For all of us still stuck in winter, while spring abounds. Thanks to Cat for all she does, and to Di – the roof is for you.
I hope you enjoy.
"Morning, Padre. How's business?"
He always starts a conversation the same way. Some silly comment to get my mind working. This is one of my favorite people. He's a loose-limbed young man with a quick smile and a kind manner. He doesn't simply sit on the bench beside me, he stretches out, his spurs jingling as he crosses one leg over the other and spreads his arms across the back. He's the picture of relaxation that seems to mock my tension.
"Ach, lad. It's always hard this time of year."
"Why's that, Father? You'd think people would be happy to have made it through another winter."
"'Tis the season, lad, 'tis the season. Not quite winter, not yet spring. So much work to do and no time for church." My true feeling is not that I dislike the winter season, but instead the season of Lent, and the guilt that it brings to many people, myself included. "I hate Lent." I am surprised by the sound of my own voice. I didn't plan to say that aloud.
"Why is that, Father?"
He's supposed to come to me for confession, not the other way around, but I've always found this young man so easy to talk to. "Ach, lad." I'm trying to gather my thoughts to speak my feelings. "Maybe it's the doldrums from the long winter. Too much rain and not enough sunshine."
He doesn't meet my eye. He's looking out across the adobe brick courtyard. I can watch him since he's not watching me. He is smiling.
"I'd'a thought you'd be plenty used to the rain. Doesn't it rain a lot in Ireland?"
"It does, it does. The softest rain you've ever seen." Perhaps I'm more homesick than I thought. "I haven't been to the old country in years. I've been eleven years in the Americas, but only four months here in Morro Coyo."
"Arrived in December at just the start of winter. Didn't get to see the county at it's best and just when it the days are short and the nights long."
"Indeed, lad, indeed."
"Still, spring is here. That should make you feel better."
"That's just the trouble, lad. It does just the opposite." I notice he's got big hands as he points to something in the bare roses at the end of the garden.
"That's not a swallow, is it? It's too early for swallows." He's looking at me now, and I think maybe he sees more than just the outside of me. "Down south, the swallows would be coming back. There's a town called Capistrano that has a festival on St. Joseph's day for when the swallows come back. Why the opposite?"
I'd been looking at the bird, not knowing what it was, and I'd almost forgotten what we'd been talking about. "This time of year, when we are just beginning to see all the life coming back and the church makes us give up so much."
"Ah." He's nodding like Father Salvatore and he seems older than his years. I'm not sure how much religious education he has. He comes to church most Sundays but he's never come to confession. I asked him why once. He said that long ago he and God had started to talk direct and he didn't need a middleman anymore. "Lent makes sense to me." His voice is quiet as if he's gone away somewhere, remembering. "Maybe it's from growing up poor."
I have to remember that he didn't grow up on that big ranch of his fathers. I've heard the stories, of course. Your neighbors' sins are easier to confess than your own.
"It's not so much the church teaching as common sense. If we eat the eggs now, then no chickens for later. Milk the cow and the calf doesn't grow. Slaughter the pig and he doesn't mate with the sow and have a litter. I don't like giving up my steak and eggs any more than you do," he's grinning at me now, "but a little sacrifice now is better in the long run, don't you think?"
I know I'm frowning, I can feel it on my face. He's using the teachings to make economic instead of spiritual sense. "I'm not sure that's the lesson you are supposed to come away with."
"Maybe, maybe not." He's toying with a twig blown down from the still barren ash tree we are sitting under. "But the good Lord wanted us to learn from the sacrifice, not be miserable, right?"
I'm nodding, I know, wondering where he's going with this line of thought.
"So, we have to find the good in this. The rainbow in the storm sort of thing."
"And what good is there today? The sky is clear, but the road is so muddy as to be practically impassable. The food at dinner will be bland and…" I stop when I see he's grinning again. It's a wonder his family puts up with him.
"Look around, Padre."
I do. The oak trees are gray, the garden is still full of dried stalks and mulch, and the bricks are caked with clumps of mud off hundreds of boots.
"No, Father, you're looking but not seeing."
His finger points to the creek that separated our garden from the cemetery lot. "The willows are all green and the wax wings are starting to nest. Hear 'em? When they start to arrive I know spring is here. The crows are moving on and the Robins and Jays will soon be here. Look at all the yellow. Pale yellow is the first color of the season. The wild mustard and the daffodils and the crocuses."
I watch him as he plucks a long, thin earthworm off the stones, cradling it in his hand.
"The ground is thawing and the earth is alive. That's the good, Father. See it?"
"The roof leaks in the vestibule." I'm being contrary for the sake of contrariness and he knows it.
"The roof leaks every spring. Why the Spanish thought flat roofs were a good idea, I'll never know." He slaps my knee and stands up. "You know what you need, Padre? A good meal!"
"During Lent? It can't be done."
He gently set the earthworm under the bench and after wiping his hand across his shirtfront, he extended it to help me to my feet.
"You come along. Maria's got something in the oven, and trust me, makes no matter what faith a man is, when the cook is Catholic, so is he."
He's not a man to take no for an answer, and being that Mass is over for the morning he knows I've nothing else planned I follow along. While I went to talk to Fr. Salvatore he got the buggy hitched and waiting at the front steps.
"You are a stubborn lad." I chided him, but he just tipped his hat back on his head and held the horse while I climbed aboard. Having been raised in a small, poor village in Ireland I didn't drive a horse and buggy until I came to the Americas and my lack of confidence of driving on the wet road must have showed on my face. He tied his horse behind and took up the reins himself.
He has a soft way of speaking that soothed my nerves as he confidently steered between the ruts and rivulets of the road from Morro Coyo to his ranch. As we drove, he let me see the land through his eyes. No longer bleak from a long, unusually wet winter, but instead it was a land on the edge of bursting out at the seams, full of life.
Dun colored deer in herds of thirty or more paused in their eating of pale green spring grass to watch us drive by. Red-tailed hawks serenaded us as they circled up above. One meadow was ablaze with orange poppies.
He pointed out the new homes being built along this road. Houses set back down messy drives, but welcoming in their own way, with the wispy smoke from chimneys and laundry on the line.
"Teresa and the ladies will kill me for bringing you home today without warning." He didn't seem overly worried about the threat to his life. "Since the weather turned nice, they've been washing every rug and curtain in the place."
"Explains why you were in town mid-week."
He's got a bark of a laugh and my old mare flickes her ears back at the sudden sound.
"Indoors is the last place a self-respecting man wants to be this time of year. I don't like the smell of stove blacking."
He pulls up close to the front door so I won't get my boots muddy in the yard and the door is pulled open abruptly.
"I was worried when I saw a buggy with Johnny's horse tied behind, Father." I'm always amazed at how tall Murdoch Lancer is. He must be a full foot taller than I. "It usually means he's hurt, or met a girl."
Johnny chuckles and clucks the horse into a walk, turning the buggy to the barn.
"Would him bringing a girl home be so bad?"
"Before the bans are read, father?" He's teasing me with his exclamation. I didn't expect that from this big business man with a reputation in town for his serious demeanor. "Come in, come in. Nice to see you out and about this fine day, first nice day we've had in a month."
He has a firm handshake, but not overly so. Too many men try to show you their strength by crushing your hand.
"A drink? You're in time for supper, you are staying aren't you?" He hands me a tumbler full of a fine malt Scotch before I've barely nodded my head, then he's gone to tell the kitchen staff to set an extra place.
I love this house. I've only been here once before, at Christmas time when I was introduced to the family. The house had been decorated for the holidays then, but it was just as impressive now. Simple in its understated glory.
It was a man's house to be sure. Big, heavy furniture and so very few delicate things about. The end tables were clear of the clutter and frivolousness of feminine life. Johnny was right that all the curtains were down and there wasn't a rug on the floor, but the windows were clean and little the room with warm sunshine.
One wall was lined with books. These were well used, their spines cracked, the leather mismatched and faded, showing that they were not for show, but cherished pieces. As I read the titles I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of titles. Animal husbandry was mixed with geology and Homer. Shakespeare was mixed between Darwin, Jane Austin and Aristotle.
I felt I was being watched and turned to the doorway. "Do you lend, Mr. Lancer?"
"Only to people that return them. Can you be trusted, Fr. Donovan?"
I'm enjoying his sense of humor. "Well, I hope so, Mr. Lancer."
"I also only lend to friends, so if you want to borrow a book you must call me Murdoch."
"Murdoch it is then."
He gestures me to a blue wingback chair. It is by far the best seat in the house. The fabric is new and soft. Some of the others are a little more worn, in a comfortable way. His seat on the couch seems to dip a bit, even before he sits.
"We get so few visitors during the winter. I know it's spring when folks brave the rutted roads to come calling."
"Johnny was trying to tell me the same thing. I was having a hard time seeing it. He said my trouble was I was sorely in need in a good meal."
"Johnny believes that a good meal will cure most anything that ails a man. Scott believes it's a buttered rum and a couple of hours with a book before the fire."
I can see the affection he holds for his sons. "'Tis a lovely home you have here, Mis…Murdoch." I think I stopped before he noticed. "A fine old name. It's Scots, isn't it?"
"Ya don't hear those old names much any more. Mine is Miach, but here I'm just Mike."
"My brothers and I were teased with our old names, so I'm afraid I'm guilty of giving my own sons the simple names."
Speaking of them seemed to conjure their appearance and the front door swung open.
"Fr. Donovan, Johnny said you'd come to supper."
I like this Lancer son, too. His manner is softer. Not as serious as his father, or as boisterous as his bother. He never comes to confession, either, not having been raised in the faith.
The conversation flies about for a bit. I'm suddenly aware of how little Johnny has had to say. He defers to his brother and father to carry on the bulk of the conversation, and even when I try to draw him in, his answers are more often questions, turning the conversation back to the table at large. He seems so different here with his family than he did back at the church, and I again get the feeling he's watching me.
Teresa had finally joined us. A darling young girl that has all the men doting on her, but still maintaining a sweet nature. It's refreshing to see a pretty girl who has no idea she's pretty.
As we move to the table to eat, Murdoch allows me to say the grace. Sadly, I must admit, Johnny was right. The food at his father's table was all wonderful and yet in keeping with my faith. A marvelous tomato soup started the meal, followed by stuffed peppers.
The cap of the evening was a dried apple pie. Teresa explained it was made without eggs and butter by crushing almonds into paste.
"It was my job, when I was a boy," Johnny said as he rocked back in his chair. I realized that it was the first time he'd spoken at the table. "Every spring I'd take the almonds and make almond oil and butter."
"A man of unknown talents." Scott's tone was teasing and Johnny grinned back at him.
"I can grind corn, too."
"My grandmother used to make a pastry with almond butter," Murdoch added. "I'll write my brother and see if his wife has the recipe."
Teresa smiled and folded her napkin. "I think we'll have to have one of the boys that brings in the firewood learn to do this, because it's not a chore I'm fond of."
"Johnny knows how, we can have him do it." Scott has a warm smile and he flashed it across at this brother. It was easy to see the camaraderie between the two men.
"Sure, and you can do my chores while I sit in a nice, dry kitchen with the lovely ladies and make butter."
"Now, wait a minute!"
Johnny was right. This good meal amongst good people was just the balm I needed for my winter weary soul. After supper my buggy was again brought to the front door.
"Want me to drive you back, Padre?"
"No, lad, I'll be fine. Thank you though." I want to be alone with my thoughts.
Murdoch was standing beside his son, his hand on his shoulder. "Good thing, Father Miach. If we let Johnny take you to town there'd be no telling when he'd get home."
"I'd be home right after the poker game." That boy has a variety of smiles and this one was wryly amused. "They know me too well, Padre. Drive safely."
The timing was just right. Without pushing my old mare, I'd make it home before evening prayers. I was looking forward to the ride back alone as the sun set in a blaze of winter color. The purple evening sky seemed deeper, the sun was turning the clouds a blaze of orange and red. I was comforted by my evening spent with this family, so much so that it was a mile or more before I realized that the mare pulling my buggy wasn't the old mare I'd come out with, but a young filly with a quick even gate.
I pulled a lap robe across my knees and enjoyed the drive as I thought long and hard about my visit. They each had a sad tale to tell, although none of them had shared it with me. They had hardships, more or less than their neighbors, but I was pleased with the joy I saw shared with each other.
The burden of getting through Lent in order to understand the suffering of our Lord was instead replaced by the knowledge that giving up things didn't have to be a sacrifice when done with love. That learning to be happy without was just as important a lesson. Finding the joy in watching the bird on the wing without having that bird in your pot was a fulfillment all its own.
It was a joy to find those that didn't come to church to be told how to behave and live, but lived the Golden Rule as best they could every day of their lives.
As I drove into town, I thought back on this marvelous day, this first day of Spring and I now know– there's a sermon in here some where.
By Tory (Sprite) Fischer
March 20, 2004