Patty was educated by Dominican priests and nuns, who preached hell, fire, and damnation long before it became the style of Southern Baptist ministers. And as soon as I moved in next door to her, and she found out I was a Jew, she set out to convert me to the true faith. And to her that was without a doubt the Catholic faith.
At first, I let her efforts go in one ear and out the other. But after a while, I couldn’t resist the temptation to have some fun with it. When I made a humorous comment about something she preached, she either urged me to take her seriously, became irritated and defiant, or ignored the comment and continued her newfound mission in life—my conversion.
One day, when she was praising the work of the Catholic Church, which she always referred to as The Church, I brought up the issue of pedophile priests.
“Yeah, I hear what you’re saying, Patty,” I said. “The Catholic Church has done a lot of good in the world. But what about all those pedophile priests I’ve been hearing about?”
“There are rotten apples in every barrel,” Patty snapped. Then she went on to explain that The Church, the body of Christ, is not guilty of sin when people in it sin.
“A church is the congregation of people in it. Once the pedophile priests were exposed, your Church hierarchy protected them and attempted a coverup. And Church members continued to support it financially with their offerings,” I said. “So everyone in your Church was culpable. Those who were not pedophile priests were enablers, which is not only just as sinful but criminal as well. Face it, Patty. Your Church is a sinful and criminal institution.
“It is not! And don’t you dare accuse me of enabling pedophile priests!”
“Yeah, well, I don’t see how you can get around it,” I said with a teasing smile. “Maybe it’s time for you to shop around for a different religion. How about becoming a Baptist? They don’t have pedophile priests—maybe pedophile ministers but my guess is the numbers are smaller.”
“I’m a Catholic and plan to stay that way, thank you very much. And you should take what I’m telling you seriously. I’m trying to help you. Can’t you see that?”
“I do, but until you can come up with more convincing explanation of why your Church should not be condemned for harboring all those pedophile priests, can I have a break from your attempts to shove your religion up my . . .?”
"You watch your language!” she shouted. Then she looked up into the sky, and as she crossed herself, she added, “Please forgive him, Lord, for what he was about to say.”
“Okay, Patty, I’ll put it to you this way: Do I get a break from your attempts to shove your religion down my throat?”
“A break maybe, but don’t think for a minute I’m giving up on you.”
And trust me. She didn’t give up. I remember one morning when I started to reorganize my toolbox in my garage with the door raised. No sooner had I started than there she was with Bible in hand.
After a few pleasantries, she read the passages in Matthew that made Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, the first head or Pope of the Catholic Church and sanctioned whatever he decided on articles of faith as church doctrine.
“Wow! That’s a lot of power,” I said. “But wasn’t Pete the guy who denied he knew J. C. not once but three times just before the Romans nailed him to the cross?
“Three things. First of all, Peter repented, and Jesus forgave him. That’s the Christian thing to do. Second, the Jews turned Jesus over to the Romans to do the dirty work, but it was their judgement that condemned him. And Third, would you please refer to Jesus as Jesus and not J.C. and Peter as Peter or St Peter and not Pete? You’re being disrespectful.”
“Okay, it’s Jesus and Peter from now on. But back to what you said before the reprimand: I understand repentance and forgiveness. You Christians got that from my people, you know, the chosen ones. But I don’t buy blaming us for killing Jesus. I can remember when I was a kid. Christians called me and my people Christ Killers. I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about.”
“The Church has forgiven the Jews for Christ’s death.”
“Really,’ I quipped. “I hadn’t heard. My people will be so grateful.”
“Okay, now that we have that out of the way, I want you to understand that the power given to Peter and the Popes who came after him comes from this Bible—God’s Holy Word.”
“God’s Holy Word according to whom?”
“The Church. St Jerome translated the relevant Hebrew and Greek writings into Latin so that the early fathers of The Church could put them together into this Bible.”
“Yeah, but Jerome was one of them—the early Church fathers. They were just another bunch of good old boys. So Jerome probably translated everything in a way that supported their authority. After that, they declared it the Word of God without any support for the declaration other than their word. And since they were the only ones that could read and understand it, Catholics who wanted to go to heaven became dependent on them to receive God’s Word. Clever of those good old boys. It was a nice little bit of gamesmanship that insured their power over all you sinful Catholics.”
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! I’ve never heard such paranoid talk in all my life. You’ve got a serious problem.”
“And I’ve got a feeling you’re about to tell me what it is.”
“Your problem is you don’t have faith. And without it, you’ll never understand what I’m trying to tell you.”
“You’re right. I’m not about to buy into some belief based on faith. Faith is nothing more than believing in something where there’s no evidence to support it.”
“The beliefs of Jews are based on faith too.”
“Yeah, I know, and I don’t buy that bullshit either.”
“What about after you die? Where do you think you go? Don’t you believe in heaven?”
“The only kind of heaven I’m interested in is a place where we can all run around naked and fornicate at will.”
“Good gracious! You men think of nothing else!” she said, clearly frustrated with me. “But don’t think for a minute it turns me off. I’ll make a good Catholic out of you yet.”
Again and again, she came at me, steadfast in her belief that she could accomplish what I had told her many times was a waste of her time and mine. But as it turned out, the only way I could get her to stop with the preaching was to interject unrelated humorous comments with sexual overtones.
If a comment included a swear word, she flinched. Then she looked skyward, and while crossing herself, she said, “Please, Lord, forgive him.”
But swear word or not, her composure changed from pious preacher to shy school girl as if she had suddenly become part of something naughty. Her face flushed, and she flashed an impish smile and a slight, but noticeable, gleam in her eyes.
One afternoon in her kitchen she was telling me a story about Mary, the mother of Jesus. While listening, I spotted a paperback on the counter. I picked it up and thumbed through it. It was a romance novel.
“Patty!” I said, interrupting her. “This is a dirty book. Don’t tell me a good Catholic woman like you reads dirty books.”
“It’s a novel.”
“It’s a dirty book with all kinds of filth in it.”
“I skip over those parts,” she said with her characteristic little girl flushed face, impish grin, and gleam in her eyes.
“I do. I like the stories but not the sex scenes.”
“I don’t believe you. And what this tells me is that you are trying to relive the experiences of your life in the fast lane. You must have been a real hellcat when you were younger.”
“I was a good Catholic girl—convent schooling and all. I knew nothing about sexual things until I got married.”
“I always like dating Catholic girls—women.”
“I don’t want to hear it.”
“They were wound up so tight with all that religious stuff that if you took them out and loosened them up with a few drinks, you had to race them to the bedroom.”
“I don’t believe that for a moment. And I was certainly never like that.”
“How long has it been since the last of your husbands passed away.”
“I only had two.”
“Yes, it’s the truth. My first husband passed away seven years ago. Frank, my second husband, passed away a little over a year ago.”
“So, it’s on to number three now?”
“Heavens no! I’m not interested in getting married again.”
“Okay, but you can have some fun without signing on the dotted line again. You’re still a good-looking woman. And you’ve been alone now for over a year. My guess is you’re hot to trot; chomping at the bit; ready, willing, and able. You need to get out of the house, hit the bars, and pick up some hot guys.”
“Good heaven! I’m not that sort of a woman. I’m a good Catholic.”
I laughed. “Say Patty, there’s something I’ve wanted to ask you, I mean you being a good Catholic and all.”
“I hope it’s a serious question,” she said with an apprehensive look in her eyes.
“Well, when you Catholics—Christians—get to heaven, you believe you’ll be reunited with your loved ones. Right?
“Well, that means you’ll be reunited with your two husbands. And my question is are you going to sleep with both of them at the same time or rotate?
“That’s ridiculous! You don’t have sex in heaven.”
“Then why in the hell do you want to go there?”
“You are impossible! Just leave!,” she said. “I don’t appreciate your kind of talk when I’m trying to teach you something I take seriously.”
I didn’t see Patty for a couple of weeks. I thought maybe she was still irritated at me or had gone on a trip somewhere. But I discovered neither was the case when she came over and brought me some of her homemade lemon bars. She told me that she had been busy taking a bunch of tests in the hospital, and she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Two emotions hit me at once. I was sorry to hear that she had cancer and that it was terminal. I told her so and struggled to find words of comfort that didn’t sound clichéd. At the same time, I felt guilty because I had had so much fun in the past razzing her during her well-intentioned efforts to convert me.
I reached out to her. Her eyes filled with tears. We hugged, and I never razzed her again—at least not about her Church and her religious beliefs because I knew she would need them more than ever to cope. Oddly enough, though, I think in the days that followed, she missed it.
As I watched her health and appearance deteriorate under hospice care at home, I did, however, manage to come up with a few lines that brought smiles to her face. Once, when she was outside with the aid of her walker, I cozied up to her and said, “Are you sure you’re not faking?”
She laughed. “I wish I was.”
Another time, when I came over to her house to check on her, I said, “Patty, it’s too quiet around here for me without all your preaching. I hate to admit it, but I’m beginning to miss it.”
She smiled. “I don’t believe you, but it’s sweet of you to say so.”
One day when she confided in me that she was a little worried about dying and going to heaven, I wanted to take her mind off it with my usual attempt at humor.
“Well, when you get up there, Patty, just remember not to argue or try to convert everyone to your beliefs right away,” I said. “And if you disagree with St Peter about something, and he gets mad at you, wait till you’re well inside, and then turn back and give him the finger.”
No sooner was my attempt at humor out of my mouth than I regretted it, thinking it might put me in the doghouse with her again. But that didn’t happen. Her face flushed, and she flashed her impish smile and gleam in her eyes.
“I can tell by the look on your face that I’m not in the doghouse again. Right?”
“Not this time. May God forgive me, I must be getting used to your sense of humor. But watch it!” she said, and then we both laughed.
As it turned out, the last time I saw her was the day before she passed away. I came over to her house to check on her. Her ever-present daughter let me in. She lay on her couch in a makeshift bed, pale and emaciated with her arms folded over her breast and her eyes closed.
“Patty?” I said.
She opened her eyes and managed a smile, then reached out and clutched my hands. Seeing her in such a deathlike condition was one of the saddest moments in my life. I struggled to maintain my composure.
“I miss you, Patty.”
“I miss you too,” she said, then let loose of my hands and closed her eyes.
Now that she is gone, I feel a void. It’s as if I lost someone who was becoming my best friend. I will never forget her, and I smile each time our back-and-forths come to mind. Without a doubt, she was one of the most interesting, provocative, and enjoyable friends and sparring partners in my life.
A widowed woman purchased and moved into her house. The woman looked about the same age as Patty and I. And much to my surprise and delight, when I went over to introduce myself and welcome her to the neighborhood, she asked, “Do you by chance know the location of the nearest Catholic Church? I’m Catholic.”
Copyright © 2022 Frank Zahn. Published in Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, Volume 16,
Issue 2 Mugwort, June 2022, pp 86-91- http://www.meatfortea.com/pdfs/meatforteav16i2.pdf