Hannah set the infant carrier down on the sidewalk next to the big red doors of St. Cecilia’s Episcopal Church and flailed around in the vault of her handbag until she grabbed the wooden cross that anchored the ring with the church keys. The old front door key needed a little jiggle to get the lock to turn, but Hannah had the knack for it, and the heavy door shifted. She pulled it open, picked up the carrier and smiled down at Dover, who was kicking rhythmically and cheerfully. “OK, baby girl. We’re in.”
The church was dark, with a familiar odor of dust, mildew, incense, and floor wax that had built up over 150 years. Hannah locked the door carefully behind her. The neighborhood had changed since the days when the department store magnates and furniture manufacturers had raised a Gothic edifice out of Indiana limestone as a shrine to the God who had granted them wealth and opportunity. Now the department store was a Macy’s, and the furniture factories had moved to Asia. There was a bodega on the corner and a medical marijuana dispensary a few doors down. Boarded-up houses stood like rotting teeth in a row of homes that had once been a solid, middle-class district of a solid, Midwestern city. The members of St. Cecilia’s – dwindling in number and advancing in age – no longer lived anywhere near the church, but drove into the city for worship from their suburban homes and condominiums.
Dover babbled delightedly, and the sound echoed off the stone arches and sooty stained glass windows. There was a rattle and commotion over Hannah’s head in the choir loft, and a face peeped over the side. It was the organist, Simeon Wellburn. White strands of hair, which he usually kept carefully combed, flopped in the air as he bent his head over the edge of the loft. “Who’s there? Oh, Hannah. Just you. I was just finishing up practicing.”
“Hi, Simeon. Are you done for the day?” Of course he was done. He always finished Saturday morning practice by 11 a.m. Hannah had planned her arrival specifically so she wouldn’t have to share the church with him. She planned to enjoy a holy silence and her granddaughter’s giggles, without having to endure the tootling organ noises, without having to cringe as an aging man struggled to get music out of an aging instrument.
She headed up the center aisle, touching the edge of “her” pew as she passed it. Third from the rear, pulpit side. Where her parents had sat, and she and her sisters had sat. Where she and her husband Bob had sat ever since they married, thirty-six years ago. Where her children – Elizabeth, Amy, and Emily – had sat, from their toddlerhood until they drifted away after confirmation in high school. Where she had sat – and knelt, knelt until a spot in the old leather kneeler exactly fit the curve of her knees. The morning light blazed for a moment through the big stained-glass window above the altar, turning the image of the resurrected Christ into shards of rainbow glory that danced colors across the floor, the pews, and Dover’s soft cheeks. The baby gazed, fixated on the light and colors.
Up past the stone altar, with its carvings of St. Cecelia playing a variety of instruments. Behind the pulpit, to the little oak door with the laminated sign that read “Sacristy.” Hannah was home. Home in the church of her childhood, surely, but even more, she was now entering the home of her heart: the little room filled with linens and silver and wine and wafers and cleaning supplies and an ironing board and steamer and everything she needed to make sure that tomorrow morning, Mother Brenda could make the holiness happen without a single hitch.
A smaller key unlocked the Sacristy, and Hannah opened the door, flicked on the buzzing fluorescent light, and set Dover’s carrier on the floor. She sighed happily. “Here we are, Dover. Welcome back, baby girl. Remember the sacristy? This is Nanna’s special place, and she loves to bring her baby girl Dover to her very special place.” Dover smiled wetly, revealing a slim white crescent in her lower gum, where her first little tooth was beginning to sprout.
Hannah saw a lengthy note from Mother Brenda on the scarred Formica countertop, and she sighed. It would probably be new directions from the priest that would disrupt her usual, orderly routine. “Time enough for that later …first things first,” she said to herself, and pulled a worn leather book from the top drawer of the cabinet. Directions for Altar Guilds was printed in 1922, and this beat-up version of it had probably been stuffed in the drawer ever since. Hannah liked to hold it, liked to think about her mother and probably her grandmother too, bringing out this same little book and starting their Saturday morning tasks like this. The book fell open to a yellowed page, “Prayers Suitable for Altar Guilds.”
Hannah crossed herself and said out loud, specifically so Dover could hear her praying: “O Lord Jesus Christ, who dost condescend to make our churches thy dwelling place, and our Altars the Throne of thy Sacred Presence in the Blessed Sacrament of thy love, accept, we pray Thee, our services and grant to us such reverence of mind and purity of heart in adorning and making ready thy Sanctuary, that we may truly please Thee, and by thy mercy may finally enter into the Heavenly Temple not made with hands, which needs no adorning, where Thou, with the Holy Ghost, ever livest and reignest, one God, in glory everlasting. AMEN.”
With mind and heart made almost reverent and nearly pure by the familiar prayer, Hannah picked up the note, but reverence and purity dwindled to their previous levels, as she read Mother Brenda’s words.
Hi Hannah, I sent you an email but I know you don’t believe in smart phones, so I’m putting this note here. Get ready for a miracle – we’re having a baptism tomorrow! First one in two years. Mary Willson’s son Andrew is bringing his baby boy to be baptized here. They did all the preparation at their parish in Pittsburgh and were going to have the baptism there, but when Mary broke her leg, Andrew decided to move everything here. Sorry you have to swap all the green hangings for white. I had my husband move the Paschal Candle out by the baptismal font already. We’ll need all the gear – water, towels, the silver cockleshell, the baptismal oil … well I am sure you know better than I what we need. Thanks for all you do. Blessings! Mo. Brenda+
A baptism. Mary Willson’s grandson, no older than Dover, was going to be baptized at St. Cecilia’s. Hannah sighed. Mary was a good person, and this was probably a good thing. Now Mary wouldn’t have to ride in the back seat all the way to Pittsburgh with her leg propped up in a walking boot. But why did they have to import a baby for a baptism? It wasn’t like they didn’t have any babies at St. Cecilia’s. There weren’t many babies, but there was Dover, even if Dover only got brought to church if she had spent the night with Hannah and Bob. Emily said she meant to come to church, meant to bring Dover, would bring Dover, OK, next week, if Hannah would just stop nagging about church and making it be some kind of thing. No, Emily didn’t have anything against church –of course she thought it was going to be important to raise Dover in some kind of faith. But couldn’t Hannah understand that if Emily worked all day on Saturday and her husband worked all day on Saturday, that Sunday was a day to collapse and regroup? Why couldn’t she just be more sympathetic to her daughter’s exhaustion and her son-in-law’s exhaustion … really, Mom, really, just try.
So there had not been a baptism for Dover yet. At this rate, the child would be ready for confirmation before Emily got around to arranging a baptism. But little … what was that boy’s name? Hannah looked at the baptismal certificate Mother Brenda had left on the countertop. Marcus. Marcus Aurelius Willson. His father was a history professor. It figured he would name his son after a Roman philosopher. Like Dover, which wasn’t even a human being’s name, but the name of some town in England. Why couldn’t these young parents give their children actual names?
But little Marcus, little Marcus Aurelius, who wasn’t even six months old — he was going to be baptized, right here in the church where his father had been a choirboy, where his grandmother had served on the vestry and taught Godly Play classes alongside Hannah and all the other young mothers of that busy, lively time, when the Baby Boomers brought all their Boomlet children to church, back then, at the end of the Twentieth Century, when St. Cecilia’s was still a going, even a growing, concern.
Where had they all gone, those children, now young adults, living their over-stressed and over-scheduled lives? What had happened to their faith? To the sweet prayers lisped at bedtime, prayers for God to bless every single stuffed animal in the room? To the questions rising from the car seats in the back of the mini-van? “Is God a boy or a girl? Can God be a boy and a girl? What if God had two heads, a boy head and a girl head?” To the passionate teenagers pouring out of youth group on a Sunday night saying, “How can you think anyone can go to hell? Doesn’t God love everyone? And why do you have to believe in Jesus, just to keep from going to hell? Doesn’t God love Ismail from my AP Lit class? He’s a Muslim. Does God not love him just for following his faith?”
And then the bishop laid his hands on their heads, and they stood up from that moment of confirmation, and they walked away. Her own three were gone – Elizabeth was vocally agnostic, Amy was trying a Buddhist meditation group, and Emily was grouchily insistent that of course she still believed, but she didn’t have time for church. She hardly had any time for anything, Mom. And the children of all her church friends likewise. They had spent so much time with them, telling them the Bible stories, teaching them to pray, taking them to this church supper and that church picnic, enrolling them in children’s choir and Junior Daughters of the King. Only Andrew Willson of all of them, only Andrew, who moved to Pittsburgh, joined a church, joined the choir, helped the church ride out the storm in that big split over gay ordination…only Andrew, of all those children they had spent so much energy upon, only Andrew would get his son baptized.
Dover squawked in her carrier. Her face reddened and crumpled, and she began to howl. Happy time had ended, and Hannah unsnapped the restraints and gathered her granddaughter to her chest. Jiggling softly, murmuring, “there, there, baby girl, there, there,” Hannah rummaged in the diaper bag for the baby sling, and got Dover situated in its soft folds. Then she began to open drawers and cupboards, began to prepare for the baptism of Marcus Aurelius Willson.
First the frontal, white, for the altar, to replace the green frontal the altar usually wore all summer long. Also the pulpit fall and lectern fall, in white, the color of Easter, the color of weddings and funerals and baptisms. She carried them out to the sanctuary and began carefully folding the long white fair linen that covered the top of the altar, setting it aside. Then folding the green frontal, setting it aside. Then stretching around the head of the nearly-sleeping Dover to lay the white frontal, then re-laying the fair linen, then swapping out green falls for white on the pulpit and lectern, then carrying all the green hangings back to the sacristy and gently, almost prayerfully – her earlier, contemplative mood had not quite returned – laying them into their drawers.
Then the linens for communion — the corporal and purificators, starched and folded in their patterns of three, for the Trinity. Then the vessels, the large, silver chalice, a memorial to Esther Evelyn Crist, 1887-1956. The matching silver paten with one large, white communion wafer laid upon it. Smaller wafers went into the little silver box, the ciborium. “How many wafers do we need?” Hannah hummed quietly, because Dover was really sleeping now. Usually no more than 50 wafers – the congregation had grown so small — but tomorrow, with the baptism? She counted out 75 and closed the ciborium. Veil the chalice in white, not green. Fill the flagons — silver with the cheap tawny port she found on deep discount at the market, glass with tap water.
Finally, what would be needed for the baptism? Hannah took out a tray and began arranging everything upon it. A large silver pitcher came out of its soft cloth bag, and Hannah filled it with water. Special linen towels they hadn’t brought out for years were in a bottom drawer, and she carefully bent, holding Dover’s head in one hand to keep from bumping her into the cupboard. The sterling silver cockleshell was there too. And then she reached into the back of the drawer and found the small plastic bottle the bishop had brought on his last visit, filled with the special oil, the sweet-smelling oil of baptism. Sancta Chrismorum, the label read. A small round pyx with a ring attached would go like a jewel on Mother Brenda’s hand, so she could administer the baptismal oil. Hannah found a cotton ball in the drawer, pushed it into the pyx, and opened the bottle of oil to drench the cotton ball.
The aroma took her like a wave. It was rich like spices, warm like love. It spoke of promise, of hope, of mysteries beyond Hannah’s imagining. It was all the prayers she meant to say, and didn’t say, or forgot to say, swirling around her and around Dover in that small, enclosed space. It was the breath of God, fragrant and overpowering, devastating and eternal. Like a voice in her head, Hannah remembered the words that went with the oil, as the priest wiped it upon the baby’s forehead: You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.
Sealed. Marked. Forever. Marcus Aurelius would be sealed and marked forever. Hannah was sealed and marked forever. Bob was sealed and marked forever. Mary Willson was sealed and marked forever. Andrew Willson, too. Elizabeth and Amy and Emily were sealed and marked forever. All those people, stretching back through 150 years at St. Cecelia’s, through 2,000 years of Christianity, countless throngs, a great cloud of witnesses … sealed. Marked. Forever.
Dover stirred and settled, grumbling a little in her sling. Hannah looked down at the curve of her forehead, the chubby cheeks making a second curve deeper in the dark sling. There she was, this precious child. Unsealed. Unmarked. Hannah felt her eyes burn and water at that thought. She pressed her fingers into the corners of her eyes, shoving the tears back into her face. No use crying. Just stop it. This wasn’t her call. This was Emily’s decision to make.
But what about Dover? Why not Dover? Why wasn’t Dover sealed and marked forever?
Hannah looked at the tray with all the items for baptism laid out upon it. It was all correct. Perfectly correct. It was always correct when she set up for Sunday morning. Her whole life here at St. Cecilia’s had been about being correct. She always tried to do it right, to get it right, to have it all be right. She had tried to do it right for her children, tried to do it correctly, tried in the best way she knew how to teach them about the beauty of all of it, the wonder, the power and hope and the connection to something so enormous that you couldn’t even talk about it, because you would sound like some kind of crazy person, some mystic nun from la-la land.
But clearly, doing it correctly hadn’t worked. “Fine, then. Fine.” She said it, loudly. Said it to the looming cupboards, the scratched countertop, the dripping faucet, and the lime-rimmed sink. “I tried. I did my very best. But you know what? That didn’t work.” She grabbed the edges of the tray so hard her knuckles went white. “So I couldn’t get it right. Fine. I’ll get it wrong.”
She carried the tray into the sanctuary and set it down on the table near the baptismal font. Next to the font, the tall Paschal Candle in its heavy, head-high stand pointed toward the dark wooden arches of the beams above, pointed past them toward heaven. Hannah found the lighter and matches, struck a flame, and touched the wick of the lighter. She grabbed the base of the long brass pole, and raised the flame to the wick of the Paschal Candle, high above her head. The sun had moved on, and the sanctuary had darkened. The single candle flame shed a weak halo of light down upon the font, down upon Hannah, down upon Dover, asleep in the sling.
Hannah took the pitcher off the tray and filled the font with water. The pouring water roared like a waterfall in the empty church, echoing, reverberating, then dying away. She unscrewed the lid of the pyx, and the fragrance of the oil began to work its way into the air around them. She set the silver cockleshell on the edge of the font.
She slowly, gently, began to open the sling, and slowly, gently, pulled Dover free of its folds. She laid the baby in the crook of her left arm. Her granddaughter’s eyes opened, and she gazed at Hannah with the deep, grey-blue inscrutable gaze that always made Hannah’s heart flip over in her chest. There was no way you could account for this love. If she told her daughters that she loved this baby more than all three of those great big disappointing women put together, they would be outraged. But there it was. And there was no way she was going to let this child be left out, left out of this faith, this deeper love, this connection that had held Hannah up and kept her going, her whole life long.
This is wrong, her strict, inner church lady voice warned. This is completely out of line. You need a priest. You need the congregation. You at least need her parents to agree to this.
No. She told herself off. This is what grandmothers do. This is what grandmothers have always done, to protect and guard the grandbabies, and to keep the faith moving forward, to send it on into the future. Didn’t her lapsed Catholic friends joke about their grandmothers doing stealth baptisms of the grandkids in the bath? Didn’t she read somewhere that Christianity survived communism in the Soviet Union because thousands of babushkas secretly baptized their grandchildren and taught them to pray? Why should she be any different from them? Why should she watch her faith, her traditions, her children, slip away? Why shouldn’t she do something, anything, to help?
Hannah took the silver shell into her hand and dipped it into the water. She paused for a moment, hand shaking. Drops fell from the shell into the still water of the font, disturbing the surface so it shimmered in the candle flame. She poured the water over her granddaughter’s head. “Dover Eileen, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Dover smiled a gassy grin. She had always loved her bath.
Hannah pressed her right thumb into the greasy cotton ball in the pyx. She traced a cross on Dover’s forehead. “Dover, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” It was done. Sealed. Marked. Forever.
She used the end of the sling to dry the moisture from Dover’s hair. The baptismal towel needed to be fresh for the next day. She took Dover back to the sacristy, strapped her into the car seat carrier, and then finished preparing the tray for the baptism of Marcus Aurelius Willson. The last thing Hannah did was dump the bowl of water from the font. It hadn’t been blessed or consecrated. But it felt holy. So she poured it down the piscina, the special drain that went straight into the earth, not into the sewer system, the drain for consecrated wine and holy water.
Late that afternoon, when Emily and her husband got home from work, Hannah dropped the baby off, just like she did every Saturday. Emily laughed as Dover stretched to fall into her mother’s embrace, and she wrapped her daughter in a big hug, nuzzling her neck. Emily lifted her head and looked at Hannah. “For Christ’s sake, Mom, she smells like a church. Does the whole place still stink like that?” Hannah smiled and nodded. “Yes. Yes, it does.”
On the way out of Emily’s neighborhood, Hannah lifted her right hand from the steering wheel. Her thumb still smelled like the oil of baptism. She held it under her nose and breathed the fragrance, mile after mile, all the way home.