Clutching her handbag tightly in her left hand, Mary Riley gripped the rail at the top of the steps outside St. Vincent’s with her right. For the hundredth time that winter she wondered why she hadn’t requested communion be brought to her home. And for the hundredth time she smiled to herself, knowing how much she looked forward to Father Mark’s homilies and the feeling of belonging she received from attending mass.
Although a chilly wind swept across the steps they were clear of snow and ice, yet Mary knew the three sets of four steps could be treacherous for one her age. Just last fall her friend Ruth had taken a tumble on the last two steps and broken a hip. That same Ruth who’d once raced her to the top of the steps so many years before had never recovered from her accident and they’d buried her two days before Thanksgiving.
Mary stopped to rest on the first landing from the top, looking back to see Father Mark visiting with a young couple. He gave her a wave when he saw her standing there.
“Mary, do you need a hand?” he asked.
“No Father, I’ve got this. Just remember your promise.”
He smiled, “Of course, but we’ve got years yet.”
She hadn’t wanted to like this young priest. He’d come in and stirred things up after Father Thomas left the diocese ten years ago. But Father Mark’s heart had shown through and soon he had revitalized the old church, bringing in new families and making everyone think about social justice.
Just last week she’d made him promise to officiate at her funeral, fearing that he’d be moved to another parish and forget all about her. If she and Robert had been blessed with a son she’d have liked him to be like Father Mark.
Of course Robert might not have liked the priest’s liberal views; he’d always been so conservative. But he was practical, as well. After both their older girls had found themselves in a family way while still in high school he’d instructed Mary to take their youngest, Regina to the family planning clinic uptown. “They’re breeding like rabbits!” he’d ranted.
She shook her head ruefully, thinking of how she’d changed after Robert’s passing. He’d died of a heart attack months before Father Thomas left and had never known the younger priest.
Robert had been a good man, Mary knew, continuing her descent, if a bit controlling. She’d never have gotten so involved in Father Mark’s peace protests had Robert still been alive. What would Robert have made of her striding around in slacks, of all things, singing anti-war songs?
At the second landing Mary leaned heavily on the railing. She could clearly picture standing there with Robert posing for pictures after their wedding. He’d been so strong and handsome, his black Irish charm devastating. It was right there he’d swept her up to carry her to his Buick. Of course she hadn’t weighed much back then, but oh! It still made her heart beat a little faster to think of him carrying her down those last few steps.
Ruth and the other girls had been quite envious. But then Ruth had gone off to university and before long had started teaching in public school. Ruth had never married and sometimes Mary had envied her friend’s freedom.
“The grass is always greener,” she mused aloud.
Getting her third wind, Mary pushed against the railing and carefully placed her foot on the next step. There was a little scuffed out place there where she always feared losing her footing. Almost to the bottom, just three steps to go, she looked up, surprised to see her Robert standing at the bottom looking just like he had on the day they’d wed. “Well,” Mary sighed.
She looked back up to see Father Mark still visiting with parishioners. With a smile she acknowledged he’d be keeping his promise to her sooner than he’d thought.
“What’s the smile for, my Mary?” Robert asked.
“I’m just thinking you could’ve met me at the top of these steps,” she laughed.