AND PART OF ME will always be homesick, too, for a person I came to know, also in Manchester, during those same years. When the Baptist church, of which she was a member, was without a minister one winter, I took the services every Sunday for a few months, and that was how we met. She was a woman well on into her seventies, very thin, very stooped. She had been married a number of times, and for years, as a widow, had been living alone, on welfare, in the one small apartment left inhabitable in a house that had been gutted by fire a few years earlier. Shaking hands at the church door after the service one Sunday morning, I had said to herneither expecting nor much caring about an answer"How are you?" and she looked up at me out of her wry, beleaguered old face and said, "As well as can be expected." Just that and no more, then made her way down the steps and out into the cold.
I am as deaf as the next one and usually deafer when it comes to calls for help, but I was all she had by way of a minister just then, after all, and I was not so literary and detached and specialized as not to know that every once in a while, if only to keep their hands in, Christians are supposed to be Christs to each other for Christ's sweet sake, so I steeled myself and went to call on her one winter afternoon. I expected the worst, of course, because that is my nature. I expected a long, dreary monologue. I expected plenty of complaints with some tears to go with them. I expected to feel awkward and inadequate. I expected to be bored and hoped to get away as soon as I decently could. And I couldn't possibly have been more wrong on every count. None of the things I expected to happen happened, and none of the things I expected to feel did I feel, neither on that first day I went to see her nor on all the other days I went to see her from that time on until finally, around Saint Valentine's day some seven or eight years later, she died, and I conducted her burial service before a little knot of family and friends under a gray Vermont sky with the wind flapping my black robe around my ankles.
-Originally published in Now and Then