So you like to read scary stories? I've looked over some of these fantastical tales you read. I can tell you from experience that they don't even come close to the horrors of real life. May I tell you a story? Would you care to listen to an old woman's tale?
I once had a younger sister named Mary. As far as I can tell, she came as a complete surprise to my parents. I, who had been their only child up to that point, had already married and left home by the time she was born.
Her birth was not marked by the joy that comes with most miracles of the kind. Delivering our Mary into this world ended up being the very last thing my poor mother would ever do. Yes, such tragedies still occurred in the twentieth century. They were rare, the doctors told us, but they did happen, and that unlikelihood made the reality of it all the more devastating.
My father, a skilled undertaker, insisted on preparing my mother himself. So great was his love for her that he simply couldn't bare the thought of anyone else laying their hands on her. I remember looking at him, and then at my husband, hoping to be cared for with even a fraction of that same tenderness should I pass before him.
I don't believe my father ever forgave my sister for her role in the death of his beloved wife. Many times, I heard him speak to her with harshness in his voice, issuing strict reprimands for even the smallest offenses. I would allow her to stay with me at my home whenever possible. I hoped to provide her with small moments of respite from what seemed to be my father's constant punishment. Never one to contradict his authority, I kept my opinions to myself most of the time, until finally, I decided I could stay quiet no longer.
"Father," I said, "you cannot continue to treat Mary like this!"
"Like what?" he challenged.
"Like a criminal!" I spat, louder than I had intended. "What happened to Mother was not her fault."
"You shut your mouth, Elizabeth!" my father insisted. The fury in his eyes silenced me. I had never seen such an expression on his face before. To be honest, it frightened me. I felt certain in that moment that, if I were to press the issue any further, he would subject me to some kind of horrible punishment. It was the first and last time I would ever confront him about his treatment of Mary.
It had always been father's expectation that Mary would go into a convent and lead a cloistered life, perhaps as a final and permanent act of atonement for what he saw as her crime. The way Mary developed, however, could not have been further from his desires. As she blossomed into her teenage years, her passion and wildness grew. For all the work my father and I had done to instill in her the values and virtues of our Catholic faith---albeit in very different ways---Mary seemed to resist such teachings. She would go through the motions of each sacrament, doing just enough of what was expected of her, but as soon as our eyes were turned, she'd be running around town with a pack of lustful boys hot on her heals. Disaster, it seemed, was inevitable.
Once, when Mary was about seventeen years old, I heard a frantic pounding on my door at about midnight. I answered it groggily, but sharpened almost immediately when I saw that it was Mary, soaked with rain and looking utterly terrified. "Mary, dear," I said, ushering her inside. "What on Earth is the matter?"
"I need to talk to you," she said. "I... I'm in trouble."
"What kind of trouble?" I asked.
She peered at me with her big, beautiful eyes and put a hand delicately to her stomach. I caught her meaning instantly.
"Mary!" I exclaimed. In hind sight, I should not have been so shocked. I think I wanted to believe that she was better than this. It's clear to me now that this was nothing more than willful blindness and denial.
"I don't know what to do, Lizzie," she said with a quavering voice as she attempted to hold back tears.
"Well, are you absolutely sure?" I asked.
"Yes," she said. "There's no doubt whatsoever."
"Mary," I repeated, with no particular point to be made.
"You're ashamed of me," she guessed.
"I'm disappointed, honestly," I said. "But it's not my place to judge."
"Thank you," she said, almost sarcastically. "I don't know what to do," she repeated.
"There is only one thing you can do," I said. "You have to tell Father. You're living under his roof. He needs to know."
Mary began to weep. "I can't tell him!" she sobbed. "He'll be furious!"
I put my arms around her. "I know, Mary, I know. But we must all face the consequences of our actions. Some situations do not present us with an easy way out." I took her gently by the chin and brought her gaze up to meet my own. "You're a mother now," I said. "You have to be brave, like your namesake."
"The Blessed Mother," she said with a slight nod, showing me that she understood.
"That's right." I offered her a smile. An hour and a cup of tea later, Mary left, disappearing back into the stormy night. It would be the last time we ever spoke.
The story, as my father told it, was that he was down in his embalming room, cleaning, when Mary burst in to tell him her news. A frightful argument ensued and, to his apparent shame, he struck her. This, he says, caused her to run off. She never said where she was going, and we never saw her again. This didn't seem to bother him in the slightest, confirming my suspicions that he hated her. Disgusted as I was by every part of this entire situation, I knew that everyone made their own decisions, and only for God to judge. I made some effort to look for Mary, but all in vain. Finally, I was left only to my prayers that she would return safely, without having done anything rash or destructive.
Things returned to relative normalcy until one day when my father made a gift to our local church. It was a life-sized statue of the Madonna which they proudly displayed outside the entrance for the whole town to see. Passersby would remark at how lifelike the image seemed. "I didn't know the undertaker was also a sculptor," they said. "He must have loved his daughter very much to craft the Blessed Mother in her image," they said.
I was horrified. I knew what had happened, deep down in my heart. I knew what the townspeople were praising. I knew. But I said nothing. Who would have believed me? What if I had been wrong? I prayed to God to be wrong, but to this day, I suspect I was not.
My father had always desired that Mary should live by the Church. This, it seemed, was close enough.
Written by Jdeschene