Shelter in Place by Lourdes A. Gautier I have two front doors. One that limits who enters, can be locked or unlocked with a key and is a perfect …Shelter in Place by Lourdes A. Gautier (MY FRONT DOOR Series)
My Front Door
by Clive Collins
The opening and closing of the front door at my childhood home ushered us through our lives. Our house was small, the last one in a nineteenth-century jerry-built terrace – two rooms and a kitchen downstairs, two rooms and a box room up. There was no hallway; the front door in the front room opened directly on the street.
We seldom used that room or its door. The post came through its letterbox three times a day when I was young, the envelopes falling onto the doormat like heavy leaves in a repetitive autumn. Late in the afternoon, later than the day’s last post, the local newspaper arrived, half its rolled-up bulk pushing sinisterly against the door curtain like the barrel of an assassin’s pistol. When people passed in and out of the door there was always a sense of occasion. My father opened…
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There is a man. He wears a suit, he has a mop of grey curly hair, he’s probably in his early 70s or thereabouts. He is in my neighborhood but doesn’t live here. Like so many men in suits and women with their lunch and their shoes in a shoulder bag, he works in the courthouse across the street from me. I see him coming into work on some days and leaving on others.
His most distinguishing feature is not the hair or the suit. He is blind. And my neighborhood does not see many blind people walking nearby.
The first time I helped him cross the street, he chastised me for coming toward him to assist him walking me back where I started. I told him I was just on my way home and that I considered myself lucky I could get him off my conscience and all it meant was I would be walking across the same street twice. I meant what I said, even though it sounds glib to me now that I write this. I never could have known rest if I hadn’t taken his arm and offered him some help.
The next time, I was again walking toward him but I tried to be less chatty, more helpful.
This morning, I saw him again and I realized that it’s not just that he can’t see that makes me want to help him but that he must be new to being blind. He started to cross the street when the light changed but stopped, unsure if it would be safe and then started so tentatively I found myself putting my arm around his shoulder to guide him to the opposite side of the intersection. I told him it was a sunny day but likely to be pretty humid, all in all. He laughed when I said, “But you’ll probably be in air conditioning all day, right?” He smiled and continued on toward the door into the side entrance of the courthouse.
Sight is a damn gift.
I’ve been thinking about this since I learned a few days ago that my most quoted, most important, most looked up to high school teacher is now also blind. I read French because of her. I speak French because of her. I wanted to be a better person because of her and it breaks my heart to learn this, even though I have not seen her in over 50 years. What cruelty the gods dispense.
There is another man that I see at church from time to time. He comes in with his guide dog and sits near me. I watched him struggle to receive communion because of the way the aisles in this church run. They are not straight but they angle to the left at the front and his dog had trouble maneuvering. By the time I realized what was happening, that part of the service had ended. Another woman and I alerted the priest so he could take communion after Mass. Ever since, she and I have smiled and chatted a bit. We both look after him now. He wears a watch.
If I were to lose this damn gift I would lose so much it hurts even to think about it. I would not be able to read, something I do all day. I would not have the courage of either of these men to step outside my house and try to cross the street, let alone work in an office, which my neighborhood friend must be doing, given his clothes and the hours he keeps. I cannot imagine getting on the subway, hailing a cab – I would need you to help me do even the smallest things, like shop for food and cook dinner. Or go to church. And I think of how often I pay no heed to the fact that I do have this damn gift and so many others.
I want to walk for those who cannot, I want to speak out for those who cannot, I want to stand up and hear and see for anyone who cannot or will not. And even though I realize fully I could also lose this gift, I will probably forget to be grateful again tomorrow – until I see this man on his way to the courthouse. This newly blind man. Who is braver than me.
A few years ago, I do not want to remember the exact date, the local church authorities decided it was time for a change at our home church. It was part of a system of changes where some congregations were left homeless and others were forced to share each other’s company the way telephone party lines brought strangers together in the 1960s. It was wrenching.
We’d come to think of this church as our spiritual home even though I doubt I would have put it that way at the time. We took everything for granted. We wanted the similar, the familiar, the reliable, the expected. That’s what churches give you. You always know what to expect, and that is comforting the same way it’s comforting to know all the words to Hey Jude. You just know how it ends and you can suspend the craziness and the upheaval of everyday life in New York for a minute because you can predict the future.
I would guess the priests knew something was coming. I would guess, at first, they expected the church authorities would take their sense of an inclusive, caring community into account when deciding what was going to happen next. But I was blindsided. The new administrator was a priest foreign to everything I had known from the Church over decades of going to Mass.
He was abrupt. He was rude. He made fun of people in the congregation. He’d ask at the end of Mass, “Is anyone here for the first time?” and when anyone would say, “Yes, I’m here from Buffalo or Denver or Houston,” he’d crack a joke about how they were now better off here than wherever they had said they were from. He said we were all welcome by naming the ways other people divide us: gay, straight, divorced, married, single. We had come into the church like tiny lit votives, all the same, all together, and suddenly we were a member of a group that is not like another group. We’d been set off and away from each other by our category.
And he intruded on the sacred space of the other priests. During the Mass of another priest, he would come onto the altar, interrupt the service, without vestments, and recount what we could all read in the church bulletin. All the while, the priest who had been saying Mass was relegated to sitting quietly, subserviently, until he was finished with the bulletin and the stand-up routine that followed. “Who’s here for the first time?” “Oh, now you’ve truly been saved!” Yuck, yuck, yuck.
I became an itinerant Catholic. I followed the former pastor downtown to his new parish and saw him a handful of times. And I went to two other churches to catch up with another one of the priests, but the routine and the comfort were gone.
Until last week.
This new priest abruptly retired and was then summarily removed from his ministry by the same church authorities who placed him in my church in the first place. I was stunned. We all were stunned. At Mass there this morning, a woman was in tears and the head of the parish council mentioned there would be a service of prayer on Tuesday. They even remembered this priest during the prayers on the altar. “Change is difficult” was the clear message. There had been serious allegations of his abusing authority.
Immediately, I wanted to be able to go back to the church I had left. I’m sure the parishioners at Notre Dame in Paris want nothing more than to do that as well. And while I can hardly compare handling the imposition of an unsympathetic priest to the fire that claimed the roof in Paris, it’s that routine I associate with the former pastor that I grieve.
I sat there for a few minutes after Mass this morning, trying to fill in the blanks. How was I really feeling, could I find my way back to this church after having left it, did I still need a church home, or was my itinerant Mass-going sufficient? I don’t know.
It’s going to take a while to find the answers. But isn’t that what a church is supposed to do?
The easy part of my story about my dad is that I miss him. I miss having breakfast with him where the waitresses always knew the kind of mug he liked for his coffee. I miss taking him with me to visit family cemeteries and the historical society in the county in Indiana where his dad grew up. He showed me the storefront that used to house my great grandfather’s blacksmith shop. And I could tell him all the stories I learned from doing family history research. None of that has any real substance though, as easy as the stories are to tell.
When my father died, I found myself suddenly placed in the position of being the one making the “arrangements.” I wanted to lie down and feel sorry for myself but instead, I met with the funeral home, the priest, my family, our neighbors, even my sister’s former classmates and friends who drove up to attend the wake and to see her. I think about those few days now and all I see is me talking. Nothing but talking.
Oh, and crying. I was worried I might become known as “that woman who comes to church, sits down, and cries to herself.” There was even one sweet member of the church choir who came over after the service and gave me a hug because she thought I looked like I could use a hug. Boy, did she get that right. Churches have been my sanctuary for a long while, but in this instance, during the days just before and just after my father’s death, I would walk in, sit down, and just cry.
Ironically, I really did want to get the funeral and burial just right and I can see now that I missed that mark by a long shot – but I know why now. At the time, I thought I was just acting without thinking.
The service was lovely, but I held up the drive from the church to the cemetery because I was talking to the organist and the singer about the years I had spent singing in the choir – as if a hearse, cars, family, and neighbors weren’t all waiting to leave.
That pales compared to my behavior at the cemetery. I had arranged for a burial with full military honors. My father was a sergeant in the Army Air Force in WWII and was stationed on Iwo Jima. It was appropriate. When we turned the corner off the highway into the graveyard, I could see the honor guard waiting for us. The local American Legion post sent two uniformed soldiers, and a chaplain who was accompanied by a bugler and a row of Armed Services veterans who stood at attention while the prayers were said and the flag that had draped my father’s coffin was folded.
I have no experience with military funerals. I sat, listened to Taps, heard the 21-gun salute, and watched while the two young men prepared the flag as if every crease, every fold had immortal significance. Then, one of the men came over to me, knelt on one knee and looked me in the eyes, saying that the flag was presented to me on behalf of the President of the United States. I held it close, passed it to each of my four children so they could hold it for a moment as well.
And then I gave it back to him, saying, “You know, I’m moving and I really don’t have the space for it, you know.”
My cousins were aghast; my neighbor came over to me. They must have thought I had lost my mind. No, I told them, I’m downsizing and I’d just hate for it to end up in a closet, you know.
My dear sweet Lord, what was I thinking?
Later that day, my son said he’d like to have his “But what was I thinking? How did I get it all so very wrong in that moment? See, my dad would have already told me what to do with his flag – but he was gone.
In retrospect, where all my great realizations suddenly come into focus, I know that while I was grieving the loss of my dad, I was also grieving the loss of my own childhood. I’m old enough for Social Security now, but my childhood was suddenly wrenched from me when my father died. My being a child – even up to now – relied on his being there for me.
If I did something fun or wonderful, I wanted to tell him – the same way it was when I was small and living at home. If I did well in school, which wasn’t all that often, I wanted my dad to know. We would share favorite TV shows, talk about cars and radios, eat bowls of cottage cheese and small bits of liver sausage on Wheat Thins with some cheddar, all washed down with ice cold root beer – and I could tell him all about everything. We would sit on the front stoop at night and listen to what my mother called the “night noises,” most times not even saying a word.
That gap is what grief is all about. It’s why people call it a “loss.” You lose so much and it happens so suddenly even if the actual passing is expected or anticipated. But in time, I think you can gain so much, too. When my dad could be on the other end of a phone call, I could rely on the one person who had always been there for me. There was a knight in a corner of my chessboard, waiting to move if I needed him to protect me. It’s just my turn now to be that knight.
I am fortunate that I did have my dad in my life for as long as I did. I am fortunate as well that our relationship was one of shared time and interests – and such love.
You hear people say, when their parents die early in their lives, that mom or dad would be proud of the adult they’ve become. I’ve only been an adult for a short while, but I think when I really get the hang of it, I’ll be good at it too.
Like my dad.
Excerpt from “These Winter Months,” edited by Anne Born
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I am reminded of this story today in light of the devastating fire at my church.
In 2007, I took my daughter, my friend, and my cousin on a weeklong trip to Paris. We rented an atelier in the 6th, we shopped, we ate, we toured museums, and we even bought tickets on a bateau mouche for a nighttime tour of the Seine to see all the important monuments lit up. I had a fabulous time because I adore Paris in a way I have never felt about a place where I lived. I cherish my home town in Michigan, I delight in Chicago, I feel comfortable living in New York, and I am constantly challenged by Madrid, but I adore Paris. It holds my heart.
It was on this trip in 2007 that I finally fell in love with what is arguably the heart of Paris: the Cathedral of Notre Dame. In one of my Columbia University art history seminars, we studied medieval Paris and how this huge building went up. I learned how it replaced earlier churches, how it influenced other buildings, and how it helped to establish “Gothic.” I read Victor Hugo and learned how he felt about the atrocities of the French Revolution mobs that decapitated the sculpted figures of the biblical kings that spread out along the façade, thinking they were depicting the French aristocracy.
But through all this study, learning about all this conflict and chaos, I could not find my way around this building so that it would start to feel like anything but a bus station. To me, it was a tourist trap of the worst kind. I resented standing in line to get in, I hated the way nobody looked up at these wounded and restored sculptures on their way in, and I thought the machines that spat out gold coins with the image of the church were crass and out of place in what should have been a more solemn house of worship.
This particular trip in 2007 was a photo tour, though.
I had a new point-and-shoot camera and I pointed and shot everything that came into my view finder. I thought maybe if I could focus on detail and not the whole experience of Notre Dame, I might find the essence of history that I was missing. So I sat down in front of the building, on one of those stone slabs about 100 feet from the front doors, and I started taking pictures. I zoomed in on faces and objects in a way I hadn’t before, figuring, in the worst case scenario, I might get a nice screensaver out of it. I walked up to the façade and took close ups of the doorways and the small stone sculptures that were so important to the first visitors in the year 1250 and are nearly incomprehensible to most tourists now. And even though I know that most of this sculpted façade dates from the mid-19th century renovation and not the 13th century, I started to make the connection.
Our trip was nearly over when my daughter told me she would volunteer to get up just before dawn with me so I could take pictures of Notre Dame before daylight, when maybe all the tourists would still be in bed. I was really touched. We set an alarm, hailed a cab, and found ourselves standing on the opposite side of the plaza in the dark and, once the cab left, we were completely alone. There were no tourists or school groups. There were no hordes of confused- looking “If this is Tuesday, this must be Paris” bus people. It was just us and the sky was not yet ready for daylight.
We made our way across the empty plaza where we found a middle-aged man in a porter’s uniform, smoking a cigarette just outside the door on the right where most people enter Notre Dame when it is open. We walked up to him and started to make some small talk about the weather and how different everything looked at this hour compared to later in the day. We were just two American tourists and this was his break in the routine that would prepare the Cathedral for the first Mass at 7:00 a.m.
And then he asked us in.
We smiled and he just opened the door and we walked inside. Unlike any other time of day, the Cathedral was empty; cavernous and empty. All the way up the center aisle, there was someone carpet-sweeping the floor around the altar. The lights over the altar were lit, but the rest of the nave was dark. And it was in that instant that a thousand years of history came swirling around us. I felt the thrill of King Louis IX as he approached the altar in 1249, walking barefoot, carrying his latest treasure: the Crown of Thorns. I felt the arrogance of Napoleon in 1804, surrounded by minions and sycophants, as he snatched the emperor’s crown for himself. I suddenly understood why Hugo wanted so desperately to defend this church and why Viollet-le-Duc took such care in saving it. Even though the room was silent, I could hear Gregorian Chant hanging softly in the air above the heads of countless medieval pilgrims.
We walked out into the clear morning air and the porter took our picture sitting in two empty sculpture niches outside. We looked like two American tourists on our way back to the bus, but, in fact, we were two New Yorkers, too stunned to speak, wanting to savor the moment we had spent in this Cathedral all by ourselves, lost in the crowd of history.
We were only inside for a few minutes. It never even occurred to me to take out my camera.
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