(In memory of Dan & Phil Berrigan)
The singing rose and fell around us, but I wasn’t joining in. I knelt, one hand on my mother’s back, the other gripping the wooden pew in front of me. I prayed to God, if he was listening, for him to heal whatever was wrong with her. Or at least tell the doctors what it was so they could treat it.
Times like this, I wished that I had magic. Or some outside force I could touch and taste and see to intervene, like the Murray family in A Wrinkle in Time. My parents bought me that book when it came out. I devoured the whole series, one after another.
They were still my favorite books, even though my Dad said I was too old for them.
Mom coughed into her favorite peach handkerchief, pale skin pink with effort, heightening the contrast with the purplish blue circles underneath her hazel eyes.
I winced every time the hacking rose up, rattling, despite her efforts to hold it back. To quiet the rasp that I knew was so painful to her lungs.
Test after test after exhausting test, coming home with no news once again. This had been going on for almost a year now.
And there wasn’t one thing I could do, except keep my head down, go to school, cook my dad breakfast and keep the house clean. And read.
Tucking the peach hankie up the sleeve of her cream colored sweater, Mom closed her eyes to pray, head bowed, green scarf tied tightly at the base of her neck, wisps of pale red hair escaping around the edges.
She shouldn’t be breathing in the frankincense and myrrh that rose in clouds of smoke, gray wisps dancing through the white vault of the church. I had tried to get her to sit further back, away from the action, but she liked to be close in. Said it made her feel closer to God.
I saw what she meant, as I gazed up at the dome above the giant marble slab of altar, where Father Bryan in his green robes was readying the water and the wine for communion. It was pretty up here. And being closer to the altar could make a person feel closer to God, I guessed.
The altar boy handed Father Bryan one cruet, then the other, and the priest mixed them in the heavy golden chalice.
Jesus rose, white robed and beautiful with long dark hair, painted like a cloud above the altar. Above the more gruesome image of his tortured body hanging naked, ribs protruding, on the wooden cross.
“There is no resurrection without sacrifice,” Father Bryan always said. That was meant to be an admonishment to us, to give up pleasure, to work hard in school, and I supposed, to embrace the beatings my friends got regularly from parents too drunk, angry, or scared to do anything else.
We were the sacrifice for the previous generation’s bewildered pain. So they could rise again.
A few old ladies with lace doilies bobby pinned to roller-set hair kneeled in front of us. One family was to our right, kids kicking wooden pew backs in boredom as their mother prayed.
There were only a dozen or so people in the church, almost all of us women or children. Saturday morning on a beautiful spring, Maryland day was likely the least popular time to be inside a church.
I was there because my mother needed me to be. It wasn’t boring, exactly, but it didn’t get me any closer to feeling a sense of God. Not the way other people seemed to. Not the way Mom talked about it.
My elbows ground into the tall back of the hard wooden pew in front of me and my bra straps dug into my shoulders. I could never get them to fit right. Would they always be this way, or was it just that my body hadn’t decided on a final shape yet?
The naugahyde kneeler pad was sticky under my bare knees. I should have worn stockings instead of stupid knee socks, but I’d wanted to wear regular shoes instead of sandals that morning, and pantyhose were too much of a pain if I wasn’t getting dressed up.
“You wouldn’t have that problem if you wore a longer skirt,” my mother said, the one time I mentioned it. I never mentioned it again. My skirts were too long as it was. And my hair was too wavy. Mom wouldn’t let me iron it straight. Basically, everything about me was wrong. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, having lived as me for sixteen years.
The altar boy in his white smock rang the bells as Father Bryan lifted the round white host, presenting it to us as though a miracle was occurring right then and there.
“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” I barely mumbled the prayer, but Mom said it as loudly as her wheezing voice would let her. It was the prayer she was convinced would save her.
None of us were worthy, the Church taught. Some of us would be healed. Which ones, though? That was the theological conundrum. The thing no one could ever explain to me.
We were just supposed to pray. To wait. To hope.
To hope whatever was wrong with Mom would turn out to only be asthma, and not emphysema, like we feared.
I helped her up, tucking her bony arm under mine, ready to make the long trek down the carpeted aisle, ready to receive the body of our Lord.
I stood at the blue formica kitchen counter, filling tiny juice glasses with orange juice I’d mixed up from concentrate that morning. Dad sat at the round wood kitchen table, white tee shirt peeking out from a short sleeved plaid shirt, and shoveled down a pile of eggs and bacon newspaper at his elbow. Mom and I had cottage cheese on dry toast at our breakfast places. One slice each.
Mom had taken off the green scarf she wore to church. Her light red hair was looking dry and dull. It used to shine. When had that changed?
“I don’t know what they were thinking. They’re priests, for God’s sake!”
Setting the juice at our places, I sat down.
“Jim,” my mother said quietly, admonishing Dad. We were home from morning mass, which Dad never attended. Once a week was enough for his soul, he said.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Those Berrigan brothers causing trouble again. They should be defrocked! It’s criminal!”
“Now Jim,” Mom wheezed. “You shouldn’t talk that way about men of the cloth.”
“Well, they should act more like priests, then, not like some long haired, hippie radicals!”
Grunting, he threw the paper on the table, downed his juice, kissed Mom’s cheek and went off to mow the lawn.
Just another Saturday in May.
“What are you doing today, sweetie?” Mom asked before cutting off a small bite of toast and cottage cheese.
“I’m going to ride my bike to the library. I’m meeting Katie. We’ve got a big paper due next week.”
“Just make sure you do these dishes before you go, okay? And straighten up your room.”
Setting her knife and fork back down, she drank some juice and rose from the table herself, leaving the cottage cheese toast cut up, but uneaten on the plate.
“You’re not going to finish your breakfast?” I asked.
Mom ran a hand over my hair. “I’m just not that hungry. Throw it away.”
Her slippers clapped out of the kitchen, out to the living room where she would sit all day and read. That was all she did anymore. No more ceramics classes. No more house cleaning. No organizing rummage sales with ladies from the church. No more driving me to rehearsal for the school play.
She was just too tired, she said.
I sighed, and dragged the newspaper across the round wood table before taking a bite of my own toast, cottage cheese squishing between my teeth. Crunching on the wheat toast, I flipped to where Dad had been reading.
And there was the image. Two men in black suits with the white tab of the Roman collar at their necks. They stood behind what looked like wire trash cans, flames boiling up. The dark haired one had fingers outstretched as if he had just released a match into the flames. The paler haired, stocky figure next to him bent over as though to strike another match to add to the conflagration.
The image made my skin hurt, as though it had been set on fire, along with whatever it was they were burning. I itched with it, like last winter’s fever.
Setting my toast back down, I scanned the article, and saw his words. The words that would change my life.
“Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children…”
These two men. These priests. They were burning draft files. They were breaking the law.
How was this even possible? The priests I knew barely even talked about Vietnam, except to say we should support the boys overseas, and that the protesting hippies were dirty and lawless. Godless.
But these priests, and seven other people, the article said, had made sticky napalm out of soap flakes and gasoline. They had broken into the draft office only two towns over from us, stolen the draft records and set them all on fire.
The library was cool. I drew my yellow spring weight sweater around me, glad I’d thrown it into my bicycle basket before heading out. Always prepared, just like Mom taught me.
Katie and I sat at one of the big wood tables, research books spread out between us, with another stack at my elbow, waiting to be opened. I was peering at the small entry in Encyclopedia Brittanica.
Kids laughter rang from the children’s section, disturbing the hush. Saturday story hour.
I couldn’t concentrate anyway. My report on Dahomey felt foolish and strange all of a sudden. I’d been so excited to be writing about the women warriors, but they were too long ago. And war was happening now.
The image of the priests bending over the flames wouldn’t leave my mind.
“Katie,” I hissed.
She tucked a strand of straight blond hair behind her ear, and shoved her heavy black framed glasses up her nose. If it weren’t for the glasses, her straight blond hair would make me jealous. The heavy glasses balanced it all out, at least, though Katie was still prettier than me.
Plus, her parents let her date. Granted, she’d only had a few movie dates with nerdy Oscar so far, but still. A date is a date. Even if I wasn’t sure I wanted to go on one myself, it would’ve been nice to have the chance.
I was sixteen and had never dated anyone.
“What do you want? Stuck on something?”
“Can you get your brother’s car?”
Katie frowned, creasing her forehead and drawing her thin lips down. She set her pencil down.
“I need to get to Catonsville. Or something,” I added. Because I realized I had no idea where these people would be right now. I just knew I needed to get to wherever it was.
“Catonsville? What the heck is in Catonsville? You thinking of going to U of M now? I thought your parents were set on Villanova or Duquesne?”
“Fordham if I can get into it,” I said, then shook my head. How were we already off topic?
“No. This isn’t about college.” I leaned across the table, shoving some of the books out of the way, seeking out Katie’s brown eyes under the thick glasses. “I have to find some priests.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Wait a sec. You’ll see.”
I wove my way through the hushed library, past the tall metal bookcases, toward the little reading area across the room where the magazines were.
The long wooden rods holding the day’s newspapers were off to one side. I hoped today’s Post was there. I needed to show Katie that picture. It would explain everything, better than I could.
I was in luck. Dangling from the long rod, crisp as though it had been ironed, was the Washington Post.
By the time I got back to the table, Katie was back in her books, scribbling frantically in a loose leaf binder, pausing only to tuck her hair back behind her ears. She hated it falling in her face, but was vain enough to not wear a headband. Her hair was her one good asset, she said, and she wasn’t going to look more like a dweeb than she already did.
Frankly, I thought Katie was pretty cool looking. I wished I could tuck her hair behind her ears myself. Not that I would let her know that. We’d been friends for so long, she’d probably think it was weird that I all of a sudden was having those kinds of thoughts about her.
Whatever kind of thoughts those were. I wondered if Meg Murray ever had those thoughts.
Katie looked up, catching me standing there, stock still and staring.
“What’s up, weirdo?” she said, shaking her head. I sat back down, quickly thumbing through the dry paper, searching for the page. There they were, larger than life, flames at their feet. I shoved the paper toward her.
She studied the photo for a moment, then scanned the article.
“Are you nuts?” Katie hissed. “You can’t go chasing off after these people! Your parents would kill you! Besides,” she looked down at the article again, “how would you find them, anyway?”
She was right about that. I hadn’t really been thinking. Grabbing the paper, I scanned the piece again. They weren’t in jail yet. They’d been released, and were awaiting trial. So where would they be? Where did people “await trial”? In jail?
Surely there would be people who knew them. People I could talk to. Other Catholics maybe. People who would understand.
“I’m going to find them. I swear.”
Two weeks later, I’d left Dad to take Mom to mass, and Katie was piloting her brother’s El Camino – loaned with threats of dismemberment if we returned it scratched or otherwise harmed – through the streets of Baltimore.
I glanced from the spidery map opened on my lap, back to the streets. I’d never seen so many black faces outside of the television screen. And I’d certainly never seen them just hanging out, playing ball in the streets, or walking together.
There weren’t any black kids at our school. I’d only ever seen them on the news, being chased by dogs. Blasted against walls by water cannons. Crumpled on the ground, with blood on their faces.
They looked so normal that Sunday, in short sleeved buttoned shirts or t-shirts, jeans and skirts, some of the girls with smooth pressed hair, and some with the new style that looked like dark halos around their faces, reflecting the sun.
I’d asked Sister Marguerite, one of the nuns at our church who I’d heard was sympathetic to “those hippies” as my dad called them. If anyone knew about the Catonsville protestors, she would.
She had directed me to Viva House in Baltimore. “They feed people there, and are friends to Father Phil and Father Dan.” The two priests in the photos.
Looking at me with her smooth face, a wave of black hair sweeping out from under her black veil, Sister Marguerite paused.
“Be careful, though, Joanna. I know you aren’t used to cities, and…well, Baltimore is even more of a city than most.”
I had no idea what she meant by that. All I knew was that a huge rope was yanking me toward these people who had done an act I couldn’t even imagine. But I didn’t exactly tell my parents where we were going, all the same.
A partial truth was truth enough. I’d explain it later, maybe, once I knew what was going on.
We bumped across the railroad tracks and the houses grew closer together, leaning up against each other in long rows. Two and three story brick homes with tiny porches, neatly kept. Some were white washed, others painted purple or blue, some remained the original orange red brick color. I liked those ones the best.
People sat out on front stoops, enjoying the May air. A couple of boys played basketball in the street. We were the only white faces around. I was glad we were in the heavy El Camino, just in case.
“You sure this is a good idea?” Katie said, shoving her heavy glasses back up her nose.
“We’ve come this far. And I really want to meet these people. Sister Marguerite said they would be here.”
We couldn’t turn back. I needed to do something. The images of soldiers crossing the television set each night haunted me. Thatched roofs burning in villages far away, people screaming… Mom would object after awhile, and dad would turn off the set, but not before I’d seen enough to make me feel ill.
That picture of the wire basket in flames showed me that people could do something. We didn’t just have to watch the news at night. We didn’t just have to pray for God to help us.
And it made me feel like the hippies in the streets were right. There was no way my parents were going to let me join marches with long haired men and women, with flowers painted on their faces, eyes glassy with drugs…
But these were priests. Surely that would make it okay.
“Turn here!” I shouted, finger on the map. “Left!”
“Damn it, Joanna!” Katie yanked at the wheel and switched lanes. Cars blaring their horns, we just made it onto the side street.
“It should be right up here.”
On the corner up ahead, I saw purple and yellow flowers peeking out above a fence. A red brick three story row house, no porch, just a few steps leading up from the sidewalk, bars on the windows. A white sign that read “Viva House.”
“That’s it!” I waved. “Park over there.”
Katie muscled the El Camino into the spot under an elm tree, cursing in ways I wasn’t allowed to. Ever.
She grabbed her leather purse from the bench seat in between us. I folded the map and moved my brown corduroy bag onto my lap.
Hand pressing down on the door handle, she looked over.
“Ready?” she said.
But I wasn’t ready. Not really. Despite wanting to meet these people with my whole heart, enough to lie to my parents. I’d told them Sister Marguerite was sending us to an inner-city charity program in Baltimore, and that other kids would be going so we’d be safe. Kind of a lie, but kind of true.
Sometimes you do what you have to do.
Despite having my best friend Katie at my side, my heart pounded up into my throat, making me queasy.
Nothing could make me feel like I was ready, because how could you be ready for something when you didn’t even know what it was you were preparing for?
No one answered the front door.
“We drove all this way, and you didn’t call ahead to make sure they’d be home?” Katie’s cheeks were red. “I went to a lot of trouble to get Dean’s car, Joanna!”
“Just give me a minute. I think I hear voices out back.”
“Just great,” she muttered. “It’s probably some drug dealers or something.”
“Listen, you’re always the one saying we need more adventure in our lives. Well, we’re having one, okay?”
I trotted down the steps, not waiting to see if she was following, and headed toward the garden on the corner. A moment later, I heard her sandals on the sidewalk behind me. Good. I really didn’t want to do this alone.
Just around the corner was a gate into the garden. That was where the voices were. Pushing open the gate, I was greeted by a wonderland of vegetables and flowers. A crazy riot of purple, orange and yellow, with the sharp scent of herbs and green.
“We aren’t open on Sundays!” a cheerful woman called out from the shade of a covered patio abutting the brick house. “If you’re hungry, I can give you some bread and tell you where to go.”
She walked toward us, wearing a navy skirt, sensible shoes, and a neat as a pin white blouse. Her eyes were beautiful. A delicate silver cross gleamed in the small open vee of her blouse.
“Um, no. We’re not here to eat,” I glanced at Katie, as though she could help me. She just stood there in her sandals, pink blouse tucked into the waist of a maroon a-line skirt. My outfit was basically the same, except my blouse was flowered and my skirt was denim. And I never looked as good as Katie did.
The woman was still watching me, a kind look on her face.
“I’m here because of the newspaper,” I stumbled out. My skin flashed hot, then cold, then hot again. What the heck was happening to me?
“You’re from a school paper?” she inquired.
“What do the girls want, Willa?” A dark haired man approached us, coming out from the shadows of the patio where I could now see a group of people sitting at tables. They were all turned, looking at us. A stocky, fair haired man was the only one standing, a basket of bread and jug of wine on the table in front of him.
The man approaching me in a black turtleneck – with his luminous dark eyes, silver fish pendant hanging on a chain around his neck – he was the man from the photo. So was the man – the fair haired priest – standing on the patio.
They were the men who had set my world on fire.
“It’s you,” I said. My lungs barely worked, my chest refused to rise and fall.
The man with the silver fish grinned wide, beaming like the sun that filled the garden. “Well, I’m not anyone else, much as my brother might want me to be sometimes.”
The dark haired man thrust out a hand. “I’m Dan. Who are you?”
Introductions made, the woman, Willa, still looked at us quizzically. I still hadn’t told them why two white suburban girls had come to inner Baltimore to visit.
“The picture. Of the draft files burning. It…” my throat closed up with tears.
“It meant something to you,” Father Dan said.
He knew. I knew he would. I could feel it in his posture in that photo. A certainty about the world and his place in it. A certainty I wanted but didn’t have. Didn’t know how to get.
My parents didn’t have it. They fumbled through life, crashing through disappointment, worry, and sickness. My teachers just told me to pay attention and memorize things. Father Bryan just told me to pray. To believe.
My books told me there was magic, but I hadn’t found it yet.
No one in my life knew…what? What did this dark haired man have?
A place to stand. So I said that.
“I just want to know what’s right, you know? Where I fit.”
He nodded, then put a gentle hand on my arm. “We can talk over lunch, but first, are you Catholic?”
“Yes,” I said.
“We’re just about to celebrate the Eucharist. Please join us, if you like.”
I had never been to mass like that before, everyone taking turns to pass around the bread and wine. Everyone saying prayers.
I had never met anybody like these people before. Willa and Brendon, Father Dan and Father Phil. The seven other people who had been at the draft offices that day. The people who would come to be the Catonsville Nine.
Those people changed my life.
I went home that day and told my parents where I’d been, and that it didn’t matter what they said, I was going back. I was going to help out at Viva House. I was going to the next march in Washington, too, and the trial in Catonsville when it happened, and they weren’t going to stop me.
Dad yelled. Mom coughed and cried. But I was done with that. I would run away if I had to. This was more important than I could explain. But explanation or no, I had to do this.
Sister Marguerite came and spoke to my parents one afternoon. I stayed in my room, keyed up, supposedly studying but really, knotting up my flowered bedspread in my hands, stomach clenched up. I could hear Sister’s voice talking quietly, as Dad’s deeper voice rose and fell, in anger. And anguish.
Then something broke open in me, and I became calm. Still inside.
I realized something I could never see before. My parents were afraid. They’d always been afraid. They clung to church and work and mowing the lawn because it was a way to make order in a chaotic world.
They didn’t realize that we had to run headlong into the chaos, dive into that roiling ocean, and trust that we were strong enough to swim.
Sometimes awakening comes slowly, other times all in a rush. For me, it was somehow both.
Katie and I stayed at Viva House for two hours that first day. We listened. Talked. Ate.
Before I knew it, I’d been invited back to volunteer, and given books on the Catholic Worker movement, and Liberation Theology.
It all, as the hippies said, blew my mind.
Eucharist that day changed something in me, but more so what was changing me was this: the dirty pan in my left hand, and the soapy sponge in my right. The sudden clattering of spoons dropped into a sink filled with water.
Awakening was the scent of the twenty pounds of potatoes I’d peeled and chopped into chunks this morning, bubbling in two ten gallon pots along with a sack of onions, carrots, parsley, and whatever other vegetables were in the industrial refrigerator, turning into soup.
Awakening were the voices of hungry people, showing up at Viva House for lunch.
This Saturday-volunteering was a compromise. For now. I was working up to being out in the streets. To marching on Washington. To helping out with the trial.
If I had to wait until I was eighteen? So be it. But I was going to start practicing now.
“You just have to do what you know is right,” Father Dan said that first afternoon in Baltimore. The Catonsville Nine were going to trial. They would pay whatever price they had to pay.
I was going to find a way to do that, too.
“You don’t have to prove your life,” Father Dan had said. “You just have to live.”
I couldn’t do what Dad wanted me to do. I couldn’t save my Mom.
This thing I had to do? It wasn’t going to college, or cleaning the house as Mom slowly coughed herself to death, reading the stories of saints.
I had found something that was mine. It still burned like a trashcan fire inside my heart.
The whole world was on fire, but so was I. I had to live that.
My body and my mind would be the sacrifice to whatever peace there was to come.
And meantime, there were dishes to wash and guests to visit with in the garden. There were things to learn. So many things I felt that I would burst.
The outside force I needed hadn’t come from far away. It wasn’t magic, though it felt that way sometimes.
It was people, building an oasis together. A place where anyone could come.
A place to be fed.
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