Trouble in Paradise

by Theadora McKee

    It was another of Peter's three-day meetings in Brussels, and the household back in Ballykissangel was beginning to stir. Assumpta was stirring a pot of oatmeal as Josie and Caitlin came into the kitchen and sat down at the table, wearing their school uniforms. "Where's your brother," she asked.
    Josie looked uncomfortable, as Caitlin said matter-of-factly, "He's  not here."
    "Not here? Where is he?"
    Caitlin drank from her glass of orange juice. "I think he went to church."
    "Church? Alone?" She looked at Josie, who still said nothing.
    "Yep," aaid Caitlin, unaware of the tension growing in their cheerful yellow kitchen, filled with blue pottery and brightly-colored pictures, to offset the cold, dark winters.
    "What's this all about then?" she asked Josie directly.
    "He just likes it, Mamma," she answered.
    "I thought he went just to be with his father," Assumpta said almost to herself. She put the lid on the pot and went to look out the door.
    Coming down the street, she saw the figure of her son as he slowly walked with an elderly man with a cane. "Father Mac," she said under her breath. As the two came nearer, she saw that John was talking to the old priest in a smiling, animated way, and when he saw his mother in the doorway, he waved to her. "Hiya, Mamma," he called.
    "Hi John, " she replied, casting a suspicious look at Father Mac, who smiled tentatively at her. John said, "I told Father Mac he should come and have breakfast with us, but he said he didn't think so. Tell him to come in, Mamma."
    "Now John," the old man said, "I told you I had my breakfast ready at home and that I have things to do. I best get on. Thank you for walking with me." He nodded to Assumpta. "Good day to you all."
    The boy seemed not to notice his mother's frown at all, as he bounced into the house. He sat down with his sisters and when Assumpta filled their bowls and poured them glasses of milk, they began to eat, chatting about the coming school day. Assumpta got herself a cup of tea, took a deep breath and calmly turned to her son. "John, what were you thinking, leaving the house so early, going off by yourself without a word to me?"
    "I woke up early and I realized that I didn't have to wait for Daddy to go to church, I could go alone. You were still asleep." Finally becoming aware that she was upset, he looked at his mother. "Is there anything wrong with that, Mamma?"
    "Well, I'm not sure you should be walking up there by yourself," she said. "I thought you only went to have some time alone with your Dad, I never thought....." She stopped, not sure of what she wanted to say.
    "What, Mamma?" he asked.
    "Nothing," she answered. "Now all of you, scoot and get ready, it's almost time to leave for school." When they ran off to their rooms, she sat for a long while, sipping her cooling tea, as she clenched and unclenched her hands into fists.


    When Peter arrived home a few evenings later, he was surprised to find Siobhan in the house with Aisling and his children, and no sign of Assumpta. "She's gone out with Avril," Siobhan said, "and asked if I'd stay with the kids till you got here."
    "So she did know I would be home tonight," he thought. She had always been there when he got back. This was not like her at all, and he was further surprised when Siobhan said that she and Avril had just gone to Cildargan for some supper and maybe the movie.
    He had the usual loving reunion with the children, and after Siobhan left, he supervised their bedtime rituals, listened to Josie and John read, and helped Caitlin with her book. After they were asleep, he sat quietly, wondering what was going on. It was almost eleven before he heard the van pull up, and he went to the door to meet Assumpta. He put his arms around her, but she pulled away and greeted him coolly.
    "Assumpta, is there something wrong?"
    "What could possibly be wrong?" she asked. "Don't I have the best possible life, married to such a good man, living with a saint?"
    Heavy sarcasm, as he hadn't heard for a long while.
    "Assumpta, am I missing something here?" he said. "When I left the other day, all was well. Now suddenly, I'm no longer your friend?"
    "Well, thank heaven I have some other friends, ones who won't indoctrinate my children into that stupid church of yours!"
    He was having some difficulty controlling his own anger. "And I've done that?"
    "I'd say so."
     He tried to take her hand, but again she pulled away. "Assumpta, I have no idea what you're upset about. I have taken the kids to church on Sundays, and wasn't that our agreement from the start?"
    "What about John going with you on weekday mornings?"
    "Yeah, he's done that a couple of times, but why are you so angry about that now?"
    She sat down at the table, rubbing her forehead. "He's gone every morning while you were away. By himself. Walking home with that old...hypocrite."
    "Father Mac." He sighed. "Okay, I can see why that would upset you. But why are you angry at me?"
    "Because if you weren't so all-fired holy, maybe it wouldn't have impressed him so much. Josie says he just likes it, church. So what's next? Altar boy? Priest?"
    "Assumpta," he protested, "he's eight years old!"
    "And how old where you?" she said, frowning at him. "When you started to love it? To go every day?"
    "I guess about nine or ten, but he's not going to follow in my  footsteps."
    "No? I'm not sure I quite believe that!" She got up and walked into the bedroom, shutting the door behind her. He shook his head, not sure what was happening at all. When he came into their room, she was already in bed, her back to him. He got undressed, got into bed, and tentatively touched her arm. She shook his hand off. "I'm tired," she said.
    Peter lay there, his heart sinking. She'd always been so happy to see him, to have him back home. This anger, hostility, tension, were so reminiscent of the old days before they acknowledged their love for one another. He'd almost forgotten how awful she could make him feel, how bad things could be between them. And for the same old reason: the church.


    If Peter had hoped that Assumpta's anger would cool down, he was grievously disappointed. Almost two weeks had gone by, and she was still cold, aloof. Her attitude even spilled over to the children, who didn't know what to make of their mother's behavior. She still did the things she'd always done, cooked their meals, helped with their homework, kissed them goodnight,
but she seemed somehow disinterested, she never talked to them or joked or teased, she just didn't seem to be happy to be with them. What worried them even more was the way she treated their father. She often went to work at the pub at night, giving the manager another night off, but there, too, she was businesslike and distracted, and her friends were just as puzzled as her family.
    She had taken to going on long morning walks with Fionn, who was really too old and arthritic to enjoy these outings as he'd once done. One day, as she was hiking up the mountain, Father Sheehan called out to her. "Assumpta, hello, I haven't seen you in a while."
    "And I'd just as soon you didn't see me now."
    "Assumpta,come on, I know what's troubling you, and I think we should talk," he said as he caught up with her.
    "No, Father, I know what you would say, and I don't want to be rude."
    "Be as rude as you want, just talk to me, for God's sake! And don't call me 'Father' in that tone of voice. This is me, your friend, Vincent."
    "Yeah, that's my trouble, too many friends among the clergy. I was better off when I wouldn't have anything to do with the lot of you!"
    "Mmm," he thought, "your husband included." Aloud, he said, "Assumpta, I'm not going to leave you alone until you talk to
me, and I can keep up with you all day, though I'm not sure this poor animal can."
    She stopped walking and looked at him with annoyance. "Okay, let's get it over with." She sat down on the brow of the hill overlooking the village and the valley beyond, The old dog lay down, grateful for a rest.
    They sat in silence for a moment, then Vincent began to speak. "You know how unhappy you're making your family, don't you? And your friends? And for what, may I ask? A small boy who likes the church, who likes going to Mass to start the day. A boy with many other interests, football, his studies, building models, messing about with his mates. A boy who loves his mother and cannot understand what it is he's done to make her so angry."
    "Not to mention his sisters," said another voice. She looked up to see Brendan standing in front of her.
    "Shouldn't you be in school, Headmaster?" she said, the anger showing in her voice. She looked at the two men. "Is this a set-up?"
    "Yes, it is," Brendan said sharply. "We figured that's what it would take to get you to listen. Assumpta, I've known you since you were a little girl, and this is the first time I've been really angry at you, really disappointed in you. But I also know that as miserable as you're making everyone else, it's yourself who's most miserable of all. I've seen you unhappy before, but you're really spinning your wheels this time, sinking deeper into your misery. And taking everyone down with you."
    "What is it your business?" she said, looking away, her eyes filling with tears."
    "You've always been my business," Brendan said gently. "And your kids are students in my school, so they're my business too, and I tell you, Assumpta, they are very troubled. Josie's on the verge of tears all the time, and she told my daughter that she feel she doesn't know you anymore. Even Caitlin, the most happy-go-lucky of your three, is very quiet these days."
    Vincent added, "And John thinks it's all his fault."
    "No, it's your fault!" she said to the priest. "Your church, maybe your God, is punishing me for taking Peter away from you, so now they're going to make my son a priest!"
    "Assumpta, you should have stayed married to Leo," Brendan said.
    She got to her feet, her face white with rage. "What? How dare you?"
    "How dare I? It's the truth! If you wanted a husband who had no  interest in the church, well, you had one, didn't you? But you wanted Peter, as he was, as he still is, and you knew how important his religion was to him."
    She started to cry, bitter, scalding tears which she didn't even try to hide. Brendan put his arm around her and she sobbed against his shoulder. "Come on, honey," he said soothingly. "This isn't as bad as ou make out. Think of all the other things your kids could be nterested in---heavy metal bands, or English drama over Irish..."
    "Oh, shut up, Brendan," she said, pulling away, but they could see the glimmer of a smile.
    "And I promise you, Assumpta, that I will support you if you want to teach John all about the evils the church has committed, anything you want to tell him, as long as it's factually accurate," said Vincent, "and age appropriate."
    She did smile this time. "Promise?"
    He nodded, gravely. "Promise."

    She went home and tried to do some work in the house, but she kept thinking of what she had heard on the mountain. Every time she remembered what Brendan and Vincent had said about her hurting her children, she started to cry again. She realized that she had effectively recreated the atmosphere of her childhood, the coldness, the bitterness, the anger. She had wanted to give her children a home filled with warmth and love and laughter, and she and Peter had done that, together, until this business threw her off track. She vowed to try to make it up to all of them, especially Peter, whom she had treated so shabbily. By mid-afternoon, she was exhausted, and she fell into a fitful sleep, with haunted dreams.

    Peter met Vincent on his way home, and when he heard what their two friends had done, his heart ached for his girl. He knew her better than anyone, and he could imagine the torment she'd be going through. He drove quickly home and went into the house, looking for her. He found her in the bedroom, sitting on a chair, gazing out the window, looking sad and lost. When she saw him standing in the doorway, her eyes filled with tears again. "Peter, oh, Peter, I'm so sorry...." He came over to her and knelt beside her. "I know," he murmured.
    "I was just scared that I'd lost my son--and now I'm afraid that I've really lost him, and the girls as well, by being such a witch."
    "No," he said gently, "I don't think that's happened at all. You ust confused them, but I think you can make it right. Just talk to them, to me, to all of us, please!" He took her hands in his and brought them to his lips, and when he put his arms around her, for the first time in a long while, she didn't pull away, but sighed and held him closely.
    "Peter, I don't know how you put up with me."
    "Me neither," he said.
    She smiled, but said, "No, seriously."
    He raised her face to look at her. "Do you remember those words we spoke in my Mum's house?"
    "For better or worse?"
    She nodded. "I guess this was the worst."
    "I certainly hope so," he said with a smile, then more seriously, "Assumpta, the 'better' part is so good, and that is most of the time, isn't it? So we put up with one another, and I hope we'll go on doing that, forever."
    She felt calmer, and suddenly realized that she was starving, that she hadn't eaten since breakfast. "Let's get some tea."
    When they were sitting at the table, he took her hands in his again. "I have never asked you to tell me why it is you hate the
    church so much. You've told me lots of partial reasons, justifications, but when did it start?"
    She took a deep breath. "Okay, I'll try. When I was a little girl, I've told you how my parents fought all the time. Well, we lived over the pub, so everyone heard them. It was awful. I was so ashamed, and scared all the time. Now, I was a good little Catholic girl, so I prayed, asking God to help. And one day, my mother asked me how I would like to move with her to my granny's house."
    "This house?" he asked.
    She nodded. "This very house. I was so excited, so happy, my prayers had been answered. You know, I loved my Dad, and my mother, but they were so miserable together, and I thought when we moved, that would be over, and I could still go to the pub and see my father. So I started packing my clothes and books and toys, and then I heard Father Mac telling my mother that it was her 'Christian duty' to stay with Dad. So that was it, we stayed, and the fighting got worse, and they both started drinking, and I couldn't wait to get away. I never forgave Father Mac, or the church, and then it got to be, like a  habit, to blame the church for everything wrong in my life, in Ireland. I saw a lot of the things that had upset you, the ignorance, the idolatry, hypocrisy, prejudice. In college, I read everything I could find about the church's ugly history, and it all confirmed my feelings." She looked at him ruefully, "and then of  course, I hated the church because I couldn't have you."
    "Okay," he said, "I guess I understand a bit better. But I always feel that you cut yourself off from the solace, the comfort that the church, God, can offer, and that's what I want to share with the children. And with you, if you'd let me. I don't have many illusions about the church. but I don't see any better institution. Yes, of course, the church, or the men who ran it, made lots of mistakes. But on a local level, on a personal level, I see what it can offer people. I guess I want to stay with it and help it to be better. Vincent and I talk about that a lot."
    She smiled. "Big task, Peter."

    That evening, the five of them sat together, glowing with happiness to have the old easy, loving atmosphere back. Assumpta told the children how sorry she was to have behaved so badly. "I think that's all over now," she said, and turning to John, she added, "There is nothing wrong with your going to church, son, and whatever the future    holds, I could never stop loving you. I just want you to be a happy little boy."
    "I am, Mamma, don't worry," he said, getting up from his chair and going to her. She pulled him onto her lap and kissed him soundly.
    Caitlin watched them with a frown just like her mother's. "Mamma, how could you think John was going to be a priest? He's just a kid!"
    They all laughed, and Assumpta pulled her and then Josie onto her lap  as well, kissing them and hugging them tightly. "God, I love you all so much! And just to show you that I hold no grudges, I'm asking Father Vincent for dinner tomorrow...and John, Peter, if it will make you fellas happy, I'll ask that old...I'll ask Father Mac to join us too."
    Peter raised his eyebrows. "Oh, I don't know, Assumpta. Isn't that going a bit too far?"
    "Ah, Peter," she said with a grin, "can I possibly go too far for you?"