The phone rang in the office Peter used in Brussels. "Hello?"
"I am delivering a messge from your daughter," she said, and then, in a fairly accurate copy of Caitlin's voice, "Daddy, when are you coming home?"
He chuckled. "I'm booked on the early plane tomorrow morning, so I'll be there for lunch. How are you, Assumpta? How're the kids?"
"Good," she said,"we're all fine. They just miss you."
Silence. Then, "What about you?"
"Ah, Peter, you're going to be asking me that for the rest of my life?" she teased.
"Till I get the answer I want," he teased back.
"Okay, okay, I miss you too. I do, Peter, you know that."
"I miss you too, darling, more than I can say. So I'll see you tomorrow at lunchtime, at the pub, right?"
"Right. I'll have a sandwich ready for you, sure. Fresh."
She got the children ready for bed, doing the things their father usually
did, helping with baths, reading stories, even hearing their prayers. After
tucking them in, she prowled the house for a while, aware that she missed
him more than she thought possible. How did she ever let herself become
so vulnerable? She had let down all her guards with this man, let herself
love and need him so completely. She had never let anyone become so necessary.
Tough Assumpta, protecting herself from the pain of disappointment, of
rejection, of loss. She finally got into bed, and put her arms around his
pillow, breathing deeply the trace of his smell on the linen, and holding
it to her, she slept.
Well before dawn, she was partly wakened when he quietly slipped into bed beside her. "A dream?" she thought, then, "Mmmm, no, for real," as he kissed her and began to caress her body.
Afterwards, she lay still in his arms, and asked sleepily, "How did you get home in the middle of the night?"
"I realized that I couldn't sleep, so I went out to the airport, and found an EU cargo plane leaving for Dublin. I asked if I could hitch a ride, and they bent the rules a bit, and here I am. I hate being away for these meetings every month, but one night less makes it a little more bearable." He yawned.
"Well, I'll get up when I hear the kids. They're not expecting to see you till lunchtime anyway, so we'll let you sleep in."
He kissed her bare shoulder. "Why don't you come back to bed after they're off?" he murmured.
She addressed the air in the room. "How did this man ever stay celibate all those yesrs?"
"He didn't have you," he answered, holding her close as they both fell asleep.
Assumpta woke up before the children, and slipped out of the bedroom
quietly so as not to wake Peter. When Caitlin saw the closed door, she
asked, one hand on her five-year old hip, "Is my Daddy in there?"
"Yes," her mother answered, "but he got in very late last night, so let's just let him sleep, okay? You'll see him later."
"Please, Mamma, just let me look at him? Pleeeze?"
Assumpta sighed, knowing better than to argue with her fiery little girl on the subject of her father. "Okay, but be very quiet, and just peek in for a second."
She opened the door gently, and before she could stop her, Caitlin darted in and kissed her father's hand, which was on top of the comforter. With a whoop, Peter, who had been lying there listening, grabbed the child and embraced her in a big bear hug, as she shrieked and giggled with delight. John had come to the doorway and watched with a grin, and when Peter asked, "Isn't there anyone else who wants to tussle with a bear?" he ran to the bed and allowed himself to be grabbed in turn.
When Peter saw Josie standing there, watching and laughing, he asked, "Is that my big girl there, too grown up to play with her old Dad?"
She said shyly, "Oh, Daddy, I think I am."
"But not too big to give me a welcome home kiss, are you?" She ran over
and hugged him, kissing him on both cheeks, as the two younger ones snuggled
under the covers with him. "Tell me what's going on in your life, Jo,"
he said, "whatever I missed while I was in Belgium."
Assumpta had gone back into the kitchen, enjoying the sounds of Peter and the children. She always felt her heart lift at times like this, cherishing the childhood her children were having, so different from her own. She gave thanks for her husband, who could be both her tender lover and the wonderful father he was to the kids. She couldn't imagine another man who could be all this, and a friend and companion as well, the best man she could have chosen to share her life, the only man she really loved, the one man she'd thought she could never have.
Soon they all trouped into the kitchen for breakfast, where they continued the bantering, teasing, joking, talking. Three days away might not seem like a lot to anyone else, but in this family, it seemed much too long to have their father gone, and their hearts and voices were filled with love and joy to have him back.
When the children ran off to get ready for school, Assumpta smiled at him and said, "Okay, man of the house, get your jacket and let's walk this lot to school. I have to stop at the pub to see what my manager is planning to feed people this week, and it's much too nice a day to waste indoors."
He bowed to her, and soon the five of them set out in the direction of the school, Josie and John meeting friends. Caitlin sitting on Peter's shoulders. Father Sheehan was out early and hailed them, walking along with them. The Cliffords were easily his favorite family in Ballyk, he loved the children, and both Peter and Assumpta were good friends. As they approached Hendley's store, Kathleen came out to sweep her steps, and Peter greeted her and reminded the kids to say good morning to her.
"G'morning, Miz Hendley," they each called in turn, and she nodded without
A few years ago, Josie had asked her parents why Miz Hendley wasn't nice to them, and they had explained that she had never liked either one of them, and that the circumstances of their marriage made her even angrier at them. They had decided early on not to wait for gossip to reach the children's ears, to tell them the story themselves, and Josie had accepted it easily and helped her brother to do the same. Even Caitlin knew that Daddy had once been a priest, like Father Vincent, and had to give that up when he fell in love with Mamma. Most of the villagers had long since accepted them, though Peter was still often referred to as "Assumpta Fitzgerald's husband, the priest that was." When they worked at the pub, they were always treated warmly, with affection. and the children were liked and accepted, as was their closest friend, Aisling Kearney, whose parents weren't married, and who didn't live in the same house. It was only Kathleen Hendley and some like-minded folks who kept the old judgements going, but even Father MacAnally, who had recently retired to a small cottage at the end of the village, seemed to have gotten over his resentment at them all. He had eased some of Assumpta's old dislike of him when he told her one day that her children seemed to him to be the nicest ones in the village.
"You and....your husband have done a very good job," he said, sounding a bit surprised. Often, he and Peter would meet at morning mass, and lately, John would sometimes get up early to go to church with his father, walking back slowly with the old priest as well. All of the children went to church with Peter on Sundays, and this was becoming an arguing point for Assumpta, who had not gotten over her dislike and distrust of the church. She had agreed, early in their marriage, that she wouldn't try to sway the children away from the church, but they were aware that she didn't share their father's spiritual values, or at least the setting for them.
Peter had been out at a meeting with Father Sheehan, and it only took
a minute after coming into the house to realize that his wife was angry.
"You going to tell me what's wrong, Assumpta?"
"Why should anything be wrong?" Icy tone of voice.
"All right, all right!" She inhaled sharply. "Josie needed help with her homework, and then she asked if I'd review her catechism lessons. Peter, I couldn't stand it! I don't want the children to have to learn that stuff, to parrot the church line!"
"Parrot?" His turn to sound cold.
"You know what I mean! I want them to think rationally, not to be taught all that…." She caught herself. "all those fairy tales!"
"I'm not sure what you mean."
"You do know what I mean! Who believes in the virgin birth anymore?"
He answered very quietly, firmly. "I do."
She shook her head. "You really do?"
"And that Jesus rose from the dead?"
"Peter, I believe that Jesus was a wise, brave man, with much to teach us, but `the son of God'? Miracles? Come on! I don't buy that."
"I know you don't, but you agreed, when we got married, that the children would be brought up in the Church. And that includes belief in miraculous things."
"Well I didn't know it would be so hard! I didn't say anything to Josie, but I choked, remembering all that stuff I had to learn, and realizing that they're still brainwashing kids. Maybe I have no right to be mad, because I did agree, but it does make me angry-and sad---that I can't protect my children from all that." She picked up her jacket and started for the door.
"Where are you going? It's late!"
"I'm going for a walk. I just don't want to be around you right now. I don't know what I'll say or do."
In the morning, Assumpta came out of their room to find Peter sitting
at the kitchen table with a cup of tea, as he stared out the window. "Peter,
I'm sorry," she said. "I had no right to say things that cut to the heart
of what you believe."
"You meant them, though, didn't you?"
"Of course I meant them! That's not a secret! But I still had no right….."
"You have the same rights that I do," he said, sadly, as he got ready to leave. There was no further discussion, and for the next few days, it was Peter who maintained his distance. She wasn't used to this, and began to wonder what was going to happen to her marriage, to her family.
But after those few days of coolness, he came in one evening and put
his arms around her. "I'm sorry," he said. "I don't want to quarrel about
"What happened?" she asked. "What made you change your mind?"
"I'm not sure it's me mind that changed. You may not like this, but I had a talk with Vincent."
"Father Sheehan! And what did he say, the priest?"
"He asked me if I thought you could bring down the Catholic Church."
She couldn't help laughing. "Not bloody likely!"
"Exactly," he said with a grin. "Then he asked if I thought you would, in any way, shape or form, harm our children."
"What?" She bristled.
"I told him of course not, never did I think that, not for a minute--which he already knew."
"Then he asked if I thought you might be able to weaken my faith."
"Oh ho," she said. "And your answer was?"
"Well, maybe that is what made me so angry. I remembered how I felt during that `sweating statue' business. When I accused Liam of leading on the gullible, he said he thought that was the name of the game! I wanted to throttle him. And when I thought about that, well, suddenly the anger at you was gone."
"What are you going to do about this, Peter?" she asked with a little smile.
"Work at strengthening my faith!" he replied.
"So we won't ever have this fight again?" she said.
"Oh, Assumpta," he said, holding her at arm's length and looking at her sadly, "I have a feeling that we will."
"Yeah," she said. "Maybe."
The next morning, she walked up to St. Joseph's, and waited outside
until Father Sheehan came out. "Vincent," she called to him.
He turned with a warm smile. "Assumpta! It isn't often I see you up here. What can I do for you?"
"I just came to thank you," she said. "For your talk with Peter."
"Oh, no need," he said. "I think Peter had worked out most of it himself. You know how much he loves you."
"For now," she said, and turned to walk away.
He caught her arm. "What's this then?"
She didn't answer, and she allowed him to steer her to the church door and inside. She sat down in the back row, and he sat next to her. "Assumpta, I'm not trying to interfere, but I think you need to explain that little statement."
She didn't meet his eyes. "I just wonder when he'll figure out that he doesn't like me very much. When our differences, my dislike of all he believes, will kill off the love."
Father Sheehan sat for a moment, then asked sharply "Do you not like him then, for his different beliefs?"
"Sometimes I don't," she admitted, still looking at the floor. "But I flare up and get over it pretty fast. Peter doesn't get angry very often, but when he does, he stews about it for a long time, maybe has too much time to think. I never have doubts about my feelings, he's the most important person in my life, but I think his doubts might someday overcome his love."
"Assumpta, I think you'd better talk to him about this, tell him what you fear. I can't reassure you, but he can."
"Yeah," she said, getting to her feet. "Thanks." She walked out, leaving the priest with her worries.
Late that evening, after the usual family routine of homework, dinner,
baths, bedtime stories, Assumpta sat down at the table. Not looking at
the book in front of her. Peter came to sit across from her and took her
hands in his. "Tired?" he asked.
She smiled. "When am I not?"
"You seem more knackered than usual. Down, somehow. Want to talk about it?"
"Who's the one who thinks talking solves everything now?" she said, but even her smile seemed touched by sadness. He just waited. "Peter, you'll find this hard to believe, but I went to see Vincent today. Just to thank him…but I said something to him that surprised me when I said it. He thought I should tell you, but……" She stopped. "This isn't easy."
He smiled, holding her hands tighter. "You can tell anything to a friend."
"Yeah," she said with a little smile. " Well….I told him that I thought someday you would stop loving me. When I'd say something to offend you."
"Peter, when we argue about your religion, I think we don't like one another very much, and while I get over it fairly quickly, you…..I worry that you hold on to it, fret over it more, and that it could just…..you know, erode the other feelings."
He stood up and came over to her, pulling her to her feet and holding her close. "Assumpta, oh, Assumpta." He raised her chin so he could look into her eyes. "That will never happen. Never. I think watching your parents' marriage erode, as you say, left its mark on you. I can be angry at you, despair for you, worry about your lack of faith, but I could never stop loving you. And I think it would be the same for you. You may be furious at me, profoundly upset by my beliefs, but I trust that you won't stop loving me. We knew all this from the start. And I think we've come too far for that, my girl."
"I hope you're right," she said.
"I know I am."
"What about when the kids are teenagers and begin to rebel, to have their own doubts about the Church? They'll have grown up knowing my feelings, and you know that I'll grab my turn, to share my beliefs with them. What will you do then?"
"I don't know. But I won't stop loving you! Or them!" he said. "And maybe they won't have doubts," he added with a smile.
"Oh, I bet they will," she said, smiling back. "I just bet they will!" The atmosphere in the room became much less tense, less sad, as he held her tight, and at least for now, the quarrel was over.
(Perhaps this leads, after a peaceful interlude of a few years, to the story called "Trouble in Paradise".)