A Matter of Delicacy

John-DunnOn a Sunday evening in June, three days after my father’s eighty-fifth birthday, he and mother finished supper, readied up the few dishes and, in the custom of Irish forebears, sat down in the big kitchen of the doctor’s house to recite the Rosary in honour of the Mother of God.

I arrived to visit just as they reached the last “Glory be to the Father, Son and Holy Ghost”.  Having finished, my father just put his hand out and left his rosary beads at the end of the kitchen table.

The office door bell rang.  The latch lifted immediately and a voice called out: “Hello, hello, is anybody home?”

Three visitors from Pakenham entered and came straight through the office and out into the kitchen.  Of course, Mother had been born in Pakenham, and all of us in the family knew that Pakenham visitors brought laughter, funny anecdotes, good humour always.  They too were born on the sunny side of life.

Seeing dad’s Rosary beads at the end of the table, one of the visitors said, “Doc, I hope we’re not interrupting you at the Sorrowful Mysteries?”

“No, not at all,” Mother replied.  “Dad and I have just finished the Rosary, so you’re not interrupting at all.”

“I must say,” a second visitor observed, “that the beads there in front of the doctor show signs of having been through a lot.  I’d imagine, if they could talk, they could tell a tale or two.”

“Well, dad hasn’t had them all that long,” Mother said. Then, turning to him she asked, “Since the incident happened so long ago, do you think you might be able to tell them now just how you did come to have that Rosary?”

“It’s a matter of some delicacy,” he began, mentally searching back through several decades for circumstances.  The beads he had set on the table seemed to be brushing his conscience.  A few seconds passed in total silence, and, greatly to my surprise, he said “Yes, I think it can be told.”

It happened in the era of the horse and buggy.  That’s when the hitching post with the black cast iron horse’s head on top held a black ring in its mouth waiting for a visitor at the office door.  On Sundays it sat more often idle than busy holding a line from a bridle.  In summer time, particularly, an automobile often took up the space.

And so, in May of one year it was discovered that a girl living at home on the farm in one of the more remote corners of the Upper Country was pregnant.  She was eighteen, the only daughter of her parents.

Thinking of the shame and disgrace she would likely bring on her parents and brothers, and with a flood of tears, she had made the admission of her condition to her mother.  In the quiet of that long June evening her father and mother went out to sit on the two rocking chairs on the front verandah, wanting to be alone, because they had to wrestle with this circumstance.

With no experience to guide them in this kind of business, and no person in the neighbourhood in whom they would wish to confide, they struggled to find a way to shield their daughter from disgrace, and the family from shame.  Both troubled their minds.  In the end they nodded in a kind of parentally desperate first step; it would be best for all if their girl should go away for a while.

A bigger step remained: How? Where? When?

Discreetly, quietly, letting Nature take its course, to await the baby’s arrival.  Thoughts of the baby brought up a new necessity — to consult a doctor.  The family, of course, was well known to physicians in the area.  That very fact made the parents pause: their need to ensure closed lips, in a sea of familiarity, struck them as a most worrisome hazard.  To leap over it, they undertook a mental search of physicians beyond the boundaries of home.

One straw might be grasped: there was Dr. Dunn over there in Almonte.  He, and perhaps he only in the medical fraternity, knew nothing of the family.  If they should ask him for assistance, the need for closed lips could be guaranteed.  In the circumstances thrust on them, the need to trust strangers had never before demanded so much.

“On Sunday,” the father said, “We’ll take the horse and buggy and drive on over to Almonte.”

“We daren’t use the telephone to call ahead,” the mother warned.

“No, we’ll just have to chance it that the doctor’s at home.”

Sunday afternoon a horse in light harness with a man and a lady in a buggy stopped outside the office door in Almonte.  The man helped the lady down, lifted a weight on a chain down and snaffled one end to the ring in the hitching post.  Both came to the office door, and the man’s finger pressed the button to ring the bell.  It was two o’clock.

For an hour in the drowsiest part of the day, muted conversation hummed from within the office.  It began with the man’s opening words, “Doctor, we’ve come to ask your help,” and the nature of the case unfolded, jerkily, at first, as if the man had to force his tongue to speak much against its wishes to remain silent.

The lady spoke of their mutual parental regret of the need for their daughter to go away for a while, and that brought her directly to ask for help.  “Doctor, can you tell us,” she began, “If there’s any place you might know where our daughter could go to await the arrival of the child?  A place, we’d hope, where she would be treated with respect, and where there’d be no tongue-wagging?”

“I understand.”  Those two words brought a surge of reassurance in the parents.  “There is a refuge in Ottawa,” the response went on, “An institution, a home for girls in unexpected pregnancy.  By all accounts a girl who goes there receives all the compassion and care she might otherwise expect if she had married in the proper way.”

Both parents nodded.  Hope, swelling up in them began to fill up the voids in the office.

The explanation continued.  “The home is conducted for girls only by an order of nuns, who are Roman Catholic, of course.  It’s the only refuge of that kind that I’m aware of in the district which is devoted solely to that need.”

There came a slight pause.  “Your daughter, if I gather correctly, would not be of the Faith?”

“That’s right, doctor,” the lady said.  “Would that make a difference, do you think?”

The factor of religion, quite unforeseen in this steeplechase course, pushed the parents’ growing reassurance back half a step.  Might the doctor’s efforts turn out to be just a long shot after all, perhaps missing the mark entirely?  They’d come a long way already, and had placed their confidence in the doctor.  This was no time to withdraw.

“The institution, I think, exists mainly to care for girls who are of the Faith, but not exclusively.  In any event I could make enquiries to find out if there might be a vacancy there.”

“We understand, doctor,” the lady said, “We would really be grateful to you if you could enquire on our behalf.  We have worked very hard to bring our youngsters up in a good Christian home, and that’s the kind of upbringing our daughter has had.  She has always been a great blessing to us, always.   Right now we don’t condemn her: if anything, it’s pity we feel for her.  We just want to do everything we can for her now, and for the baby too, God willing.”

“Exactly,” the doctor said.

“We also feel for her sake, and the baby’s,” the man added, “And for ourselves too, I should add, that it would be best if our daughter were to go away, for the next while.”  A rush of oncoming loneliness made him swallow hard.  He gulped to clear his throat.  “But you will let us know, I’m sure, doctor, whatever you may find out from your enquiry.”

“Certainly.”

“And without the telephone, if you don’t mind, doctor, as I’m sure you’ll understand.  Yes, and you can be assured too,” said the lady, “That we’ll be at home on the farm for the next while, for this is the busy time for His Honour here and the boys, getting the hay off.”

“All right.  Let me see if something can be done.  I’ll telephone to the city in the morning.”

The parents thanked the doctor and set off again with the horse and democrat.  They had come with a thread of hope only in their hearts: they returned with a rope of reassurance binding it tight.

Two days later the Gray Dort left from the place in front of the hitching post on the stroke of noon.   Millhands on the way home for the noon-hour meal thought it highly unusual for the doctor to be going out to the country right on the stroke of noon.  They could not know that the telephone had been silent all morning.

Ten minutes after one the dust on the township road settled as the Gray Dort turned up a laneway towards a farmhouse set back quite a distance from the road.  A front verandah with a scoop-shaped roofline made from lapped basswood boards extended across the entire front of the house.  Beneath the scooped roof sat two rocking chairs, idle in the shade.  At the far side of the meadow alongside the driveway the farmer who had come to Almonte was driving the kick rake, and two boys with straw hats on their heads and pitchforks in their hands were sweeping up timothy into coils.

Half an hour later the doctor and an eighteen year-old girl came out the kitchen door and got into the automobile.  The lady who had come to the office door in Almonte on the previous Sunday stood leaning on the doorpost of the farm kitchen, and, as the car swung round to return to the township road, she lifted her left hand up to her forehead and just kept it there.  The girl blinked a few times, waved to her mother, not once, but three times before the car reached the end of the driveway.

At the township road the Gray Dort turned in the general direction of Ottawa, proceeding by many twists and turns in roads unaccustomed straight to the edge of the city.  Then it made straight for an institution known as a home for girls in unexpected pregnancy.  There the doctor left his passenger in the care of Sisters who welcomed her openly.  Some of these Sisters, the girl thought, even in their habits, could be no more than a couple of years more than she was.

The doctor returned to Almonte.

Years passed.

Many, many years, decades, truth to tell.

And it came to pass too that the parents who had come to the office door when the hitching post was still there, died quietly, unobtrusively, passing out of the township without particular notice, and, in the way so common to families with Irish ancestry in those days, intestate.

Two years and a few months later the telephone rang in the doctor’s house.  A lawyer’s office calling.  Long distance. “Doctor, about a family that you may have attended one time many years ago, there was a girl, we understand?”

“Yes.”

“Could you help us find her, doctor?  We don’t know if she’s still living, but if you could help us locate her, there’s a provision for her from the estate.”

“That was many, many years ago,” came the doctor’s recollection.  “I attended once, but have had no communication in all the years since.  I know nothing of the present circumstances of the family.   However, there could be some record at a place in Ottawa, though again, I have to say, that was forty or more years ago.”

“We’d be most grateful for any assistance you might provide, doctor.  The provision for her, if she can be found, is, we should tell you, substantial.  We would be happy for any assistance you could offer in this case.”

A week later, a Pontiac automobile, knowing nothing of its ancestor, the Gray Dort, brought the doctor to the Civic Hospital to visit a patient from Almonte who had been taken there for special treatment.

After the visit the doctor used the remainder of the afternoon to take the Pontiac to the institution where the Gray Dort had once stopped long before.  The institution had undergone a name change, and had taken on much greater dimensions as well, but it had also held fast to its original purpose as a home for expectant girls.  No one knew of the doctor’s coming.

He rang the bell and was admitted by Sister Superior who invited him in to the front parlour.  Their conversation, a most discreet conversation, was muted further by the fronds of potted ferns in wicker stands, for it concerned a matter of some delicacy.

Yet, in spite of its delicacy, and without the slightest trace of fear of trampling on confidentiality, Sister Superior seemed almost joyous, and ready to talk about the matter.  She beamed.

“Yes indeed, doctor.  I’m most happy to tell you.  That young girl received a great amount of loving kindness at the time of her confinement here, so much indeed that she became strongly attracted to the sisters here who practised it so faithfully every day.  The girl even asked if she might learn their prayers too, and later asked if both she and her baby, when it came, could become members of the Faith too.”

“And willingly, as you, doctor, will understand, that was done.”

“The baby, a little girl, went out for adoption with a fine Irish family in the city.  The mother asked if she might remain here at the centre, just to help others who might come, repaying kindness she had received with kindness to strangers in the way like herself.  And, of course, happy also to hear about her little girl from time to time too.”

“Years passed in that way.  Many years.  And now, doctor, imagine, if you will, the mother’s surprise one day to hear from the foster parents:  when her baby turned eighteen years of age, she told them she wanted to join an order of nuns!  Contemplative nuns!”

Sister Superior’s face beamed, radiantly.  “And now, imagine too, doctor, that at that same time, the little girl’s mother asked the same permission from us, to join our order, her own benefactors of many years before!  Of course, she was received, oh, and so gladly too.”

“And now, doctor, I don’t want to abuse your time.  I would ask you to imagine just one thing more, and that’s all.  Imagine if you will again, that that eighteen year old girl whom you brought here so many years ago, from — where in the world is it?  The Upper Country — that she is here in this home at this very time!  Indeed, if you wish, I’ll invite her to come in to talk with you herself.  I think it’s we who should thank you for bringing her to us all those years ago.  Believe me, hers has been an astounding vocation among us.”

The potted ferns, unmoving, rigid as statues, spoke not a word.  Sister Superior left, only to return a few minutes later with another Sister who had a rosary in her hands.  This sister and the doctor sat down to talk and very speedily an acquaintance that had begun once in a journey in the Gray Dort, leaped over decades and landed right side up beside one of the ferns.  The surprise on sister’s face unravelled the years and revealed a person whose total dedication to others had burnished the Golden Rule to a high shine.  The doctor told her why he’d come, to let her know that there was a legacy, that it would be paid to her, and that it would be a substantial sum.

Her rosary slipped out of her fingers and slithered down to the floor.  It took a full minute for her to compose herself.  Even so, success was partial at best.  Out of gratitude overwhelming her she wanted to do something for the doctor, to find some way to show appreciation for his kindness and efforts made on her behalf many years before.

“Doctor,” she pleaded, “My wants here are extremely few.  There’s nothing I desire at all at all.  But I’d like to do something for you.  Would you take these beads from me, please?  They gave them to me here when I was received into the Faith, but if what you say is true and this legacy does come to me, there’ll surely be enough for me to get a new pair.  These are well-worn from many hours of prayer, but they’re all I have.  Would you accept them from me, please, with my heartfelt thanks for your kindness to me and our family?”

He thanked her sincerely.

“I’m sure,”  sister went on, “It was that blessed St. Joseph sent you to me all those years ago, and I’ll pray he stay with you and yours every day.”

As the Pontiac moved away from the curb in the city, the doctor saw that sister was standing leaning against the door post, and that she had put her hand up to her forehead, keeping it there, almost as if it were glued to that spot.

“Well now, there it is, the story of those beads on the table” Mother announced.  “Dad has had those beads ever since and they’re still in use.”

The people from Pakenham sat strangely subdued.

It must have struck them too as a matter of rare delicacy, providentially secure.

John Dunn
19 March 1994