This afternoon I was given a precious gift by a woman who I have not seen since January of 1979. It might have been a “let’s get this over” twenty minute conversation, but it was nearly seven hours. And while I thoroughly enjoyed every second of this extraordinary trip down memory lane (from 1st grade onto high school graduation) and catch up with this once school bus mate of mine one piece of this marathon brought an extraordinary man back to my heart.
When I was a small child my church got a new priest. Shortly thereafter the members of the church who decide such things purchased a buff Cocker Spaniel puppy (named Sandy) for him from my parents. I somehow (all these years later) recall my dad mentioning that he had a conversation with Reverend Father Richard Graeber about attending mass, tithes and his relationship with God and how Father Graeber had basically given him (and our family) a ‘pass’ on active participation as a result. This was in the late 1960’s, post Vatican II, and as I made my First Communion my parents offered that I no longer ‘had to’ go to church and religious instruction if I didn’t want to. I should share that I gave the rectory offices a (rather bad) painting at the time of Jesus surrounded by a flock of lambs – so my heart and head were certainly in a place to continue and ultimately be Confirmed in 7th grade in the Roman Catholic faith. In 3rd grade Mother Teresa’s work was gaining global attention and I decided I wanted to be a nun; this was however relatively short-lived given my burgeoning interest in boys and music.
Shortly after the beginning of 1973, after years of court battles, SCOTUS issued its decision around Roe vs Wade. (Note to every adult reading this if you think your 12 year old is too young to understand such things you are more out of touch than the ‘parents’ found trying to be hipsters in Oscar Mayer bacon and KFC boneless chicken ads.) It wasn’t that I was promiscuous (though I might have been somewhat precocious) but I felt strongly that since The Church (ahem) was taking such a strong view of claiming to know what a woman should and shouldn’t be able to do with her body I couldn’t possibly be confirmed in such a faith. It’s far too easy to assume ‘kids’ would dread having a conversation on a serious subject that would be at odds with and potentially abhorrent to an authority figure. Father Graeber was patient, intent, kind, respectful and told me that my thoughts were rationale, he could find no fault with my decision and that in the end it was more important to him that I have a personal relationship with God than adhere to Church doctrine. He already had my esteem but in that moment became larger than life to me. At 19 the Episcopal Church became the haven that the Roman Catholic Church could not, where the latter had stripped away all that was mysterious and wonderful to me the former with its gorgeous windows and alters and icons and gilt and carved choirs, and traditional hymns (played with organ and not folk music) and prayers was balm. (I maintain the perspective that only in very rare instances has the architecture of RC churches not become more like that which Calvin and Luther argued for in the 16th century.)
Years later I would fall in love and ask him, now a Monsignor, to bend the rules again – to marry my fiancé and my unconfirmed self ON A SUNDAY in the 19th century clapboard church with a ceiling painted the blue usually found on the robes of the Virgin Mary which was once his parish. (And, shhhh, while we are at it, could I also read a poem I had written – making this anything but a traditional Roman Catholic wedding mass.) And, again, his inherent nature being one of acceptance, tolerance and being an instrument of love came through.
Seven years later I sat in his office in tears, my marriage coming to an amicable but sudden end. Monsignor was compassion personified. I probably would have gotten through it without him, but I didn’t have to. And, as ‘life happens’, I moved to Atlanta, then San Diego, back to Western New York, to Chatham (NJ), to Old Greenwich (CT), to Bedford (NY) and then to Boston and around her surrounds for the course of a decade, back to Western New York – and I also traveled, a lot. I found churches (and cathedrals) where I could bend to my knees and offer gratitude, ask solace, find quietude, beseech intervention or blessing everywhere I visited or lived. Someplace in the midst of all this, in a visit to his last rectory, I discovered that Father Graeber had retired, and a sadness washed over me for I had lost ‘a rock’ that was always there regardless of the infrequency of my reaching out to him.
This afternoon my childhood friend Karin gave Father Graeber back to me in a dichotomy based in grief and joy; it seems that he died the same week as her dad but was also the (previously unknown to me) beloved uncle of one of my most favorite high school friends Jimmer. If genetics really do pass randomly through our families (as I can bear witness to in my niece and nephew with traits uniquely mine) then I would like to think that the extraordinary man that I learned Jim has become is a reflection of his uncle who held my trust and confidence and who continues to hold a very special place in my heart.
Pater graeber in pace – in vita tu ingens discrimen. Tibi gratias ago.