Jessica de Soria Dalton
and Sarah Krouse

Jessica de Soria Dalton
Family Tree

Photography, 12 X 18 inches

Episcopal Red
By Sarah Krouse

Inspiration Piece

I will not walk through the red doors. There is a sanctuary behind them and splinters painted red on their face, but I will not stand and kneel to the rhythm of hallelujahs and Amens.

I was always proud that we Episcopalians got a paint color all our own – Episcopal Red. It matched my mother’s coat, Mrs. Scoffield’s “Dorothy shoes” that she clicked for me each Sunday, and the hats on my father’s 246 Christmas Santas.

My sister and I were reprimanded regularly for giggling in church. We knew we were supposed to be still and proper, shoulders back, Books of Common Prayer at attention, but our surroundings were too puzzling, too entertaining to ignore. It was the way my mother transitioned from soprano to bass during the hymns, the taste of the host donated by Elma the shut in, who we assumed had never tasted her own holy pita bread, the way the minister swigged the dregs of the cup of salvation.

My mother, my sister and sat in the second row on the left side, arms linked, though I never understood why my mother wanted to sit up front. I suppose it’s somehow related to her need to snap pictures of us each day, and to furiously take notes when my father teaches her online banking, “just in case”.

My father never came with us; he went to the early service instead. He was the lay reader and prepared communion each Sunday, dutifully pacing between the altar and the crocheted doilies that supported the elements to be blessed. He wore a white robe, wrapping the Cincture chords around himself, knots through the hole, underneath the belt and back through. He went to the early service because he didn’t want to sing like we did at the late service – the “family service”. “The Saints of God” didn’t make him cry for a lost mother the way they did for my mother. He didn’t want to watch other children jumping up and down or coloring in their pews. He didn’t want to wait in line for communion.

My parents repainted the bedroom walls when I left. They are pink now, more so than when Rachael and I jumped on the bed in elephant pajamas or closed the final suitcase before college. The walls were not repainted to create an office, an in-home gym, a meditation room; my parents painted them to reassure themselves that they had not dreamed up twenty-three years of tucking two girls into bed. The walls were painted to help my mother pretend that there was still a reason to flick on our nightlight.

She lets down the curtains in Rachael and my old room each evening as though our warm bodies are still beneath the Laura Ashley sheets. She draws the curtains up again each morning.

I call my shrink the Old Broad because I was born and raised a Connecticut WASP and we are taught not to acknowledge the elephant in the room. She looks like a grandmother, but asks how many people I have slept with and what my relationship with my parents was like. She says I’m “briefly depressed”, that if she were to prescribe me drugs, I would be better by the time they worked fully. I said, “no shit”, she scowled and said what she meant was, my negativity is temporary.

My friend was just hit and cut in half by a bus last month. Last year my boyfriend’s mother was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. The year before that, my sister’s boyfriend threw her against the wall and called her a “stupid bitch”.

I haven’t been through the red doors since I left home. I am not the same Megan Smalls that giggled before Him as a child. I don’t want to tell him that I drink more than just communion wine, that I miss most Sundays because there are naked men next to me, that I can spew criticism faster than I can whisper a prayer. I have lost the creed. I’m not sure that he can see me beyond the red doors and I’m not sure that I want him to.

Rachael hadn’t understood why I cried when she showed me the space she had made for her boyfriend in her closet, or why I frowned when she said that though he had moved in, she wasn’t sure which nights he would sleep beside her.

“He is doing the best he can,” she said. “I will not defend it anymore, if you can’t be supportive, you don’t have to hear about it.” So I didn’t.

Her new apartment uptown was a sterile – white walls, tiled floor. Not like the first place she had found for him, for the child he already had – for the kids they would have together. Her first apartment had hard wood floors, “Honeydew Green”, “Pumpkin Spice Orange”, “Land of Lavender”- painted walls. This new home had no room for children. It had espresso finishes, sharp black book cases, a daybed with cappuccino pillows. When his second child was born to a new mother, she had left him. When he needed help applying to city colleges, she propped the black and white photograph of him dancing down Madison Avenue with his first child on top of her vinyl collection. She gave him the keys to her new apartment because he brought over his new child and in doing so, gave her a reason to put away the candles, to soften sharp edges, to keep a bin of rainbow colored animals in more than a corner of her mind.

He brought in the mail the day he left. He never remembered her birthday, he never called to say he would not be coming home, he never cleaned the trail of small green leaves that didn’t make it into his rolling paper, but that day, he brought up the mail. He placed it on the table beside his surrendered keys. The credit card bill leaned against my sister’s hugging salt and peppershakers, two painted porcelain ghost-shaped figures. She threw them out the window that day, watching them fall and smash against the pavement of 135th Street.

We call her shrink Laura Linney – her name is something close to that, but it doesn’t really matter. She has repeatedly asked my sister why she stayed. I think this is rude. I think it’s obvious why she stayed – sanctuary. She made offerings, he filled her.

Growing up, Rachael and I were acolytes. I could see the gleam in my mother’s eyes as I carried a torch, and read from the Corinthians, the Ecclesiastics, pronouncing the names as practiced. She never wanted to join the choir or read the lessons, rather, she wanted to watch us serve. Our father taught us the steps, the pace, the lifting of the offerings, how to extinguish candles with golden bells.

We never understood the point of this routine, or why the procession entered from the side door, parading the choir down the aisle to the back of the church, only to march forth again after the bells and prelude, hoisting the cross higher over our head. “It’s part of the ceremony,” my mother would say.

The church doors are open as I pass again on my way home from work. It is dusk and from the doorway I can see the altar candles lit, they look closer together than I remember. Perspective at work.

My parents have stopped asking me if I made it to church that week. I have more to say to Him than will fit in the Confession. My new set of beliefs is longer than the Nicene Creed, and I’m not sure that He wants to hear it.

When he makes his special tomato sauce, my father paces carefully between the sink and the stove. His wooden spoon rests on the white counter top, his tomato sauce busy ridding itself of pinot noir’s proof. My father always uses Georio Le’Beuf, the kind with the flower label, the kind that turns his cheeks red and helps him tell us that we are ungrateful, star boarders, selfish, too sensitive. He can always finish the bottle, swirling and sipping down what we leave in our cups.

I used to jingle the offering envelopes. My mother would put quarters in mine, allowing me just one tambourine shake before ostentatiously quieting me and smiling into her hymnal. I usually got one more shake as I placed it into the offering plate.

The quarters were nothing, though, compared to the first Sunday of the month, the day the program read “Lords Prayer – sung”. The organist would pound the pedals with all the force her stark white Keds could muster, shaking her bench and sending us into hysterics as she belted “and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil…”

“It’s not proper to mock the organist, you know,” Mr. Gallagher said. “You are supposed to set an example for the congregation,” Mrs. Ross scolded. But Mom never reprimanded us for it. She doesn’t go to the ten o’clock any more. When we left for school, she joined my father for the eight o’clock, no tears for “the Saints of God”, no linked arms in the second pew.

Mine was one of few churches that used the traditional, “and forgive us our trespasses”, rather than “and forgive us our debts”. The church in front of me with its open doors will use “debts”, suggesting something is owed, the organist will not pound the pedals and I will not stand in a linked row of three.

I stand outside looking at the door. It is dusk, my mother is walking into our old room to let down the curtains, my father is stirring a bubbling pot with red-flushed cheeks, my sister is lazily swishing a half empty glass of wine. I can feel their ceremonies as I consider mine. Like pitches harder to reach with age, bread swallowed out of obligation, blessed wine that must be returned to the earth, I process.


FamilyTree.jpg (371 KB)

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