Don was sipping his glass of iced water — a glass which he was amused to note bore definite signs of having been part of a loyalty program giveaway some decades previously — when the sliding doors to the rectory sitting room parted and a man about his own age, in cargo shorts and a Foo Fighters t-shirt, stepped into the room.
Don put his glass down on the coaster Jean had provided and struggled to his feet. He found himself a bit off-balance.
“Sorry to keep you, but I see Jean’s been taking good care of you. She runs the place, of course, but you’ll know how that works.” The man smiled and extended his hand.
“Father Tom. Good to meet you.”
Don hastily wiped his hand, wet from the condensation on the glass, on his own shorts and shook the other man’s hand.
“Don Morris,” he said. “Late of Massachusetts, new resident and parishioner, reporting for duty, just like my mother trained me.”
Don grinned and the young priest grinned back.
“Ah, where would we be without our mothers? Don’t answer that!”
And with that, the two men sat down across from each other.
“I hope you don’t mind the civvies,” Father Tom said, pointing at his neck where the clerical collar wasn’t. “It’s just, in this heat,” he waved a hand.
“Not at all,” Don said. “Sensible. We don’t have enough priests left for you to be passing out from heat stroke.”
The priest said nothing, but gave Don a long, appraising look. He sat still through it, but he wasn’t ashamed to admit later, to Kath, that he’d been squirming inside. It was like the man was looking directly at his soul and Don had the definite sense that all his charm would be nothing but window-dressing to this guy. This was a man to watch.
“So,” said the priest, settling back into his armchair. “Tell me about your family.”
Don relaxed. If there was one thing he could do, it was talk.
“Well, let’s see. There’s my wife Kath — Kathleen — but she goes by her own name, Rodriguez and I’d advise you to remember that. Then there’s Stella, eleven-going-on-twelve. She’s a firecracker, just like her mother. She’s stuck between being Daddy’s little girl and too old for that kind of nonsense so I guess the teen years are almost upon us.”
The priest nodded.
“From what I’ve seen,” he said. “They’re always Daddy’s little girl, even when they’re trying their best not to be. My sister certainly is.”
Don looked up.
“Are there many of you?” he asked.
“Just me and my sister,” the priest replied. He leaned forward in his armchair. “Contrary to expectations, isn’t it? To be honest, I suspect my parents were not entirely aligned with Church teaching in certain areas, not that we ever talked about it.”
He winked and Don laughed out loud. The image of discussing ‘such things’ with his own parents was not one he could conjure, for all his fertile imagination. It was odd enough to be having the discussion with a priest. A day of firsts, indeed. On a whim, he asked,
“So, how did they feel about their only boy becoming a priest?”
Fr Tom gave Don another searching look.
“A bit surprised actually, and not entirely confident. We weren’t the most strict family, to be honest. I know my mother wanted me to settle down and find a nice wife to look after me. And there are days, like today, when I almost wish I’d listened to her.” He winked at Don. “But the Lord can be quite insistent when he comes calling. They gave me their blessing in the end.”
The man opposite him was smiling, but Don had a strong sense of things left unsaid.
“Bad day?” he asked.
Fr Tom paused.
“Busy, let’s say. Interesting, even. But enough about me, you were talking about Stella. Is she your only?”
“Oh no, “Don said. “Robbie’s our youngest. Nine. All boy, as they say. A bundle of potential but God knows where he’ll end up. He’s all over the place, but that’s probably my fault — he’s got my overactive imagination, I’m afraid.”
“And will they be joining us at our school? I can point you in the direction of the registration forms.”
“Ah,” Don picked up his water glass from the table in front of him and twirled it, the cut glass pattern catching a beam of sunlight and splashing a lightshow across the exquisite fireplace. “Public school.”
“That’s fine,” Father Tom said. After a pause, he continued, “I don’t want to be indelicate but I do let everyone know that we have an excellent reputation and a robust scholarship fund. I hate for anyone to let financial concerns get in the way of their true wishes.”
“It’s not that, Father, And I’m sure the school is lovely. But my wife has…views.” Don stopped. Did that make him sound disloyal? “In fact, we’re both big supporters of public education,” he hurried on, taking a drink of from his glass to cover the moment.
“Well, we’re always here if you change you mind,” Fr. Tom waved his hand as if to dismiss the topic. Then he leaned forward again. “12 years of public education, sitting right in front of you, by the way, so I’m not going to tell you to fear for their immortal souls, or anything.”
Don looked at the man opposite. He was beginning to get the sense that this was a priest unlike any he’d met before. He was someone Don might like to call a friend.
They talked on for a bit, Fr Tom doing his sales pitch for the parish and telling Don all about the various ministries (“Are you musical? You know choirs are always desperate for men”) and the not-to-be-missed parish picnic in September, and all the other little things that make up parish life. Jean reappeared and pressed some forms into Don’s hand (“just return them whenever you can’”) and then the men were standing on the porch, shaking hands again, the door propped open behind them.
“My advice?” Fr Tom said, at last. “Don’t sign up for more than two things in any one year. It’s easy to get sucked in and then you end up overwhelmed and you’re no good to man nor beast.”
“Well there’s another surprise,” Don said. “A paster asking me not to volunteer!”
“People know my views, by now. You’ll thank me when Jack Rousch comes to sign you up for the seventh thing this week and you can tell him, ‘sorry Jack, I’ve already filled my two spots, you know how Fr Tom is…’ and shrug helplessly.”
Don laughed and then said,
“Will you come for dinner? One night this week. It won’t be fancy but we’d love to have you over.”
The priest frowned — the first Don had seen.
“It’s not like the old days,” Fr Tom said, carefully. “There aren’t enough of us around anymore to go making home visits all the time. I’m not able to get around all the parishioners…”
“So you don’t want to offend anyone?” Don looked across the street. There were children swinging in a park. A woman in a straw hat emerged from behind a great green hedge to check her mailbox.
“Come after dark. Nobody knows who we are yet, and I can keep a secret.” Don leaned in and lowered his voice. “You know, if it was my mother, she’d have had you down there to bless the house before the movers had even crossed the threshold. The people before us, who built our house, lovely as they were, were named Patel. If I told my poor mother that we were sleeping in a house that’s likely never had a touch of holy water…”
Jean’s voice floated through from the inner room.
“You’re free on Wednesday evening, Father. After the Parish finance meeting. And it’ll be getting dark by then!”
“And they say priests don’t have wives,” Don winked.
Fr Tom laughed,
“We don’t. Just an abundance of mothers. And far be it from me to get between a fellow Irishman and the wishes of his mammy.”
“God bless you,” Don grinned. “Though I’m sure he already does. Come over whenever you’re free. . Wear your civvies if it helps, but don’t forget the holy water!”
“They’d defrock me if I did!” Tom offered Don his hand. “A real pleasure. Wednesday, a little after eight, then?”