It was hard reaching the box. Sturdy, black cardboard faded white at the corners, torn a little. Larger than she remembered. Heavier, too, as she balanced it on upturned fingertips.
The Origins of Grace.
She pulled the top off as she sat, cross-legged, on the floor of her closet, the jacket hems and pants legs brushing her soft brown curls as she leaned to look inside.
Scattered, torn memories in faded-to-grey black and white. Photos of little girls in white Communion dresses, programs from Confirmation, letters of praise for the young woman who would become Grace. On the letterhead of the Order of Mount Carmel, greetings from the Mother House, folded into tissue-thin envelopes with scapulas and tiny cards with the Holy Virgin in pastels on front.
"Dear Miss McAllister, thank you for your hard work with the St. Vincent's Christmas Party."
"Dear Miss McAllister, congratulations on your fine showing at the regional competition. Your academic excellence is a positive reflection on your family and your school."
Her historian's mind made the leaps, categorizing, connecting the dots, tracing the path from this to that, from cause to effect. It was easy to apply rigorous academic scrutiny to history, to see the patterns that caused the wars, that shaped the policy, that set the stage for revolt.
Not so easy, it seemed in her own life.
The patterns of cause and effect seemed gauzy in her own history, the events that shaped this particular mutiny didn't seem so clear-cut.
Never, she'd thought. Never will I allow my children, my bright precious boys, to be led down that particular garden path. My children will never know this pain, this betrayal.
So many things, so many faded papers neatly folded in her box of memories, letters and report cards, and congratulations and requests, prayer cards and programs.
Her Bible, worn and dog-eared, oblivious to that well-known but seldom overtly-stated Catholic dictate: Thou shalt not actually read the Bible. No, Grace's prints were all over the leather-bound book, page ears turned, passages underlined, notes and references in the margins.
And questions. Always so many questions. Why? I don't understand.
It's a matter of faith, Miss McCallister. Faith, Miss McCallister.
A picture fell out of the Bible. Smiling, shock grey hair, sharp eyes. She'd never been a beauty, Grace was sure, but she practically glowed with vitality and intelligence. Her face was creased in that way that indicated years of smiling, raucous laughter, heart-wrenching tears and grief. She was spare, taller than the woman over whose shoulder she'd casually draped her arm. They were polar opposites, Mary Shannon and her partner Olivia. Brightness and dark, extrovert introvert.
The term back then, even after Vatican II, had been "particular friendships." Grace had never heard of it, not even when she showed up on that morning to find Sister Ursula teaching her history class. Sister Agnes had returned to the Mother House for training, and no, she wouldn't be returning to teach. No, she wouldn't be able to write to her; Father Jack will be taking confessions before school tomorrow, if you want to pray for her. No, she's not sick, just tired and needs a change.
The rumors flew like crossfire, how Sister Agnes had angered the Mother by actually teaching the history of Catholicism, rather than just the propaganda. How Sister Agnes had defied the Order and helped some senior girls obtain birth control. How Sister Agnes was too politically vocal, and the Pope himself had suggested her unfit to influence the minds of the young women of Our Lady of Prompt Succor.
Grace traced the outline of Mary Shannon's face, the woman who had become and then ceased to be Sr. Agnes, Order of Mount Carmel. She had all the inherent subversion of a primary school librarian.
All she'd done was spoken the truth, freely and often, inspiring healthy debate among girls who rarely thought about anything beyond the next party. If anything, she strengthened her students' faith, forcing them to question and examine their beliefs.
It wasn't until years later, after she'd already lost her faith in God and Pope, and similarly in the religions of man and in men in general, that Grace learned the truth about Sister Agnes. About the vicious rumor concerning a young novice she'd mentored, a "particular friend" whose enthusiastic appreciation of her older friend had sparked controversy and fear in the Order.
She'd sat with Mary Shannon, still vibrant and opinionated though years out of the habit, over espresso in an outdoor café. They'd talked of Grace's career, her two young sons, politics, feminism, everything except the one burning question that pushed at Grace's lips, but which she could not bring herself to ask.
It was Mary herself who broached the subject. "If I regret nothing else, it was that I didn't have a chance to say goodbye to my students," she'd said, speaking into her half-eaten Danish.
Years of study, years of questioning, could be traced back to that Monday morning, Grace realized. That day she realized God didn't care what happened to His children. That day she realized that being good, and being wise, and loving didn't matter.
Mary Shannon had moved on. Grace stared at the picture in her hand. It was the image of a woman who had transitioned from follower to leader, who had never lost faith in her world or the people that inhabited it. A woman who had never forgotten why she chose to do good work and still did it, tirelessly and passionately.
"Mom, come on. We have to leave soon."
My children will never have their minds and their souls dulled into submission, she'd said out loud. In her heart, she'd always added, They'll never know the hurt. The betrayal. The loss.
They weren't even Baptized.
Every action can be traced backwards to a source cause. Every pattern has its roots in conflict, in communication, in values and beliefs.
Bobby wanted to go to church. He wanted spirituality.
The roots of that desire were within his own heart, but they were also in her, in Grace, and in Mary Shannon and the Pope and particular friendships and censorship and desire.
Desire for a truth. Desire for a reason. Desire for understanding.
Grace recognized that desire so powerfully. She smiled down at Mary Shannon, sometimes known as Sister Agnes, Order of Mount Carmel, and her partner Olivia.
"Come on, Mom!"
"I'm coming!" She kissed the photo, tucking it safely into the Bible before putting it back in the box. She'd put it back up later, that afternoon maybe, or that night.
Grace McCallister grabbed the shoes she'd come in for, steadying herself as she prepared to take her youngest son, for the very first time, to church.