In the old life, Mama kneeled and prayed in the chapel on Saturday mornings, serious as the nuns with rosaries. When her turn came, Mama went into the box—a coffin standing up straight. They put Grandpa in a coffin, covered him with dirt, and now he’s gone forever. Everybody cried. Saturdays, I’d hold my breath and pray for Mama’s return, until she slid into the pew to say lots of Hail Mary’s. That box never made her happy: she often cried right in front of the other ladies and nuns, who pretended not to notice.
During the car ride home, I mull over strategies for avoiding that fate. My stand-bys, mysterious new allergies and sudden illness, don’t strike me as effective long-term solutions for Confession. Maybe I could launch a letter writing campaign? Confess through the mail, or something. Get myself sent back a year in Sunday School? I could ask to repeat my First Communion, pretend I didn’t fully understand its significance. Priests love that sort of drama. I’ll check my book for ideas; Scarlett manages to avoid all religious obligations.
“Rose? Are you listening?” Mama interrupts.
“Oh, sorry. What?”
“I have a surprise lined up for this afternoon.”
Daddy. Before I can stop myself, I see the quarter-sized bald patch on top of his head and the neat gap between his front teeth. Christina has the same space. Braces, Mama thinks. I like my sister’s smile.
“A pony!” Lovie screams.
“Better,” replies Mama. Her hands are white around the steering wheel. “You’re all in the YMCA Big Brother and Sister program. Lovie will get a brother. Christina and Rose get sisters.”
I know all about this charity set-up, have seen the fatherless children begging on TV. Anyway, why would I need some rented out sibling? I am the big sister.
“My stomach hurts.” Christina’s voice wobbles convincingly.
“Too bad,” says Mama, “since they’ll be here this afternoon. This will be a short visit, just to get to know one another.”
“I don’t want to get to know anybody.” I protest. “Aren’t I too old for this?”
“You don’t have a choice. Signing you up for this program was the social worker’s suggestion. We’re part of the system now,” she says crisply. “We need to take what we’re offered and act appreciative.”
“I’d like a big brother,” offers Lovie.
Nobody talks the rest of the way home.
Christina and I retreat to our room and survey each other’s unhappiness. “Let’s play Helen Keller,” she suggests.
“You’re the teacher,” I say quickly.
We can never remember the teacher’s name since she doesn’t matter. Helen’s the star. I’m Helen. The trick to becoming Helen is to be as alone as she was. Like hers, my long hair flies crazily and folds me inside like a screen. I squeeze my eyes shut and mutter gibberish loud enough that hearing is impossible. I hurl myself around the room, grunting and waving my arms. I take this flailing seriously because if Christina can slow me down long enough to rub words into my skin, I’m saved. Then she gets to be Helen. She rarely gets the chance. I’m good at throwing myself into the darkness of motion and my own voice spinning and humming alone.
My reign ends when Christina’s yells break through the darkness. “Rose! Stop! Mama’s calling us.”
I open my eyes to Christina looming over me with a comb. We go downstairs to meet our big sisters.
Mama is in the only chair. Jim, Amy, and Colleen sit closely together on the edge of the couch. They have white teeth and skin that shines from two parents and twenty years of good nutrition. None too politely, Jim surveys the stacks of newspapers at his feet, the jumbles of books, toys, and clothing. The conclusions that whip across his face make me angry.
Mama is as strained and nervous as she was with Miss Welfare. “The children are lucky to have such wonderful new friends. Thank you so much for coming,” she says. Each new helpmate takes a turn chattering while Mama gnaws at the edge of her thumb. She can’t wait to see us out the door, pretending to be happy for our good fortune. She waves from the doorway as Christina, Lovie and I each climb into a strange car and drive away.
Colleen goes to college like Mama, except she has a nicer car and more money. At the ice cream store, she steers me toward expensive sundaes and banana splits.
“You can get two scoops on that cone, you know. Maybe we should get an Archie comic book for later?” She smiles kindly, but she’s nothing special—not with the bland blonde hair cut in a pageboy.
We head to the park to eat our cones, where I stick to Mama’s rules for polite conversation: yes, no, fine, thank you. Ice cream on a windy day is a bad idea—so much dirt sticks to my drippy Peppermint bonbon cone that I have to throw the mess away. Colleen tries hard to be fun. She kicks at dry fallen leaves and tells me all about the farm she grew up on. She’s studying to be a child psychologist some day. I may not be completely clear right now, but am sharp enough to see that I’m practice for her career. I keep my head low and my thoughts private: Mama home with nobody to talk to and Christina confused about who’s in charge of sisters.
“Time to go home yet?” I ask when Colleen wonders, what should we do next? She drops me off in front of the townhouse, full of promises about the fun we’ll have next Sunday.
Inside, Mama’s not pining the way I imagined. She’s cutting apart the Sunday paper in search of articles for her file.
“Colleen is going to be a psychologist.” I can’t remember a single other defining quality.
“I can’t talk about her.” Mama clips angrily. I see that Colleen is stamped onto Sunday afternoons forever, no matter how unhappy that makes us. I head upstairs to finish Scarlett’s story.
“Rose!” Mama hands me the thick book that’s on the table next to the paper. I recognize the cover—The Lives of the Saints.
“The oldest daughter in our family is always Rose Theresa. I hope yours will be, too. Maybe if you understand the tradition, you’ll appreciate your name a little more.”
In the old life, mention of our namesakes meant a story. Mama made the saints real, their feats connected to our everyday lives. Negotiate a fight and model good manners? You’re like Margaret of Scotland. If you don’t want to wipe your baby brother’s nose, think of Catherine of Siena starving herself and healing the sick—see if that changes your tune. As for Rose of Lima, I already know about the sacrifices she made. Chosen by God when she was still a young girl, she left her family to live in a small hut, sleep on nails and eat thin gruel. God filled her instead of food. Rose endured demons, surviving their torture as proof that she was genuinely Jesus’ bride. When people didn’t appreciate her devotion, she straightened her chin and plowed straight ahead anyway. Rose didn’t need any reassurance except God’s. My name links me to miracles. Mama made that happen.
But I don’t hear a story from Mama today. She places the book in my hands before turning away, back to the table. “I hope you read the chapter on Rose of Lima.”
I take the saint stories to my room and tuck the book under my pillow next to Gone With the Wind. Scarlett is my new favorite name. I won’t tell anyone that because Scarlett says damn and only cares about hell in moments of extreme guilt. It’s probably wrong to respect her for that.
Late that night, warm in my domed lilac quilt, I turn on the flashlight to learn more about my namesake. I add her to my heroines, the beautiful girl who found God and left her body behind. If she had lovely hair, she cut it. Long perfect fingers rubbed in lime and shining peach skin scarred with pepper. Good-bye to her family, too. Rose finds a small hut for silence, wraps a throbbing thorn crown across her head and a spiked metal chain around her waist. Jesus will be here and she abandons herself to him, her soul flooding with extra hope to offer those who aren’t as strong or brave, the ones who can’t see what they’re missing. The first Rose trembles before sleep, afraid: her bed is shards of glass and sharpened stones, thorns plucked from her crown. The first saint of the New World drifts through me, and my bed is light and smooth, soft with the sounds of Mama downstairs and the willow moaning low beside me. There’s another world at night, where words don’t matter and Atlanta burns thorns and babies, where Jesus speaks to those who will hear and the ache and stab melt into the stories of sweet, colored sleep.