Jenny dives into the chapel with her head down, eyes up just enough to give her feet direction, but not enough to meet the critical eyes of the older generation lining the back pews. She wears her purse strap like a sash across her chest, pressing the bag to her hip. The pressure keeps the purse in place, but more than that, it’s holding her up in an almost regal posture.
The opening hymn has been sung and the invocation given. A man in a dark suit and tie, standing at the podium, has just finished introducing today’s speakers.
She ends her forced march by dropping her tired, middle-aged form next to her teenaged daughter’s youthful, lanky one, grabbing her hand for comfort. The two hardest hours of Jenny’s week are spent enduring church with a congregation that may or may not know of her pending divorce, may or may not believe that she is crazy for leaving such an “amazing husband and father.” Her daughter’s slender hand squeezes her mother’s slightly dry, age-spotted one. Jenny squeezes back. No words needed.
The first speaker is a 12-year-old kid. “Be kind to your neighbor,” is his assigned topic. He’s only been given five minutes to fill and almost makes it to four. His eyes bore holes into words clearly written on a page torn from a school notebook. Jenny makes a mental note to be more kind to her neighbors.
She remembers a time when she was making bread every week, a time in her story when her children and neighbors were the happy recipients of her hard won baking skills. As a pillar in the congregation, Jenny walked through the halls of this sacred building with confidence, participated in classes with the ease of one surrounded by accepting, familiar faces. She was as adept as Jack at hiding the darkness in their home. She no longer knows that woman, though, the queen of her castle, wearing a crown she carefully polished every time she opened the front door and stepped out.
Jenny stayed home with her babies and served in the community. She had lived pregnant or tied to an infant by the breast for so many years that it was all she had known. She’d just needed a bit of help. A mother only has two arms, after all. It was too much for too long. A little support would have done wonders in restoring her sanity and allowing her time to find balance in motherhood. It was Jack who insisted that she get a full-time job. It was for her own mental health, he told her, after removing all of the household responsibilities that were once innately hers. Jack now woke the children for school. He was the one who packed their lunches after purchasing the groceries and planning the meals. He even arranged for his family, the one he was born into, to pick up the little ones on days when school was released early, to keep them until he was done with his own job for the day. It didn’t matter that Jenny was sitting at home with empty arms wondering where they were.
He wasn’t wrong in his claim that the children would be better off with the consistency that he was providing. Jack never seemed to forget an appointment or be late for church. If it did happen it wasn’t his fault. He was confident and sure of himself, even when he had no right to be. Jack could play the children like a harp. Really, he could play anyone like a harp. It was fantastic to observe sometimes, but Jenny didn’t want to be played. She had always dreamed of being the co-writer of an anthem. The instruments played in the song of her dreams were played by their own people. She was naïve to think that Jack would change, that he would allow Jenny to help write the song and play her own instrument.
The next speaker is well into her talk about the loving nature of a Heavenly Father before Jenny is aware of her surroundings again. Where is the warmth in her chest that she used to feel when she thought of God’s love? She has felt so distant these past six months. She considers, again, the Bishop’s words, spoken across the great expanse of his desk, during her initial interview with him. News of her decision to file for divorce had travelled through the loftier circles until he felt compelled to reach out. “I’m sure you’ve prayed about this decision…” Has she? Fear grabs Jenny’s heart again and, for the thousandth time, she braces herself against the unknown. Her head, unconsciously bowed in silent, anguished contemplation, now comes up fast in equally silent defiance. God would NOT ask her to stay, he would NOT! She refuses to go down that line of useless torment–what if she had made the wrong decision? What if her decision to leave him is the real reason this forever family is being torn apart? Maybe the toxicity, the emotional abuse, and the manipulation are just the deranged imaginings of a bored ex-housewife with her own mental illness. What if the lies he told really were for the good of the family and she should just forgive and forget? What if she never recovers?
Stop. Stop it. Jenny reaches for her phone. Facebook silences the intruding thoughts. The distraction of social media has been the cotton stuffing her ears for a long time now. A quick glance at the clock shows how slowly time crawls in this place that once brought peace.
Funny, Jenny thinks to herself, she used to sit in silent judgement of others on their phones during the service, now she leaves that to those still sitting high on their perches. Jenny has long since stepped down, recognizing that she was more content to wallow with the “sinners;” the sinners with their tarnished, crooked crowns. Jenny reaches up to adjust her hair.
Observant and empathetic, Jenny’s daughter knows her mom well. She gives her mother’s hand another squeeze and gently lays her head on her shoulder. Jenny breaks just a little and a single tear escapes.
After the benediction, Jenny sits for just a moment. The chapel usually empties within a few minutes. Waiting means less people to make eye contact with, perhaps a little less social anxiety. Jenny knows that she’s projecting. These people have known her for over 16 years, surely they know her heart. The congregation has moved on to the Sunday School classes. The chapel has only a few stragglers left, chatting in small groups. Jenny stands up, pulling the long purse strap onto her drooping shoulder. No crown, but the sash is back in place.
At the end of the pew, Sister Green starts to walk past with just a nod. On second thought, she stops to greet Jenny. “How are you, Jenny dear? It is so good to see you.” You’d think that Jenny had stopped coming to church completely and only just reappeared. In reality, Jenny has only missed a handful of services here and there.
“I’m fine” she says, with the patience of a world-weary matriarch.
Sister Green accepts the two-word response, smiles, pats Jenny’s shoulder, and moves on to the open chapel doors. She was clearly paying attention to the talks. Strong work, Sister Green, strong work.
Jenny’s desire to defend her sanity is strong in these moments, but it’s quickly followed by defeat. It wouldn’t matter. She doesn’t want to tarnish Jack’s name among this flock who only know him by the face he shows here at church and inside their homes, helping the widows with their computers and the widowers with their home repair projects. It doesn’t matter to them that he’s sporting a mask. They only need a willing set of hands and a smile. In that way, he’s been good to these people over the years. No need to rock their boats as they near the final harbor.
Jenny thinks about a future in a place that doesn’t know Jack, hasn’t been taken in by his charm and dry wit. In her mind it’s a colorful utopia of uninhibited opportunities for laughter and impulsive creativity. Jack has strong opinions on what a righteous wife and mother looks like. Jenny has never quite fit the mold, though she tried. Heaven only knows how hard she tried.
She moves slowly toward the classroom, not quite dragging her feet. She’s learned her lesson. Arriving too early to Sunday School results in hard decisions. If Jack is there first, the people want to make sure she sees him, getting louder when she pretends not to hear. If he arrives after she has settled, he will likely sit next to her because appearance is everything. It’s best to avoid these awkward moments by slipping in after the teacher has taken over.
The decision to act as though nothing has changed rests solely on Jack. He has even bullied Jenny into believing that there is a court mandate requiring that she not speak of the divorce to the youngest children. They are blissfully unaware that their lives will be abruptly altered after the holidays. Not during the holidays, of course. Even Jenny, in her desperation to leave the toxic, life-sucking relationship of two decades, knows better than to destroy Christmas for her babies.
The classroom doors are still open. Jack is nowhere to be seen. That could mean that he has decided to play hooky (she can only hope) or that she’ll walk in and accidentally sit by him. The anxiety is almost debilitating. The teacher sees her and, quite vocally, beckons Jenny in, pointing out a seat on the front row. Panic rises, and, unable to make a cognitive decision, Jenny obediently takes her place. She is terrified to look around, a stately statue on the front row–back rigid, eyes not quite focused on the instructor who has seamlessly transitioned back into her lesson on our royal lineage as children of God. A well meaning churchgoer leans forward and whispers with the hint of a smile, “better late than never, Sister Gray!” Jenny feels the comment, laced with passive judgement, as a soft breath over her ear.
Though Jenny's body sits lifeless, her mind has begun to reel. Emotions jerk her heart around like a rag doll, all vying for a spot at the top–doubt, fear, anger, embarrassment, defeat, righteous indignation, defiance, humility; they all fight for dominance. Somehow, the teacher knows not to call on her. Maybe it’s the stony posture with tight lips and wide eyes.
She knows that the finish line is near as the teacher gives her closing remarks. Freedom is a few tight breaths away.
With intense gratitude, Jenny bows her head as the lesson concludes and the closing prayer is spoken across the room. The battle raging in Jenny’s mind comes to an abrupt halt as one champion stands above the rest and she whispers her amen. It’s Fear that stands alone on the heap of vanquished feelings. A crown of Fear is a dull and dented thing, but Jenny stands tall as she straightens her hair, adjusts her purse, and makes her way to the door.