Mattie knew that Paul was having heavy days. He had always been prone to brooding but it had gotten worse once Bo Freeman came home and even worse since the job interview at St. Martin's down in the capitol city. Initially, Paul had been so excited about the possibility of a new position. He had come home after the initial interview telling her what a good chance he thought he had, how he believed he had impressed the committee, how he could already imagine himself Rector of a thriving parish in a real city.
Mattie listened joyfully, so pleased at Paul's pleasure. But the moment fell apart when he said, “at last we can get out of this two-bit town.” Mattie made sure not to react, but it dawned on Paul what he had said and the thrill went out of him. He talked a bit more, with much less enthusiasm and Mattie knew he had been struck by guilt for what he said. After all, it was 'her' two-bit town, not his.
Mattie had grown up in Deep Valley, as had her parents before her. Paul was from the capitol, a big-city boy as things went in that small New England state. She imagined he didn't even know where Deep Valley was until he was hired to be the priest at St. Luke's straight out of seminary. Though, in all the years, he never said so, she knew he had seen it as a brief stop, a few years before moving on to bigger and bigger churches, perhaps even to be elected bishop some day, like his father had been. But, as Mattie's mother used to say whenever plans were thwarted, “considerations got in the way”.
In fact, Mattie was the consideration that came between Paul and his ambitions. She had always told him she would go wherever he needed to go, but either he hadn't believed her or knew it would grieve her to leave the little town while her aging parents still lived. So, in the first decade or so, he patiently waited, putting his longings for a more prestigious parish on hold. First he waited until Bo finally had to go to the state hospital 50 miles north. Then he waited for Mattie to get pregnant, discovering through that wait that it was his fault she didn't conceive. Finally, he waited for her parents to pass on—first her father and then, five years later, her mother. Before he knew it he had been at. St. Luke's , Deep Valley for nearly 25 years. And, Mattie knew he had already waited too long.
Then, like a unsuspected marvel, Bo Freeman came home and Paul had to wait until the new realities of that homecoming settled down. But now, finally accustomed to having Bo be the child they never had, he felt free to apply for positions in larger places. But by that time he was already over 50 and the sad truth was that churches were always looking for younger priests rather than mature ones. The final interview at St. Martin's had not gone well—had gone horrendously bad, in fact, and hope was lost. Paul told Mattie that in so many words when he got back late at night. She had waited up for him—praying as she prayed...more like thinking hopeful thoughts...that the news would be good. That, his waiting finally over, Paul could pursue his dreams.
But he was morose when he arrived. His eyes were red and swollen and she pictured him in her mind, weeping as he drove home. He said very little, sentence fragments really...”too long in a small parish”...”never showed ambition”...”younger, more exciting candidates”...”our family situation”...”I'm not my father”...”looking for someone who could stay longer....”
Mattie was holding his hands in hers on the kitchen table where they often sat and talked into the night. She was so deeply, profoundly sorry for him, distressed to see him so deflated, longing to be able to give comfort, when those three little words jumped out of the jumble of his self-accusations: “our family situation”. Mattie could imagine it all, the closed door conversations of the vestry at St. Martin's, those doctors and lawyers and university professors and business men and women who made decisions for the largest church in the diocese. Their city ways, their busy lives, their attention to the 'image' of St. Martin's--”Fr. Harden is a good man, a solid priest, and we know how successful his father was here. It might just work, but he is older than we'd hoped for and, well, the family situation....”
They would have never said it out loud, too conscious of political correctness, but they would have thought it and it would have weighed heavy on their minds. How could a priest be Rector of our St. Martin's whose only child was a retarded adult that didn't really belong to he or his wife. No they would have never said it out loud, but Mattie was sure Paul had read between the lines. And though Paul loved her too much to ever hurt her with the idea, Mattie knew it must be true. How hadn't either of them anticipated it? Had they simply become blind to how 'things must look' to strangers? Not that it was the only reason, Paul had been passed over, but it would have entered in. Somehow it was Bo Freeman's fault that Paul was not moving on to receive the much delayed reward for all his loving patience. Mattie's eyes clouded with tears. She thought her heart might break. In the end she was what had kept Paul waiting, her devotion to her parents, her love of Deep Valley, and now, finally her 30 year old promise to 'look after Bo....”
Bo Freeman had been the reason for the first conversation Paul and Mattie ever had, that and church music. Mattie had been the organist at St. Luke's for two years before Fr. Harden arrived. She made an appointment and went in to play for him two days after his furniture had arrived at the Rectory so he could decide if he wanted to keep her on the staff. He stood smiling as she played through a few hymns and a Bach prelude. He started smiling as soon as she hit the first notes and asked her how St. Luke's, such a small church, afforded her.
“Oh,” Mattie said, not so much flattered as intrigued at the 'light up the night' smile of the seemingly somber and serious young priest, “I teach at the elementary school and live with my parents, so I don't expect to get rich on St. Luke's ....”
“Well, you certainly won't,” Paul said, still smiling.
They talked for a while about music matters—Fr. Barnes before him had left hymn selection up to Mattie, using The Choirmaster's Guide to help her. Paul wanted more imput—but so he would, being young and energetic. Dear Fr. Barnes had been with them for 30 odd years—he'd baptized Mattie—and didn't need to 'put his stamp' on the music. That was the term Fr. Harden had used. Mattie found it amusing. So, in the end they agreed she would keep playing and Paul promised to try to give her a raise in the next year.
She was about to go, when he said, “If there's anything I can ever do for you, let me know.” And she realized there was. She got off the organ bench and they sat together in a pew while she tried to explain about Bo Freeman and the promise she had made.
“Sally Freeman and I grew up together. We were inseparable from first grade on,” she told him. “People referred as 'S & M', like the shoe store in the mall. We were planning to go to college together, room together and come back to teach school here in Deep Valley. But none of that happened....”
She went on to explain that during the summer of their Senior year at the regional high school, Sally met a 'big city boy' and he got her pregnant and disappeared. She stopped and apologized, remembering suddenly that Paul Harden was a 'big city boy'. He waved away her apology and she continued.
“It all fell apart, Sally's hopes and dreams,” Mattie told him, “plus, her parents—very strict people—threw her out. She lives in the little apartment above my parents' grocery store with Bo.”
Paul was already familiar with “Holmes' Market”, the only grocery store in town. It was small but well stocked and saved a drive out to the Big Y on the Interstate.
“Then Bo was born,” Mattie went on. “It was clear from the beginning that something was very wrong with him. He's not Downs Syndrome, but it is in that genus of conditions....”
Paul missed the next sentence or two since he was so shocked to find a young women, a product of the small town of Deep Valley, who used the word 'genus' so casually. He knew she was a remarkable musician from hearing her play, but now she was getting interesting.
What came out in the next five minutes was that Sally (the S in the 'S & M' girls—although Paul repented thinking momentarily of the other SM, it obvious hadn't occurred to Mattie) had moved heaven and earth to keep Bo with her. She worked in Mattie's parents store, offered art classes at the local library (“I was the musician and Sally was the artist,” Mattie said.) Paul noticed that she was neither bragging or embarrassed about saying musician and artist. He was not used to such straight forward, confident talking. He had spent his life among those who thrived on irony and sarcasm and figures of speech. People who didn't offer themselves unprotected to the world. Even his father, the popular and thriving Rector of St. Martin's in Capitol City--'sure to be a bishop someday', was the conversation about Paul Harden, Sr.--even his father had never, in all of Paul's life, been so unconcealed as this somewhat lovely young woman was being on their first meeting.
“When I came back from State College,” she continued, “Bo was turning four and the real problems were showing up. He still wore diapers, he didn't speak much and what he said was hard to understand.” She paused, took a breath. “And he was big. A big boy. The last three years, since I've been home, I've helped all I could. And my parents have helped. But then....” Mattie paused, tears rising in her eyes, pain showing in her face, her body slumping in the pew. She was a slight woman who became even smaller for a moment. “Then...,” she continued, voice slightly breaking, “Sally was diagnosed.”
Sally it turned out, had a form of cancer as insidious and irreversible as Bo's condition. She had six months at diagnosis, two months now when Mattie was talking with Paul Harden, her priest, for the first time.
“I promised her,” Mattie said, near sobbing but controlling it enough to talk, “I promised her I would 'look after Bo'. He's a dear child—as innocent and pure as a spring day here in the mountains. And Sally is ready to sign guardianship over to me, but I need some references....I know you don't know me, but a priest's reference would....”
Mattie never finished that sentence because she burst into tears and fell into Paul's arms. He held her, wondering why Seminary hadn't taught him about such things, feeling a vibrant, honest, almost lovely young body against his, hers convulsing in pain, grief, loss. Paul realized he had no idea whatsoever about what to 'do', so he simply held her until the rapids of weeping subsided and she sat up, clearing embarrassed at her out burst, and asked, simply, clearly: “will you write me a letter, Fr. Harden?”
How could he not? Of course he asked her if there were other options for Bo Freeman--”Sally's parents?” “Dead in a car accident when I was a Senior at State College”.
“Siblings?” “She was an only child, like me....” And Paul added in a whisper, “Like me too....”
So he wrote the letter and Matilda Holmes, 25, his age almost to the day, became the legal guardian of Bo Freeman when Sally Freeman died. Paul did the funeral, since Sally's parents had rejected her and their pastor did as well. She was buried in the small graveyard behind the church, a Baptist among generations of Deep Valley Episcopalians. Mattie handled the expenses and the details and then moved into the small apartment above her parents' grocery, so Bo wouldn't have to adjust to a new environment. Every thing Mattie did, from that funeral on, Paul came to understand, was in response to her promise to a dear and deep friendship. A promise not easily made, a promise that had a cost, a promise made in true trust and commitment, a promise that would shape and form, over many years, both Mattie and Paul, and their lives. A promise rooted in the profound depths of love and friendship, a promise that could never be broken—no matter what the fall-out. That was what Matilda ('Mattie') promised to Sally and to Bo. And it was a promise, so unlike the vast multitude of promises of human beings, that would be kept. Cost what it may, mean what it might.
Everything went well—oh, not 'well', but acceptable, for several years. Mattie managed Bo well enough, with her parents' help and the help of others in the little town. Mattie continued to teach, play the organ for St. Luke's and care for Bo. Paul had to admit that Bo was benign enough. Since Mattie was so dedicated to him, Bo came with her to choir practice and church. He was frightening because he was so large and 'different', but the people of St. Luke's accepted him in time. He even grew on Fr. Harden, though Miss Holmes grew on him more. Paul was impressed how Bo would sit by the organ console, leaning against it at choir practice and on Sunday for the two Eucharists. It was awkward and the source of endless gossip, but over the next few years Paul wooed and finally won Mattie. They would be married when Bo was eleven and Mattie and her child born of a promise were going to move into the rectory after the wedding and leave behind the apartment over Holmes' Grocery. Most people agreed, up until then that Mattie's love and devotion could manage the incredible force of nature that was Bo.
Then it happened, a week before the wedding. Just as all the wags and lunch counter philosophers of Deep Valley could have and in fact did predict over the years: Bo, as much as Mattie had sophisticated and tamed and acclimated him to the culture of life in Deep Valley—a culture much more forgiving and accepting than the 'big city' culture that depended on social workers and institutions—did what could have been predicted. Bo set fire to their apartment between the time when Mattie's mother went downstairs to help with the store and the time, only 20 minutes later, but a lifetime in Bo's life, Mattie got home from school, having stayed a few minutes longer to speak with a parent. Bo came home from school—he was in fifth grade though, God knows, he hadn't passed the previous four. “Social Promotion”, they called it back then, in the day, and he turned on the stove after Mattie's mom went downstairs, and it would have been disastrous had Mattie not arrived and put it out with salt, bath towels and great courage born of commitment.
Yet there was no way to keep it from the state social workers. And added to that, Bo had recently hurt a much smaller classmate. Bobby was on the swing and Bo merely meant to give him a push, but Bobby saw him, panicked and fell off the swing. Bo, being 100 pounds heavier tried to pick Bobby up and broke 3 ribs. Fr. Harding had helped soothe over the reaction to that event, but when Bo started the fire, well, the state simply stepped in and Bo went to the hospital in Garden, where he stayed for years and years.
It was in that context that Fr. Harden, having waited patiently for years, married Matilda Holmes.
Time passed, as it always does, like it or not, and it was not until nearly 20 years after Mattie and Paul were married (much to the delight of the people of St. Luke's and the whole village of Deep Valley, loving them both, but loving Mattie more and wondering, some of them, why she would waste herself on such a man—a man without ambition, a man willing to be patient and wait for Matilda Holmes to 'be available'....) At that point in their thoughts, their wonderings would stop. What man wouldn't wait for Matilda? What man with any sense about him wouldn't be patient if patience was what was needed to win such a prize as Mattie? Maybe this 'big city boy' priest knew what he was doing. Maybe he was right to be patient and wait. That's what the people of Deep Valley finally decided—as odd and brooding as Fr. Harden was, if he had the good sense to wait for Mattie, well, how much better could he be?
So their married life began. They were both 30. People talked behind their hands and wondered out loud in the diner and on the street and at the coffee hour at St. Luke's when they would have a child. The widows and mothers of the village looked endlessly at Mattie's waist, but she remained slim almost to a fault, slender in a way most women first admired and then envied.
Matilda's parents wondered too. They waited, as did Paul and Mattie herself. They were patient and waited and when they finally knew—having submitted themselves to intrusive and awful tests—that Paul's sperm count was too low, much too low to induce pregnancy, well, they had waited patiently and then they knew. And they wouldn't be moving soon, Paul wouldn't take a new call because Mattie's parents were growing old and the corner grocery, well stocked and with such variety as it had—was becoming a dinosaur that people fed, from time to time, because it was 'their' dinosaur. But, all in all, the Holmes' Grocery was being laid waste by the 7-ll and the Big Y and a convenience store over on South Street that stayed open later and had a license to sell both beer and wine.
Paul and Mattie shared the aging and death of her parents, shared it equally since they had been truer parents to Paul than his own parents had been. But when both Davis and Alma Holmes were dead and buried, near Sally Freeman, in St. Luke's grave yard, Paul had called his father, now a bishop on the west coast, to ask, tentatively, if there might be some churches in his father's diocese that would be interested in him, Paul Junior.
After an uncomfortable pause and silence, Paul's father said, sadly, Paul thought, “You've waited too long. I'll retire in a few years. I really don't think it would be wise to put your name forward, knowing, as I do, I won't be here to guard you.”
They spoke for a bit longer, but Paul knew, knew fair well, he had disappointed and let down his father by staying so long in Deep Valley, by not being more aggressive or having more initiative, more ambition. Paul's father never understood that his 'staying put' at St. Luke's had to do with waiting for Mattie—someone worth waiting for. Such a thought would have never entered Bishop Paul Harden's ambitious, ironic mind.
That all took place just before Bo Freeman came home. In his years of 'incarceration', as Mattie saw them, at the State Hospital, Bo had learned even more than Mattie had taught him. And a new law decreed that people like Bo, who were able, so far as the state could determine, to live in the community, must do just that.
Mattie had visited Bo faithfully every two weeks for over twenty years. Mattie was, in Paul's mind, one of the few people he'd known who steadfastly kept her word, her promise to Sally to 'watch out' for Bo. She always returned and told Paul all about Bo's progress. She even convinced Paul to go with her two or three times a year and give Bo communion and anoint him for healing.
It was a struggle for Paul at first. He had been glad to share Mattie with Bo in her twice monthly visits, but sharing her and their house with him proved difficult. Bo was well mannered enough, but, at 34 (several years past what the doctors had predicted would be his lifespan) he was large and clumsy and often dropped things and knocked things over. Bo was polite and pleasant and very goodhearted, but he tied them down more than Paul had expected and took so much of Mattie's time and energy. Paul was jealous, he admitted to himself, jealous of the gentle giant who had 'come home' after so many years. The feelings Paul had depressed and disappointed him. It was dangerous, he well knew, to assume he could be as committed as Mattie was to Bo, but he felt guilty nonetheless. The first year was the hardest but the three of them eventually settled into their new life together. Bo called him “Poppy Paul”, having failed to be able to say either 'Father' or 'Harden'. He called Mattie “Matta” and in time Paul would come to use the nickname. Things certainly settled down, but it was another delay, another waiting for Paul. Until they were used to Bo's presence there was no way to look for a new job.
But then, when St. Martin's came open—the place where Paul had grown up and his father had been Rector for so many years. Well, he thought it was FATE calling to him. He no longer dreamed of being a bishop, like his father, but at least, he imagined, he could make his father proud by following in Paul Senior's foot steps. That was why he was so morose and depressed by the rejection. St. Martin's was the domino that knocked down all the others. That was why he became withdrawn and sullen. Mattie didn't seem able to lift his spirits. Bo was merely confused at the way Poppy Paul was behaving. “Poppy Paul sad?” he asked Mattie. She had to admit Paul was very, very sad. “Bo help?” he asked. She embraced the big man, her eyes welling up, “if only Bo could...,” is all she said.
Even Advent couldn't take the weight of loss and disappointment from Paul's shoulders. It had always been his favorite season, but this year, he barely sang the wondrous Advent hymns, celebrated communion with little passion and his sermons were less structured, less poetic than they always were in the Season of Waiting. Perhaps he was through with waiting. Perhaps he thought there was nothing to wait for anymore.
Finally, a week before Christmas, Mattie could take it no more. She found him sitting in the Rectory office in the dark.
“Paul,” she said, “I think it's time you talked to someone. Won't you call Dr. Lewis?” David Lewis was the psychologist in a nearby town who Paul had recommended to dozens of people over the years.
He looked at her. Bo was behind her, in the doorway. Paul got up and moved toward her. “Do you think I'm crazy!” he shouted. “Is that what you think?”
Mattie was startled. She didn't remember a time in all their marriage that Paul had raised his voice to her like that. The shout sent Bo running. In a moment, they heard the front door open and close. Mattie went after him, but when she stood on the porch it was too dark to see where he had gone. Suddenly, Paul was beside her.
“He didn't take a coat,” she said, shivering in the chill night.
“I'm sure he'll come back soon,” Paul said, his voice full of guilt. “He won't go far.”
But a half-hour later, Bo had not returned though Mattie and then Paul had put on warm jackets and went out to call for him.
They were about to give up when Mattie said, “there's a light in the church.”
St. Luke's was never locked. People often let themselves in late at night, turned on the chapel light and sat for a while.
“That's not the chapel light...,” Paul said as they moved toward the door, “it's candles.”
Sure enough, Bo had lit the altar candles. He had also moved the creche figures from the table by the pulpit to the center of the chancel, arranging them just outside the altar rail. Since it wasn't yet Christmas, the figure of the Christ Child wasn't out yet, but as they moved down the aisle, they saw that Bo laying on the floor in front of the little foot-tall statues of Mary and Joseph, holding something against his chest.
“What on earth....” Paul's voice trailed off, beginning to comprehend the tableau before them.
“You see it too,” Mattie said in a whisper.
By that time, Bo had gotten to his feet and came hurrying down the aisle toward them. He gripped, Paul by the arm with one huge hand, in the other he gently held the creche's Angel.
“Come, Poppy Paul,” Bo said, excited. Paul let himself be led up the steps where Bo said, “lay down, Poppy Paul, lay down with Mary and Joseph.” Paul was already on his knees, tears were rolling down his face. He let Bo help him down until he was laying on his side. Then Bo pressed the angel into Paul's hands. “Poppy Paul's Mary's Baby too....”
Paul was weeping quietly. Bo looked anxiously at Mattie.
“It's okay, Bo,” she said, holding back a sob herself. She stood rooted to the spot and watched as Bo sat beside of Paul and cradled his head gently in his huge arms.
When the tears were over, Bo helped Paul to his feet. He looked at the priest with a compassion few would have thought him capable of and asked, “Poppy Paul is Mary's Baby too?”
“Yes, son,” Paul said softly, embracing the larger man, “Yes, my son, I am....”
Mattie held her hand to her mouth. Paul had never called Bo that before. And she could tell as Paul looked at her and held out a hand to her to join their embrace that light had come into Paul's darkness and his life-long waiting was over.
Bo hugged Paul back.
“Easy, son,” Paul said, wincing, “careful with my ribs....”