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Authors: A. Manette Ansay

Sister

Sister
A. Manette Ansay

for my father, Dick Ansay,
and my brother, Mike,

with love

Memory is, I believe, the human soul.

—J
AMES
M
C
C
ONKEY

One

I
f you've never been inside a Catholic church, I'll show you what it's like to go there, believing, into the cool dark air with only the light from the sacristy to guide you. Imagine the half-filled pews stretched out in rows as quiet, as impossibly even, as the rows of corn and soy in the fields behind the houses that trail from the church in four directions, the way light beams radiate from a child's sketch of the sun. Pretend you've just come from one of these houses, as I have, as my grandmother has, as all the people around us have, and at first the measured stillness of the church seems torturous, unbroken, unbearable. But as your eyes widen to accept the dusk, you'll notice a handkerchief twisted from palm to palm, a jiggling foot in an open-toed shoe. And, too, there are smells: rose perfume wafting from beneath a loosened collar, whiffs of manure from rubber-soled boots, dust that (I read this as a child, wanted it to be true) is mostly organic, made up of epidermal cells and bits of human hair. There is dust layering the top of the holy water font, where we dip the tips of our third fingers before making the sign of the cross. There is dust smudging the colors of the stained-glass windows, dust on the legs of the table where we select this month's missalette, dust on the
intricate statues with their deep, worried eyes. Everywhere there is evidence of the body's desire for its own beginnings, the soul's helium float back to God.

I want you to be here with us. I want you to feel what I feel, a teenage girl towering over her grandmother at the back of this small Wisconsin church. There is the altar boy in his cumbersome smock, peeking out from the doors off the sacristy, excused from English or Math or Civics to serve the daily noon Mass. There are the men on their lunch breaks, the smattering of older retired men, and so many women!—young mothers with their sleeping babies, older mothers in groups of three and four, and the dozens of widows, women like my grandmother, who are the raw heart of this church. When they speak, you hear the older languages floating around their tongues. They wear their hair in tight, curly nests; thin gold bands still dent their fourth fingers. They carry what they need in big black purses, secured with fist-like clasps, these women who remember times without bread when they had to feed themselves and their families on their own ingenuity and the Word.

The men of my grandfather's generation were like visitors, cherished as guests who could not be relied on to stay for very long. They went off to war and disappeared, they were crushed under heavy farm machinery, they shot each other by accident and on purpose, they fell off horses and rooftops and silos, drowned in rivers, succumbed to snakebite, emphysema, whiskey. After my grandfather died of tetanus in 1947, my grandmother raised their four daughters and maintained the farm; when land taxes threatened to rise, it was she who sent the oldest two, Mary and Elise, to work in the cannery. Men died young; you mourned, you kept their graves tenderly, and—somehow—you went on. But when fire broke out, snuffing the lives of those daughters and fifteen other girls into ash, the shock left Oneisha and all the surrounding towns senseless with grief. These girls were the seed of the community, some of them already married and putting
down roots like their mothers. A tragedy like this must have happened for a reason, and for some, that reason was all too clear. A girl's place was in the home, not working for cash in an ungodly world where company owners locked fire doors, paranoid about theft. My grandmother was thirty-eight years old. For the rest of her life she would blame herself for my young aunts' deaths. She sold the farm and moved her remaining daughters to town, where she kept them close to her, forever close. By the time I was born, in 1965, she was in her fifties, sharp and strong. God-like.

We pause at the back of the church, lingering the way polite guests do before walking toward the area where we always sit, the heels of my grandmother's short boots meeting the floor with absolute certainty. I stay close behind her, feeling every inch of my height, my feet kicking after one another like loosely tossed stones. A place to sit. For some there are choices. One might choose to go all the way to the front, to sit half hidden from the lectern by the bulky old confessionals; one might stay by the new, modern confessionals at the back. There are favorite seats beside the pillars that support the fat, curved belly of the ceiling, with its painting of angels ministering to Mary as she walks in the cherry orchard; there are seats beneath the mounted statues, where a child might sit to admire the delicate toes of the apostles. But we sit in the middle of the church, away from the pillars, the statues, potential distractions, away from the drafts that pulse from beneath the warped frames of the windows, whisper from the long, dark line where the walls meet the floor. My grandmother rubs the knuckles of my hand with her thumb, her peculiar gesture of affection, and I glow with her touch, with the knowing looks of the women around us who observe me at Mass, day after day, and whisper the word
vocation
. Sometimes I am asked to sing while the other parishioners kneel at the altar, five at a time, to receive Communion. My musical talent, like all good things, is God's gift, and such a gift is both a blessing and a burden. You wonder if you are worthy. You wonder what God might expect in return.

I want you to be here with us. I want you to feel what we feel. This is the tray that holds the hymnal, attached to the back of the next pew. This is the old-fashioned hat clip beside it. That is the altar with its hand-sewn linens, which are laundered by the Ladies of the Altar. Here are the flowers these same women bring with them from their gardens or sunrooms to decorate the church. These are the woven wicker baskets that will be circulated twice during the course of the Mass by old Otto Leibenstein: once to help the missionaries, once to maintain the parish. And somewhere in the sacristy, trapped in a ring of gold, is the Body of Christ, the miracle that results again and again from the Mass. The Processional is about to begin, and you know exactly what to do, feel the weight of two thousand years behind each simple ritual. You cannot imagine a time when this feeling of absolute purpose will leave you. You cannot imagine losing your faith. You cannot imagine the loneliness.

 

When my brother disappeared in 1984, I began to see myself in the third person, as if my life were a story being told to someone else. Though I listened with no particular interest, on occasion I did wonder what this third-person self might say or feel or do.
She goes upstairs to her room, the same room they shared as children. She rearranges the glass figurines on her bookshelf, imagining her brother's face
. A man can take care of himself, my father liked to say, and though Sam wasn't yet a man, he was wiry and tall, made taller by the steel-toed boots he wore, his cropped spiked hair, his dangerous eyes. He had disappeared several times before, reappearing hung over, dirty, his face drawn thin as if to shut out what he'd seen. This time, he'd left the house on the afternoon of August fifth. He didn't come home that night; he didn't come home the next.

A peculiar heat wave drifted in from the west, capped by a low bank of clouds that isolated eastern Wisconsin from its usual cool lake breeze. After three days, my mother went to the Horton
police, adding a fresh report to Sam's plump file: driving under the influence, vandalism, trespassing, disturbing the peace, disorderly conduct, truancy. “He'll be home when he's hungry, Therese,” they told her. “He's probably shacked up with friends.” No one was eager to look very hard for a kid who had virtually dropped out of school, disappearing each night into the cars of strangers, accelerating south, always south, toward Milwaukee. But three days became four days, then five, and then a week. Clearly, something was wrong.

My father took a personal leave from the car lot, distributing Sam's picture throughout Sheboygan, Green Bay, Madison, Milwaukee. My mother ran a small advertising company, and every morning she printed up new flyers for him to post on bulletin boards and telephone poles and in the windows of bars, new press releases to be sent to newspapers farther and farther away. Since she'd first reported Sam missing, there had been a series of break-ins: Dr. Neidermier's big lakefront house on August tenth, Becker's Foodmart and the drive-in theater west of town on the eleventh. Next came rumors of an
incident
involving an older woman in Oneisha, Geena Baumbach, a friend of my grandmother's. These rumors grew, threading their way through polite conversations, twisting between quiet suppers and afternoon cups of coffee. There were people who moved away from us when we sat down in our usual pew for Mass. There were men who would no longer shake my father's hand. Suddenly the police were eager to find my brother too. Perhaps, they told my mother, he was involved somehow—as a victim, or a witness. None of them dared suggest to her face that Sam had become a suspect.

All through the third week of August, strangers drove up the long gravel driveway to our house, parking on the shady grass beside the barn: police officers, detectives, reporters, all of them sweating dark necklaces around their crisp shirt collars. My mother split her time between her tiny Sheboygan office and our sweltering living room, where she served raspberry Kool-Aid and
gingersnap cookies. She brought out Sam's baby pictures, his old drawings, the statewide art prize he'd won in fifth grade for a watercolor painting called
Tulips
. She didn't mention that, afterward, my father called Sam an “ah-teest,” that he'd spoken with a lisp, saying “ah-teests,” were fairies, and maybe Sam was a fairy too. Instead, she discussed my plans to leave for college the following week; she talked about Sam's upcoming senior year and how she hoped he'd be back to start on time. I knew she was trying to present an image she felt would make her client—in this case, all of us—appear most appealing. She'd gone through Sam's room, collecting rolling papers, loose joints, a plastic bag containing a piece of mirror and traces of white dust, and she put all these things in a bigger plastic bag and buried them in the field. “There's no sense in having his life ruined by this,” she said, and she reminded me that I didn't have to talk with the detectives if I didn't want to. By the time the sheriff arrived with a warrant, Sam's room was as clean as my own, lightly scented with lavender air freshener.

“You know Sam wouldn't do anything to hurt anybody,” she told me, and the way that she said it was like a prayer, as if she believed I had the power to make her words the truth.

So I watched as my third-person self told the detectives that, like her mother, she hadn't seen Sam since the afternoon of August fifth. She said she'd never noticed signs that Sam was drinking or taking drugs, and that Sam and her father never fought, and that Sam had been missing school last spring to look for summer work—not an uncommon thing in Horton. She told them that there was no reason Sam might break into people's houses, or steal, or
assault
a woman in her own home, a woman my grandmother's age. She told them she had never seen a knife like the one Geena Baumbach described. Suddenly the walls spiraled swiftly inward. I woke up on the couch; a strange man in a Kool-Aid mustache was fanning me with a legal-size pad. The weight of the past few weeks hit me like a punch, and I sobbed as I came
back into my body, feeling every painful inch of my pounding head and hollow chest, the tension knot between my shoulders, the sourness of my breath from telling lies.

That night, unable to sleep, I said the entire Rosary, remembering those long-ago trips I'd taken with my mother to Holy Hill Retreat. We'd meet my grandmother and Auntie Thil, her children, Monica and Harv, and we'd walk the Stations of the Cross, retracing Christ's crucifixion over a mile of wilderness. At each station, we'd kneel down on stone to say a new Our Father and Glory Be, asking forgiveness for our sins. My father and Uncle Olaf never came along; Holy Hill was for women and devout old men. Sam had gone when he was small, but as he got older my father teased him the way he did whenever Sam wanted to do something with my mother and me. Harv's persistence past age ten was unusual: a blessing, a sign. At twelve he announced he planned to be a priest, and after that he worked freely beside the women, building altars of flowers to the Virgin in May, arranging the family crèche at Christmastime, making the pilgrimage to Holy Hill that left our lips blue, our teeth chattering, our knees wet and chafing in the chill air.

My father scoffed at Harv, at men who were not what he called
a man's man
. He was awkward around priests the way he was around all bachelors, loners, men who did not quite fit in with the others; he spoke a bit too loud, laughed a bit too long. As Sam approached adolescence, my father became increasingly concerned over his quiet ways, his attachment to my mother and me. No son of his would be a sissy, a priest, a man who belonged to no one. No son of his would serve as a mirror, reflecting back the things that frightened my father most about himself. And by the time Sam entered junior high, he was learning to see the world through my father's rational eye. Painting pictures was silly because you couldn't make a living at something like that. There was no point in picking out a dream house or boat or a sports car from a magazine; where would you get the money? If God
was everywhere, then how come you couldn't see Him? “If there is a God, let Him drink this glass of water,” Sam said, and he placed it on the windowsill, where it stayed for days. Yet, eventually, it was gone.

“Evaporation,” Sam said smugly.

“Maybe that's how God drinks.” I was willing to believe, but Sam said that if God could do anything, He should be able to gulp eight ounces of fluid. He should be able to make everyone happy. He should float facedown in the sky, like a balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

It's hard to remember the earlier times, when Sam was not spinning in his own lonely orbit. Without imagination. A man's concrete eye. It's hard to remember that my family once believed we were special, that God Himself would cup His hands over our house to protect us from each other.

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