One Foot in Heaven

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Children Stories  |  House: Booksie Classic
There are more changes and challenges in store for young Emma as she makes her way through eighth grade.

Submitted: May 15, 2017

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Submitted: May 15, 2017

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One Foot in Heaven  By: M. C. Pehrson

 

Chapter 1

Emma had always known that Papa could sing. It was a gift from his mother’s Italian ancestry. At Sunday Benediction he quietly intoned the Latin hymns, but no one outside the Winberry family ever heard him launch into full-throated song. Opera, ballads, or even a silly television ditty when the mood struck—Papa needed no encouragement. And most of all, he liked to sing while he shaved. Since marrying the widow Kester, she had often told him, “Robert, you have such a beautiful voice. Why don’t you join the church choir?” But Papa only smiled at her and shook his head. Though he was gifted with a fine scientific mind, he had no confidence in his vocal skill.

In October of 1961, Emma and her stepsister Susan were about to be confirmed, and the entire congregation would sing Faith of Our Fathers. Emma had been looking forward to receiving the sacrament, even though she did not fully understand the Holy Spirit. His was a vague sort of presence, different from Jesus or her favorite saints, who all had bodies. At school, Sister Pauline said that only a spirit could enter into a soul and strengthen it. And Emma knew that she needed strengthening. Just last month she had entered her teens, but she was still as shy as ever.

On the big evening, she crowded into her classroom with Susan and donned a golden robe that made her feel more secure. Aside from the rental robes, the two of them did not look anything alike. Red-haired Susan was bigger than Emma, with the same green eyes as Mom and the other children. Emma’s hair was very dark like Papa’s, but she did not have his deep brown eyes. Hers were bright blue—Dolan eyes, from her deceased mother. While the class lined up, Emma wondered if Mama was looking down from Heaven, watching her.

The big pipe organ played as they filed into the church and took their seats. Emma glimpsed Mom and Papa, Tommy and little Nathan. All the local Winberrys were there, including Aunt Daisy who was not any kind of churchgoer. Right beside Mom sat her handsome brother, Lars Norquist. Emma seldom saw him at St. Germaine Church because he belonged to an adjoining parish.

The ceremony seemed to last forever. Emma’s heart pounded as she passed beyond the communion rail and took her turn at the altar. Kneeling, she received the bishop’s anointing and a gentle slap to remind her of life’s hardships. Then her main concern was not fainting or tripping while she headed back down the steps. Somehow she made it, and the time came for the closing hymn. Emma’s heart swelled with joy as hundreds of voices mingled in an uplifting expression of faith. Suddenly, she seemed to hear Papa. Yes, it was him—and not singing softly, either! The sound of his pure, matchless baritone made Emma think she smelled shaving cream.

After returning their robes to the eighth grade classroom, Emma and Susan went looking for the rest of the family. The upper-class wing was set apart from the original school building. Lights shone along the adjoining walkway, reflecting off the many cars that parked in the playground for church functions. People milled everywhere, but as prearranged, the Winberrys were waiting by the station wagon. Mom had a big smile on her face as she hugged Emma and Susan. Then it was Uncle Lars’ turn to congratulate them. That left Papa, but just now he was holding little Nate and conversing with a paunchy, gray-haired man. Emma though it might be one of Papa’s friends from the nearby public high school where he taught science.

Nathan, who was almost one year old, kept pulling the hat off Papa’s head, squealing in delight. Over the years, Papa had lost most of his hair and the autumn breeze must have felt chilly. But he did not let it distract him.

“Please give it some thought,” the stranger was saying. “I was right there in front of you, and believe me, you have what it takes. Thursday night, seven o’clock sharp.”

They shook hands and the man strode into the darkness.

Emma’s curiosity was in high gear, but there was no need to ask questions.

Mom’s eyes twinkled happily at Papa. “Didn’t I say so? Oh Robert, the choir needs you. Give it a try.”

 

Most evenings, Papa liked to tinker on his scientific projects in the basement. When Thursday came, Mom reminded him about choir rehearsal. Papa still did not believe his voice was good enough. He looked reluctant when he left for church, but later that night he came home whistling. From then on, their Sunday routine changed. The adult choir sang at the weekly High Mass. It was too long a Mass for Nathan, without Papa to help him behave. So now they dropped the toddler off with Aunt Daisy.

Emma missed having Papa in the pew, but if she listened carefully she could sometimes pick out his voice from the others, singing in perfect harmony. It gave her a strange bittersweet feeling, like when she lay in bed at night, sensing the slow, steady passage of time. Though a part of Emma still clung to the security of home, there were times when she yearned to leave the constraints of childhood behind.

 

Chapter 2

Halloween was just around the corner. This year, Papa would take seven-year-old Tommy trick-or-treating because Emma and Susan had other, more grown-up plans. Little by little, they transformed their out-of-the-way home into a Haunted Farmhouse. At a novelty shop they bought fake webs for the porch and dotted them with big plastic spiders. Old clothes stuffed with straw made a fine scarecrow to sit by the front door. Uncle Lars had planted a few pumpkins in the truck garden and Emma carved half a dozen while Susan helped Mom make fudge, candy apples and popcorn balls.

By the time Halloween arrived, everything was ready. The sun was setting when Emma and Susan placed their Haunted Farmhouse sign at the end of the driveway, on the main boulevard. Then they glued tufts of werewolf fur to their faces and lit the jack-o-lantern candles. This year people would not drive on by, never guessing that a little farm lay hidden behind the weathered wood fence.

Soon after Tommy left, dressed as Davey Crockett, car tires began to crunch along the gravel drive. Emma and Susan hid themselves in the bushes and then rose up howling while the children screamed and fled with their homemade treats. Even some teenagers from the high school came over. By then, Papa and Tommy were back home. While Papa chatted with his students, Tommy did his part to scare the trick-or-treaters. Afterward, Mom said it was “the liveliest Halloween ever, on the old Kester farm”.

In November the rains came, one storm after another, pounding on the roof of Emma’s attic bedroom. She missed three days of school with a bad chest cold and by Saturday she was not much better. Tired of lying next to the smelly vaporizer, she put a bathrobe over her flannel pajamas and came downstairs. Papa was all bundled up, hugging Mom at the front door. Then he headed outside with his car keys and an umbrella. It seemed strange. On stormy weekends, Papa usually stayed home and worked in his lab.

“Where’s Papa going?” Emma wondered aloud.

The television was on. Susan and Tommy were too engrossed in a cartoon to respond, so it was Mom who answered. After a moment of hesitation she said, “Your father’s gone to check on Aunt Daisy.”

An uneasy feeling gripped Emma’s heart and she asked, “Why? Is something wrong?”

Mom did her best to smile. “Her phone’s probably out of order from all this rain. We tried to call her, but it just kept ringing and ringing.” Pressing a cool hand to Emma’s forehead she said, “You’re still feverish. Lie down, honey, and I’ll bring you some grape juice.”

Concord grape was Emma’s favorite, especially when she was sick. She stretched out on the couch and snuggled under the Granny Square afghan. Though her eyes settled on the television cartoon, her thoughts were with Papa over on Arbor Street. Then the phone rang. With a heavy sense of foreboding, Emma watched Mom pick up the receiver.

“Hello?” There was a long strained silence until at last Mom said, “Oh, no…”

 

Chapter 3

Aunt Daisy had passed away quietly, seated in her favorite living room chair. Emma cried when she first heard the news, and she cried a little more every night in her room. Daisy was the first person she had lost, since Mama. In younger days, she had not liked the prim old fussbudget who dropped in on her and Papa each summer. For Emma, it had meant curlers and frilly dresses and fingernail polish when she would rather collect moths and climb trees. But since Papa married Christina Kester, things had changed. It all began when he told Emma about Aunt Daisy’s lonely life. That got Emma to thinking. Even though Daisy had said mean things about “that Kester widow”, Emma sneaked her an invitation to the wedding. At first, Emma had feared it was a big mistake, but Aunt Daisy was so touched by the invitation that her personality began to change for the better. After the wedding, she rented their old house and found a job as a substitute teacher. Feeling wanted and useful made Daisy so much more pleasant that Emma actually grew to like her. And now that Daisy Winberry was gone, Emma realized she had loved her. 

The house on Arbor Street looked cold and empty on the morning Papa pulled into the driveway with Emma beside him. Though Emma’s fever was gone and the stubborn cough was clearing up, it had been hard convincing Papa to bring her along. The day was clear and cold. As they unloaded cardboard boxes from the station wagon, Emma stopped to look at the soggy yard. Daisy had certainly turned the old weed patch into a work of art. The emerald green lawn had always been neatly mowed, and flowers bloomed in every season. But now, without her constant care, the grass was buried under a thick, wet layer of leaves. Emma stood and watched yellow leaves drift down upon the sad, saggy mounds of chrysanthemums.

In the house, Papa turned up the heat. Emma had spent the first nine years of her life here, but it no longer felt like home. With Daisy gone, the living room seemed strange and dreary. Emma shivered as her eyes settled on the chair where Daisy died.

“We’ll start in the bedroom,” said Papa.

There, he opened the closet and began boxing dresses for the St. Vincent DePaul store. Emma wandered over to the gleaming dresser and pulled out the top drawer. Everything was as neat and tidy as Daisy herself—stacks of scarves and hosiery, neatly folded, each in its proper place.

Emma’s vision blurred as she remembered her aunt. Daisy had never married. She had left a hand-written paper with Papa, leaving him all her “earthly belongings” which included an old Rambler and a small bank account. There had been no burial service. The will made it quite clear that she did not want “the fuss of a funeral”. She had never seemed the least bit religious, and that had Emma worried.

With a catch in her voice, she said, “I was just here with her before I got sick. We had cookies and cocoa…”

Papa crossed the room and put his arms around her. Softly he said, “It’s always a shock when death comes suddenly. But Honeybee, she was seventy-nine years old—that’s a good, long life.”

Emma swallowed a sob. With her head resting on Papa’s shoulder, she asked, “Where do you think she is? I know we’ve been praying for her, but…but she didn’t go to church. Maybe she didn’t even believe in God. People like that go to hell, don’t they?” She could not bear the thought of Aunt Daisy suffering the eternal flames.

Papa drew back. Holding Emma by the shoulders, he looked deeply into her eyes. “Maybe Daisy never belonged to a church, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that she rejected God. Only the Lord knows our hearts.”

“But Sister Pauline says—all of the nuns say that we have to die in a state of grace, or else…” her words trailed off.

“God is the source of grace,” Papa reminded her. “Remember the story of the Good Shepherd? How He left the ninety-nine sheep to go looking for the one that was lost? The Lord never gives up. Even at the moment of death, He’s still trying to save us. I bet you the Lord was standing there, waiting for Daisy with His arms wide open. And I can’t imagine that she’d refuse His love. Can you?”

It was a very comforting image, but a bit different from the teachings at St. Germaine School. Emma did not know what to think.

Papa must have seen her confusion, for he said, “Our Catholic faith has the fullness of truth—it’s like a great light shining in the world. But that doesn’t automatically mean that everyone else is condemned. The Lord loves all His children. Even in the darkest corners, He’s always at work.”

Put that way, it made sense to Emma. She got to work, sorting through the contents of Aunt Daisy’s dresser, stopping now and then to ask her father’s advice. Around noon Susan, Tommy, and Mom walked over from the nearby farmhouse, pushing Nate in his stroller. Mom rummaged in Daisy’s cupboards and put together a lunch. The family was sitting around the table, eating tuna crackers and canned soup when Emma noticed the cookbook shelf above the kitchen counter. Until this moment, she had never paid any attention to it. All cookbooks seemed pretty much the same to her—their covers scuffed and spattered from kitchen use. Mom might like them, she was thinking. And then she spied a little black book, so much smaller than all the others. Never before had she seen a black cookbook. Curious, she left her seat, entirely forgetting that in her family, children remained at the table until they were excused. Before anyone could say a word, the book was in her hand. As she read its title a thrill passed through her. Quickly she opened the Holy Bible and found a name neatly penned inside the front cover.

“Marguerite Winberry—1943” Marguerite was Aunt Daisy’s legal name.

“Papa, look!” exclaimed Emma as she flipped through the well-worn pages. Passages were underlined in red ink and she found tiny notes in the margins. They were not the cynical comments of an unbeliever. Clearly Daisy had been drawing comfort from the scriptures. Why, there were even a few little prayers!

“Papa, look at this! Daisy did believe in God! She even prayed.” Emma handed the Bible to her father. As he looked it over, his dark eyes glistened and he began to smile.

“Well,” he said with satisfaction, nothing more. But Emma remembered his words from earlier in the day: Only the Lord knows our hearts.

Once the house was cleared of Daisy’s belongings, the whole family helped scrub it from top to bottom. Then Papa hired Uncle Lars, who often worked as a painter. Soon the old dingy stucco became white again, with fresh red trim around the windows and doors. Inside, all the walls that weren’t papered also got a new coat of paint. Halfway through December, the house was sold. Emma did not like seeing strangers living in the cozy home that once belonged to her own little family. Those had been precious happy years. After Mama died, it had been just Emma and Papa—except for Daisy in the summers—until he met Christina Norquist Kester. But even those lonelier days held a lot of good memories.

“Life goes on,” Papa said. And so it did, but as Christmas approached there was a gap in their world left by Daisy’s passing.

Shortly before Christmas, Emma was paging through one of Aunt Daisy’s old cookbooks when she found a recipe for penuche. She had almost forgotten how much Papa liked brown sugar fudge. The thought of creating such a special gift for him raised her spirits, but until now she had never cooked much of anything besides creamed tuna and frozen pot pies back in the days before Papa remarried. She would need Mom’s help. There was a candy thermometer, but not enough brown sugar or cream. Taking some of her own money, Emma walked to the corner store. By the time she got back, Mom had the proper pan waiting on the stove. Now that everything was ready, Mom warned Papa to stay out of the kitchen until further notice.

With Mom’s help, the fudge came out golden and creamy. Emma lovingly lined a little shoebox with foil, filled it to the top, and wrapped it in bright snowman paper. On Christmas Eve the Norquists gathered to exchange presents. Emma’s heart raced as Papa hefted the weighty little gift in his hands, trying to guess what was inside. When he opened it and found the fudge inside, Mom captured his happy look of surprise with her camera. But Emma would not need a photo to help her remember. The moment was forever imprinted on her heart.

 

Chapter 4

As the old calendar on the kitchen wall made way for 1962, Papa was still singing in the choir. On Sunday mornings, little Nate had a new babysitter. Uncle Lars went to an earlier Mass in his own parish. Then he stayed at the farmhouse with his little nephew and shared the family’s lunch afterward. Though Papa thought Lars was a bit of a windbag, Emma dearly loved her good-natured step-uncle and looked forward to those Sunday visits.

And now all the Winberrys were looking forward to something else. This spring, Tommy would be making his First Holy Communion. The seven-year-old was all boy, with unruly red hair and a scattering of freckles. Since the traffic accident that took his left leg, his prosthetic limb had undergone many adjustments—and so had Tommy. These days he seldom paid any attention to his handicap unless someone pointed it out. At St. Germaine School he enjoyed a wide circle of friends, but his best pal was Barry O’Brien.

Like Emma, Barry was small for his age, but with a pinched sickly appearance. He looked downright frail when he stood next to Tommy, who glowed with boyish good health. Barry’s black hair made his skin seem pasty-white. If he tried to run like other boys, his lips turned blue and he struggled for each breath. Despite this, he was always pleasant and cheerful, with eyes that sparkled behind his dark-rimmed glasses.

Barry had a weak heart. As winter brought a chill to the city, his lips became permanently blue. Since he could not play hard at recess, Tommy often took Barry to the eighth-graders’ corner of the playground. Emma, Susan, and their friends quickly grew to love the sweet-natured boy and treated him like a little mascot. But some days, he was not well enough for school. When a case of sniffles turned into pneumonia, he missed four straight weeks. After the hospital released him, Tommy made regular trips to Barry’s home with schoolwork. Sometimes Emma went along with her little brother. Barry lived just one block from Arbor, on a street lined with towering palm trees. The fronds swished in the winter wind as Emma and Tommy hurried to the little yellow house with its lopsided porch. A great dark pine overshadowed the front yard, but inside the house it was warm and cozy.

Mrs. O’Brien had streaks of gray hair and a married daughter, which made her seem old to Emma. Barry was her only other child. Since the bout of pneumonia he had grown painfully thin, with a cough that rumbled in his bony chest. But his eyes danced whenever Emma and Tommy visited him.

One rainy afternoon, Barry revealed some wonderful news. “I’m going to have an operation,” he said with a big smile. If it proved successful, he would be able to run and play like other children. But before the surgery, he hoped to receive his First Communion along with Tommy and the rest of their class. Barry had a deep love for Jesus and was praying that he would not get sick and miss the great occasion. “Sometimes,” he told Emma, “when I can’t get my breath at night, I just lay there in bed talking to Him.”

Hearing that gave Emma an idea. Years ago, she had received a luminous rosary from her Granny Ruth Dolan, who lived far away in Chicago. Its glowing beads had been a comfort to Emma on many a wakeful night. Back home, she went into her attic bedroom and took the old coin purse out of her sock drawer. It held her entire savings. These days, she usually spent the weekly allowance Papa gave her, but she’d had great success raising rabbits, so the purse was bulging with dollar bills. When Emma told Mom her plan, Mom drove her down to the Catholic gift shop. There, Emma picked out a glow-in-the-dark rosary with a clear plastic case, so it could absorb the light all day long. When she gave Barry the rosary, he was as happy as if she had brought him a sack full of candy.

 

On the first Sunday after Easter, Tommy dressed up in a suit and joined the other second-graders at the First Communion Mass. Poor Tommy chafed under the restricting clothes and would have liked to tug at his necktie, but he minded his manners. Next in line, Barry O’Brien looked downright angelic, as if the veil of faith had parted and he saw Jesus beckoning to him from the altar.

After Mass, Emma asked Papa, “Did you notice Barry? Did you see his face? It kind of glowed, just like the rosary I gave him.”

Every day she had been offering prayers for the success of Barry’s surgery. Her whole family was praying. Barry was such a good boy that surely God would want to heal him. And yet…the very fact that he was so good made Emma wonder. Barry was not like other children. It was as if he already had one foot in Heaven.

On the day before Barry entered the hospital, he stayed home from school. Emma, Tommy, and Susan paid him a visit before dinner.

“You’ll be fine,” Emma told him with a lump in her throat. Something deep in Barry’s eyes touched her and she felt a peaceful knowing as she said, “You’ll be home soon.” But she did not mean the cozy yellow house where the O’Briens lived. Slow tears trickled down her face as she walked home with the others. Back at the farmhouse she confided to Papa, “I don’t think he’s going to make it. I think he’s going to Heaven, instead.”

Barry passed away during the operation that was meant to save him, but Emma did not feel as sad as when Aunt Daisy died. It was different with Barry. He had been ready for Heaven, and now Emma pictured him up there, running free, playing just as hard as he liked.

Mom and Papa and the three older children attended Barry’s rosary at the funeral home. Emma had never seen so many flowers, not even at Mama’s service. Their sweet fragrance filled every corner of the room. When the prayers were over, Emma joined the line of people filing up for a last glimpse of Barry. In his little coffin, Barry looked like he had only fallen asleep. Then Emma noticed the glow-in-the-dark rosary in his hands and burst out crying. Papa was right behind her. Putting an arm around her shoulders, he walked her out into the cool evening air.

“Are you alright?” he asked. Dashing away the tears, she nodded, but Papa’s earnest eyes continued to study her. He said, “These past months have been pretty rough on you. First Daisy, and now Barry’s gone, too. You were really fond of him, weren’t you?”

Emma just sighed. A part of her almost wished she could follow Barry to Heaven. After Mama died, the desire had been even stronger—but that would have left Papa all alone. She was so glad that Papa was here with her now. Putting her arms around him, she held on tight.

 

Chapter 5

May was coming up fast, and already the weather carried a hint of summer heat. It felt odd walking past the old house on Arbor Street, seeing new curtains in the bedroom window that had belonged to Emma. She did not like it, or the strange red sports car that sometimes parked in the driveway. She did not like it one bit. Too many things were changing. Even her body felt awkward these days; each month it was becoming a little more rounded and womanly.

One day at school, Sister Pauline separated the girls from the boys for instruction in “hygiene”. While Father Tandy addressed the boys in another room, Sister covered a range of delicate matters without a trace of embarrassment. But then, Sister “Saltine” (as some students called her) was unlike the other nuns. She walked with a brisk, athletic step. She had a loud voice and a forceful personality that clashed with Emma’s shy nature. Most of the time Emma tried to stay out of her way, but one fateful Wednesday the two of them collided.

Every May, a procession was held in church to honor the Blessed Virgin. A queen’s court of eighth grade girls led the year’s First Communion class while hymns were sung. At the most solemn moment, a favored girl crowned the statue of Our Lady. All the members of the court were chosen by a secret ballot of fellow students.

On Wednesday morning, Emma cast a vote for her best friend, Franny Brocado, and sat back awaiting the results. One by one, Sister Pauline drew a folded paper from the cardboard ballot box and kept a tally on the blackboard. The third vote was for Emma Winberry. At the sound of her name, Emma reddened and stirred uneasily in her desk chair. It had never occurred to her that she might be among the chosen. Once more, her name was called out—and then again. As classmates turned and smiled at her, she shriveled inside.

The names kept coming. Mary Sloane. Cathy Calway. Emma Winberry. Susan Winberry. Emma Winberry.

Emma’s stomach churned and she wanted to cry out, No! Not me! Not dressed up in a fancy gown, the center of attention! But the count was over and even before Sister officially announced the winners, it could be seen on the blackboard behind her. Of all the girls, Emma Winberry had the most votes.

The class broke into applause. Across the room, Susan looked envious as she mouthed the word, “Lucky!” Emma blushed fiercely and tried to smile as her mind cast wildly about. What in the world was she going to do? Why couldn’t Susan have been picked instead—or someone else who was outgoing? It was an honor to be chosen, but Emma did not want it.  Come what may, she would not be in the procession!

The bell rang for recess, but Emma stayed at her desk until the room cleared of students. Sister Pauline was about to leave when Emma stood up. Trembling, she said, “Sister?”

Sister Pauline turned and looked at her. The nun’s eyes were dark like Papa’s, but they did not seem very warm, even though she was smiling.

“Yes, Emma?”

Desperate, Emma blurted the first thing that came to mind. “Sister, I…I can’t be in the procession.”

Sister’s smile faded.

“It…it’s the dress,” stammered Emma. “My father…well, money’s awfully tight. He can’t afford something like that…not with Tommy’s expenses. You see, my little brother—you know that he lost a leg—well, he has lots of medical bills…” True enough, but the driver who struck him had insurance, so those bills were covered. And the sale of the house had put a sizeable chunk of money in the Winberry bank account.

Sister’s abrupt reply did not seem sympathetic. “Oh, don’t worry about the dress. I’m sure we can find one for you to borrow.”

Emma felt like crying out, I don’t want the dress, can’t you see? I don’t want to be in the procession! Tears threatened and her throat cinched tight, but somehow she got the words out. “Sister, it’s…it’s not just the dress. It’s my father. He’s awfully strict about everything. I can’t be in the procession. He won’t let me.”

At that, Sister’s face grew hard and her eyes became downright icy. She knew that Papa taught at the high school and that he was a reasonable man. “Well,” she declared, “I’ve never seen anything like this before. Emma, you should be ashamed. I’ve heard you talk about becoming a nun, yet you can’t even do this for Our Lady?”

Emma was ashamed—not only of her lies, but of the fear that made her shrink from telling the whole truth. And she was angry, too. Sister Pauline had made no effort at all to understand her—she just automatically thought Emma was lazy or uncaring. Fighting tears, she ducked outside for recess, but the worst was yet to come. As soon as the class came back in, Sister Pauline launched into a cutting lecture about certain “selfish, immature students who shirk their responsibilities”. All the while, Emma sat frozen at her desk awaiting the mention of her name. But so deep was Sister’s contempt, she did not even glance in Emma’s direction.

When the ordeal was over, Emma sat with her heart bleeding and watched the minutes creep by. At last, the lunch bell rang. Quickly gathering her things, she got up and walked out the door. That, in itself, was not unusual. Since she lived nearby, she sometimes went home to eat. But today was different. This time, she was never coming back.

As Emma reached the farm, she heard Uncle Lars out on the tractor, readying the fields for planting. For once, she did not want to see him. He would only call her a “quitter”, like last year when she came home early from a summer program. Feeling utterly miserable, she hurried into the house and tossed down her things.

Mom was ironing in the living room and looked up in surprise. “Emma! Didn’t you take a lunch today?”

The hot iron on the clothes made a pleasant, comforting smell. It was so good to be home that Emma burst into sobs. “I hate her! I’m never going back! Never!”

The next thing she knew, Mom’s arms were around her. It was not the first time that Emma’s stepmother had soothed her bruised feelings. Fair-haired Christina was a pretty woman with kind, gentle ways. It had been more than three years since Papa married her, and Emma was still glad.

In broken phrases, Emma choked out her version of the story. “They picked me to crown Our Lady’s statue in the May Procession…but when I told Sister that I didn’t want to, she was mean…she ran me down…right there in front of the whole class!” And Emma could not help repeating, “I hate her! I hate school! I’m never going back!”

Though Mom seemed understanding, she said very little. Emma calmed down and took a sandwich into her room, so she would not have to face Uncle Lars. But later on, she would have to face Papa. Her stomach tightened and her conscience stung every time she thought about it. When he got home, there would be questions. He would want to know exactly what happened. As Emma waited, she went over and over it in her mind.

Before long, Susan and Tommy were back from school. Susan came upstairs. “I thought you were sick,” she told Emma in a secretive voice. “Boy are you in for it, running off like that.”

Emma scowled. “Did Sister Saltine say anything?”

“No,” replied Susan. “In fact, she was real quiet. Why? What’s going on?”

Before Emma could answer, they heard footsteps on the stairs. Susan peeked out the door and darted from room. Emma was sitting on her bed when Papa came in, minus his suit jacket and bow tie. He looked rather tired, as if he had had a difficult day teaching, but she did not jump up and welcome him with her usual hug.

Not quite meeting his eyes, she said, “Hello, Papa.”

He settled beside her on the bedspread and touched her hand. “Christina tells me there was some trouble at school today—that you left early. What’s this all about?”

Emma’s heart hammered and she fought a sudden urge to crack her knuckles. Staring at the floorboards, she repeated the same story she had told Mom, only this time she did not cry or shout. But her voice wavered as she insisted, “I’m not going back—not ever.”

Papa was so silent that Emma turned to him and pleaded, “Can’t you give me my lessons here at home? You’re a teacher.”

Papa did not say yes or no. Out of the blue he asked, “Why don’t you want to be in the May Procession?”

Emma hunched over. Her hands felt cold and sweaty. “I just don’t,” she answered. “What difference does it make? It doesn’t mean I’m selfish or irresponsible, like she said.”

“Sister Pauline said that?”

Emma nodded. “She said I was immature, too. And…and…I should be ashamed. And then, after recess, she embarrassed me in front of everyone.” On second thought she added, “Well, she didn’t exactly use my name, but I knew she meant me.”

Papa stood up and Emma saw that the creases between his brows had deepened. Abruptly he said, “I’m going downstairs to call Sister Pauline. You stay here.”

A surge of panic sent Emma to her feet. Sure as anything, Sister would bring up Emma’s excuses—how Papa was too poor to buy a dress, and that he wouldn’t allow her in the procession, anyway.

“Papa, wait!” she said. There was no way out of it, now. She had to admit the truth or there’d be real trouble. “I…I told Sister things that…well, I just made up a bunch of excuses. She wouldn’t have understood the real reason why I can’t be in the procession.”

“Oh?” said Papa. “And what is the real reason?”

It should not have been hard telling Papa. After all, he knew her timid nature better than anyone and by now he had probably guessed her answer. But the words did not come easy. Hanging her head, Emma admitted, “To get up there in front of everyone—I just can’t do it.” And then she could not help moaning, “Oh, why do I have to be like this? Why can’t I be more like you? You’re not afraid of anything.”

Papa came over and put an arm around her. Very gently he said, “Honeybee, everyone experiences fear. You have to deal with shyness. Did you know that your mother was shy, too? After she agreed to marry me, she was so nervous about the wedding ceremony that we waited a whole year.” He patted her on the back. “What if she had walked out on me? Where would you be? Some things are worth the effort. Your confirmation, for instance—I didn’t hear you complaining about that.”

No, she hadn’t. “That’s because Susan was with me. The whole class was, and those robes made us all look alike. We’ll be wearing robes at graduation, too.”

Papa sighed. “Susan can’t always be there to hold your hand. What did you do before she came along?”

Emma had first met Susan when they were nine. Since then, the gregarious redhead had eased the way for Emma in many social situations. Wishfully Emma said, “If only she were the one crowning the statue...”

Papa looked her right in the eyes. “Honeybee, you’re building this up in your mind—turning the procession into something terrible, when it’s not.” Thoughtfully he said, “It’s a little like me singing in the choir. I was always so sure I wasn’t good enough…when all I had to do was try.”

Emma felt her back stiffening. “But it’s different for me—I can’t do it. And Sister Saltine—I mean, Sister Pauline really was mean. I don’t want to go back—not ever!”

Papa did not get angry. Instead he gave her another pat and said, “Come on, I feel like a hot fudge sundae. How about it? Just the two of us.”

Before leaving, Papa donned his coat and bow tie. That was not so unusual, but when he stopped to pluck a few of Mom’s peppermint-striped camellias, Emma grew suspicious. She was not surprised when he drove up to the nuns’ convent instead of the ice cream parlor.

“This will just take a moment,” he promised. “Once everything is settled, those sundaes will taste a whole lot better. I guarantee it.”

Leaving his hat in the car, he escorted Emma to the door. A friendly nun welcomed them inside and left to find Sister Pauline. This was not the first time Emma had visited the convent parlor. Mom sometimes sent her and the other children with flowers or garden produce for the nuns. Sitting in the clean, sparsely furnished room, she nervously gripped Papa’s free hand. She was beginning to think that she should have told him everything, but it was too late now. From down the hall came the familiar swish of a long black skirt.

Emma’s fingers tightened on her father’s hand. Leaning close, she begged, “Don’t make me go back to school!”

Papa did not reply.

With her usual brisk step, Sister Pauline entered the parlor and flashed a big smile. One might have thought she was happy to see them. From years of training, Emma promptly rose to her feet. Papa got up and exchanged greetings before handing the camellias to the nun.

“From Mrs. Winberry,” he said graciously.

Emma thought Sister Pauline looked ridiculous holding a bunch of candy-striped flowers. She would have seemed more at home with a basketball.

Papa got right down to business. He said that he was aware of the problems that day, in school. “Emma was quite upset. She’s always been timid and since her mother died, it’s been even more of a struggle for her. The thought of having the central role in the procession sent her into a panic.”

Emma bristled at the words. They only made her sound weak, and Sister Pauline had no use for any weakness.

Sure enough, Sister’s smile faded and her eyes cooled as they settled on Emma. “So it’s not a matter of the expense, or your father’s permission.” Of course, she would say that, just to deepen Emma’s embarrassment. “Never mind,” Sister went on, “We’ll just take you out of the procession. I’m sure the next girl in line will be happy to—“

“No,” interrupted Papa.

Emma swung her head around and stared at her father. She had never in her life heard him use that firm tone on a nun. Papa had the highest regard for the sisters at St. Germaine School.

“No Sister,” he repeated just as adamantly. “Emma was selected by her classmates. She’s overcome more trials than most other children her age. With the proper encouragement, I’m sure she’ll do just fine.”

For one breathless moment Papa and Sister Pauline faced off, their eyes locked in a silent battle of wills. If Papa won, it meant that Emma would be taking part in the procession, after all. Either way, she would be back in Sister Saltine’s class, but somehow that no longer seemed quite so terrible. Seeing Papa stand up for her—hearing him talk about the trials she had overcome—made Emma want to be brave for his sake. And maybe she wanted to show Sister Pauline, too.

At last Sister nodded and gave Papa a thin smile. “Alright, we’ll keep Emma. But I’m adding an alternate, just in case…”

Back in the car, Papa did not say another word about the situation. He just drove on to the ice cream parlor as if nothing unusual had happened. And he was right; Emma’s sundae did taste extra sweet, with hot fudge and whipped cream and a cherry on top.

 

Chapter 6

The very next morning, Emma awoke feeling too feverish and achy for school. By day’s end, the cold was settling into her chest with a fresh painful cough. When Susan brought home Emma’s schoolwork, she was bursting with news. Susan had been put on “procession standby” in case any of the chosen girls were unable to attend. Sister even had a dress that would fit her.

Any of the girls,” Emma glumly repeated. “We both know that she means me.”

“But I don’t want to replace you,” Susan said earnestly.

Sister Pauline’s attitude irked Emma. The nun probably thought she was faking her illness, as if she liked to lie in bed on a beautiful spring day. Even Papa had seemed suspicious when he checked on her this morning, personally shaking down the thermometer and standing by until he could read it.

Mom said it was the emotional upset that made Emma get sick. Mom had seen it happen before. The body’s natural immunity dropped, letting germs get a foothold. Mom wasted no time setting up the vaporizer in Emma’s room, and dosed her with orange juice all day long.

Well, Emma had had more than her share of juice these past months and it did not seem to do much good. Uncle Lars kept saying that she should have her tonsils “yanked out”, come summer. Maybe that would help. Emma was tired of coughing and she was miffed at Sister Pauline for naming an alternate, even if it was her sister. One way or another, she would make it through that procession.

By the middle of May, Emma was feeling much better, though the cough still troubled her a bit at night. It never completely went away anymore, but Mom and Papa saw no reason to run up doctor bills for something as ordinary as a cold.

Out in the fields, young corn and melon plants were pushing their roots deep into the good warm soil. Day by day, the green orchard fruit grew fatter. Final exams were coming up. Each afternoon Emma took her textbooks out on the shady front porch and studied hard. These were her last days at St. Germaine School and she wanted to get high marks—not only for her own satisfaction or to make Papa proud. More than anything, she wanted to prove herself to Sister Pauline.

 It was a lazy afternoon, without a hint of a breeze. On the porch, Emma felt her thoughts drifting from American history to the long procession dress hanging upstairs in her wardrobe. She could not exactly say that she hated it, or the matching crown of pink and white flowers. The dress and crown were very pretty, but she had never felt comfortable in anything but pants. It was bad enough that she had to wear dresses to church, and of course there was her school uniform. She could barely wait to shed them when she got home.

Behind her, the front door banged and Tommy came outside. “Wanna play?” he asked hopefully.

Emma sighed as she glanced at the brownish haze discoloring the sky. Papa had been right all along. Each year, the smog seemed to be getting worse. Here it was, not even summer, and she could feel it burning in her lungs.

“C’mon,” begged Tommy.

She could never resist him. Dropping her book, she leaped off the porch and ran for the wheelbarrow. Tommy knew what it meant. With a whoop of delight, he hurried to catch up. He piled into the empty wheelbarrow and gripped the rim with both hands. Then Emma took him on a wild ride. Up and down the paths she ran, laughing with Tommy as he bumped along.

Suddenly her throat tickled and she began to cough so hard that she had to stop pushing the wheelbarrow. There was a strange, painful tightening in her chest. Then she was on her knees fighting for each breath, just like poor Barry O’Brien.

Tommy ran off, shouting at the top of his lungs, “Mom! Papa! Mom! Something’s wrong with Emma!”

Emma was on the ground. In a dizzy haze, she looked up and saw Papa dressed in a white lab coat, reaching for her. Emma’s heart raced madly as he carried her along the path. Tommy was there, too. All the while he kept rattling on, “I didn’t do nothin’, I swear! She was just pushing me in the wheelbarrow and all of a sudden…”

They reached the house. Papa laid Emma on the couch, but she did not want to let him go. Wheezing, she clutched at his arm while the whole family crowded around, along with one of Papa’s students.

Wide-eyed, Susan asked in a hushed voice, “What’s the matter with her?”

No one answered while Mom dabbed Emma’s face with a cool washcloth.

Papa was seated on the edge of the couch, bending over Emma with a look of deep concern. “It’s alright, Honeybee,” he said in an unsteady voice. “Try to calm down, you’re safe here.”

Papa had used Emma’s pet name in front of his student, but for once she did not feel embarrassed. “Is..is it…my heart?” she gasped, quite sure that she was dying.

The teenage boy was one of Papa’s regulars. Peering intently at Emma he said, “It happens just like this to my kid brother, Mike. I bet it’s asthma. See, she’s already breathing a little easier.”

True, Emma did feel the pressure easing up, but she was still weak and lightheaded and scared out of her wits.

Papa’s worry lines relaxed a little as he considered the diagnosis. “That’s probably it,” he said. And then to Mom, “I’m driving her over to see Doctor Pratt.”

While he slipped out of his lab coat, Mom got the car keys. Not even bothering to get his hat, Papa picked up Emma and carried her out to the station wagon, where he settled her on the front seat between him and Mom. Everyone wanted to go, so Susan and Tommy took Nate in back with them. Through the windshield, Emma saw Papa’s student ride away on his old bike. How suddenly life had changed!

Old Doctor Pratt ran an office in his home. Mrs. Pratt took one look at Emma and put her to the top of the waiting list.  When her name was called, Mom and the other children stayed behind in the living room while Papa went with her. Emma walked into the examination room on shaky legs and Papa helped her onto the table. Though her airway still felt tight, she was no longer struggling for each breath. For awhile she just sat and answered the doctor’s questions. Then she held a thermometer in her mouth while he took her blood pressure and checked her pulse. Her temperature was normal, but Doctor Pratt peered into her throat anyway. Then he spent a long time listening to her chest.

Finally he lowered the stethoscope from his ears and let it dangle around his neck. “Sure enough,” he told Emma, “it’s asthma. That stubborn, persistent cough of yours is a typical symptom. Colds make it worse and when the air is bad, like today, you shouldn’t be running around.”

The doctor briefly left the room and came back with a strange-looking device called a “bulb inhaler”. He placed medication inside. Putting the inhaler to Emma’s mouth, he instructed her to take deep breaths while he squeezed the bulb. After the treatment, Emma was able to breathe freely.

Doctor Pratt listened to her lungs and nodded in satisfaction. “That did the trick. I’m afraid we’re seeing more and more asthma these days.” Turning to Papa, he explained the proper use of the inhaler and handed over a prescription, along with a brochure about “Living with Asthma”. So Emma was not dying, after all, but Papa still seemed worried as he thumbed through the information and asked a couple of questions. Then it was time to go home.

At first, having asthma made Emma feel special. She received lots of attention from the family and also from her friends at school. Mom filled out a medical form in the principal’s office, and though she paid a visit to Sister Pauline, being asthmatic did not draw any sympathy from Emma’s teacher. If anything, the nun treated her even more coolly. It was as if Sister Pauline did not believe this sudden diagnosis, as if she thought Emma was just out to fool everybody.

The novelty of a chronic illness soon wore off. While asthma sometimes got Emma out of a chore or two, it also prevented her from doing things she enjoyed. Asthma was not much fun when it kept her from roller-skating or running foot races on smoggy days. Or when Uncle Lars teased her about “getting lazy”, even though she knew it was meant as a joke. It was no fun at all when asthma gripped her chest suddenly and threatened to choke her.  

While walking home from school, she suffered her second serious attack. Luckily, she was almost home. Susan helped her into the house and Mom got the inhaler ready. Afterward, Mom questioned her about school. Had anything upsetting happened? Was there a confrontation with the teacher? But there had been nothing unusual, except for a May Procession practice. And because it was smoggy out, she had been careful not to run.

Emma was at her rabbit hutches when Papa came striding along the well-worn path that served as a shortcut to the schools. For once he was right on time, but his briefcase looked heavy with test papers.

As they hugged, Papa said, “I hear you had another attack.”

Mom must have phoned him at the high school. Touched by her parents’ concern, Emma admitted, “Yeah, it was pretty scary…but I’m okay now.”

Papa nodded. “Let’s sit down. I have something to tell you.”

Together, they walked over to the picnic table, where some of Mom’s chickens were scratching in the dirt. There under the sycamore trees, Papa took off his hat and said, “I know you’ve been keyed up about the May Procession. It’s not good for you to be tense and worried—not with asthma. I’m going to tell Sister Pauline that you can’t be in the procession, after all. We’ll just let Susan fill the gap.”

Emma gasped. “But Papa—”

Turning, Papa searched her face. “Don’t tell me you’re disappointed. I thought you’d be glad.”

Emma shook her head. “No! Don’t you see? Sister Pauline already thinks I’m a weakling. All along, she’s been expecting me to drop out. I just can’t!”

Papa gave a deep sigh. “Emma, shyness doesn’t mean that you’re weak. Having asthma doesn’t make you weak, either. You’re a sweet, sensitive girl…but if you only want to be in the procession to show up your teacher, you can just forget it.”

That night Emma lay awake in her bed, brooding. Papa had called her “a sweet girl”, but she did not feel very sweet, at all. She felt angry and out-of-sorts. Who would have thought that Papa would take her out of the procession? A couple of weeks ago Emma would have been cheering, but the trouble with Sister Pauline was starting to taint every part of her life. She could just see the smug, disapproving look in Saltine’s eyes, tomorrow…

Maybe tomorrow she would be sick again—so sick that she would miss the final days of school and her graduation ceremony, too. Leaving her bed, she went to the window and gazed out at the crescent moon. In her heart she talked to her good friend St. Germaine, who knew all about ridicule and rejection. She talked to Mama and Aunt Daisy and little Barry O’Brien. If Barry had lived, he would be joining Tommy and the other First Communicants honoring Our Lady in the procession. He would have happily participated for all the right reasons.

Then and there, Emma decided that she would follow Barry’s example. Given another chance, she would don the frilly dress with its matching crown of flowers. She would march in the procession and lay a wreath on the statue’s head—all for Our Lady…and for Barry O’Brien, too. Now all she had to do was convince Papa. But even if he said “no”, her heart felt so light and free that she was ready to accept his decision without argument or tears. Getting back into bed, she drifted into a peaceful sleep.

 

Chapter 7

Emma awoke with a happy feeling. Her change of attitude took such a weight off her shoulders that she was humming when she came down to breakfast. Right away she explained to Papa why she wanted to be in the procession, but he did not say “yes”, as she had hoped. In fact, he did not say anything about it. Swallowing a pang of disappointment, Emma finished her eggs, kissed him goodbye and tried to smile as she set off for school. All day she expected Sister Pauline to announce Emma’s withdrawal from the procession, but the dreaded moment never arrived. When Emma got home, her gown was on the living room sofa. Mom was just sitting down with a threaded needle and a roll of lace.

Curious, Emma asked, “Are you shortening it for graduation?” That had always been the plan.

Mom glanced up, needle in hand. “Not until after the procession.”

“But…” Emma’s mouth fell open. “But Papa said…”

“Your father has changed his mind.” Mom smiled. “It’s up to you, now.”

Sunday was the big day. Late in the afternoon, all the Winberrys got back into church clothes. While Papa worked on Tommy’s necktie and hair, Mom helped Emma get ready. The nylon stockings felt smooth and silky on Emma’s legs, and the gown fit her slim figure perfectly. Her stomach gave nervous flutters as Mom took out Emma’s curlers and arranged her hair into dark, becoming waves. Then the crown of flowers went on top and it was time to go.

Papa drove them to church in the car. Emma and Tommy went to their assigned gathering place where the second and eighth grade teachers took charge. Sister Pauline remained cold and aloof toward Emma. These past weeks she had never offered a single word of encouragement, but as they lined up for the procession, Emma set her thoughts on Our Lady.

The big central doors of the church opened wide. Inside, the great pipe organ was playing. Slowly the participants moved forward. Monsignor O’Doole and his servers led the way, closely followed by Father Shane and young Father Tandy. Next in line were Tommy and the other second-graders in First Communion outfits, their little hands properly folded in an attitude of prayer. Then came Emma, trailed by her six attendants. 

Just inside the door, Father Tandy loaded the incenser. Fragrant smoke curled upward as they moved ahead. The church was crowded. Around and around they walked, up one aisle and down the next while everyone sang hymns to the Blessed Virgin.

The incense thickened and began to tickle Emma’s throat. She could not help coughing a little…and then she felt her airway starting to constrict. Oh no—please, not now! Not right here, in front of everyone!

Red-faced, she started to panic—and just as abruptly, her panic eased. Somehow, she no longer needed to cough. Each breath flowed naturally, and in the midst of her relief Emma realized that she was no longer alone. An unseen presence was comforting her, and she did not need bodily eyes to identify its source. Barry O’Brien had taken his rightful place in the procession and he remained with Emma, helping her every step of the way as she crowned Our Lady’s statue.

 

Back outside the church, Emma felt a tap on her shoulder and turned around. There stood Sister Pauline.

“Well done, Emma,” said the nun with a nod and a smile.

Emma barely had the presence of mind to thank her—not only because Sister’s praise was so startling. She felt all tingly and disoriented, as if she were still back in church, moving along the aisles with little Barry at her side.

When the family caught up to her, Uncle Lars treated everyone to cheeseburgers at a popular restaurant. There, Tommy happily removed his tie and suit jacket before diving into his food. Eating out was a rare treat, but Emma had to keep reminding herself to take another bite.

Mom noticed her lack of appetite and said, “Emma, aren’t you hungry?”

“Too much excitement,” guessed Papa.

Emma just smiled. Someday she might tell the others about her unexpected helper, but right now it was for her alone—far too precious to share, even with Papa. Today she had received a visitor from Heaven.

 

oooOOooo

 

 

 

 


© Copyright 2017 M. C. Pehrson. All rights reserved.

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