Merry Christmas to my Readers! Please enjoy the excerpt from my book.
Tap dancing in Church
Linda Waltersdorf Cobourn
To my Mother, the original Elizabeth Bates. This one is for you.
Elizabeth was trying to pray, squeezing her eyes shut in imitation of St Therese, whose picture hung just outside the school chapel. Sister Beatrice had told her to "clear her mind of all other thoughts" in order to commune with God the Father and His Son, Jesus. In that way, said Sister Beatrice, the Holy Spirit would hear her prayers. The whole idea of a Godhead comprised of three distinctive personalities was confusing to Elizabeth. She had made her First Holy Communion--she always thought of it in capital letters--last year with her older sister Eloise. Eloise was nine and should have taken her first Communion the year before, but she had a hard time learning things. Daddy said it would be alright if Eloise waited a year and went to catechism classes with Elizabeth so she could sort of explain things to Eloise. Father Hannigan had agreed with Daddy; most people did. Daddy, who often forgot to pay the power and light bill and the rent, could be a very persuasive man. That’s what Mama would say whenever Daddy came home with a chicken the butcher had "just happened" to be giving away as Daddy passed the shop.
Mama. That was the reason that Elizabeth was in the chapel, instead of in her classroom with the other third graders, learning math. She tried to keep the teardrops from leaving her eyes; Georgie Martin had called her a crybaby this morning in front of the whole class and even though Sister Beatrice had told the class that sometimes God sent us tears to help us heal, the whole class had laughed. So Sister had told Elizabeth she could be excused from math class and go to the chapel, alone, to pray for " your dear mother." To Sister Beatrice, sweet Benedictine nun, everyone was " dear", even the boys who pulled the girls' pigtails so hard their eyes smarted.
Elizabeth's eyes had that same feeling now, as if someone was pulling her hair too tightly, stretching her skin back from her face and drawing the corners of her eyes up. Sometimes, when Mama brushed her hair into a ponytail, the stretching feeling would happen. But Elizabeth' s hair was loose today, the thick mass of curls spilling onto her shoulders. Eloise had tried to help her comb it, but the hair was too difficult to pull a comb through and the hairbrush was missing. She’d given up and left Elizabeth to her own struggles when Daddy had bellowed that they were going to be late for schools if they didn’t stop dawdling.
At the thought of the morning, with Mama's absence leaving a gigantic hole in the departure for school, Elizabeth stopped fighting the tears and let them fall onto the back of the wooden pew. It was probably a sin to cry on the chapel pews and make more work for the little old nuns who cleaned, but at the moment Elizabeth didn't care. She was sad and frightened and even kneeling on the cold leather of the kneeler did not help to calm her heart. Eloise had not been able to find the navy blue stockings this morning, so both girls had worn their knee socks to school, their legs exposed to the windy chill of the October morning. Eloise, at least, had a coat to keep her warm, but Elizabeth had outgrown hers last winter and Mama had given it to the church charity in the spring. She had declared that she would buy Elizabeth a brand new coat in the fall, one that was not a hand-me-down from Eloise. Elizabeth could count on one hand the number of new things she had gotten in her life and the prospect of a new coat was exciting.
"We'll take the bus into Chester, " Mama had declared, " and get you a brand new coat at Speares. Then afterwards we'll go to Woolworth's for a sundae." Elizabeth had been certain they would. Unlike Daddy, Mama never broke promises. The thought of an ice cream sundae at the soda fountain was enticing, but even more were Mama's last sentence of the conversation. “Just you and me," she had said.
Elizabeth shivered now, the thin blue sweater she'd worn over her school jumper doing very little to keep her warm. Mama had it all planned. The money earned from the vegetable garden would go towards the new coat and the bus fare. Plus, Mama would save a little "here and there." It became a secret they shared all summer. When Daddy would complain that he’d had to eat oatmeal three days in a row instead of his usual eggs sunny side up, Mama would shrug and blame it on the egg man and his unreliable chickens. Or when Eloise would run a hole through her church knee socks, Mama would show her how to mend them neatly and do without a new pair. The money for Elizabeth's new coat grew slowly, wrapped up in a monogrammed hanky and hidden in Mama’s top dresser drawer.
But Elizabeth had not gotten her new coat, nor had they taken the bus into Chester. The week after Labor Day, Mama had started coughing, just a little at first. A bit of a cold, she said, with the change of seasons. But the cough had gotten worse, shaking Mama's thin body. She grew pale and weak, hardly able to hold baby Jimmy in her arms unless she was sitting down. Daddy went to Lindsey's Drug Store for medicine, sticky black stuff that resembled molasses. But it hadn't helped.
Elizabeth squirmed on the kneeler, moving her bare legs so they made little squeaking noises in the leather. She shouldn't be thinking about this now. She should be praying for Mama right now, the way Sister Beatrice had told her to, the way Daddy had told both her and Eloise to when they' d left for school that morning.
"Pray for your mother, girls", he had said, and that frightened her because for all that he made them go to church on Sunday and paid the tuition at the little Catholic school, no one would ever say that Daddy was a religious man. He was too handsome, Mama said, too used to getting his own way through his charm that made him think he didn't need God. "He'll change someday,” Mama had said. "Someday there will be something Handsome Jim can't charm his way through."
It was what she called him, Handsome Jim. And he was handsome, with dark--almost black--wavy hair, piercing blue eyes, and a long, straight nose. When he smiled, dimples formed at the corners of his mouth and his straight white teeth dazzled his audience. It was no wonder, said Mama, that they could be two months behind on the rent and not hear a peep from their landlady, Mrs. Brogan.
Mrs. Brogan hadn't mentioned the rent in a long time. As Mama had gotten sicker and sicker, people from the church and the neighborhood had brought soups and stews to the house, and Father Hannigan was a frequent visitor. Daddy paced the floor at night when they were all supposed to be asleep. Finally, Father Hannigan said to Daddy, "Jim, your wife needs a doctor.”
"Doctors are expensive,” Daddy had said. "Where’s the money to come from?" Unlike a lot of men in 1946, Daddy had a job, but it didn't pay so well. Father Hannigan had muttered something under his breath that sounded like "tap rooms", although it was no secret to either Eloise or Elizabeth that Daddy liked his whiskey.
Two weeks later, with Mama hardly able to get out of bed in the mornings, Father Hannigan had offered to take up a collection to pay for Mama to go to a doctor. “I will not accept charity!" Daddy had bellowed and shown the good father the door.
Elizabeth had thought about the hanky, neatly knotted around precious coins and bills, hidden in the top drawer of Mama' dresser with her " good" jewelry, the pearls Daddy had given her on their wedding day and the cameo brooch that had belonged to Grandmom Looby. After supper one night- or what passed for supper since Eloise had taken over cooking--Elizabeth had crept quietly into her parents' bedroom, standing by her mother's side until Mama looked up and smiled weakly. “What is it, Sweet pea?" she said and coughed so hard it made the bed shake.
"Mama, the money for my coat..."
She laid a weak hand on Elizabeth' s shoulder. "Don’t worry, Lizzy. It's hidden. Handsome Jim won't drink it away.” She tried to smile.
"Mama, we should give it to Daddy for a doctor."
Mama attempted humor. "Why, who’s sick?" Then she turned solemn. "I'll be fine, Lizzy. I just need to rest up and shake this cold. Don't worry."
But Elizabeth was worried. "Mama, you've been sick for four weeks."
Mama was surprised. "Four weeks? Really? You're back to school?"
Elizabeth nodded. "The leaves are starting to turn color, Mama. Look out the window and you’ll see."
Slowly, painfully, Mama turned and stared for long moments. "You'll need your coat,” she said.
"No, Mama, you need a doctor. Let’s give my coat money to Daddy so he can go get a doctor for you."
She shook her head and went into a coughing spasm. "Handsome Jim would spend it at the tap room."
Elizabeth choked back a sob. "I’d give it to Father Hannigan and he could pay a doctor. Please, Mama?"
But Mama had shaken her head. “I 'll be okay, Elizabeth. I promise."
And Mama always kept her promises.
Now, three weeks later, Mama was no better. She was, in fact, worse. Last night, a coughing spasm had wracked her for hours, leaving her so still and pale that Elizabeth had feared for a moment that Mama was dead. It had shaken Daddy as well. He’d gone next door to the O'Brian's, who had a phone because Mr. O' Brian was a shift supervisor at Sun Oil, to call for the doctor. When Doc Boyle arrived, he’d taken one look at Mama, felt her weak pulse, and told Daddy very quietly to go back to the O’Brians and call for an ambulance.
Moments later, the flashing red lights and the screaming siren filled Market Street; neighbors and curious boys on bikes congregated on the small square of grass that served as front lawn. Mrs. O'Brian gathered up Baby Jimmy from his playpen and tried to hustle Eloise and Elizabeth next door to her own house, but Elizabeth grabbed onto her mother's hand as the stretcher was being wheeled onto the front porch. “Don’t die, Mama, “she begged, tear streaming down her face.
Then Mama was gone, carried up into the ambulance, and Handsome Jim jumped up behind the stretcher in his shirtsleeves, forgetting his hat and his overcoat. Mrs. O'Brian had made hot chocolate for all of the children, and then fixed pallets of blankets on the living room floor for Eloise and Elizabeth. Jimmy was carried upstairs to spend the night with the youngest O'Brian boy. Mrs. O'Brian had listened to the girls say their prayers then had kissed each of them on the forehead and told them to come and get her if they got frightened during the night. The two girls had huddled together in their blankets, sobbing through the night.
Daddy had returned in the dark hours of the morning, whispering to Mr. and Mrs. O'Brian before whisking the girls home to get ready for school. Mrs. O ' Brian would take care of Jimmy “for the time being." It was what neighbors did for one another. Mama had taken care of all five noisy O'Brian children when little Tim was born in July.
"How is Mama?" Elizabeth had asked. Eloise had just cried, the way she had done most of the night.
But Daddy wouldn't answer. “You girls get ready for school,” was all he said. He went into the kitchen to make a pot of coffee and some oatmeal, but he forgot the girls' lunch sacks and Elizabeth didn't to dare to remind him.
Daddy had deposited Eloise and Elizabeth at school almost an hour early, hurrying them down the hill and through the gates of the church yard. Elizabeth had tried to wrap her sweater around herself more tightly, but it was a struggle to hold onto her books at the same time. She was afraid the school would be closed--the sun was just barely over the horizon--but when Daddy rang the bell at the front door, Sister Clarence, the principal, had appeared. Elizabeth had always suspected the pleasant-faced nun slept in school. Sister did not look surprised to see the Bates girls standing on her doorstep so much before the bell. She ushered them in with a wide gesture of her arms and invited them to go sit in her office while she talked to Daddy.
Elizabeth, good child that she was, had never been to the principal's office. But Eloise, who was equally good but often lax in her studies, knew the way. The door to Sister Clarence's office squeaked open into a room that was blessedly warm, with big chairs and soft cushions. Eloise was reluctant to sit in one, thinking they were reserved for parents, but Elizabeth was too cold and tired to care. The floor at the O' Brian's had been hard and Eloise had cried most of the night.
There was no clock in Sister Clarence's office, but they sat on the comfortable chairs for a while. The sky outside the window grew lighter and Elizabeth felt she might have dozed off for a few minutes. By the time Sister Clarence returned to the office, the echoing footsteps of students could be heard in the hallways.
Sister Clarence opened the big door to her office quietly, almost floating into the room. For all of the three years Elizabeth had been at Holy Savior, she had wondered if the nuns who taught them had feet, or merely hovered over the floor. Eloise always told her not to think such "fanciful thoughts". But Sister Clarence not only gave the appearance of floating, she seemed to glide with ease across the rough wooden floor, her hands hidden in the long sleeves of her habit. She spoke softly; Elizabeth had never heard Sister Clarence raise her voice, yet even the big 8th grade boys listened and did what she said.
She slid up to the Bates girls and touched each in turn lightly on the forehead, making the sign of the cross. "Dear girls," she said, "your father has told me of your mother's illness. All of the sisters will pray for her and for your family. And if either of you needs to talk, please come and see me." Both girls nodded their heads and Sister said a Hail Mary before dismissing them to their classes.
Elizabeth and Eloise separated in the hallway, Eloise heading to fifth grade and Elizabeth to third. The students jostled one another, pushing and laughing as if this was like any other day. Susan Norton, who was in third grade with Elizabeth, smiled brightly and said, "You must have left early this morning! Usually I catch up with you both on the hill!" and Elizabeth wanted to tell her to stop grinning and acting as if everything was okay. Instead she walked right past Sue, who was usually a good friend, and slumped into her seat. "Grumpy,” Sue said good naturedly and slid into her own seat. By the way the third grade teacher, Sister Beatrice, touched her hair, Elizabeth knew that Sister Clarence had told her about Mama.
Elizabeth had tried to pay attention in class, even though she was still tired and cold. She knew that Mama put a lot of stock in education. She had wanted to be a teacher, she'd once confided to Elizabeth, but her father had been drafted to fight the Great War and she’d needed to help out at home. She would have made a good teacher, too, Elizabeth had thought. Mama was kind, like Sister Beatrice, and she told stories that made it fun to learn. She had taught Elizabeth to tie her shoes with a story about a bunny and the letters of her name with a song.
Somewhere in the school, a bell rang, calling the children out for recess. From her seat in the chapel, Elizabeth heard them stampeding down the hallways despite the quiet admonitions of the sisters to "act like ladies and gentlemen." No one came to get her, so Elizabeth sat back onto the hard wooden pew, feeling warmer and calmer. Thoughts of Mama always made her feel safe and loved.
She must have fallen asleep--which was surely a sin!--because she awoke with a start, Mama’s voice in her ears. "I love you, Lizzy, “said the voice and Elizabeth whispered back, “I love you, too, Mama." Mama would be alright; Elizabeth just knew it. Mama had promised she would always be with Elizabeth and Mama never broke her promises.
Feeling much better, her tears gone, Elizabeth sat up and made the sign of the cross to apologize for falling asleep in His House. She meant to look at the crucifix above the altar, the place where Jesus-God's-Holy-Son hung on the cross to die for the sins of all mankind, and think reverent thoughts about Him, the way Sister Beatrice said all Catholic children must do if they wanted to go to Heaven, when a flash of bright blue caught her eye and made her head turn to the right. There, in the lower left hand corner of a stained glass window that depicted Jesus visiting the home of Martha and Mary to raise his friend Lazarus from the dead, was Mama's angel.
She didn't really belong to Mama, of course, because angels were created beings and did not belong to anyone and this one was made of stained glass instead of whatever angels were made of, but Elizabeth had always thought of the being in blue as Mama's angel.
When Elizabeth had first come to school at Holy Savior she had been afraid of the chapel with its dark pews and high ceilings, and the lifelike man who hung bleeding on the cross. She had cried to her mother that she was scared of the man and the creaky pews and the high ceilings with its dark corners where, Eloise had told her, souls of dead babies waited to snatch the life of a living child. After making Eloise scrub the kitchen floor as punishment for frightening Elizabeth with such nonsense, Mama had taken Elizabeth onto her lap and smoothed her curly hair, murmuring soothing sounds.
"Next time you are in the chapel,” Mama said, " Don't look at the things that scare you. Find the angel that tap-dances and look at her."
Elizabeth laughed. "Angels don't tap dance!" At least, she had never heard that they did, although she had see a man tap dancing once when Mama and Daddy had taken her and Eloise to the summer fair by the river. The man’s feet had made clicking noises on the wooden platform, moving his feet so fast they were a blur.
Mama had laughed. “How do you know that angels don’t tap dance?" she asked. “The Bible tells us that King David danced before the Lord in praise. Why shouldn't angels, who are created to honor God, tap dance?"
Elizabeth shrugged. "I don't know. But I did not see an angel tap dancing. And tap dancing is noisy. It is very quiet in the chapel."
Mama laughed. "Angels are silent when they tap dance. It is the joy they show in dancing--not the noise--that pleases the Lord."
Elizabeth thought for a moment. "Mama, I did not see an angel. Are you sure?"
Mama nodded. "You forgot, Elizabeth, that I went to that very same school when I was a girl. And the angel is there, wearing a beautiful gown of blue, with her wings stretched up to heaven and her arms open wide, like this." Mama demonstrated. "And her smile, “continued Mama, “is the most beautiful smile you ever saw. But you will know that she is tap-dancing because, unlike most angels, you can see her feet doing the ball-and-chain." Mama stood and showed Elizabeth the step.
The next time Elizabeth needed to go to the school chapel, she averted her eyes from the scary high ceilings and the bleeding man on the cross and looked for the angel. She was right where Mama had said she would be, a look of pure joy on her face as her feet tapped on the stained glass grass. She helped Elizabeth to not be afraid of the chapel anymore. Mama's angel was always there, waiting for her, making her feel safe.
There she was today, in all her stained glass glory, the faint light of the October morning shining through her and casting rays of color onto the floor. Unlike the angels Elizabeth had seen adorning the tops of Christmas trees and singing carols in her children's missile, Mama's tap dancing angel had dark, curly hair--much like Elizabeth's own--that reached to her shoulders. She smiled at Elizabeth and Elizabeth smiled back, feeling a bit warmer now and finding that her tears had stopped. The angel was still tap-dancing, still bringing glory to God through her moving feet and suddenly Elizabeth wanted to do the same. She had never seen anyone, other than Mama's angel, tap dance in church before, but she could not remember ever being told that tap-dancing in church was a sin. It seemed to Elizabeth that many harmless things seemed to be sins if done in church. Was tap-dancing one of them?
Elizabeth considered. She tried to remember what Sister Beatrice had told her and what she had learned in her catechism classes. She could not recall one single thing either for or against tap-dancing. Mama had said it was the way the angel was praising God. Mama had even taken down the big family Bible, where Elizabeth's name and birth date and that of her brother and sister were written down, and shown her the place where King David' s dancing was described. " And David danced before the Lord with all his might, and was wearing a linen ephod." (2 Samuel 6:14)
She had no idea what a linen ephod was, but she could easily see that the angel was dancing with all her might, putting all of her energy into her dance. It was what Elizabeth longed to do. Surely God had heard her prayers and her mother would be well again. She could hear the shouts of the children out on the playground. Most of the teachers would be out there as well.
Cautiously, Elizabeth slipped out of the pew, genuflecting before the altar and slowly approaching the rays of color streaming through Mama' s angel. She positioned herself into a patch of blue, raising her face to the angel and holding out her arms in imitation. It felt good to stretch up to heaven! She could understand why the angel looked so happy and felt her own mouth begin to smile. Looking at the angel's feet carefully, Elizabeth tried to position her shoes accordingly. One of her classmates, Cindy Jerome, took dancing lessons and often showed the girls moves at recess. Remembering what Cindy had shown her and keeping her eyes on the angel, Elizabeth attempted to execute the step Mama had called the ball and chain.
She tripped and found herself sprawled on the carpet. Unhurt, except for a bang to her elbow where it had hit the baseboard, she was pulling herself to her feet when the back door of the chapel opened.
Silently, it seemed, Sister Clarence glided down the aisle. Elizabeth waited just as silently, holding herself as still as she possibly could, certain she was about to be reprimanded for uncomely behavior in church.
But Sister Clarence merely placed her hand gently on the top of Elizabeth's head and said, "Come with me, child. Your father has come to bring you and your sister home."
Elizabeth could think of only one reason Daddy had arrived at the school for her and Eloise; God had heard her feeble prayers and Mama was well again, perhaps even ready to leave the hospital! She walked quietly beside the nun, longing to ask her when her mother’s illness had left her, convinced it was at the very moment Mama's angel had smiled. But the rules of the school were clear; children waited until they were spoken to. Sister Clarence said no words as she and Elizabeth moved down the corridor, although the good sister's lips moved silently. Elizabeth had the impression she was praying.
They arrived at the door to the principal’s office before Sister Clarence spoke. “Your sister had already been summoned and your father is waiting.” Then she made the sign of the cross on Elizabeth’s forehead. “Bless you, dear child. You will need to be brave." With that she opened the door and motioned Elizabeth in.
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