FALLINGS FROM GRACE
By Ron McFarland
The little priest came from Ghana and had retired but remained active at Grace Episcopal in Oak Park, an upscale Chicago suburb where the Hemingway family had worshipped upon occasion. My wife Georgia and I were attending a Hemingway conference there in Papa’s hometown, and we were visiting the church with new acquaintances we had made through Daniel, who owned the B&B where we’d stayed the past five days. Without a car, we found ourselves suspended in a pentad of intense Midwest heat and humidity. We’d both lived in the Midwest over the years, but after years of virtually humidity-free summers in the Idaho panhandle, we had managed to un-remember July in that part of the nation where you actually can hear the corn grow. Daniel shuttled us from the B&B to the campus of Dominican University, host school for the conference, when we got too weary or lazy to “take shank’s mare,” as my recently deceased father liked to say.
At the B&B the first morning we breakfasted with a couple from Seattle. The man was tall and slender, tan and bald, and he worked construction, he said, HVAC, mostly on high-rises. The construction business was “booming,” he said. It was going “great guns.” He said that twice. His blonde wife, daughter of an eastern Washington farm family, looked a good bit younger. Their son was a professional body builder. His boy had “terrific guns,” the man said. After breakfast Georgia said the wife had the money. She tends to know these things. Georgia claims the English language, especially the American vernacular, promulgates violence, and yes, she does use that word, “promulgates.” She’s a retired high school English teacher, and she blames the NFL for the violent state of American English. She still resents the fact that for the first six years of our marriage I refused to give up fantasy football and Monday nights at John’s Alley with the guys.
The morning we visited the church we met a Swiss oral surgeon of international renown, also tall and well-tanned, but possessed of an impressive silver-grey mane, professionally coifed. He said the problem with the U.S. is that we have just the two political parties. We need to be more like Switzerland, he said, with three or four parties, or even five, if we want to have a true democracy.
He said he served very briefly in the army, just a few months, as the Swiss have compulsory universal military service, and he thought that was a good idea. It socializes us, he said. He met men from different walks of life—farmers, teachers, construction workers. I thought of the guy from Seattle. The Switzer still had his rifle, he said, but only a single package of ammunition that was against the law to open except in a declared national emergency. The Hemingway conference took place last summer before you-know-who became president. Georgia and I wonder what the oral surgeon must think of the U.S. political scene now.
Then came a gorgeous journalist and Hemingway scholar who had a recent book out that had been wonderfully reviewed. She was from L.A. by way of the Big Apple, and she was running late and was in such a hurry that she twice refused the fresh-squeezed orange juice Georgia and I thought one of the triumphs of Daniel’s B&B. She had pieces in Vanity Fair and Vogue and The Wall Street Journal, hardly the stock-in-trade of your typical academic. I envied her book; Georgia envied her beauty. She had a quality a friend of mine used to call “swish.” After breakfast Georgia said she’d noticed how I was not noticing this attractive young woman in her flimsy blue dress.
On the way to the church we did the architecture of Oak Park, despite the daunting heat: Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio, along with the half dozen or so nearby homes he’d designed. The town features dozens of semi-palatial homes built in his prairie mode bucked up against Queen Anne and Victorian mansions and Georgian manors. Daniel’s B&B was among the latter. Its interior exemplified the Enlightenment’s rage for symmetry. Periodically Georgia would point out that we could not even afford the turret of this place, or the immense front porch of that one, or the impressive fence and gate of the other, or the porte cochère, or the garage, or the servant’s quarters. By the time we arrived at Grace, we were physically steaming and culturally intimidated, overwhelmed by heat, humidity, and architecture. Locusts screamed at us all day long it seemed, shrill monophonic taunting.
Daniel introduced us to Jake and his son Jeremy, who sometimes played the organ at the church and had offered to perform for us, as his planned recital the night before had been cancelled because of the dreadful heat. The grand church, built in 1905 with its wood-timbered vault and all but priceless stained glass, the church where the Hemingways had worshipped when Ernest was a young man, could not afford air-conditioning. I thought of the HVAC man from Seattle more than once that sweltering early afternoon. The vaulted ceiling with its dark beams offered minimal relief from the sodden heat.
The boy was brilliant and touchingly solicitous. I say “boy,” but in fact Jeremy was 24 years old, Jake said. He was “special,” severely autistic but something of a savant. At 16 he’d discovered the organ, and to everyone’s amazement he had mastered its manifold intricacies. He played wonderfully that torrid afternoon—Bach’s “O Mensch Bewein dein Sünde Gross” and a couple of others, finished off with “Stars and Stripes Forever,” just for fun. My particular “Sünde,” sins, probably do not weigh on me as heavily as they should, but I try to give them (envy in particular) fair play. Jeremy, like many who live in his space, seemed without sin, empowered perhaps to cast the first stone, but highly unlikely to do so. He wanted us to hear what his instrument could do. It has five thousand pipes, he said. He explained the stops—this one for violins, this for trumpets, this for the clarinet. He instructed us to sit midway so the music could wrap around us.
His father took us on a quick tour of the stained glass, focusing on a pair designed by William Morris. He of the Morris Chair fame, I said, in a lame effort to sound intelligent. Jake nodded indulgently. Georgia shook her head. Daniel meanwhile performed various tasks appropriate to a member of the vestry, one of the twelve, he told us, changing hymnal page numbers on the sign boards, policing the altar and communion rail, which was fronted overhead by an intricately carved wooden screen. To my eyes and in my memory the church resembled Roman Catholic cathedrals I’d visited over the years. Jake said it had been built for a congregation of about 700; ten or twenty years ago it was down to just a couple of hundred, now, just sixty.
How could they afford insurance on this multi-million-dollar edifice, a monument to its own magnificence?
“We can’t,” Anna, Jake’s wife, said, joining us from the right transept. She was a tall, blue-eyed, country-club blonde, dressed in tennis whites. She was a member of the local art league of which Grace Hemingway, Ernest’s domineering mother, had been a founder. The docent at Hemingway’s birth home portrayed Grace as something of a paragon. The novelist John Dos Passos wrote that he’d never known a man to hate his mother as Ernest hated Grace. Anna seemed the kind of woman Sinclair Lewis would’ve derided in his social satires, but a good sort, really, and very smart. She came and went excusing herself for a court engagement she regretted having made, given the heat.
“We cannot afford it,” Jake added. “We’re going to lose it sooner or later, probably sooner. Then we don’t know what’ll become of Jeremy. They’ve already demolished a historic church downtown.” He meant Chicago. “Built in the 1890s. It was almost as nice as Grace. For condos, of course.”
Daniel moved across the apse carrying a bronze vase of wilted roses. He nodded very slightly in the direction of the altar, a nearly imperceptible gesture of faith. He had almost entered the priesthood after attending a Catholic boarding school he’d despised. Perhaps one was supposed to despise one’s boarding school, to lash out against it and somehow channel that anger into some positive act. Daniel had gone on to seminary and spent a year in Rome before accepting the fact that he’s gay, openly, and because he believed in his own purity and loved the Church, he feared he might cause trouble for it, so he became Episcopalian, the next best thing, he told us, and so he had been for the past dozen years. Lately he’d been thinking of giving the priesthood another shot, but which way to go? And he loved the B&B, a former bishop’s residence, but the place tied him down, and his partner of the past several years had left him recently. He felt he needed something else.
He told us all this over breakfast our first morning, eggs Benedict that Georgia said was “fabulous” and that I plowed through manfully despite my disliking of poached eggs. After breakfast she played a Chopin etude on the piano, an old Chickering grand. She earned her degree in piano performance but hasn’t played much since her back surgery. I think the eggs Benedict put her in a good mood, and she liked Daniel, I could see that.
After Jeremy’s recital, once we left the sauna-like nave for the torrid churchyard where the sun glared at us from the pavement, Daniel introduced us to the retired priest, Father Mansa, or Mossa, I wonder which it was. He spoke with an accent, so I asked where he came from, and at first he said “heah,” but then he said he came from Ghana. There on the limestone steps of Grace as the sun burned down on us, my tinted glasses failed in the glare of the afternoon sun. It was just after one. Surely all of us were wilting in the humidity, but Father M was wearing a stiff white clerical collar and a black suit that looked in need of a visit to the dry cleaner. Daniel commented about how uncomfortable the old priest must be in that black suit, but Father M simply smiled and said “yes” so brightly you had to think he hadn’t heard Daniel correctly. He struck me as “jovial,” that was the word for it: “jovial.”
I wanted to say something smart and well-informed to the Ghanaian priest, but only three possibilities came to mind: how much hotter it must get back there in Ghana; how admirable it was that Ghana had achieved such stability, unlike nearby Liberia and Nigeria; and did he know the poems of Kofi Awoonor, and wasn’t his murder in Kenya a couple of years ago a tragedy? None of these options seemed quite right. Didn’t many of our slaves hail from Ghana, back when it was called Gold Coast? Also a non-starter as conversations might go. So I said nothing, but Georgia asked him if he had family back in Ghana, and he said he did not except for a younger sister he hadn’t seen in years.
“It is strange,” the priest said, “when I was a boy, I had no fear of flight. I loved the idea of flying in a jet plane. But now that I am an old man and understand something of aerodynamics, I am quite afraid of falling from the sky.” He chuckled. “Besides, it would be quite prohibitively expensive, you know.” He paused for a moment. “I do miss her, you know. It is not right of me. It is not right. Yes, I do miss her. Sarah.”
But the memory did not seem to darken the little old priest’s smile or to dampen his joviality. He excused himself, saying what a great pleasure it was to have met us, and where did we say we were from?
“Ah yes.” And that was that.
Saying you’re from Idaho frequently stops a conversation dead in its tracks. Someone usually confuses the state with Iowa or Ohio. Someone else will say “potatoes,” and then I’ll mention that our part of the state is all about wheat, dry peas, lentils, canola, and garbanzos. Or maybe I’ll mumble something like “don’t forget the sugar beets.” Or the timber industry, the mountains, the rainbow trout.
It’s very dry in Idaho, I wanted to say, not at all humid like the Midwest, and we live up in the panhandle, far from the famous potato farms, although it is true that our license plates read “Famous Potatoes.” In fact, most of the potatoes we buy are grown in Washington. But I decided to pass on the teachable moment, so we shook hands again and Father Mansa or Mossa walked slowly and somewhat unsteadily away. Very black. “A man of indeterminate age,” I thought, a rather literary way of phrasing it. In his seventies or eighties maybe. It was hard to tell. I wondered what sort of priest he had made for this elite and fast dwindling parish.
Jake and Jeremy said goodbye and thanked us again for coming to the recital, even though we’d been the beneficiaries of what might well have been a command performance. Jeremy beamed. He radiated childlike joy, sheer pleasure. I used to play soccer and when the kids were little, I did some coaching, and what I saw on Jeremy’s face reflected the elation of a boy who’d scored his first goal. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said, although we’d told him at least twice that we would be leaving in the morning, Sunday.
“Heading back to Idaho,” Georgia said, “far away.”
“Far away,” he said. “I’ll see you in church.”
“You love this church, don’t you?” Daniel intervened.
“Oh yes, I love this church. And the organ, and Father Pete.” We had not met Father Peter, but Daniel had spoken of him enthusiastically.
“It was our privilege,” Jake said. “Thank you for coming on this sweltering day.”
“No-no, it is we who should thank you,” Georgia insisted.
Indeed, Grace had been purgatorially uncomfortable, the music sublime, our suffering ridiculous: “From whence cometh our succor?” I’d whispered to Georgia in the midst of Bach’s G Minor Fantasia. “Help,” she whispered back, “from whence cometh my help?” We both knew it came from the hills, from the mountains.
Before we got together, Georgia had played piano and organ at her church, “First Presby,” up in Spokane, but both of us had taken to backsliding in our dozen years together and had become quite comfortable with our “complacencies,” the “orange juice and coffee,” the “green cockatoo on the rug”—Georgia loved Wallace Stevens’ poems and often indulged her irreligious paraphrase of his secular “Sunday Morning” when the subject of church came up. “Sometimes I miss it,” she said.
Generally, I said nothing.
Jake and Jeremy headed toward the parking lot, Jeremy thanking us again as we attempted to trump his gratitude with our own, to no avail. His last words to us were that he looked forward to seeing us in church tomorrow. Jake smiled, shrugged, and waved.
“Look over there,” Lana said.
Down sun-struck Lake Street to our right, the retired priest from Ghana was unceremoniously struggling to lift his leg over a three-foot high cement barrier the city of Oak Park had erected to cordon off a sidewalk that was under repair. He appeared to have gotten himself “high-centered,” as 4-wheelers back in Idaho would say, his left leg propped on top of the barrier at some angle perilously past 90 degrees. The three of us, Georgia and Daniel and I, stood transfixed on the steps of Grace Episcopal as the little African priest posed like a hurdler caught in freeze-frame just as he was about to take a spill. One of us should’ve hurried to his side, but he was a good sixty yards off, and there was his dignity to be reckoned with, what little of it remained, given the abject awkwardness of his dilemma. It was like a bizarre parody of one of the stations of the cross, but which one? Typically, there are fourteen. This would be #3: Jesus falls for the first time. I’d seen a J&R Lamb rendition, I think, or maybe a Tiffany, years ago. The little priest’s dignity be damned, one of us should have acted, but we just stood there, helpless, waiting for it to happen as we talked about lunch.
Father M smiled at us from out of his predicament. Then he waved.
I thought fleetingly of a paper from the conference on the very short story, “Old Man at the Bridge,” Georgia’s favorite, in fact, though she’s not a great fan of Oak Park’s famous native son. The story evolved from an actual incident during the Spanish Civil War, which Hemingway was covering for the North American Newspaper Alliance when he wasn’t diddling Martha Gellhorn. The paper hadn’t been all that perceptive, I thought as I left the session. The presenter was a nervous graduate student from a university in Florida, and his observations had been punctuated with awkward phrasings, muddled pronunciations, and technical glitches in his Power Point, the height of which was an inverted image of a donkey that one of his classmates must have somehow slipped into the sequence. The comic relief had been not unwelcome, but you had to feel for the guy. The paper had been a hyper-scholarly, over-earnest commentary on the old man’s essential dignity, and he had quoted Cicero on dignitas by way of providing a classical foundation for his banal observations. I forget the title, but I’m sure a colon was involved along with the familiar Hemingway catchphrase, “Grace under pressure.”
For lunch Daniel suggested the intentionally misspelled Hemmingway Bistro, which would’ve been a suitable tribute to the conclusion of the conference, but Georgia and I had eaten there three of the five nights and were in the mood for a change, so he proposed Winberies. We agreed without taking our eyes away from the struggling Father M, and it now struck me that even though he was a good sixty yards away, we might have come to his aid had we acted right away instead of gawking at him, animadverting on the topic of dignity, and considering our lunch plans.
At that point the little priest from Ghana waved once again and negotiated the hurdle with pretended ease.
“I can’t believe all three of us just stood here and watched,” Georgia said. “He could’ve been hurt.”
“The Lord watches over . . .” I started to say, but I forgot the rest of the old adage. I think it includes “fools,” or maybe it isn’t an old adage at all. Winberies was fully air-conditioned, and Daniel drove us back to his air-conditioned B&B in his air-conditioned Lexus where we could not hear the strident cries of the locusts as they mocked us.
About the Author:
Ron McFarland teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Idaho. His recent books include a study of regional memoir, The Rockies in First Person (2008), Appropriating Hemingway: Using Him as a Fictional Character (2015), and a biography, Edward J. Steptoe and the Indian Wars (2016). Pecan Grove Press published Ron’s fourth full-length book of poems, Subtle Thieves,in early 2012. Chapin House Books published his memoir of growing up in Florida, Confessions of a Night Librarian and Other Embarrassments, in 2005. Current projects include a small book of his essays and poems on angling, title to be decided.