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St. Marg
By Mary J. Breen

June 2009

“But Ambrose, I keep asking you: are they one of us?”

Ambrose sighed. “And I keep telling you, Loretta, that’s all I know. I ran into Bill—you know Bill from the post office—in the store looking for a pipe wrench, and he told me that big house down at the corner’s been sold. All’s he said was that they’re two widowed sisters, a Mrs. Foley and Mrs. Brendan or maybe Brennan it was, something like that. Irish names, but you can never tell these days.”

“Well I certainly hope so,” Loretta said. “I’ve about given up.”

“It’s only been two years, Loretta. You’ve gotta give things time.”

And how, in this bleak Orangeman’s town, Loretta thought, was time going to help her find proper friends, proper Catholic friends especially—and she kept this part to herself—when her husband was just the manager of a Canadian Tire store, even if it was the biggest one between Toronto and Ottawa? Right from the start she’d been against moving up here, but Ambrose said they couldn’t pass up a promotion like that with almost double the salary. They had to think about their retirement. And so they’d moved to Beaverbrook, and after two winters, the only people she knew were a few women from the Catholic Women’s League. Not one of them except Carmelita O’Neill had even invited her for tea, and when she went there she discovered the O’Neills were “Shanty Irish,” as her mother would’ve called them, living way out there by the old cheese factory, with not even indoor plumbing.

She put the gravy boat on the table, and sat down. “I know what I’ll do. I’ll take a stroll by when they’re moving in. Vatican II has done one thing right. It’s has made it much easier to spot a good Catholic. With all those statues of the blessed saints put out like orphans to fend for themselves , it’s the good Catholics that give them homes. I’ll see if I can see a statue or two.”

Ambrose sighed again, and applied his strength to his overdone beef. He didn’t need to be reminded about these statues. He’d met his first one last summer when he was delivering a new fan to Mrs. Connor’s house, and there in the gloom of her living room, right over by her old piano, was Our Lady of Fatima, complete with plaster aura. For just a minute Ambrose thought he too was having an apparition. And then, a few days later, Loretta arrived home with the melancholy St. Teresa rescued from the growing multitude of saints in the vestry. St. Teresa was given a spot beside the TV until Eleanor, their daughter, said this was the very thing modern Catholics were worried about—worshipping false idols—and threatened not to come home again until it was gone. Then Loretta thought she’d try wedging St. Teresa into a corner of their bedroom blankly staring over at their double bed, but Ambrose put his foot down, what with St. Teresa’s reputation for endurance. Now St. Teresa was ensconced on the sewing machine table in the spare room. Loretta put a little votive light in front to make up for the neglect.

* * *

A few weeks later, on a cold, wet March afternoon, a moving truck inched its way down the street past Loretta’s door. As soon as she caught sight of it, Loretta grabbed a rag and headed out to her porch, trying to make it look like any sensible housewife would be cleaning her porch pillars in a downpour. She soon realized she was flirting with pneumonia for nothing. With everything draped in white cloths, all twelve of the apostles could have been carried in and she wouldn’t have known them from floor lamps. It was time to bake.

“At last!” she said as Ambrose pushed open the back door just after five. “They’re here. They’re here, and what a day to move! Those poor women. I can’t think how much mud those men have tracked into that house.”

Ambrose said it sure was a wet one. He shook the rain off his Maple Leafs ball cap and began removing his wind breaker.

“No, no, wait! I need you to take these tea biscuits and jam down to those poor souls. It’s the least I can do for them.” She wiped her stringy hands on her apron, and handed him a jar and a plate covered with an embroidered tea towel. “And, Ambrose, see what you can find out. Don’t stand there like you just got off the last boat from China! And they’re a Mrs. Foley and a Mrs. Brennan. Take my umbrella so you can keep those biscuits dry.”

The woman who answered the door graciously accepted his gift, and thanked him on behalf of her sister who was resting because of the move. From his spot on the porch, Ambrose couldn’t see any statues, but he did see was how dressed up the woman was for a Tuesday night: glasses with sparkly things all around the rims, huge red earrings, poofy blue-hued hair, and a dress that far from properly covered her . . . chest. All he told Loretta when he got home was that they had a nice new Chrysler.

The next morning, Loretta got on the phone to Rita Hennessy who at least was friendly to her at CWL meetings. When Rita heard all about their new Catholic neighbours, she decided she’d drop in with some shortbread and see what she could find out. Loretta was glad she’d already sent over such a large plate of biscuits.

The shortbread was graciously accepted by the one with the glasses, but Rita wasn’t invited in on account of the sister, poor thing, having a bad day after the move. But Rita learned much more than Ambrose had. “They’ve got a beautiful Persian carpet running right down the hall and up the stairs. And their moving boxes—some of the empty ones were out there on the porch—were from an address in Chicago! And they’ve got one of the local girls helping them, Caroline McIntyre. I’ll call her mother this evening. She’ll know if they go to our church or not.”

The news from Caroline’s mother was that, in a nutshell, the women were both rich and Catholic—real silver, a tea service and candlesticks; three sets of china, some in fancy quilted hat boxes, lovely furniture and gorgeous rugs and expensive figurines and antique vases and old paintings everywhere. And a grandfather clock. And a big TV and a Hi-Fi. And closets full of clothes, even a real mink coat. The one called Annette Brennan, she had a big clunky brace on one leg so she has to rest fairly often, and the other one, Marguerite Foley, had to look after her sister hand and foot, as it were. Most importantly, Marguerite had asked Caroline the times of Sunday Masses, so there it was. Proof positive. Catholics—rich ones—had moved in right down the street.

Loretta thought about this for a while, and finally decided that the best way to get to know them was to have an afternoon of bridge with Rita as the fourth. She dropped a little note into the newcomers’ mailbox inviting them to her house on Tuesday at two. Mrs. Foley called to accept, saying how she sorely missed her bridge parties in Chicago, but her sister; no, she couldn’t attend on account of her health, poor thing. “There’s just one thing,” she added. “I can never play past four. That’s when my sister gets up from her nap, and . . . well, it’s better to be here to give her a hand before I start making supper.” Loretta assured her she understood perfectly as she too liked to get at her potatoes by four-fifteen at the latest.

The problem of a missing fourth was solved when Rita suggested a friend of hers, a Flora Bruce, even though she was a Presbyterian.

Their first afternoon of bridge went well and Loretta realized that Flora’s diamond rings and her well-played three-no-trump made her a perfect fourth. Soon they realized that they had time for a game once a week, except for when Marguerite called to say she’d fallen prey to one of her nasty migraines. Even Marguerite’s habit of smoking a string of cigarettes was made up for by the lovely clothes she wore.

The women took turns bringing desserts, but they had to admit that Marg’s were the best—Chinese chews, Nanaimo bars, Danish butter cookies, beautiful petit fours, and that day, something they’d never before heard of: a pineapple maraschino cheesecake. It was a hot July afternoon and Marguerite—now just Marg to her new friends—was telling them how much she hated the heat due to a teensie bit of high blood pressure. “I don’t know how my sister could even think about moving to Texas,” she said as she fanned her flushed cheeks with a score card. “She was telling Father Lahey the other night when he came for dinner that she wants to be closer to her grandchildren, but I say she can just go and visit them whenever she wants. I’m not moving again. Texas is too bloody hot!” Loretta and Rita quietly blessed themselves at the blasphemy, but Marg didn’t notice. She had her eyes closed and a glass of lemonade pressed against her forehead.

* * *

Loretta and Ambrose were finishing their dessert after supper. “You know something, Ambrose? These bridge parties are all I’d ever hoped for. There we are, four friends playing a good game of cards, having a cup of tea and a lovely treat, and talking about things, important things.”

“Um-hum,” Ambrose said. He didn’t see what was so remarkable about this. He and his friends played euchre and drank beer and talked about the Leafs every Thursday night.

“And, Marg, well she’s just the kind of person I’ve been wanting to get to know—a cultured lady who reads and travels and thinks for herself. Someone who’s been down the road beyond Peterborough.”

“Um-hum,” Ambrose said again.

“And we hardly ever talk about our husbands.”

Ambrose looked up.

“Well, what with Rita’s long dead and Marguerite’s Jack only taken from her last year, poor dear—you should see how upset she looks, twirling her wedding ring round and round whenever Flora starts to give us an update on her Gord’s unrelenting heartburn—I feel we shouldn’t. We don’t even like to talk about our children as poor Marg never had any because of some sort of surgery for female troubles that I’m sure you don’t want to know about. Besides, we have more interesting things to discuss. Marg, she always has such grand stories to tell—like the time she saw the police arrest someone right in Marshall Field’s in Chicago! Imagine. And that store; it sounds more like a palace than a department store. That’s where she bought most of her lovely, smart clothes.”

“Do you think I could have another piece of that pie?” Ambrose said.

Loretta pushed the pie within his reach.

“Marg sure is a talker. Sometimes she talks so much I wonder if that sister of hers ever has time for her. Anyway, last week, Marg told us about the time she and Jack went to a real jazz club where they sat beside—well, not too far from—real Negroes, and before that, she told us about seeing Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip waving from the Royal Yacht in the harbour. Imagine. And despite all this, Marg’s not a bit stuck up.”

That’s not what I’ve heard, Ambrose thought to himself.

“And this week, Marg brought us information about an orphanage run by some nuns in Quebec. She wants us to collect our used postage stamps for them, and she’s talking about having a White Elephant sale, just to raise a little money for them. Isn’t she a marvel? I’m going to donate that tea pot we never use and mother’s silver cream and sugar. Eleanor won’t want them.”

Ambrose finished his pie and checked his watch.

“We’re all such good friends now. No secrets. None at all. And no one minds being teased. Like yesterday. I was telling the girls how I’d walked all the way downtown last Thursday—remember how it was pouring rain?—because I needed some whipping cream for my pumpkin pie, and I came home with a loaf of bread and the mail—and no cream. I’d forget my head! Rita said she’d read in Chatelaine that forgetting things was probably “The Change,” and Flora pointed out that that was probably why Marg had said she never baked with coconut even though just the week before she’d made a pan of Nanaimo Bars. Marg just laughed and said we were making her old before her time.”

Ambrose poured himself another cup of tea, and looked at his watch again. The first hockey game of the season was starting in a few minutes.

“But I’ll tell you something, Ambrose: I’m a little worried about her. I think she works too hard over there. A few weeks ago she had a bruise on her forehead, and yesterday she showed up with several big ones down her arm. Said she fell against the banister lugging the vacuum cleaner downstairs. With all the money they have, why don’t they get someone in to help them? That’s what I want to know.”

Ambrose shrugged and got to his feet, his tea cup in hand.

“And another thing, I gather that Annette is quite the taskmaster. We were talking away, and it was well after four before we noticed the time. When Marg heard that, she got all pale, almost as if she was frightened, and then she positively dashed out the door. Like Cinderella. I can’t understand why that sister of hers can’t let her have a little pleasure.”

Ambrose took a step towards the living room.

“I’ll give you one more example of how selfless she is. She was telling us how poor Annette’s husband died—drowned in their swimming pool; must have had a stroke and fell in—anyway, Marg didn’t even mention the fact that her husband, Jack, died right around the same time. Never a word about her own troubles even though she was made a widow last year too. Always thinking of someone else.”

Ambrose took two more steps.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun with a deck of cards.”

Ambrose stopped. “You used to like a game of Crib with me after supper.”

“I know,” she said, “but that’s just not the same.”

* * *

Loretta was right. Things weren’t the same, and not the least of which was Loretta’s own transformation. First, she sewed herself two pencil skirts, one grey with a blue fleck and one plain black, both as chic and elegant as the ones she’d seen Marg wear. Then she bought a pale blue double-knit twin set, and when she saw how nice it was, she went and bought a yellow one too. She mentioned to the salesgirl that she insisted on Kitten Brand sweaters, the kind Marguerite Foley always wore, but the girl didn’t seem to care. Then she got Sylvia at The Curly-Q to give her a Shy Violet rinse, and to tame her no-longer-grey curls into a smooth crisp helmet like Marg’s. She stopped at Woolworth’s and got herself some gold chunky earrings, and back home, she resurrected her bottle of Prince Matchabelli cologne that she hadn’t touched since Eleanor’s graduation. When Ambrose came home at noon, he barely recognised the woman serving him his soup and ham sandwich.

The next day Loretta wore one of her new outfits when she went shopping, and again in the evening when she dragged Ambrose to a play put on by the local Theatre Guild. When not one person complimented her or even mentioned her new look, she assumed people were just jealous. But Loretta was wrong.

What Loretta didn’t understand was that you couldn’t move to the front of the line in Beaverbrook overnight, especially if you were a Catholic and drove an old Pontiac. Loretta looked at these newcomers and saw the kind of style, grace, and culture she craved, but the people of Beaverbrook looked at the newcomers and saw rich snobs. They saw two women too high-stepping for the likes of Beaverbrook, not to mention too selfish to share their money with the local stores unless you counted Marg’s trips to Bud’s Variety for cigarettes and her occasional dash to the liquor store for a bottle of Canadian Club for her sister. No one had ever seen Annette at church, and Marg only went to the late Mass because, apparently, she was tired from looking after her sister, but every good Catholic knew that the late Mass was only for tourists and layabouts. No one had ever seen either of them getting their hair cut or using the town library or consulting Dr. Carmichael or going to a movie or going for a night of Bingo at the church or going to the butcher, the hardware, or the bakery. Word had it they drove all the way to Perth for their weekly grocery shopping. They didn’t even get their car gassed up in town.

* * *

The bridge parties continued. One September morning, Loretta dropped in at the sisters’ home with a jar of her wild grape jelly in the hope of getting to meet Annette and seeing inside that lovely house. The car was there, but no one answered. She left the jar between the doors. Marg called later to thank her, and told her Annette had been working and didn’t want to be disturbed, while she herself had been in bed with another of her blinding headaches.

“I do have some pills,” Marg said, “but I don’t like to take them too often. I offer the headaches up, you know, for the repose of my parent’s souls.”

What a saint, Loretta thought. She also wondered what kind of housework would prevent Annette from answering a door.

When Loretta tried again a few weeks later, this time with some Christmas cake, Marg opened the door clutching the edges of an old plaid dressing gown. Her hair was in big rollers covered with a chiffon scarf, and the fingernails on her left hand shone with dark red polish.

“Oh, Loretta,” she stammered. “I’m . . . I’m a bit tied up . . . cleaning.” She brought her hand up to wipe her brow, keeping her fingers splayed apart.

Loretta said she wouldn’t think of bothering her. As the door closed, she heard a vacuum start churning in the distance, and she was glad to know they’d finally hired Caroline so the work didn’t all fall on Marg’s shoulders. When she relayed this to Rita, Rita reminded her that Caroline was off in Pembroke, gone to an aunt, so she said it had to be another girl from the parish. “No, it’s probably our Marg,” Loretta said. “It just shows you what a brick she is. Never letting on that she’s doing all the work.”

At their last bridge game before Christmas, Marg told them that she and her sister were leaving for Perth to look after an old aunt who was having hip surgery. They would be gone through Christmas and most of January. “No rest for the wicked,” Marg laughed.

“What a saint!” thought Loretta.

* * *

Loretta said she’d never forget the phone call. She was just putting on her boots to go out and clear the snow from the walk.

“Mrs. Doyle?” a deep, quiet voice asked. “This is Annette Brennan speaking, Marguerite’s sister.”

“Oh, Mrs. Brennan, Annette. My goodness you sound just like Marg.” Loretta glanced at the hall mirror and patted her hair into place. “I’ve heard so much about you, I feel like we’re old friends. You must be back from Perth. Did you have a nice time? We must—”

“No,” Annette cut in. “That is, actually I’m calling from Perth. I have the most terrible news. My sister, Marguerite, she is . . . she has . . . passed away.”

Loretta gasped. “But, but what happened? Did she take sick?”

“No, no. She . . . she fell. Down the back stairs, last night, and hit her head.” Annette took a deep shuddering breath. “Perhaps she had a dizzy spell. She had high blood pressure, you know. She also had difficulty sleeping, so she was probably on her way down to find something . . .  a magazine perhaps.” She sighed. “Poor Marguerite. Well, the funeral will be in town on Friday. Would you let the others know? I’ve already called Father Lahey.”

Loretta assured her that she would help in any way she could. They rang off, and Loretta sat right down at her kitchen table and wept. By the time Ambrose arrived for lunch, she hadn’t even plugged in the kettle.

The next evening, Ambrose brought home a copy of The Ottawa Journal. He read the death notice aloud to Loretta as she carved the roast of beef.

"Foley, Marguerite Anne suddenly in Perth on Sunday, January 26, 1969. Marguerite Foley of 42 Prince St., Beaverbrook, formerly of Ottawa, in her sixty-first year. Beloved daughter of the late Thomas Foley and Anne Sullivan.”

“But that’s not right!” Loretta broke in. Ambrose signalled to her to just listen while he read on: 

“Beloved sister of Annette (Mrs. William Brennan) of Beaverbrook, Daniel of Montreal, and Marian (deceased); aunt of Thomas Brennan and great-aunt of—blah, blah, blah—of Fort Worth, Texas. Resting at Westwood Funeral Home. Requiem High Mass, St. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church, Beaverbrook, Friday, January 31, 1969.”

“But, but, what about Jack? There’s no mention of her Jack. And what about Chicago? And it says her parents’ name was Foley. That’s all wrong. That was her married name!”

“They’re just little mistakes, Loretta. You can worry about all of this after supper. It’s time we ate.”

As soon as they’d finished, Loretta went for the phone. “Rita, did you see it? What was she thinking, not even mentioning poor Marg’s husband? After all she’s done for her.”

All Rita could say was that Annette must be out of her mind with grief.

The women agreed that they would go to the evening visitation together. Loretta was the last to arrive, and the last to stop crying. When they got to the parlour door, they stopped to prepare themselves for the shock of seeing their lively Marg laid out.

And shocking it was. Standing chatting with Father Lahey was a woman wearing Marg’s black silk suit and Marg’s black hat with the pheasant feather across the front, and her hand was on Father’s arm just like Marg always did when she was telling a good story. Loretta squealed and her hand flew to her mouth, but Rita grabbed her arm and whispered, “No, Loretta, no. It must be Annette! Look at her leg, the brace on her leg.”

The woman must have heard their voices. She turned and, seeing the three women standing agape at the doorway, she patted Father’s folded hands and headed towards them, swinging her left leg in little circles as she came.

“You must be Marguerite’s friends. I’ve heard so much about you.” She shook each of their hands. On her chest was Marg’s cameo pin, and on her right hand were Marg’s wedding rings. The women nodded, unable to speak, not knowing where to look.

They made their way to the coffin with Annette following, the leather of her brace making little whiney sounds. There indeed was their dear Marg lying in folds of white satin, and wearing an old-fashioned navy gabardine dress the women had never seen before. Her bare fingers were threaded with a worn crystal rosary, and her blue hair was glowing in the eerie light of the neon cross lodged inside the lid. The light also highlighted a plum-coloured bruise on her face that the makeup hadn’t adequately covered.

Loretta and Rita sniffed back their tears, said a quick prayer, and hurried over to Flora who was signing her name in the guest book. Loretta shoved a little stack of Marg’s memorial prayer cards into her purse and headed for the door. She didn’t even go back to say good-bye to Annette.

“Those clothes!” Loretta cried, as soon as they got to the hall. “Marguerite’s clothes! How could she? They must still be warm! And she’s gone and taken Marg’s jewellery, even her wedding rings.”

“Now, Loretta,” Rita tried.

“Were her eyes red?” Loretta was almost shouting. “No. Had she been crying about her only sister? No. She doesn’t even care! First telling lies about her in the paper, and now stealing her things. Well, I’m not letting her get away with this. It’s the least I can do for Marg, our dearest friend in the world.”

* * *

Annette showed up for the funeral wearing Marguerite’s new fur coat and mink-trimmed hat. Beside her was a tall, stooped man who they assumed must be the brother. The three women sat a few pews behind them, and according to Loretta, Annette didn’t wipe her eyes once during the entire Mass. Nor did she bother going to Communion. She did turn and nod at Loretta and the others, but Loretta pretended she was praying and didn’t respond. At the reception afterwards in the church basement, tables were laid out with salmon and egg salad sandwiches, jelly salads, pickles, pies, and squares. There was going to be lots left for Father Lahey as very few parishioners had shown up, and the Perth and Ottawa relations had had to rush off because of the threat of freezing rain. Loretta went about pouring cups of strong tea. When she refilled Annette’s, Annette didn’t even introduce her to their brother. As Loretta walked away, the man said something, and Annette threw her head back and laughed out loud.

Rita noticed this too. She said she expected Annette was only being brave, but to Loretta, this was more proof that their Marg had been mercilessly used by her sister, getting her to do all the work while she was obviously perfectly capable, and now, not shedding a tear nor even pretending she would miss her sister one little bit. And all the while wearing Marg’s best clothes.

Loretta told Ambrose all about it during supper, and for about the six-hundredth time pointed out what a saint Marg had been. Propped against the salt and pepper shakers stood one of Marg’s prayer cards. He’d noticed another one stuck in the bathroom mirror, and another on the night table on Loretta’s side of the bed. Ambrose didn’t want to consider the implications if Loretta turned their home into a shrine to St. Marg. Thank God there were, as yet, no miracles attributable to her, unless you counted Loretta’s brief happiness. Ambrose looked at his wife, her boney shoulders giving more shape to her sweater than her breasts, her sagging skirt, her gaudy earrings, her hair that looked like she’d gone and dipped her head in grape Kool-Aid, and said a silent prayer for patience in the face of turmoil. Ambrose couldn’t remember which saint specialized in this kind of help. Maybe St. Joseph. He’d certainly had his share of alarming changes to contend with.

* * *

The following Wednesday, there was a Requiem Mass for Marguerite. Besides the nuns and the few devout regulars, only four people showed up: Caroline McIntyre and her mother, Rita, and Loretta. No Annette.

As they were leaving the church, Rita introduced Caroline to Rita. “I’m sorry about Mrs. Foley, your friend,” Caroline said. She looked wan and tired.

“Thanks, Caroline,” Loretta said. “I’m sure working for her, you saw what a special person she was. Such a hard worker. And such a cook!”

Caroline looked confused. “Cook? No, no. That was Mrs. Brennan. Marguerite never cooked nothing, at least not when I was there. No, that was Mrs. Brennan. And what a baker she is—devil’s food cake, something called Nanaimo Bars and—”

“But, but surely—”

“Only time I ever saw Marguerite in the kitchen was when she had one of her headaches, and she was getting herself ice cubes. I know people have been saying things about her—”

“What things?” Loretta said quickly.

“Oh, just gossip. But, never you mind. Marguerite was always nice, nicer to me than the other one. Mrs. Brennan was always saying, ‘Caroline, do this. Caroline, get me that.’ Never a minute to sit down. But not Marguerite. She’d always tell me to take a break. ‘Take a load off,’ she’d say.” Caroline smiled and she looked sadder. “Sometimes when she’d be going out to the back porch for a cigarette—Annette won’t stand for anyone smoking in her house, not even her own sister—sometimes I’d go out with her. She was real nice.”

Loretta nodded.

“She gave me this here wool coat, and some other of Mrs. Brennan’s beautiful things. Sweaters for my mother, and a jacket, and some shoes too. Annette’s got lovely things, she does.” She paused. “Marguerite, she asked me about my . . . my problem when no one else ever did. Marguerite, she was tons nicer than the other one.”

Loretta said she couldn’t argue with that.

The moment Ambrose got in the door for his lunch, Loretta asked him what Caroline meant by people saying things.

“Nothing really. Just gossip. People with nothing better to do than be jealous of the rich.”

“Humph,” Loretta said. “Such small-town minds.”

Next morning, the cashier at the grocery store asked Loretta if she’d seen the sign.

“What sign?” Loretta asked.  

“At Annette Brennan’s house. Up for sale. Moving to Texas. To live with her son. Any day now. Soon as she gets packed. Leaving the lawyer to sell the house.” She smiled. “Thought you’d know all about it, you being so close to them and all.”

“Leaving? Leaving Beaverbrook?”

“Don’t know why you’re shocked. She was planning this for ages. Long before the other one died. Called my nephew at the real estate office last fall. Said she’d made a mistake coming here. Humph. Never once darkened this door. Boots too big for this town.”

As Loretta walked home, she started adding things up. First, Annette had told cruel lies about Marg in the paper. Second, she obviously didn’t care a fig about her sister, laughing and carrying on after the funeral all the while wearing Marg’s lovely clothes. Third, she never came to any of the Masses for Marg. Fourth, she made her sister work day and night. Fifth, Marg had an awful lot of bruises. Sixth, Marg had seemed really scared of her sister when their little bridge parties went even a few minutes past four. And now, here was Annette moving away as soon as she possibly can, taking with her Marg’s share of the house and Marg’s clothes, and all without a word to anyone. Maybe it was time to consider the fact that things weren’t as innocent as they seemed. Maybe the disagreeable, shocking truth had to be stated: Annette Brennan had probably helped her poor sister fall down those stairs!

Loretta knew the right thing was to take her suspicions to the police, but she thought it best to have a little chat with Father Lahey first to get his support. He’d probably noticed exactly the same things, and no doubt he’d be proud of her for trying to right this terrible injustice. She turned about and headed for the rectory.

Father led her into his study. He pointed her to a worn armchair in front of the desk while he wedged his way past a larger-than life St. Joseph. He dropped into his chair, took a deep breath, and brought his hands together as if he were going to start clapping, fingertips bouncing off each other. “So, Loretta, what can I do for you this morning?”

“You can tell me what that Annette Brennan is doing? It’s as if she’s trying to pretend Marguerite never existed. Like today for example. She wasn’t at Mass, a Mass specifically for the repose of dear Marg’s soul.”

“Well, I suppose it’s because she doesn’t belong to our church, Loretta. She’s an Anglican.”

“An Anglican! You mean she’s not even a Catholic? So, she’s lost her faith, has she? Well, there you are. Another strike against her. And something else, Father. Why did we never see her around town? Not ever. What’s she trying to hide?”

“Well, it’s hard for her to walk very far with her leg, and she’s very busy, writing about her husband and his many accomplishments. He just died last year, you know. Grand fellow, I gather, and she’s been asked to contribute to a book about his family. The Brennans were quite the philanthropists down there in Chicago. Livestock money, I believe.”

“But that doesn’t let her off the hook, Father. What about mourning her sister? Marg’s not even in the ground, no headstone or anything, and now she’s gallivanting off to live in Texas, and in Marg’s clothes. It’s not right!”

Father Lahey slowly pointed out that no burials were possible in the depth of winter, and plans were made for Marguerite’s body to be buried in the family plot in Perth. “Loretta, listen. It’s very simple. Annette made a mistake. She thought that with her husband gone, she’d come back to Ontario, back to her roots, but she’s been too lonely. She’s going to Texas so she can be near the little ones as they grow up. Can’t blame her for that.”

Loretta wondered why Father didn’t want to face facts.

“Well, that may be,” she went on, “but ever since she published those lies in the paper, I’ve been saying—”

“Yes, I know what you’ve been saying, Loretta, and it’s got to stop. You’ve been turning Marguerite into some kind of saint, and her poor sister into some kind of devil.” He glanced over at the bookcase where he’d tucked a little bottle behind a stack of Encyclopaedia Britannicas. This warranted a few fingers of whiskey after Loretta left, Lent or not.

“Father, it’s just not right. Marg worked all the time for that ungrateful woman, and what does she do to acknowledge it? Nothing. I just want the parish to see that we had a virtual saint in our midst.”

“Loretta, I need to tell you a few things. Now don’t get me wrong”—he raised a hand to stop her protests—“Marguerite was a good soul. Did you know she left her money, what little she had, to an orphanage in Hull? Very good of her. And good for those little motherless tykes. But, I think you need to realize that Marguerite, she, well . . . I think she told you girls a few fibs. For one, she was never married.”

“But of course she was, Father, to Jack Foley. And she had lovely wedding rings too.”

“No, Loretta. I’ve known Marg for years—she was in my parish in Ottawa—and Marguerite was Miss Marguerite Foley. There was no—what did you call him?—Jack Foley. Those wedding rings were probably her mother’s. I’ve noticed some maiden ladies do this, wear their mother’s rings on their left hand.”

“But . . .”

“And she never lived in Chicago, although I think she visited Annette there once or twice. They were only half-sisters, Annette and Marguerite. Marg’s mother died in childbirth and the father remarried. The second wife didn’t go to our church, and, I gather, she never really took to little Marg. Then she had a boy and a girl of her own, and there was no question who her favourites were. And then, all these years later, Annette found herself a widow and about the same time Marg was let go from that dress shop in Ottawa with no pension or anything. Terrible! She must have worked there over thirty years. When Annette found out she simply felt sorry for her.” He started filling his pipe. “No, Marg didn’t have very much of her own. Even her clothes, they were mostly Annette’s.” He smiled. “I arrived there one time when they’d been quarrelling. Nothing serious, you know, but Annette had discovered Marg had been wearing some of her clothes without asking. Must have been to one of your bridge parties. Scrapping just like when they were kids. No, I don’t know how long it would have worked, them living together after all those years. Poor Marg.”

Loretta was starting to feel sick. She took a church bulletin from the desk and began fanning herself.

“But. . . but, look how good she was, taking care of her sister—and not even her full sister apparently—day after day after day!”

“It was more the other way around, Loretta. I had dinner with them several times, and Annette did all the work, slaving away in the kitchen making us a grand supper, while Marg entertained me in the living room.” He laughed. “You know, like Martha and Mary.”

Loretta didn’t laugh.

“Marg and I,” Father went on, “we used to joke about how we both hate cooking. Never could find our way around a kitchen. Barely make toast. No, Marg—Lord have mercy on her soul—was no cook.”

“But, that’s not true. Sorry, Father, but her baking, she always brought us—”

“Ah, that was another of Marg’s little fibs, Loretta. The baking was Annette’s handiwork. It was Annette who ran that house, did the cooking and baking, paid the bills. Not Marg.”

Loretta could feel tears suddenly burning behind her eyes and her throat tightening. She glanced around, wondering if Father might give her a little drink, Lent or not.

“And there’s another thing, Loretta, something you’re not going to like hearing. I’m surprised you haven’t heard it already—seems like the whole town’s talking about it. My sister’s boy is a policeman in Perth, and he said that when they got to the house that night it seemed that, well, poor Marguerite smelled pretty strongly of liquor. Her housecoat was all stained with sherry, and there was a broken glass down at the bottom of the steps. Must have dropped it when she fell. Annette told me Marg often went down for a drink in the night when she couldn’t sleep.”

“Sherry?” Loretta perked up. “Well there you have it. Another of Annette’s lies. Marg didn’t drink!”

“I’m sorry to tell you this, Loretta—and remember, I liked Marg very much—but Marg had a bit of a problem with the drink. And let’s face it; alcoholics aren’t picky.”

“Alcoholic, my foot! She told me she didn’t drink, except just one on New Year’s Eve. Why, she even turned down a little glass of sherry at our Christmas bridge game, said she hated it, that sherry was only for old ladies, that she wouldn’t be caught dead—” Loretta jumped up. “That proves it, Father. Annette killed her! She pushed my best friend down the steps so she wouldn’t have to look after her, and then she dumped sherry on her to make her look like a drunk!” Tears were running down her face. This was the only explanation. It had to be.

Father Lahey pushed himself to his feet. “Loretta, that is preposterous. There’ll be no more talk like that! You have no proof whatsoever, and you’re not to be spreading scandalous rumours about this good woman who took in her half-sister last year when she had nowhere else to go, and then discovered Marg had this problem. Here she was living with someone who was no help at all, and who spent what little money she had on liquor. Annette told me she didn’t know what she was going to do.” He came around the side of his desk next to his encyclopaedias and handed her the box of Kleenex. “Loretta, I want you to go home now, and think about what I’ve been saying, and while you’re at it, thank God you have a place to lay your head, and a good, sober husband to look after you.” The church bell began to toll. “Ah, twelve-o’clock. Can you get yourself home alright on your own?”

Loretta nodded, blew her nose, and stood up. “But why, Father? Why did she have to lie to me? I was her friend.”

He shrugged. “I expect she just wanted to be liked. You of all people should understand that.”

Loretta stumbled her way home, praying she wouldn’t run into anyone she knew. When she got there, she was glad to see Ambrose had come and gone. The lemon meringue pie had a piece missing, and on the table were a mug and a plate holding a squashed tea bag. Marguerite’s prayer card was lying face down by the mustard.

Loretta started crying again, and she was still crying by the time she got up to the spare room. On the bed was a pile of mending and the mauve angora twin set she’d bought last week. She picked up one of the sweaters and threw it at the wall. Then she threw the next one and then each piece of mending one by one until the floor and the dresser were littered with a jumble of socks and pillow cases, underwear and sweaters. Over in the corner, one of the sweaters had landed on St. Teresa’s head where it hung cockeyed over the saint’s downcast, sightless eyes.

Mary J. Breen teaches creative nonfiction and seniors' memoir writing. She has been a Clear Writing editor, a health worker, a shelter worker, a high school teacher, and a literacy and ESL teacher. She has written two books about women's health, and her essays have been broadcast on CBC Radio. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in national newspapers, essay collections, travel magazines, health journals, and literary magazines. She lives and works in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada.

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