone else had gone to sleep. Sabina lives in Wiesbaden; she has a good position, an excellent salary and no man since her last relationship disintegrated. “Well, I think you might be a little surprised at how much fun I do manage to have.”

Before I could stop her, it all came out. How she’s ‘registered’ with an online website that sets her up with ‘hot’ dates. It’s all perfectly proper, she assured me. The men are all attractive, and she never has to do anything against her will.

“I’ve come to understand that I have a very strong sex drive,” she told me in a sly, confidential whisper that made my skin crawl. “It’s probably inherited, don’t you agree?”

All of this sent me to Dr. Becker’s office, where I blubbered for hours into the tissues she had discretely placed near the low-slung, Bauhaus-style leather chair I occupied once a week. She was kind, but she didn’t understand why I could not accept any of these things. Even though I am a trained physician, fully cognizant of how modern people live, I still could not help but wishing for, dreaming of, something better.

“So what is it that will make you happy, do you think?” Dr Becker asked. “You are not like your mother, or your siblings. You have worked hard through medical school. You are a professional, used to setting goals. Where do you want to be in five years? What do you envision your life to be like?”

The single answer that came immediately to my mind was embarrassing in its directness: I wanted children. I wanted to be a mother. What’s more, I wanted to be successful in a way that my mother never has been. I want a forever husband. I want a forever family.Where did I get such ideas?

I wanted to be a mother. What’s more, I wanted to be successful in a way that my mother never has been. I want a forever husband. I want a forever family. Where did I get such ideas? 

Though she found my ideas distasteful and unbelievably naive, Doctor Becker is a good therapist, and a practical woman. “Some of that is under your control. So, what is the problem, then?”

The problem, of course, is that I have no man. And I know that finding a man to marry and have children with is pretty nearly an impossible goal these days in Germany. But that is not what Dr. Becker was referring to.

Don’t do it,” said Jennifer, for the umpteenth time. She is an American, a pediatrician who trained at Mainz. Like me, she is youngish and single. Unlike me, she is religious. “You do not need to live like these people. It is a dead end street. There is a better way to live. There is hope.”

“Probably half the German women in our maternity ward are pregnant by artificial insemination,” I replied, trying to sound rational as we walked through town, hunched against the early spring wind. “Most of them are over 35 and not married. Why should I wait that long?”

I could talk to Jennifer that way because we are friends. I say this with all due respect to every European who thinks that Americans are incorrigibly shallow, and incapable of true friendship. When Andreas moved out of the apartment, I was virtually immobile with grief for days. Jennifer patiently stayed by me, sleeping on my couch and cooking me simple meals, talking to me endlessly about her God, and how He would help me if I would just ask.

While I appreciated the sentiment, it fell on deaf ears. Perhaps it is because I do not come from a religious family. My mother’s idea of religion lies somewhere between Celtic earth goddesses and the Tarot. My siblings and I acquired good German skepticism about these things in our education; in this, we are like most Europeans. To be perfectly honest, talk of religion makes me uncomfortable. And my Christmas experience, coming so soon after Andreas’s desertion, had made Dr. Becker’s brisk suggestion that I simply go to the sperm bank very attractive.

My mother’s idea of religion lies somewhere between Celtic earth goddesses and the Tarot. My siblings and I acquired good German skepticism about these things in our education; in this, we are like most Europeans.

Not a good idea. Look at these women,” Jennifer responded with emotion. “I see them in my practice, all grim and stressed out. Man-less, or between lovers. Their kids alternately cling to them or berate them, depending on whether their current man is in the picture or not. I am telling you, this is not a good idea. This whole way of life – the contraception, the abortions, the artificial inseminations…it is all playing God. Women deserve better than that. You deserve better than that.”

The tears suddenly sprung to my eyes, unbidden. I swallowed, hard. I really don’t understand why, but suddenly all I could think of was the abortions. Not even the panicked young girls coming into our clinic, sometimes accompanied by their grim-faced mothers. (Almost never by their boyfriends, of course.)  No, what I was thinking of was the selective abortions, when too many babies are conceived by artificial insemination. And one – or more – must be aborted.

When she arrived three years ago, Jennifer made a name for herself in the clinic by going on record in a very public way against this practice. After that, no one at the clinic trusted her; she was seen as a religious fanatic. She became marginalized, almost invisible in the clinic.  Such marginalization would have almost killed a German in her professional shoes, but Jennifer is an American.

“I have lots of friends,” she shrugged, grinning at me disarmingly. “I really don’t need to be popular with people at this clinic.”

Something about her spirit made me like her, and we became friends – which is how I wound up sobbing in the back of an 18th century chapel in an old folks’ home that evening. Tears rolling down my face, I followed numbly as Jennifer led the short way to the Catholic chapel where she attends the Latin Mass every night, after work.

She had invited me before, telling me about the group of young Catholics that followed the Latin Mass, but as I said, I am not a religious person. (To be honest, I’d pictured some intolerable nerds following a ghoulish priest — though of course I wouldn’t tell her that.)

However, when I dried my tears, I found this old chapel to be oddly comforting. It was very quiet. Aside from the spring evening light filtering through the stained glass windows, a single, stout beeswax candle glowed before a bank of radiant pink hydrangeas adorning a Pieta of surprising beauty and power.

Soon, the door opened and a youngish priest in a cassock strode in, followed by three men. The priest nodded at us with a smile, and vanished into an anteroom with one of the men. The other two grinned at us wordlessly, and took up their places at the rear of the chapel.

A few minutes later, a golden bell rang. The priest and altar server emerged. The small group of worshipers who had quietly assembled got to their feet. As the evening light slowly died, the two men lifted their voices in an ancient Gregorian chant.

A golden bell rang. The priest and altar server emerged. The small group of worshipers who had quietly assembled got to their feet. As the evening light slowly died, the two men lifted their voices in an ancient Gregorian chant.

I listened, transported, as the centuries fell away. 

I was in a trance when the Mass ended. All I wanted to do was stay there, and breathe the incense-scented air. Jennifer stood up, though, as the priest and two of the men approached us, smiling.

I saw immediately that one of the singers was enamored of her. Jennifer returned his admiring glance with a radiant smile and introduced him as ‘Josef;’ he shook my hand earnestly. Then she presented me to the priest, who welcomed me. The other singer stood quietly by.

“And this is Christoph,” whispered Jennifer, and we shook hands. He was a tall, calm man with aristocratic bearing. I suddenly thought of my tear-stained cheeks, and wished I had a lipstick.

Christoph was a tall, calm man with aristocratic bearing. I suddenly thought of my tear-stained cheeks, and wished I had a lipstick.

“So very pleased to meet you,” he said, in the correct manner that Germans always know indicates good family background. But his smile was genuine, and his grip was warm.

“This was beautiful,” I said to the priest, sotto voce and somewhat abashed. 

“Did you like it?” the priest said, a pleased grin lighting up his face. “Was it your first time, then?”

“Y-yes,” I admitted. “I-I had no idea…”

“…I’ve been trying to bring her here, Father,” Jennifer said, grinning.

“But she is no doubt a very busy person at the clinic, no?” said the priest, still smiling.

“I-I am,” I faltered, not sure of what to say.

“Perhaps you will join us for supper?” he said cordially. 

“N-now?” I said, somewhat nonplussed.

“Yes, now,” said Christoph, with a teasing smile. I liked his dark eyes. “Your Jennifer has taught us her casual American ways. Nowadays we often will simply go and eat something together, after Mass.”

I liked his dark eyes. “Your Jennifer has taught us her casual American ways. Nowadays we often will simply go and eat something together, after Mass.”

“And a glass of wine is mandatory,” said Josef, laughing. “Shall we go?”

As we filed out of the empty church, I watched as each of my companions genuflected briefly, then crossed themselves, eyes on the altar. Once outside, we shivered in the cold night air.

“’Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine…’” Jennifer said, in English.

Christoph took up the refrain, smiling broadly. “’…there’s always laughter and good red wine.’”

“’At least I’ve always found it so…’” continued Josef, his arm around Jennifer.

“’…Benedicamus domino,’” finished Father, smiling at me. The group laughed.

“W-what is this?” I asked, amused but perplexed.

“A very clever Catholic Englishman wrote that,” Jennifer explained, grinning. “A man named Hilaire Belloc.”

 “A mere Englishman,” said Josef teasingly, winking at Jennifer.

“A genius!” exclaimed Father, laughing.

As we walked together through the old streets, a strange, giddy feeling came over me. I looked up at the tall, grave Christoph walking beside me and returned his smile.

I began to feel younger, for some reason.

Lighter than air, actually.

 As we walked together through the old streets, a strange, giddy feeling came over me. I looked up at the tall, grave Christoph walking beside me and returned his smile.

An Afternoon with Fatima in Germany

We were the only American family left in our neighborhood.   The others had already moved away, but my husband was among the last of the battalion to oversee the base closure, and it was taking longer than anticipated. 

I was actually pleased with the situation. It gave me a chance to improve my German language skills and immerse myself in the culture.  I was content to linger in the somewhat constructed world of the expatriate, a reality tinged by foreign perceptions.  Faith was something I never thought of then.  I had an enthusiasm for new experiences, and if questions ever came up about those on the fringes of the culture I so eagerly absorbed, I would have argued all answers should be sought in terms of politics or social reform. 

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Faith was something I never thought of then.  I had an enthusiasm for new experiences, and if questions ever came up about those on the fringes of the culture I so eagerly absorbed, I would have argued all answers should be sought in terms of politics or social reform. 

I later came to an understanding of the Turks, the Russians, the Albanians, and other degrees of eastern immigrants about, and of their position within the carefully woven veil of German liberality, but on that day I had no sense of it.  Indeed, I could not have said whether Fatima was Croatian or Kentuckian, had never given it a thought.  I knew her German was broken, but was still too preoccupied with my own sense of the foreign all around me to spare a thought for her alien condition.  Our acquaintance centered around the Kindergarten, where we often happened to be picking up our sons at the same time.  When she asked me to coffee I accepted with a “Danke shoen.  Funfzehn Uhr, oder?”

Coffee was almost always at three o’clock, and in our Siedlung, full of couples in their thirties with children, always meant an understood play-date.  I had lived there a long enough time to know that without having to ask, but a short enough time to still feel smug about knowing it.  I fostered a sense of superiority to other Americans stationed in Germany, who could do little more than get by in shops or order a Bier in a Gasthof.

We walked almost everywhere then, and with pleasure.  To pass through our neighborhood on the way to the Bakerei or Supermarkt meant the loveliest of strolls through meticulously tended gardens.  Petra was out weeding hers as we set off to Fatima’s later that day.  My son happily joined her children at play as I stopped to chat.  She welcomed the interruption to her work, and asked where we were off to on such a fine day.

Am Duengerheim.” I answered, acknowledging the unfortunate street name of Fatima’s dwelling.

Ach!  Schoen, schoen…” replied Petra, seamlessly changing the subject to neighborhood matters.  

I was fluent enough to understand all of what was said, but none of what wasn’t said.  I see that now.  She called out to me as we left,  “Stop by on your way back.  We’ll most likely still be out,” and it held no significance for me.

We followed the directions Fatima had given me to her place, which brought us to the other side of the Siedlung, under the train station and beyond the connecting  tunnel.  The style of the neighborhood changed from single dwellings and row houses to apartment buildings on that side of town.  I had no trouble finding her building, as the complex stood directly opposite the Sankt Thekla Kirche, the largest church in our town.       

The structure dominated the cityscape and could be seen from all directions of entry into our village.  I went into the church a few times in a touristy sort of way.   There was an interesting painting of a vaguely middle-eastern looking woman in one of the alcoves. I assumed it was Saint Thekla. The situation of her church strikes me as significant now, but it was the sort of thing I never thought of then.

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I went into the church a few times in a touristy sort of way.  There was an interesting painting of a vaguely middle-eastern looking woman in one of the alcoves.  I assumed it was Saint Thekla.

When we got to Fatima’s apartment I suddenly realized I’d forgotten to ask her apartment number, and so found myself pondering the names on the doorbell panel, so very different from the German family names to which I’d become accustomed.   Petrovic, Burakgazi, Emmini, Polzin… I wondered how she’d expected me to know which was hers, and considered the problem of having to ring the doorbells at random and ask.  I was at that stage in my fluency where one hesitates to speak by phone or intercom.  

That was when a dark-haired woman I recognized as a fellow Kindergarten-mom approached us.

“Emmini?” she asked, pointing to a third floor window.  She was nodding encouragement and ushering us toward the front entrance.  I nodded and smiled as she amicably gestured and jabbered in a language I couldn’t identify.   A group of helpful pedestrians materialized around us, neighborhood faces I knew by sight but had thought of as disconnected with one another, all converged here in their various home occupations, carrying grocery bags, digging in flower pots, standing in groups and smoking cigarettes.   Everyone seemed to know about us and our visit, as the helpful gesturing commenced all around.  My son looked up at me doubtfully as we entered the building.

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I nodded and smiled as she amicably gestured and jabbered in a language I couldn’t identify.   A group of helpful pedestrians materialized around us, neighborhood faces I knew by sight but had thought of as disconnected with one another, all converged here in their various home occupations, carrying grocery bags, digging in flower pots, standing in groups and smoking cigarettes.   Everyone seemed to know about us and our visit.

Our guide brought us to a third floor landing, indicated a door on which to knock, and abruptly left us there.  I was still in doubt as to whether we were in the right place, and so felt relieved when Fatima opened the door and welcomed us in.  Her sons greeted my shy little Thomas, and led him away to their room, their cheerful chatter emanating from within.

The apartment was small, but meticulously clean.  It was not so orderly as the homes of my German friends, but one got the impression it was due to the challenges of living with children in a confined space, not from a lack of housekeeping.  I found myself in a different sort of home than I’d expected, and Fatima must have noticed the furtive curiosity in my glance, as she immediately insisted on showing me around.  

She then conducted a comical sort of home tour in which walking from room to was unnecessary, as one could behold the entirety of the dwelling from the front hall.  She indicated the children’s room, with the boy’s bunk beds on one side, the baby’s crib on the other, the tiny master bedroom in which the double bed occupied most of the space, the kitchenette with it’s small dining table, and the living room.  In each case I would somewhat lean in the direction she indicated and express my approval.

“Yes, but…” she shrugged, with an expression of making due with what one’s got.  

We had to speak to each another in our second languages, my German being not perfect, and hers much less so.  She indicated I should take a seat in the living room, and as I did I began to fret how we would fill the space of the typical two-hour coffee visit with conversation.  Then something caught my eye that directed my worry in another direction.

I was sitting directly opposite a photograph of a man in uniform brandishing an AK-47.  It was quite large, framed, and bordered garishly in red and black with bits of green and yellow.  It was not an action shot; it was a posed portrait, which only made it the more bizarre to my thinking.  I tried to hide my astonishment as Fatima brought in the coffee cups from the kitchen.

“Mein Brueder,” she explained.  “Tot.  Im Albanien.”

So she was Albanian.  Her brother had died there in the conflict.  I couldn’t make out much of how it had happened with her language skills.

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I was sitting directly opposite a photograph of a man in uniform brandishing an AK-47.  It was quite large, framed, and bordered garishly in red and black with bits of green and yellow.  It was not an action shot; it was a posed portrait, which only made it the more bizarre to my thinking.

“He was good”, she said, her eyes welling up with tears.  “And young.”

I made up my mind to try to soften my glance when it landed that way, as it was clear she beheld nothing alarming in the presentation, no more than a portrait of a beloved brother who happened to be a soldier, in her eyes.

I suddenly recalled the day I’d taken Petra along with me to a Book Fair on the American post.  As we’d driven down Colonel’s Row, she’d been shocked to see all the American and German flags at the front of each house, lining the whole of the street.   “What is this?” she’d demanded to know, explaining about not displaying the flag in Germany.  That was before the 2004 World Cup had made it acceptable as a benign sort of fan-accessory.  I wondered if our tame display of patriotism had so alarmed her, what she would make of this.

Fatima and I had the most civilized coffee then, guarded by the watchful eye of her dead brother and his looming machine gun.  She brought everything in on a tray, with pretty cups and saucers, and all the proper accessories, much the same as my German acquaintance would do, but then instead of the usual cake accompaniment, she laid out a sort of flat-bread, layered with sheep’s cheese and oil.  She pantomimed with her hands to show me how much kneading and folding of the dough was necessary to accomplish the recipe.  It was very good, and as we ate we were able to discuss the culinary specialties of our own nations, comparing them with each other’s and with the German variations.  We were still chatting comfortably when her husband came in. 

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Fatima and I had the most civilized coffee then, guarded by the watchful eye of her dead brother and his looming machine gun.  She brought everything in on a tray, with pretty cups and saucers.

He went into the bedroom to change out of his work clothes, but upon his return sat down and amicably joined us at coffee, something a German husband would never have done.  Fatima introduced him as Flori, and as he eagerly took up the conversation, I found his German was better then hers.  He could even find a word or two of English when we needed it.

He had been a Professor of Mathematics at the University in Tirana.  He and his family had been forced to flee when he was targeted as some sort of an instigator, although I wasn’t quite clear on why he was targeted or whether he actually was an instigator.  In Germany he added to their living by working as a part-time underling for a house painter.  They were apparently glad for him to have a job of any sort, even one so far beneath his abilities.  Most of their acquaintance were unable to find work at all, and it rendered a state of futility upon the male population there.  

Their apartment and those of all the buildings in their complex were paid for by the German government. They tried to explain to me their position of having to be grateful for something they would rather not have been given, and insisted on the desire to work for themselves.  At the same time they described their being on a waiting list for a government house, and petulantly expressed their impatience at the wait time.

“But you know the Germans, how they are.” said Fatima.

I thought of the time I’d remarked on a neighborhood I’d noticed in a nearby village, full of new houses and Petra’s husband sniffing, “Yes.  Those are for the Russians.  Nice, aren’t they.”

Flori then turned the conversation back to me.  “Your husband?” he asked, nodding.  “He was in Kosovo?”

He had been, although I wasn’t sure I wanted to discuss it with them, of all people.  We’d naturally been sympathetic to the plight of the women and children in the camps, but after my husband had spent some months in the region he’d told me “I’m pretty sure we picked the wrong side on this one.”

We’d naturally been sympathetic to the plight of the women and children in the camps, but after my husband had spent some months in the region he’d told me “I’m pretty sure we picked the wrong side on this one.”

“We are so grateful to the Americans for their help,” gushed Flori.  “So very, very grateful.”

“Oh, no,” I reassured him.  “It was the right thing to do.”

I hoped it was true.  It seemed like it ought to have been.  Then he brought up 9/11.  He and Fatima wanted me to understand how very shocked they’d been, watching the news that day.  They wanted to make it clear their sympathies were with the victims.  Flori then touched on the motivations of the bombers, saying “Yes, there are problems.  There are difficulties and disagreements, but to address it this way…”  I was glad the doorbell rang then, interrupting our conversation.

It was the woman who’d led us up to the apartment. She turned out to be Fatima’s sister-in-law, and for some odd reason was named Mary.  Flori didn’t understand my surprise when I remarked on her name.  

“Yes”, he nodded.  “Maryam, Maria, Mary… it is a good name.”

“Yes, but Mary.” I said.  “It’s just, such a Christian name.”

“No, no. We have Mary, too.  Your Bible, our Koran. Yes, Mary.”

I struggled to make the connection of how that could be, but he didn’t seem interested in discussing it further, as the sister-in-law had brought a video tape they’d apparently planned for us to watch.  Flori translated for her, “This is a tape of her wedding day for you to see.”

“Oh!” I exclaimed.  “Is she a newlywed?”

“No,” answered Flori.  “This was four years ago.”

I couldn’t quite understand the point of watching it then, but they all seemed so eager I put on a show of anticipation as well.  As the tape rewound they described to me about their country, how beautiful it had been before conflict had torn it.  They wanted me to understand Islam was not practiced as strictly in their region.  Fatima described to me about facing east to pray multiple times a day and scoffed, “No, we don’t do this.”

“Bekim does.” translated Flori, for Mary.  I assumed she meant her husband.

“So?” asked Flori, playfully.  “Is this what you expect from a Muslim home?”

I could see they wanted me to play along, so I made a little joke about having expected burkhas which pleased them very much.

“No, no!” laughed Flori.  “You walk down the street in Tirana, you think you are in the disco.”

They started the video then, which began with a wedding caravan of cars, and a poor caravan it was, all the economy-sized cars having the appearance of being patched up like faded old jeans.  They were crammed with wedding revelers though, smiling and waving at the camera when it fell on them.  As the caravan started moving there was a general sort of “Hoorah!”, or the equivalent of it in their language, and a honking of horns.  They wound their way slowly through city streets in the most shocking state of ruin, their celebratory joy scarcely piercing the gloom all around.  There seemed to be a habit of waving at passersby which they persisted in even though there was no one to wave back.  The city really had the most decrepit, abandoned look about it, so that I couldn’t help admiring their cheer in the face of it. 

I never could make out the name of the town they were in, no matter how many times they pronounced it for me.  They explained the caravan was making its way to the bride’s house, where there would be a viewing of her dowry.  I smiled expectantly at Mary, who cast her gaze down to the floor.

“You must understand,” explained Flori.  “Nobody had anything at this time.  Nobody.”

It became clear what they were preparing me for when the video got to the dowry part.  The wedding guests filed into the house of the bride’s family, making their way into a room in which Mary sat, not yet dressed in her wedding clothes.  The normal furniture had been cleared and tables with cloths had been brought in to display all her worldly possessions, which consisted of some clothing and personal articles, and a few pairs of shoes, from what I could make out. 

There was a palpable dip in morale at this point amongst the guests, who filed through the display seemingly at a loss for how to react. Mary hung her head in shame as a guest picked up a hairbrush and optimistically inspected it.  Fatima tried to explain to me with her halting words and big gestures how very vast the array of goods would have been in happier times, how differently the guests and bride would have behaved.  They seemed to feel apologetic toward even me watching the video four years later, although I’d certainly brought no expectations of any sort into it.

Things perked up when they took the bride away in their cars to a house of relatives, to dress her for the wedding.  There was a flurry of female excitement, a general bustling and fussing common to women in such circumstances everywhere.  She emerged from the process in veiled finery, although the veil was so long one could hardly make out much about her dress.  She seemed to drift like a hovering spirit as she walked, and was led out to the car waiting to drive her to the ceremony.

The ceremony itself was not filmed, only the reception after.  Everyone gathered into groups around tables and behaved like wedding guests the world over, like children at play, only there was no alcohol to turn it ugly toward the end. All variety of interesting food was spread on the tables on great platters, and everyone seemed to eat leisurely bits here and there rather than one large meal.  They had a number of unfamiliar traditions they explained to me.  One game I couldn’t make out involved the groomsmen and cigarettes, and had some sort of mildly bawdy implication to do with the wedding night. 

Through it all Mary sat unveiled, in the most elaborate dress sewn with pearls and jewels.  They had done her hair and made her up so that she appeared quite another person from the plain woman sitting next to me in the apartment.  Both the wedding guests and the camera seemed enchanted with her, as all gazes turned her way again and again.  One got the sense they’d sacrificed all they had, and gladly, for her to be elevated to such status of beauty, that the point of it all somehow converged in her and everyone knew it, and so were drawn to her because of it.  She did not partake of any of the games or festivities, only observed with regal detachment, her expression very grave.  I pondered what it could mean and looked at her next to me on the couch.  Tears sprung to her eyes, as she said something for Fatima to translate.

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Through it all Mary sat unveiled, in the most elaborate dress sewn with pearls and jewels.  They had done her hair and made her up so that she appeared quite another person from the plain woman sitting next to me in the apartment. 

“She says… she loves her husband, very much.” said Fatima, as if that explained everything.  It was touching, how although all the attention had been focused on her, she only thought of her spouse, and how she carried that devotion in it’s original form even then, as if time had not gone by.

There was more to the video as a group of men had begun to life the bride up and carry her about the reception hall, when the children suddenly tumbled into the room, begging to play outside.  The adults scolded the interruption, but the boys were persistent; so I used it as an opportunity to observe the time and imply it was nearly time for us to go.  This came as a great surprise to our hosts, who’d evidently expected us to stay for dinner.  I never could have imagined such a possibility as it was never done that way in German homes, so had to politely insist against their protests.  I probably could have rearranged our plans, but the truth was it was all becoming too much, the politics, the machine gun, the wedding.  It was tiring, and I just wanted to get back home and not have to think so much.

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I probably could have rearranged our plans, but the truth was it was all becoming too much, the politics, the machine gun, the wedding.  It was tiring, and I just wanted to get back home and not have to think so much.

I finally got away by accepting Fatima’s offering of a dish to take back with me for our dinner.  She ladled some sort of hot soup into a large covered container, and wrapped it with a dishtowel so as not to burn my hands.  I bid Flori and Mary farewell, and then Fatima and the boys walked downstairs with us.  We stood in the courtyard for a bit while the children continued to play.

It was summer and so still light out.  We could see the facade of Sankt Thekla’s from between the apartment buildings.  A shadow from the topmost cross on the upper rooftop was cast onto the courtyard pavement, where the children made an impromptu game of hopping from quadrant to quadrant as we watched.  Their own shadows merged with the image of the cross whenever they approached the center of it.

“You are Christian, yes?” asked Fatima.

I supposed I was, although I couldn’t remember the last time I’d done anything pertaining to that fact.  I’d been raised Catholic, but my religion had become nothing more than a memory of ceremonies attended and rituals performed.  I looked back at it fondly, but without it having any real connection to my adult life.

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“You are Christian, yes?” asked Fatima.

I supposed I was, although I couldn’t remember the last time I’d done anything pertaining to that fact.  I’d been raised Catholic, but my religion had become nothing more than a memory of ceremonies attended and rituals performed.

“I guess it’s sort of like you not facing east to pray.” I explained.

Fatima nodded and seemed to reflect for a moment.

“I should maybe do better with this.” she finally said. 

I wasn’t sure how to respond to that, especially since I felt no such corresponding call in my own life then, so I simply looked up at the sky and observed,  “It’s going to rain.” 

I used the dark cloud moving in as an excuse to say our goodbyes quickly.  I wanted to make it home before the rain began.

As we approached Petra’s house on the walk back, I saw she was still out as she’d said she would be.  Thomas skipped on ahead to our house, as we did not live much further, and her children were not out to play.  She directed a wry smile at the enormous dish I was carrying and asked, “What’s this?  Your nice dinner tonight?”

I nodded that it was, as she leaned in and wrinkled her nose as if smelling something bad.  “Knoblauch!” she said, fanning the air in front of her face.  I never have known a German who could abide the smell of garlic.

“And…?” she asked.  “Did you have a nice visit?”

Ach!  Schoen, schoen...” I nodded.

I hardly knew how to relate my conflicting feelings about it all, so I tried to keep to  innocuous essentials like the flatbread and pretty cups.  It seemed no matter what I said I found myself confronted with a raised eyebrow or a loaded question.  As we conversed, I slowly realized I was being probed for details, and was expected to deliver them in a manner which conformed to her own dry disapprobation. 

I felt the shock of realization and a flare of righteous anger.  I suddenly saw the sharing of the wedding video as an intimate offering of the best they’d had to give, and felt the loss of not having something similar to share with them.  I wanted to somehow defend and justify them in Petra’s eyes.  At the same time I remembered the hint of underlying greed I’d picked up on, their willingness to exploit the system that had been thrust on them, and had to admit my own opinions on the subject were really not so very different from hers.  An image of the brother with the machine gun passed through my mind, and I decided to keep that part to myself.

“Their apartment is so small.” I insisted.  “They really have so little.”

“Oh?  Is there something more they need?” she asked.  Something else we should be giving them?”

I had the distinct impression there was, only I couldn’t think what.  Just then the bells from Saint Thekla’s started ringing six o’clock.  Something about the sound evoked a thought or a memory I struggled to grasp, but couldn’t seem to get hold of.  I felt a  sudden, stabbing conviction the chimes were a herald of something, but then immediately lost hold of that, too.

“Vespers,” remarked Petra.  It was what one said at that hour without it ever meaning anything in particular.  

I had to rush off then as the cloud had blown in and completely obscured the sun.  I ran homeward and felt the first stinging drops of cold rain on my face, the gusting wind muffling the sound of the bells.  I found Thomas waiting at the front door, impatiently wanting to get inside away from the rain.  As we entered the warmth and comfort of our home, I was relieved to find my anger and confusion already beginning to fade. 

It would be many years before I would think back and remember about the bells, the wedding, the shadow of the cross, and begin to wonder what Mary had to do with any of it.

 It would be many years before I would think back and remember about the bells, the wedding, the shadow of the cross, and begin to wonder what Mary had to do with any of it.