We were both born in 1950 - a few months and five houses apart. Her family was Catholic; my family was my mother, grandmother and great grandmother. We were Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Karen Pennington lived at one end of Wellington; St. Leonard’s Catholic Church and convent were at the other. As a kid I couldn’t pass the place without thinking of pregnant nuns and buried babies. I was afraid that Karen and her four siblings went to school at such a sinister place.
Karen had orange curly hair, big round freckles and a great sense of adventure. Next in age was Little Stevie, stick thin and moderately vexing. We let him play with us … sometimes.
Back then children didn’t knock or ring doorbells - we called each other out in extended syllables.
When Karen came to my grandmother’s little white house, she envied the quiet. When I went to her house, I envied the noise, fish stick Fridays and brownies that came out of boxes. Food became a big part of our relationship and we grew out as much as up.
Karen’s mother Janet didn’t eat - she smoked. She looked like the Marlboro Man - tough and wiry without T or A. Karen’s father Jim was large man with five o-clock shadow. A Fred Flintstone of a guy. I was afraid of him because I’d heard he drank real blood while studying for the priesthood.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have a strange relationship with blood and the whole concept of fathers was lost on me anyway. Mine left when I was seven. I didn’t have holidays either. I remember sitting in the living room with the lights out as groups of costumed children giggled past my house on Halloween.
Karen always shared her take with me.
Each winter her father spent hours building the perfect rink in the back yard. He laid the hose and nozzle within the branches of a leafless tree, directing a fine mist that created ice as smooth as glass. Christmases were those great sparkling celebrations you see in the movies.
They even had TV. Watching Disney and the Jetsons was something special. If it was late when I left, Karen walked me halfway home. That was a big deal, even though there was less to fear back then. We’d walk exactly 2 ½ houses and run the rest of the way alone in the darkness.
As we entered our teens, my religion closed in on me as Karen fought hers. Her parochial plaids got shorter as her hair got bigger. The last time we talked she was walking home from school with an armful of books. A June bug flew to certain death in her rat’s nest and she shook her head violently. That day the nuns had dragged her to the john to wash her face and brush her hair.
She said she hated school. That was the last thing I remembered. I never saw her again. Well, for 30 years, anyway. That’s when I saw the obituary. Janet was dead.
By then I had married, my mom had remarried and my beloved Gram was growing old alone in her little white house. I visited every week. The funeral would take place at St. Leonard’s and I told Gram I thought we should go. She agreed.
We walked from the sunshine of the parking lot into the darkness of a chapel lit only by candles. The Penningtons had attended that church all of their lives, so I expected the pews would be full; but they weren’t.
As we walked down the aisle to Janet's coffin, a tall thin man with a beard walked up with shocking enthusiasm. He called me by name. Little Stevie remembered my Gram too. "Hello Ethel!!"
He walked us up to the coffin and softly explained that his mother had died of lung cancer. Gram stiffened and her nails dug into her purse. She said it was a shame. Stevie whispered "it’s ok - she's in a better place."
Gram blurted out "what do you mean 'in a better place' - SHE'S DEAD!"
I was – to use her word - mortified. I could see she feared the inevitable and it broke my heart.
I don’t remember much about the actual service except for the darkness and the problem I had with my vision. There was a full spectrum of shimmering color around each of the candles.
I blinked hard and rubbed, but the colors remained.
After the service, Karen and Stevie invited me to the wake. I dropped Gram off and drove out. It was a long distance, but well worth it. We spent hours on a big soft couch catching up. Karen was a recovering Catholic; I was studying Buddhism.
Stevie was doing civil war reenactments. I laughed; he looked the part.
They told me their mother had smoked all her life and only managed to quit one month before her death. We agreed she might as well have kept on smoking.
They said “well, at least our parents are together now.”
Karen explained that their father had died some years earlier. She said his spirituality had intensified with age and he saw death as "the next great adventure."
I silently agreed.
She said “He promised when he got to the other side, he would send rainbows.”
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