TITLE: The Second Greatest Story Ever Told
By Sarah Booker
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Houma, Louisiana, 1945
My mother called it a spiritual name.
To me, there was no more spiritual place than in the heart of the bayou, floating lazily downstream through the cypress swamps during the early evenings of summer. The sky was filled with stars, my eyes filled with wonderment at the great expanse above me that seemed to have no end. God had truly put some kind of spell on this place, for it was all so magical.
My mother believed in magic--not the dark, voodoo magic the Negroes in New Orleans practiced; she believed in the magic behind the drapes of the heavy, Spanish moss that seemed to set the bayou apart from the rest of the world, like the golden gates of Heaven did from purgatory.
My father had taken root here from Baton Rouge, which in English means "Red Stick". A "city slicker", as Mama had called him, but even he had to admit Terrebonne Parish did possess some sort of enchantment.
I was only twelve when he passed away.
My mother was something of a faith healer, or traiteur, in the parish (much to the chagrin of Father Rommeley, our parish priest), and had witnessed my father’s spirit on its way to Paradise. "One's soul is either lifted up or pulled down," she had told me once. My head had only reached her chest then, and I had went to her, the smell of red beans and rice permeating her apron. "Let not your heart be troubled, for he was a good man," she had whispered as a teardrop had graced my bare shoulder.
Sometimes, I would fall asleep lying with my hands behind my head, listening to the sound of the cicadas chirping and the alligators gliding silently, menacingly, beneath my little boat. I could almost smell Mama's seafood gumbo simmering in that big, cast iron pot over an open fire on the back veranda.
My eyelids fluttered.
Never before had anyone called to me in my slumber in the swamp. I could scarcely make out a tall shadow in the distance onshore, illuminated only by the yellow glow of a kerosene lantern.
“Who is it that calls to me?” I asked, sitting up now.
“My name is Peter, Mademoiselle, Peter Javensen. I am but a lonely stranger who means you no harm. Please, come into the light, and let me see the keeper of such a heavenly voice.”
I hesitated, and I could tell he sensed that.
“I will not hurt you, I promise.”
His voice held no threat, so against my better judgment, I paddled to shore in my pirogue. His face was still in shadows, but I could see he was wearing a crisp, white button-down shirt with long sleeves and gold cufflinks. He was not from around here, for he was wearing his “Sunday-go-to-meeting” clothes on a Saturday.
I lifted up the light so I could get a better view of his face. His eyes were cerulean, his slick hair jet-black, so shiny, it looked as if someone had poured car grease on his head. “Good evening, Monsieur,” I said.
“Here, let me help you.”
He took my hand and tied my boat to the dock. I stepped on the soft, moist ground, my eyes meeting his. I could see his face much clearer now. No eyes I had ever gazed upon had emitted such warmth, nor a smile so smooth, it practically melted off his face. “There, that is much better. Now, Mademoiselle, may I inquire the name of such an angelic face?”
He may as well have known my name.
“My name is Angel, Angel Landrieu.”
“I must say, the name fits you well. I am Peter Javensen, from Calgary, Maine. My father was called away to war, so he sent me here to live with my Aunt Jeanne. Tell me, how old are you, Angel?”
He cleared his throat. “I hope I am not being too forward, but I would like it very much if you would go for a walk with me.”
“I would love to,” I said. “I can show you around. You have never been to the bayou before, have you?”
“No. How could you tell?”
“You do not look as if you are ready to go chasin' gators.”
“Alligators?” His eyes widened.
“Just kidding.” I punched him playfully in the shoulder and led him down to the marsh.
“It is getting late.”
“When will I see you again?”
“Tomorrow, at the Church, after Mass. I will find you.”
“I will be there.”
“I will be waiting.”
“May I kiss you, Angel?” he asked.
I closed my eyes, and before I knew it, he had kissed me.
One night in early May, the day after my high school graduation, I found my mother sitting on the gallerie in her rocking chair, staring out into the night. She was so still at first, I thought some voodoo mama had cast a spell on her.
She opened her eyes.
“Oh, there you are, my Angel. I have been waiting for you.”
“‘Tis only eight-o'clock, Mama.”
“I was in town a little while ago. I had forgotten the cayenne for the jambalaya, and I saw you there with a young man. It has not gone unnoticed you have been coming home later than usual. Who is he, Angel?” There was nothing in her voice that gave me reason to feel she was angry, only hurt I had not told her about him.
“His name is Peter, Mama.” I could not keep my voice from quaking.
“How long have you been seeing this Peter?”
“I am not trying to pry, Angel, but you have been a good girl, haven't you?”
She relaxed a little. “I wanted to know for sure because in the fall, I will be sending you to a private Catholic school in New York City. There is so much more to the world than Terrebonne Parish, Angel, and I want to give you a chance to see it. I had already planned this as a surprise for you, but when I saw you with that young man tonight, well, I knew I had to tell you soon so it would not be such a shock to you.”
“Oh, Mama,” I whispered. New York City, the city of the most beautiful Christmas trees of all and snow! I had never set eyes on snow before, but oh, I would miss Peter terribly.
“I want what is best for you, Angel, I want you to know that. I will not force you to go, but do not pass up the opportunity of a lifetime for Peter. If he loves you, he will wait for you.”
“I know,” I said, and I think Mama knew he would, too.
Peter was waiting for me.
I told him everything.
He said nothing until he took me into his arms and told me what I had been waiting to hear for as long as he had been waiting for the right time to speak them. “I love you, Angel, and though your leaving will leave an emptiness in my life, I still want you to go. I promise I will never leave you, but you must promise the same to me. I do not know what I would do if I lost you.”
“I feel the same,” I cried, my joy in his blessing. My cup runneth over.
It was time for me to go.
His warm lips grazed mine. “Good-bye, my Angel,” he whispered.
“Good-bye, Peter,” I said in kind, closing my eyes, my head in his neck, inhaling the essence of Jeris that was Peter. “I promise I will never stop loving you.”
It was the one promise to him I would never break..
Two years passed, and in the passing of those two years, I realized I wanted to be a nun, teaching others of Christ's perfect love, Whose love made my love perfect.
Peter had wanted us to build a life together, but I believed I had found my true purpose in life in the Church.
Peter came for a surprise visit that Christmas I decided to remain in New York. We had not seen each other in almost a year, yet we both knew everything that happened to the other because in our letters, left out was not one detail, except my decision to marry my Lord instead of him. When I looked into his eyes, I knew I was a fool to think time would change his feelings for me...
“Angel,” he said breathlessly, finding me at the altar.
My ears had not heard a voice so beautiful in so long, but I knew that soon, his voice would not be so light. I had to tell him now, for if I looked into his eyes first, I would not be able to.
“Hello, Peter,” I said softly, still on my knees with my back to him.
“What is it, my Angel?” He sounded concerned, but the gravity in my voice had made him afraid to touch me now.
“I want you to know I love you and will always love you, but I cannot marry you.”
His response was immediate. “But why? What has happened? What..?”
My heart cracked, then shattered, the bits of it knifing my insides like the blades on the whip that had been used on my Lord, and it was only through His pain I was able to withstand my own.
“Angel, look at me, please!”
I knew he wanted to grab me, shake some sense into me, and I knew it took all the restrain he had to keep from doing so.
I looked up at him then, gripping the altar behind me for support. “You have done nothing wrong, Peter. It's...me. I have decided to become a nun, and devote my life to serving others.” He was silent, and to escape the unbearable silence, I rattled on. “I wanted to tell you so much I did, but you kept writing about us getting married and buying this plantation house you saw, and I could not tell you then, so I thought I would wait until I saw you again when I could say it to your face, when you would have to look in my eyes and know what I say is true.”
He was quiet a moment, then said, calmer now, “That is very noble of you, Angel, and I do not want you to do this, God knows I want you, need you, but if this is what you desire, then I cannot stop you, nor will I try to. I love you, but I must tell you, my prayers from now on will not be so unselfish, for every night, before I close my eyes, I am going to pray to God you change your mind.” His voice was neither steady, nor his eyes dry.
“I know you are hurting, Peter, so am I, but…”
“Then why are you doing this?” he asked without accusation, but with raw hurt.
“I believe this is God’s plan for me.”
The look in his eyes was one of great pain, and I knew his eyes mirrored my own. He took my hands in his. “We can save the world...together. We do not have to be apart.”
I shook my head. “We will have children if we get married, Peter. Do you really want to live in third-world countries half your life, dwelling in squalor, trying to reach people who seem unreachable, when you know what you say is truth? Is that what you want?”
“Nothing else matters, as long as we're together. I am willing to give up every modern comfort and convenience in the world to marry you.”
“Our future children would matter, Peter. They would not be happy living in those places. You must think of them.”
“We do not have to have children.”
“You know how God feels about that,” I said, not in judgment, but as a reminder. “Please, do not hate me for wanting this.”
Peter's eyes misted. “I could never hate you, Angel.”
“Promise we will always be friends then,” I said, squeezing his hands.
“Always,” he choked out.
We hugged, as friends, but I swear I felt a little drop fall on my head, anointing and sealing his love for me, as he held me for what would be the last time in many years.
“Good-bye, my pretty Angel.”
He took me into his arms, much gentler than ever before. The heat of his lips brought a flush into my neck, and we let each other go. “If you ever change your mind, you know where you can find me.”
Then he was gone.
I fled to my modest living quarters and cried.
Sister Mary Margaret called me into her study the next night. “I saw you crying, my dear, after your visitor left.” She pulled herself closer to her desk. “Who is this man to you, Angel?”
“He was my first and only love, Sister Mary Margaret.”
“Your love for God transcends all you feel for that man, and He will reward you for your unselfishness tenfold.”
“Just tell me one thing, Sister Mary Margaret. How can something that is so right feel so wrong at the same time?”
“Time is the Balm of Gilead that will heal your wounded heart, Angel. If, at any time, in the years to pass, you come to find you do not embrace your vocation with all your might, mind and strength, then I advise you to go back to Peter.”
Peter left the bayou and went back to the city of his youth where he worked hard and awaited the coming of his Angel, but five years passed, then ten, and then he met Jane Gilbreth. “I cannot divorce my Lord, Peter,” Angel had said, and he had went back to Jane. Within seven years, he and Jane had four, healthy, happy children: a boy named Scott, a girl named Jennifer, and two blond-haired, blue-eyed twins named Jeffrey and Jan-Michelle, who they called Michelle, and Peter was very very good to them.
Angel never went to a third-world country, but she made a difference in the land of her birth teaching school, inspiring young minds. She went back home often to visit her aging mother, who Peter and his wife often visited with their children. Angel's mother spoiled them as she wished to spoil Angel.
Angel was close to most of her students, becoming the mother of many motherless children of God.
“I wish you were my real mother, Sister Genevieve,” Magdalena Dunne, one of my older students, confided in me.
“Why say you such things, Lena?”
“My mother tried to abort me. She took hot baths, fell down the stairs, did everything she could to rid herself of me.” Tears filled her eyes until they filled mine. I had no idea she knew of her mother’s past. “I do not even know who my father is because he left her when she told him she was pregnant. I am not an orphan, I am an unwanted child.”
“No child is unwanted, Lena. Just because your parents did not does not mean someone else cannot.” I stood and motioned for her to follow me. “Come, I want to take you somewhere.”
“Where?” she asked, suspicious. I was not allowed to take students off campus without permission, and she knew that, but still, she followed, my ever faithful disciple.
I did not answer her question.
“Tell me, Sister Genevieve,” she said, her suspicion having given way to impatience.
“You will see.”
We strolled through the nice neighborhoods adjacent to the school, catching curious glances of me in my habit. Lena looked a little embarrassed, but more scared than anything when we began walking towards the poorer areas. She clutched my arm. “Sister Genevieve!” she cried. “Not here.”
“There is someone I want you to see.”
We passed a run-down, mixed neighborhood lined with shoddy, gaudy shacks that looked condemned. Children with dirty faces scampered around barefoot while women with their hair tied up in torn rags pinned clothes to makeshift lines made out of fishing line. “I want you to look at that woman, Lena.”
I pointed to a bony woman whose hands looked like dried peaches. Her hair hung in strings in her eyes. She gazed at us with some interest for a second, then resumed her work. “How old do you think she is, Lena?”
“Oh, I don't know, sixty, maybe sixty-five?”
“She is thirty-two years old, Lena.”
“She looks so old!”
“That woman has the same blood running through her veins as you. That is your mother, Lena.”
Lena's eyes filled with tears, and then she gritted her teeth. “Why am I crying for her? How can I cry for her after what she tried to do to me? Why?”
“Because you have decided to follow Jesus; He is in your heart now. He is stronger than your loathing for this woman. This is the woman, your own mother, who tried to take your life, yet you still weep for her.”
I had often wondered why people, choice daughters of God such as Lena, had to suffer so; then I recalled a scripture from the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Right now, Lena was about the poorest in spirit I had ever seen.
There are many other stories of Sister Genevieve's good deeds, but this is a short story, and it would take the expanse of Lake Pontchartrain to tell them all, so I will make tell of other things.
Even through her virtuous life, Sister Genevieve never stopped loving, or caring, for Peter, and he for her.
Lena was at my desk, doodling on the tabletop with her finger. “Do you think I could ever be a nun, Sister Genevieve?”
“I think you would make a fine nun, Lena.”
“Were you ever in love, Sister Genevieve?”
“Yes, I was once, to a very special man. We still keep in touch. Every year, he sends me a Christmas card of him and his family and comes for a visit each Easter.”
“He married another?” she asked, sounding disappointed. I knew I had dashed her hopes of a fairy-tale romance, where time had no meaning, where Prince Charming would cut through the Enchanted Forest for years until he could reach Snow White, though the main characters in Disney animated features never aged--they only grew up.
I nodded. “It took a decade before he accepted I had made vows to the Lord and was committed to keep them.”
“If you had not decided to become a nun, would you have married him?”
I smiled in remembrance. “Yes, I probably would have.” I sighed again, feeling weary now. “I wanted to become a nun for all the right reasons, to help others and serve the Lord, but sometimes, I have wondered even if decisions are made with the best intentions, they are not always the right ones.”
“If you had to do things over again, would you have done them different?”
“I could no more say yes to that than if I had become a wife and mother. I cannot imagine anything better than what I have lived, though I do sometimes imagine what it would have been like to have a family. I suppose I am like those women who marry men they do not love and have children by them, and they end up going through a bitter divorce, yet notwithstanding all the heartache, they say they would not want to do things over again because they could not imagine life without their children. I suppose for me, it was not a matter of choosing between a right thing and wrong thing, but two right things, and those are the hardest decisions of all to make.”
Lena looked troubled.
“What is it, my dear?” I asked.
“Well, I was thinking,” she said, seeming reluctant to go on.
“Talk to me, Lena.”
“Is not serving your husband and raising children unto Him the same as serving the Master Himself?, for “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto these the least of my brethren, ye have done it unto me“, or something like that? You do not have to be a nun to serve the Lord, do you?”
Her words cut me. Was it possible to be as devoted to God when our attentions were divided by home and family?
I was grateful to Jesus for Christmas the year my mother died. “Do not become a stranger to them, Sister Genevieve,” Magdalena had said. It was she who had been the one to convince me to visit a cabin in the mountains of Aspen, Colorado.
It had been hard seeing Peter with another woman at first, but he had had to go on with his life, as I had. I loved Jane as a sister, and she no longer felt threatened by me in any way.
She knocks on the door.
A cast of carolers in the distance sing “O' Holy Night“.
Church bells sound the stroke of midnight, but she knew they would be awake.
Peter answers the door, wearing only his red and brown flannel bathrobe. It had been too long since they had last seen each other, and she realized letters had not been enough. Now, in his forties, his jet-black hair was beginning to gray at the temples, but his eyes still had that boyish twinkle...
He would never call her Sister Genevieve--she would always be his Angel.
“I wanted to spend Christmas with my family this year. Do you have enough room for an extra nun in the house?”
Jane came up behind him, wearing a similar robe. Her eyes lit up at her presence. “Come in this instant, Sister Angel. You will catch your death of cold out there. Michelle and Jeffrey are having their own little duet in there, can you hear them?”
She could, one of them pounding out on the piano a gospel rendition of “Go Tell it On the Mountain“, the other clapping away as one would in a Negro church.
“We are still waiting for Scott from Minneapolis and Jennifer from Los Angeles to come home. There are warm blankets in the guest room and some home-baked cookies in the pantry. Michelle helped me make them.”
“Thank you, Jane,” Sister Angel said. “It has been a long time.”
“Merry Christmas, Angel,” she said, “and welcome home.”
That was the last Christmas Angel would spend with Jane. Six months later, on the twin’s graduation day, that dreary, rainy day they would never forget, Jane's spirit would go back to that God who gave her life.
When that man in the blue uniform had sought out their father and pulled him to the side, both speaking in hushed voices, they had wanted to run off the stage, but the principal had put a hand on each of theirs, for Michelle was the valedictorian and Jeff the salutatorian. When the man had finished speaking with their father, his eyes were watery, as was his smile.
The moment they had walked off the stage, he had taken them both outside in the pouring down rain and had told them Jane's car had skidded, killing herself and the person in the car in front of her.
Maybe that was why Sister Genevieve had been so inclined to show up on their doorstep that snowy Christmas Eve, for she knew it would be Jane's last.
The day of the funeral was dark and cold, fitting for the occasion, and Jane Elizabeth Javensen was laid to rest in a casket filled with sunflowers, because to her, hope was colored yellow and as long as there was hope, there was life.
Sister Genevieve was glad Jane was not alive to know she had hurt another.
Sister Genevieve noticed a young man wearing a long-sleeve, light-blue denim, button-down shirt with dungarees. His curly, shoulder-length hair was pulled back in a neat ponytail, and his beard was about three-days old. “A twelve o‘clock shadow,” she had used to call it whenever Peter had had one. How long ago all that seemed now! The man caught her stare and smiled, raising a hand--a salutation that almost looked like a salute.
She did the same, suddenly feeling as if she had forgotten to put on her habit. There was something about the man…something familiar.
Peter came to her after services. “I am glad you came,” he said, squeezing her hands.
“I loved her.”
“I know you did.”
She studied the young man, curious. “Who is he, Peter?”
He seemed to know to whom she was referring. His eyes glazed over as if they were not looking at her, but through her to something only he could see. “Have you ever heard the saying that the truth will set you free?”
"Yes, many times."
“Six weeks before the accident, a man came to me,” he began, and Sister Genevieve assumed he meant the same man standing several yards away,“ and gave it to us.”
He nodded. He pulled a leaflet out of his pocket. The paper was white with a gold cross on it, but Jesus was not on it. “It’s true,” he said with such conviction, it took her by surprise, “and I know it can set you free, too.”
Free from what? she had wondered.
A year passed, and Peter was in his kitchen, trying to make one of the many recipes Angel's mother had given Jane, when there was a faint knock at his door, startling him and causing him to burn his roux.
When he answered it, it was as if time had went counterclockwise and only their bodies had aged, but she still had that golden hair, with a little grey here and there, and instead of being hid away in a habit, she was in a dress with a wide square collar and a white sash tied into a bow in the back .
“Sister Genevieve?” He had to be sure, so blessedly sure, having not seen her without her habit since that last night in the Church.
“It’s Angel, always and forever,” she cried and when they had stopped hugging long enough for her to speak, he asked her, holding her away from him, but tightening his hold, “What made you come back?”
“I looked for Jesus in the Church and could not find Him,” she said. “He is gone, Peter.”
He shook his head. “He is not gone, Angel,” he said, his voice so soft, it was the texture of melted chocolate, “for He is right here among us, waiting for you to ask Him into your heart.”
“I already did,” Angel said, “but I still don’t feel Him.”
Peter was about to go off on a diatribe about faith, but stopped himself, sensing there was more.
“But you know what, Peter?” Angel asked, “I remember learning a little something about true faith a long time ago, found in St. John, Chapter 20, Verse 29. ‘Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’. I believe, Peter, despite everything in me that tells me I need to earn everything, when most everything I have been given, I have done nothing to earn--including you. I have labored long and I have labored hard in exchange for my father’s soul, Peter.” Angel was no longer looking at him, but through him, to something only she could see. “And so Jesus said in Matthew 12:31--‘Every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or the age to come.’” Angel’s eyes were misty as she looked back at him. “My father was a good man, Peter. A great man.”
Peter said nothing.
“He was sick and dying. It wasn’t that he wanted to die, he just didn’t want to live like he was until his time ran out, which could have been years, Peter. My mother knew he wanted her to do it for him, because she could be alive to ask for forgiveness, but he didn‘t want that sin laid on her head, so he sacrificed what he believed was his own soul, and drank something that put him to sleep forever. He was barred from being buried in the Catholic cemetery because of his “speeding up the process”. Do you know what that did to me, Peter?”
Again, Peter said nothing. He knew Angel well enough that she just needed ears to hear, to listen.
“All these years, I have worked to pay for my father’s sins, when they had already been paid two thousand years ago. I sacrificed everything, including you--”
“It doesn’t matter now, Angel,” Peter said through the lump forming in his throat. “I had a wonderful life with Jane and I am not sorry. I never really lost you, I just didn’t have you the way I wanted to at first. When I was married to Jane, I still carried you in my heart as I carried her in my arms, and now it will be her I will carry in my heart and you in my arms. I have everything I have ever wanted, Angel. My life is complete.”
“What about children, Peter?”
“There’s still time.”
“I can’t have children, Peter.”
“We can adopt.”
“Could you love them, Peter, as you love Scott and Jen and--?”
“As surely as we are God’s adopted children,” Peter said, and Angel began to weep.
He embraced her. It was a healing touch, more than any pope or priest could ever endow.
The sun is setting in the horizon, the Spanish moss hanging off the branches of surrounding trees, but past that, I see a beautiful little girl with hair the color of all that was pure, lying in a pirogue with her hands behind her head, floating into the familiar quagmire and gazing up at the stars. She looks down into the murky water where she can see her reflection, the face that had provided so many underprivileged kids with hope in life eternal. She, this little girl, did not know it then, but she would soon be the one to lead them to the One whose kingdom had no end.
Had I chosen to marry him as a young woman, we would have no doubt lived happily ever after, but his love for others had allowed him to let me go.
Time has not healed the wounds of Jane's death, but the love he and I will share in the golden years of our lives and with Jane, in the eternity to come, has calmed his troubled heart, and in the truth and in Heaven we will rest.
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