ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Lisa Samson is a Christy Award-winning author of 19 books, including the Women of the Faith Novel of the Year, Quaker Summer. Lisa has been hailed by Publishers Weekly as "a talented novelist who isn't afraid to take risks."
Her novel Embrace Me has been named as one of Library Journal's books of the year.
She lives in Lexinton, Kentucky, with her husband and three kids.
She stays busy by writing, volunteering at Kentucky Refugee Ministries, raising children and trying to be supportive of a husband in seminary. (Trying...some days she's downright awful. It's a good thing he's such a fabulous cook!) She can tell you one thing, it's never dull around there.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Mary-Margaret accepts a calling that surpasses her wildest dreams . . . and challenges her deep faith.
When Mary-Margaret Danaher met Jude Keller, the lightkeeper's son, she was studying at convent school on a small island in the Chesapeake Bay. Destined for a life as a religious sister, she nevertheless felt a pull toward Jude-rough and tumble, promiscuous Jude.
After sojourning as a medical missions sister in Swaziland, Mary-Margaret returns to the island to prepare for her final vows. Jude, too, returns to the island, dissolute and hardened. Mary-Margaret can hardly believe it when the Spirit tells her she must marry the troubled boy who befriended her all those years ago, forsaking the only life she ever wanted for a man she knows she'll never love.
Excerpt of chapter one:
MY SISTERS, IF I BEGAN THIS TALE AT THE END, you would know my heart is full of love even though nothing went as planned. I could tell you God's ways are not ours, but you probably know that already. And I could tell you that his mercy takes shape in forms we cannot begin to imagine, but unless you walked in my shoes for the past seventy years, you could not feel the mercy I have been given. The mercy God gives us is our own to receive, and while sometimes it overlaps with others' like the
gentle waves of the bay on the banks of which I now sit, for the most part, the sum and substance of it, the combination of graces, is as unique as we are.
So I will begin this tale at the beginning, on the night my mother conceived me in a moment of evil, a moment not remotely in the will of God, although some might beg to differ on that particular point of theology. It's their right and I don't possess the doctrinal ardor to argue such things anymore. So be it. What you think or what I think on the matter doesn't necessarily make it true. God is as he is and our thoughts do not change him one way or the other. If you've an ounce of intellect,
you'Il take as much comfort in that as I do.
My mother, Mary Margaret the First, as my grandmother called her, began cradling my life inside of her when a young seminarian took her against her will by the walls of Fort McHenry. Most evenings after teaching second grade in South Baltimore, she walked up Fort Avenue to the five-pointed star-shaped fort from which the Battle of Baltimore was fought in 1814, rockets red glare, bombs bursting in air, and so forth; and those British frigates sailed up the Patapsco River with Francis Scott Key on deck, penning what would become our national anthem.
The seminarian knew about what my Aunt Elfi called my mother's "evening constitutional" and sometimes he would join her in the gaslit, city twilight, hands clasped behind his back-at least I picture him that way-bent a bit forward at the waist and listening to her talk about her students perhaps, maybe the other religious sisters, for she had just taken her final vows as a School Sister of Notre Dame. Perhaps she talked about her pupils' parents, or how she enjoyed listening to the radio shows in the evenings in the cramped apartment she shared with her friend, fellow sister, and coteacher Loreto; how their school had been seeking ways to provide at least one good meal to the children a day, considering how many of their parents were out of a job after the crash on Wall Street.
I don't know what my father must have said in return, but I've always wondered. She must have been caught by surprise, surely, because Grandmom said my mother was sharp and quite a good reader of people. He must have fooled her somehow. Grandmom said he was the seminarian at nearby Holy Cross Church. Perhaps he'd even heard her confessions. Not that they'd have been shocking. Grandmom said my mother didn't give her much trouble.
Perhaps as they walked, the sun slanted its rays against the faces of the buildings, turning the stones and bricks from gold to crimson, the sky blazing with magenta and violet as though sheer scarves were waving behind the clouds. Maybe the cobalt night
soaked into their clothing during the chill months, deepening the black of their coats, drawing the color out of their scarves and the character out of their features until they happened by a lamplight.
One evening something evil entered into him and he entered into her and I resulted. Did Grandmom tell me? If so, she certainly didn't employ that terminology. My age necessitated more delicate, obscure phrasing, perhaps something about the things only husbands and wives should do being forced on someone else. I can't recall exactly when I found out, but it feels like something I've always known and preternaturally understood. I might have overheard a conversation. I don't know. That
my mother was a religious sister in an unwanted pregnancl threw fate completely out of balance. When I was thirteen, I figured I could put things aright somehow, maybe justify my existence by picking up the torch my own birth snuffed out.
It's bad enough to be born from the sin of two consenting adults. But I resulted from rage and control, from one person overpowering another in the assumption his right to take was more important than her right to give. That takes "man meaning
it for evil but God meaning it for good" a giant step further. Yet blaming God for the lies of an Egyptian nobleman's wife who didn't succeed in getting Joseph to succumb to her hardly subtle sexual requests and that wine steward's selfish forgetfulness is somewhat different than giving him wholesale credit for rape. You have to draw the line somewhere or pretty soon Ted Bundy truly couldn't help himself and that terrorist they're talking about these days, Osama Bin Something or Other, really is on a holy mission, and who knows where that will end up? That sort of theology shouldn't sit well with anybody, whether you're from Geneva or Rome, so perhaps I have more doctrinal ardor than I realized ten minutes ago! Goodness me. I
suppose I've grown slightly opinionated now that I've entered my eighth decade. So sisters, forgive an old woman a little rambling at times. Not that seventy is that old, mind you. Indeed not.
My mother came home to Locust Island to grow a healthy baby inside of her as she strolled by the shore and prayed in the chapel here at St. Mary's, feeling at home among the sisters. My grandmother's house was just down the street from the school.
She prayed hours and hours on a kneeler, spending more time on her knees than at home. Aunt Elfi most likely joined her frequently because Aunt Elfi knew being present was the first way of helping anyone.
Grandmom said my mother would sit on Bethlehem Point every evening and stare out over the waters of the Chesapeake, her gaze pinned to the spider-legged lighthouse out on the shoals. And she'd cry. Grandmom didn't ask her to expound or emote. Grandmom was second-generation German. The chill had yet to dissipate completely.
I imagine Mary Margaret the First took hope in that whirlinglight of the lighthouse out on the shoals, as I always have. It makes me think that somehow there's somebody capable of warning you of danger, and if you fi.nd yourself in it, that person will climb into a lifeboat and come to get you. It's difficult to take your eyes off the piercing white beam when you sit here on a dark night.
We all want to be rescued and we'll look in the craziest places for that rescuer, won't we? We all want to be found.
Mary Margaret the First sat beneath the same tree under which I'm sitting now. It's one of the reasons I always end up here. The way the tangled roots protrude from the ground perfectly cradles my lawn chair, and on afternoons in late July or August, the canopy of leaves stifles some of the sun's heat. Only when my mother sat here, it was young, a tree with more hope than wisdom.
Conceived in sin, birthed in sorrow, I entered the world in a flow of blood that failed to cease once I had been released into my grandmother's hands. After fifteen minutes or so, Grandmom knew the bleeding wouldn't stop on its own; my mother was dying. Aunt Elfi fetched Doctor Spanyer, who said with an aching stutter that by the time they'd deliver my mother to the h-h-hospital, having to procure a boat to the mainland and then ride two hours to Salisbury, she'd be d-d-dead. The poor doctor died a year later on the way to the very place my mother couldn't go, his wife refusing to believe he'd bleed out when his son Marlow ran over his foot with the lawn mower. He did. She moved away after the funeral.
The inhabitants of Locust Island formed a hardy, scrabbly sort of people back then because every person knew in their core that if something traumatic happened physically, the nearest hospital more than two hours away, there was nothing to be done but die. And if death was the only outcome, well, the sooner the better and heaven above let it be something massive ans quick: a fall from a roof onto your head, a fatal heart attack or a stroke, a smash on the skull with a sledgehammer. A lawnmower accident. Postpartum uterine hemorrhaging.
Aunt Elfi then slipped out into the rain and fetched Father Thomas, our parish priest. Tears in his eyes, for he was my mother's confessor, he anointed my mother's forehead, eyes, ears, nostrils, lips, hands, and feet and prayed the prayer of extreme unction, the first prayers my new ears ever heard. Aunt Elfi said he then picked me up and said, "The final puzzle piece in Mary Margaret's redemption."
I still don't know what that means. I can't say my life is completely explainable, that I don't have a lot of questions. God willing, the answers will be unearthed before I die.
My grandmother named me Mary-Margaret the moment my mother passed away. I've always liked the hyphen she gave, as if somehow it serves as a bridge between my mother and me, a gentle, silent "and so on and so forth." And it is my own hyphen.
Had my mother lived, I most likely would not be writing in this notebook. She planned on giving me up for adoption, wanting me to have both a mother and a father, and returning to her order, teaching, most likely farther away, leaving the entire
ordeal behind her. And I wouldn't have blamed her. Of course Grandmom said she always planned to raise me there in the little apartment with one couch and too many straight chairs; that she would never have let me go to another family when ours was well and good and fuily capable of raising a child. And I can only believe her as she never did pass me on to anybody else.
The main players in this morality tale have passed on: Jude, my mother, Grandmom and Aunt Elfi, Brister, Petra, Mr. Keller, and even LaBella. Except for John, Gerald, and Hattie, and myself. Actually, if you're reading this, I am dead too. I
assume the raping seminarian passed away as well. I never knew what happened to him. Who among us would have the spirit to embark on such a search? I don't even know his name, if anyone discovered his crime, or if he slunk away into the arms of the Church.
And did he take refuge in the arms of Christ? Did he seek forgiveness? Did he, perhaps, turn into something more?
See? Questions. Never to be answered. Most likely I've waited too long. He'd be long in his grave by now. I'm old!
Well, my Aunt Elfi said my mother's soul passed into me as lightning trilled the air around us. Grandmom said she was crazy, we were all Catholic, we didn't believe in that sort of thing; surely the soul entered the baby well before she was born and would she please be quiet and help her wash her only daughter's body and clean up the blood?
The blood she gave for me. Yes, I'm painfully aware of the symbolism.
Aunt Elfi would have carefully rolled up her sleeves, donned an apron, and pulled back her long, white hair. She would have lovingly dabbed each rose-bloom of blood away' leaving a comet of iron-red across my mother's thighs as she wiped her clean'
Aunt Elfi moved in a gentle, Patting way, her voice never much above a whisper.
My mother, by the way' was the product of an indiscretion between my twenty-eight-yet-still-unmarried grandmother and an island tourist from Belgium. Though completely out of character for my thick-jawed grandmother, even less understandable
was that he found her horsey, Germanic face attractive. So sex seemed to be something unredeemed in and of itself in my famrly of females, but somehow taken up and looped around the fingers of the Almighty and put to rights in the aftermath'
Well, Aunt Elfi never misbehaved like her sister' but it only took one look at her to realize someone scrambled her brain with a fork before it was fully cooked.
Later on that September afternoon in 1930, the sky clear and the orange sun gilding the fallen rain' men and women walked home from the dock, from their fishing boats or the seafood cannery at the western edge of our island. Cans and cans of oysters were shipped out from Locust Island every day. Abbey Oysters. The company used a monk as the logo even though many of the islanders were Methodists. As you can imagine, Friday was the best day for sales, a fact that did not escape even the most Methodist of Methodists. Sometimes I walked by the cement block building and looked through the grimy window' watching as the shuckers' hands darted like minnows extracting the smooth, precious meat from the rough, prehistoric exterior. Rounding the corner, the pile of shells grew with each day, only to be carted away and ground into lime.
Those men and women passed by, oblivious to the tragedy as they scuffled down Main Street in front of our building. They didn't know the bell from St. Mary's Convent School that called the girls to dinner served as a death knell for Sister Mary
Margaret Fischer as well as a ringing in of a new life, proof, some wise person once said, that God desires the human race to continue. They figured another day had passed, much like the one before and the one before that, back to the day one of their parents or siblings or children passed away or someone was born into this world. We always remember days when something begins or ends.
And as those two women washed the bloody legs and the pale, fragile arms of my mother-pictures of her display lovely, wavy, dark hair and dark eyes-I lay bundled on the bed, looking up at the ceiling. That's what Aunt Elfi told me. I didn't cry
until Father Thomas returned to comfort us in our sorrow and he gathered me into his fragile arms, crying with me. He was a tender sort until the day he passed away.
I was two days old when Father Thomas, the older members of our parish, and our family, consisting of my grandmother, my aunt, and myself, committed my mother to the earth at St. Francis Church's graveyard. Afterward, they walked right inside
the church, stood by the simple, stone baptismal font, and I was baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Sister Thaddeus, whom I'll tell you more about later, an older schoolgirl at the time, said she watched from the shadows, listening to the Holy Spirit telling her to pray for me every day. And she did.
Afterward, Aunt Elfi brought me to Bethlehem Point, this very piece of land on which I now sit, beneath the same tree, and she held me as the sun went down for good over my mother. She walked back home with me in her arms, fed me a bottle, and laid
me in my bassinette, where I slept through the night. Exhausted, they both deserved that little ray of grace. I never gave them any trouble either.