“Well, I just don’t think I can lie to a priest,” I said again in the car on the way to the rectory.
“Oh no, no of course not.” He was thoughtful.
After further contemplation and with appreciation of how clever we were, we had developed the perfect response.
We had been together for nine years, albeit sometimes on an off-again basis and had finally dipped our toes into the waters of commitment when I said yes to his proposal on Valentine’s Day in 1987. It was the first marriage for both of us, preferring as we did to conquer our professional lives and careers before tackling something as obscure as a personal life. I was 32 and he was 35.
During the initial giddy phase of our engagement, I tested fate by venturing a very timid “I don’t think I want children,” one evening after dinner. I couldn’t look at him directly, fearful of what I’d see. I was completely unprepared to hear him exhale slowly, see the look of relief on his face and hear “Really? I’m pretty sure I don’t either.”
Our families were quite cheerful at our announcement, his rambunctious clan made up of the matriarchal grandmother, parents, two brothers and two sisters, their spouses and six cute nieces and nephews as well as my seriously outnumbered but never retiring grandparents, parents, sister and husband and two more pretty adorable kids. Though we hadn’t shared our decision on proliferation perhaps the writing on the wall was already evident. On a Christmas day a few years later when we were celebrating with Jim’s family and the niece-nephew count had grown to ten with none over the age of ten, one of Jim’s brothers was overheard to say, “We only have these holiday get-togethers to serve as birth control for Jim and Sue.”
Jim’s family is one steeped in the traditions of a small dairy community in Northern California, including a long standing membership in the Catholic Church. Jim’s parents both grew up attending the lovely Victorian era chapel in town, sometimes sitting in the pews below the stained glass windows their forbearers sponsored during the church’s construction in the 1890’s. His parents remained active parishioners throughout their lives. Jim was an altar boy, an honor reserved for a few of the well-behaved and reverent attendees of the Catholic grammar school located next door. And though he had not been active in the church since it decreed that eating red meat on Friday was no longer a sin, the importance of being married and thereby sanctified in the Church for him and his family cannot be overstated.
My family was a bit more relaxed when it came to religion. My father was Mormon, my mother Methodist and my sister with an early affiliation for tradition and ritual thought she may grow up to be a nun some day. Because, we moved each time my father was transferred to ever increasing responsibilities in other locations around the United States, we never stayed in one place longer than about three years. So, maybe it was just transiency that defined our Sunday tradition of attending whatever church was nearby, welcoming and undemanding, returning home, sitting around a dining table, holding hands and saying grace before consuming the quintessential Sunday roast beef dinner.
And so while I could comfortably be married anywhere, in a church or under a redwood tree for that matter, for Jim and his family there was really just one place. Understandably, my unease began to surface when Jim explained that we’d need to attend counseling sessions with the current priest after which he would determine if we’d be eligible to be married not only in the chapel but also in the eyes of the Church. Unease had developed into anxiety and then downright worry by the time Jim explained some of the things we’d talk about with the priest included our pledge to raise our children in the Catholic faith.
We met Father Dennis Doyle at the rectory one evening. He was a slightly build man and shorter than most, still vital though in his later years with a complexion that got regular doses of sun and wind during his frequent golf games and an Irish brogue you could cut with a knife. He was relaxed and unintimidating like meeting a distant relative for the first time. We all sat around a table in the rectory’s library and after some pleasantries he began.
“So, tell me about yourself, Susan. Are you Catholic?”
“No, Father. In fact I haven’t ever been baptized.” It was a tough way to start.
After a pause, and with aplomb and reverence he obviously didn’t reserve for the pulpit said, “God bless you my child.”
It felt like someone had wrapped a soft but shielding blanket around me and I meant it when I said “Thank you Father.”
We waited for “the question” which inevitably came.
“What religion will you raise the children,” Father Doyle asked.
I glanced sideways at Jim and held my breath. Jim’s response was flawless. “If we have children, we will certainly raise them in the Catholic Church, Father.” The words just rolled off his lips.
I nodded and smiled.
That was when the whistle atop the fire department building sounded a loud piercing siren of warning. Jim, then in the middle of this 18 year tenure as a volunteer fire fighter, stood and with a brief shrug and apology hurried out to report to the station closing the door to the rectory library softly behind him.
I watched him leave in disbelief and panic when, turning back to Father Doyle, I found myself under his appraising gaze. “So why aren’t you going to have children,” he asked?
Clearly, the jig was up. I sure hoped the family was going to enjoy an outdoor ceremony under that redwood tree. I stammered and stuttered and came out with something pretty inane.
He persisted with just one more request. “Tell me what your childhoods were like.”
“Oh great. Really. Very happy. We both have pretty wonderful parents, you know.” I assured him. “It’s just that children should come first and we don’t know how we would do that and there’s no going back once you bring them into the world. I have never been able to see myself as a parent. I’m just different that way, I think. And I believe Jim when he says he feels the same way.” And there it was, the truth, without eloquence or diplomacy perhaps but genuine and frank.
We were married by Father Doyle in the large chapel on a raining October evening as the sun broke through the clouds just before sunset, illuminating what was left of the big stained glass windows behind the alter which had been damaged by a strong earthquake some weeks before. The service was performed under contractors scaffolding that had been set up to begin the restoration. After 26 years of marriage only some memories of that day remain vivid and I wonder about those that have faded. And I don’t know why Father Doyle chose to consent to our request instead of adhering to some of the long standing traditions and customs of the Church but I wish I had asked him.