She was singing along with the rest of the congregation, but Hope Miller’s eyes were locked on a family sitting in the front row. From the back she could tell that Jeffrey Persons and his two small boys had their hands and faces raised in worship. Next to them, with eyes cast downward, was a woman who did not look like Jeffrey’s wife, Nonna. She was a little smaller and it looked like she had longer hair.
Could be Jeffrey’s sister, Hope thought. But then where was Nonna? Hope couldn’t really look around without calling attention to herself.
Sensing that she wasn’t paying attention, Hardy elbowed her and hissed, “What’s your problem?”
Hope immediately whispered, “Sorry!” and started singing in earnest.
They made it through the rest of the service without incident, and as they were leaving, Hope shot a glance back up to the front row. She was right. That wasn’t Nonna Persons, it was Faith Willis. Maybe Nonna was sick, Hope thought, and Faith is just helping out. Hardy walked ahead of her, while Hope shepherded their two boys, Nate and James as they headed to the parking lot.
In the mini-van on the way home, Hope wrestled with her curiosity. She stared absently out the passenger’s window until Hardy said, “I’m just going to drop you all off at home and then I’ve got to go to Pastor Flint’s house. We’ve got a couple of projects to finish over there.”
Her curiosity about Nonna Persons forgotten, Hope tried not to whine when she said “Aren’t you leaving for out of town tonight?” If Hardy spent the rest of the day working at Pastor Flint’s house, and headed out of town this evening, she wouldn’t see him again until next Friday. And the boys wouldn’t either.
“Look, Hope. We’ve talked about this before. You know what it means that I get to serve Pastor Flint with some of the other men. It’s an honor to be included.”
“I know, and I’m grateful,” said Hope. “But the other men… they don’t have to travel for their jobs like you do. When you spend the whole weekend doing church projects, we don’t get to see you at all.” She turned and looked out the side window and said, more quietly, “At least they come home for dinner every night.”
“I’ll try to get out of there in time to have dinner before I have to take off for Indianapolis,” Hardy offered. “I can say I need to finish something for work before I get on the road.”
“Why can’t you just say you want to have dinner with your wife and kids? Is that such a bad thing?” This was not the first time they had this conversation. The boys got quiet in the back seat.
“And how would that go over?” Hardy spoke in a mock-effeminate voice “My wife is unhappy Pastor Flint, so I need to be a good boy and go home for dinner?”
“Nevermind,” Hope said quietly. “Do whatever you need to.”
When they pulled in the driveway, Hardy didn’t get out of the mini-van but just hit the garage door opener so they could get in the house. Hope got James out of his booster seat while Nate hugged his Dad’s neck from behind “Bye Dad. See ya later.” And they went inside.
As the boys played “army guys” Hope gathered up dirty laundry and got the washing machine going. “Might as well work on Sunday. It’s not really family day, is it?” she muttered to herself.
She was startled by a knock on her laundry room door and realized her garage door must still be open, and someone just walked in.
She opened it, expecting to see one of Nate’s friends, wanting to play, and was surprised to see Nonna Persons. The two women knew each other, of course, but they weren’t what you would call friends. Hope was surprised that Nonna even knew where she lived.
“I hope I’m not bothering you,” Nonna said a bit breathlessly. “Do you have a few minutes to talk?”
“Sure, sure, come on in,” Hope opened the door wide and kicked some laundry out of the way. “Let’s go in the kitchen.”
“Can I get you some tea?” Hope offered. “I’ve got some fresh sweet tea I just made this morning.” She started getting glasses out and motioned to Nonna to sit at the kitchen table.
“Yes, that would be nice. Thanks.” Nonna said. A pause, “I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m here.”
“I didn’t see you in church this morning with Jeffrey and the boys and I thought maybe you were sick.” Hope answered, setting the pitcher of tea on the table.
“I wish I were sick,” Nonna said and burst into tears, sobs wracking her thin shoulders.
Hope immediately sat down in front of Nonna and put a hand on her shoulder while offering her some napkins. “What’s wrong? What happened?”
“There’s no help for it now,” Nonna said, sniffling. “It’s done.”
“What’s done Nonna? What happened?”
“I’m only… telling you this so you know… what really happened. So you can stop it… happening to you,” Nonna said, sucking in air.
“Jeffrey and… Pastor Flint… the other pastors, they…” She blew her nose. “I’ll bet you thought our church didn’t abide divorce, did you?”
Hope was shocked, of course their church didn’t abide divorce. “What? Is Jeffrey divorcing you?” How could that be?
Nodding and sniffling, Nonna said, “Yes. They’re making him. It wasn’t even his decision.” Her red-rimmed blue eyes implored Hope to believe her.
“But… I don’t see… I mean, that just goes against everything we believe about family. Why?” Hope was incredulous.
“I know your husband travels for his job, and so does Jeffrey. I know how hard that is on you and your boys. It got to be a big issue for us. We argued about it all the time. Jeffrey was spending all of his free time doing projects and waiting on the pastors while nothing ever got done at our own house. And then he’d be gone for work too.”
“But divorce?” Hope still couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
“And that’s not all of it.” Nonna said and started crying again. “They’re taking my boys away!” she wailed.
“Mommy?” James walked into the kitchen, curious about the noise and stopping to stare at the hysterical woman.
Hope shushed him out of the kitchen and into Nate’s room. “You boys play in here until I come and get you, okay? It’s alright. Ms. Persons isn’t feeling well and I’m going to help her.” She shut the door.
Nonna had composed herself and Hope sat back down. “How can they take your boys, Nonna?” asked Hope. “I mean… what grounds? What’s their reason? Because you argued about how much time Jeffrey spent on church stuff?”
Nonna was nodding. “That’s exactly it. After our last argument, Jeffrey went off to work on something at Pastor Flint’s house and our dishwasher went crazy, soapy water everywhere. I didn’t know what to do, I called Jeffrey and asked him to hurry home and help.”
Hope poured the sweet tea into their glasses, and said, “Go on.”
“Well, he said he’d call me back. And I lost it. I was yelling and said some things I shouldn’t have. I told Jeffrey he was a terrible husband and father and that all he cared about was the damn church and being a lay pastor. I told him I could understand why priests didn’t get married. He hung up on me.”
Hope could imagine how Hardy would react if she ever let loose like that. She felt a chill that made her shiver.
“When he came home that night, he told me that since I couldn’t support him the way he needed me to, in his ministry and his work, he would find a wife who could. And he packed his bag and left for out of town.”
Both women sat there silent, avoiding each other’s eyes.
“I thought it was just another fight, but the next morning, some man showed up at our front door and forced me to take divorce papers from him. We didn’t even talk about it. It was just decided.”
“Well you don’t have to just let him do that, Nonna. Can’t you get your own lawyer?”
“Jeffrey told me that if I didn’t go along with it, he would see to it that I never saw my sons again! He said witnesses in the church would testify to what a terrible mother I am. There were ways they could make sure no judge would ever give me visitation, let alone custody. Things they could say about me. So if I want to see my boys at all, I’ve got to do what they want.”
Hope thought about all of the arguments she and Hardy had over the very same things. Then she remembered seeing Faith Willis sitting with Jeffrey and the boys in church that morning and got a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach.
“What does Faith Willis have to do with all this?” she asked guardedly.
“What do you think?” Nonna said bitterly. “As soon as the ink dries on my divorce papers, she’s the new Mrs. Persons. Hand picked by the pastors.”
Hope had no words. She believed her. Faith was the proof.
“I wanted you to know. But please, please don’t say anything to anyone, especially Hardy. If word gets out that I’ve told anyone about this, they’ll ruin me. They’ll take my boys away for good and make an example out of me.”
“Nonna. I’m so sorry. I mean, I… I don’t know what to say, but of course I won’t say anything to anyone.”
“It’s okay. I’m going home to my parents for a little while. I’m supposed to tell them that the divorce was a joint decision and I’m happy with it. And that the church tried to help us and they really regret what’s happening.” She paused for a moment, “They’re making me take my maiden name back.” Insult added to injury.
She drank down her tea and stood, crumpled napkins clutched in her hand. “I didn’t mean to break down on you like this, I’m sorry. Please believe me that I wasn’t looking for a shoulder to cry on, I was worried about you. I felt you needed to know.”
Hope stood up also and gave the distraught woman a hug. “Nonna, I’m really sorry. If there’s anything I can do…”
“No one can help me Hope. And you’re better off not being seen talking to me, either. It wouldn’t be good for either of us. Thanks for the tea.” And she headed back out through the laundry room and was gone.
Hope remembered to let the boys out of Nate’s room and set about helping them forget about her guest. She didn’t want Hardy to know Nonna had been there, so she put on a movie for them and made them some popcorn. That would occupy them and give them something fun to report to Dad when he came home. And as she folded laundry, she thought about what she would do if Hardy ever threatened to take the boys away from her. Could he really do that? Would he?
She walked over to the kitchen desk and pulled out a notecard and a pen. “I love you Hardy” she wrote, “and I’m proud of how hard you work. You can count on me to hold down the fort. It’s the least I can do since you do so much for us.” She added an “XO” that she didn’t feel and tucked the note inside one of Hardy’s clean socks that he would pack into his suitcase tonight.