Saturday, August 6, 2016

from 'The Scattered Proud:' The Debtor's Daughter

IN the spring of 1797, Papa brought me to Philadelphia for what would be my last visit to our house. As we sat over dinner in the garden, he revealed the Church was opening a mission for expatriates in Paris. Because the French government at that time banned Christian denominations, the mission would be discreetly centered at an orphan asylum, which the presiding bishop himself had asked Papa to administer.
For the second time in four years, my father was separating himself from me with what I perceived as a passion that approached willful neglect of his only child. I regarded him as if he had just jumped from a hot-air balloon without a parachute. “Papa, this is your home! This is my home! How can you leave it? How can you leave me?”
Slowly, he cut his meat into tiny pieces. “Sweetie, I’d like you to understand that we who have decided upon this mission are neither pious men who wish to put on a show of devotion to God, nor cowards who wish to run from the city. Remember what the psalm says: ‘A thousand shall fall beside thee, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.’ No true Christian can deny that we were delivered from death. The time has come to pay the debt.”
As a child and young person, I had been taught and periodically reminded that God was the Supreme Being who made and moved the world. Attending church on Sunday was as ordinary to me as eating and sewing. But I had never truly thought about religion and how it had formed my father and all the other people who had sought to form me either at home or in school. That evening in the garden, I thought about it. My father’s news struck me with the force of a physical blow. I understood that religion was more precious to him than his daughter. We might have been at the table together, but in sentiment and steadfastness of faith, we already were thousands of miles apart.
I wanted to change his mind by saying something Kit might have said, something wise or at least reasonable. But as earnestly as I wished to follow Kit’s example, I could think of nothing appropriate. I was not Kit. I was Janet. I was still the child who must honor her father and respect his wishes. My silence and lack of enthusiasm must signify my dilemma. I watched as flies washed themselves in the cold gravy.
“Janet?” Papa’s voice did more than imply he had no notion of the emotional thrashing my expectations dealt me. It declared that, if he knew, he would have neither the desire not the patience to appreciate the struggle.
To speak was to force air up and around the poker of distress that impaled my throat and hope my mouth shaped that air into recognizable sounds.
“The French execute clergy, Papa. Donatienne told us. Don’t you remember?”
“They execute Papist clergy, sweetie—Roman Catholics who plot to overthrow the Revolution. We’re not Roman, and we have no intention of doing anything to arouse the government’s ire. We will be there for the expatriates.”
“Are there so many expatriate orphans that they need an asylum?”
“If there was one orphan or, for that matter, a foundling, it would be enough.”
An orphan or foundling who meant more to my father than I, who was neither orphan nor foundling, meant to him. I fear I indulged in resentment. “What will become of me?” I asked, replete with bitterness.
“When the mission is open, you will join us in Paris and teach the orphans.”
Perhaps another girl would have squealed and exhibited other tokens of excitement after hearing she was to live in a place prized for its fashions as much as it was feared for its politics. I exhibited nothing. Papa lowered his cutlery, granting me an expression of concern trimmed with annoyance. “You mustn’t worry yourself, Jannie. We’ll be safe. We won’t flaunt our beliefs. Our neighbors won’t even know there’s a clergyman in the vicinity.”
I think I nodded. I know that that was the end of the matter. My lack of affection for the plan was worsened by the prospect of inviting death by shipwreck or accident, or by the many strange diseases that inhabit other lands. I resolved to prepare myself to meet my Maker by attending Mass and prayer services, and by helping Papa put the house for sale.

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