Be still and listen with "the ear of the heart"

Then Came Heaven - LaVyrle Spencer

There always seems to be a character in a LaVyrle Spencer book that I wish had a book of his/her own. Charles Bliss rides off into the sunset at the end of Vows to find (hopefully!) his happy ever after. I'd love to know if sensible and sweet Kerstin Johanson (The Endearment) ever found her true love. Young James Reardon of the same book was only a lad of thirteen but he had just discovered Nedda Johanson (an older woman by a year) wanted him to come courting. The "nice guy who finished last", David Melcher, of Hummingbird, was not in a terribly good place at the end, but I'm sure he could be redeemed very easily. Who's going to help him run his shoe emporium after Abbie left town after all? In Years, I still wonder what happened to Kristian Westgaard who had gone off to fly planes in World War I. Did he come back? Was he injured? And now there's Irene Pribil in Then Came Heaven, set in 1950 Minnesota.


Irene is the older sister (two years older) of Krystyna Olzcak, who was married to Eddie for ten years and mother of Anne and Lucy. Krystyna is killed within the first few pages of the opening chapter as she tries to outrun a train at a railroad crossing. Krystyna's death is devastating for Irene, as much as it is for Eddie but in a different way. They were close sisters, loved each other dearly, did everything together - gave each other permanents, went dancing together, made matching dresses, shared recipes, dyed curtains. Krystyna borrowed her first pair of high heels from Irene. They double dated with the Eddie and Romaine Olzcak as teenagers and told each other every secret. Well, maybe not everything. At least not Irene.


Irene has loved Eddie since she first saw him when she was sixteen at the Clarissa Ballroom, but Eddie had eyes only for Krystyna from the first time he saw her across the dance hall.


Never once, in all the years since, had Irene let Krystyna know how she felt about Eddie. Eddie either. (79)


Irene finished school and went to work keeping house earning meager wages for a couple in a small town not far from Browerville, returning home on weekends, and turning over her paycheck to her family as all of her siblings did. She continued working until five years ago when her mother fell and broke her collar bone. Irene returned home to help until her mother recovered, never intending to stay permanently but things didn't work out that way.


She had always intended to leave, preferably by getting married, but with homegrown pork and beef and cream and butter plentiful, and the cooking rich, she had gotten quite fat. There were no young men asking her to the dances on Saturday nights anymore. And since the war ended, women tended to take care of their own homes, so housekeeping jobs were fewer and harder to find. With a limited education, Irene was ill prepared to live on her own and support herself. At home with her folks she had food, shelter, company and love, and she grew complacent with these.


But life there was lonely and steeped in routine. All of her siblings had left and gotten married, and they rather expected Irene to remain where she was, taking care of her parents, providing them with company as they grew older, and with help during the busy times of year. (79-80)


A few years ago, Irene had met a man at a wedding who paid attention to her, asked to come dancing and to drive her home after, and then assaulted her in the car on the way home. When she struggled, resisted and refused repeatedly, he turned abusively ugly, and any self-esteem she might have had left was decimated.


When she’d continued to struggle and fight him off and beg, no, no, please no, it’s a mortal sin, no, please, he had roughly thrust her aside, called her a stupid, fat cunt, and said she should be happy any guy at all would even want to screw somebody like her, and that it was likely the only time she’d ever get the chance, so don’t come begging him when she changed her mind, because he’d never so much as look at her again. (80)


Then he dumps her out of his car, telling her "Get out, fatso. The walk will do you good. Might wear off a pound or two", peels off, leaving her to walk the rest of the way to her parents' house.


I couldn't begrudge Irene's 'knight in shining armor' view of Eddie. She needed someone as good and kind and loving as Eddie to remind her that not everyone thought she was worthless. Irene never told anyone about that night, and it had to feel like the final nail in her coffin - making her feel worthless, unwanted, undesirable, humiliated, debased, emotionally devastated.


After Krystyna and Eddie marry and their girls were born, Irene's only social life centered around Krystyna, Eddie, and their daughters and is her only respite from the drudgery that is her life.


So Irene lived on at home, seeking social diversion primarily with Krystyna and Eddie, playing cards at their house, often eating supper there, talking gardening and sewing, loving their children while growing more and more afraid she’d have none of her own. She was the one who went to their house and took care of Krystyna for ten full days after each of the babies had been born. She had bottle-fed and burped them and changed many a dirty diaper. She made clothes for their dolls, taught them how to play jacks, bought them coloring books and took them out to the farm to spend overnights so that Eddie and Krystyna could have occasional nights alone. In spring she showed them where the best spreads of trilliums bloomed in Grandpa and Grandma Pribil’s woods, and broke off fresh bloodroot and showed them how it bled. She took them to the barn and showed them the baby kittens, and let them help her cut out sugar cookies and slice rhubarb with a paring knife for the first time, folding their small hands around the knife handle and cautioning them on how to use it. At Halloween she helped Krystyna make their costumes and carve their pumpkins. At Christmas the gifts she bought them were nicer than those she bought for her other nieces and nephews. At bedtime, when she was at their house, they ran to her scrubbed and fresh in plissé pajamas and kissed Auntie Irene goodnight with the avid abandon they gave their own parents.


Only they were not hers.(80-81)


She lived vicariously through her sister and her family, loved them all fiercely and deeply and truly, and if there was a tinge of envy for what Krystyna had and she herself didn't, well, it's understandable.


Over the years that Irene watched the young married couple together, she grew to love them both even more. Her love for Krystyna was so pure and rewarding it would never have occurred to her to let her sister know she loved Eddie. And her love for Eddie—well, it had grown into a golden glow that filled her like a perfect dawn whenever he was near. In Irene’s eyes he was more than ideal. He was a god.


But now Krystyna was dead and there would be no more borrowing shoes, and giving each other permanents, and going to dances on Saturday nights. On the odd Wednesday or Sunday afternoon when the changelessness of life on the farm became suffocating, she could not drive into town and visit in Krystyna’s kitchen. Who would she laugh with? Remember her days in Long Prairie with? Tease Mother and Dad with (for Krystyna had been the one who could always make them laugh)? Who would lift her above the drudgery to that plane of companionship she’d never shared with anyone else? (82-83)


Except now, Irene can't hold back the guilty wish, the secret desire, that maybe she can find a place for herself with this ready-made family.


She stood looking after them, filled with a sense of loss complicated by the realization that Krystyna was gone forever and Eddie was no longer married. The smell of his shaving soap lingered in the hall, and in her mind the image of his wiry arms and the hair on his chest behind the strappy undershirt. Through the open door of his room she could see the foot of his bed, still mussed. She had never, in her entire lifetime, had access to the smell of a man’s shaving soap or the appearance of him or his tossed sheets in the morning, other than her father’s and the middle-aged men she’d worked for. She found it dreadful that she should be observing Eddie’s private morning routine at the expense of her sister’s life, even more dreadful to discover that she was enjoying the pseudo-intimacy.


She went into the girls’ room and made up their bed, picked up their dirty socks and pajamas from the floor and opened a tall chest of drawers that held their folded clothes. She and Krystyna had bought the chest at an auction sale when Krystyna was expecting Anne, and had painted it pastel green and put teddy bear decals on the fronts of the drawers. She straightened some stacks of undershirts and underpants and listened to Eddie and the girls. He was the gentlest, most loving father she had ever seen, and she felt she had the capability of being the same kind of mother. How perfect it would be if she could marry him and take care of him and the girls for the rest of her life.(87)


Of course, that's not the way it works out. Eddie is grateful to Irene for stepping in to help with Anne and Lucy every day, dressing them the way Krystyna always did, combing their hair just so, tying the bows on their dresses so they pouf just the way Krystyna did them, feeding them, making them laugh, loving them, easing their way through the loss of their mother. But he's also resentful of her trying to take Krystyna's place and uncomfortable around her because he has known for years how Irene really feels about him.


When Eddie begins to pick up the pieces of his life after Krystyna's death, it's not Irene he begins to notice. It's Sister Regina, his daughters' teacher, who is forbidden to him but with whom he feels comfortable with, develops a friendship with as he confides his problems as a single father to her in the afternoons after school while he's cleaning her classroom. When he realizes his feelings have deepened to attraction and desire for a nun, he does everything in his power to deny and destroy those feelings - prayer, confession, staying away from her classroom, never being alone with her for any reason. He also begins attending Saturday night dances once more with his brother, Romaine.


Sister Regina (Jean Potlocki) had begun to question her reasons for staying in her vocation long before Krystyna died, struggling with the Holy Rule or The Rule of Benedict, prescriptions which tell her, as a religious, she is to remain separate and isolated from secular - no friendships, no emotional investment, no touching, not even for two little girls who have lost their mother and turn to her for comfort. She is advised and cautioned to pray rather than grieve, to sublimate her sorrow 'toward the greater glory of God', to adhere strictly and never forget the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience she took years ago. Of the the three, obedience is the one that Sister Regina has had the most trouble with and her growing dissatisfaction with life in the convent and its attendant restrictions are suffocating for her.


When she, too, realizes she has developed feelings which are inappropriate and dangerous to both she and Eddie, she struggles against them even harder than he does. She fasts, she prays, she does penance, she confesses. And, she repeats the cycle over and over, seeking guidance and relief, trying to quell what she feels for Eddie. She even decides at one point to take The Discipline:


The ultimate penance, as far as Sister Regina was concerned, was commonly referred to as “taking the Discipline,” something she’d only once done and wasn’t sure she believed in. “Taking the Discipline” was the genteel expression for self-flagellation. This was done in the bathroom on Friday nights, with a small weapon that looked like a coat hanger with lengths of finely linked chain hanging from it by an oval loop.(154)


Sister Regina does eventually seek a dispensation of her vows from the Holy Father, and though Eddie is part of her reason for leaving her vocation, he is not the sole reason. She is bound by silence until it comes through, unable to talk to anyone about it, and then forced to leave without saying good-bye to her fellow sisters, the children she teaches, and definitely without telling Eddie Olczak. Months of waiting and enforced silence, and she is whisked off to her parents' farm without anybody knowing where she has gone or why.


Of course, Sister Regina, now Jean Potlocki, and Eddie Olczak do find their way to be together eventually. I mean, this is romance and happy ever after has to happen. I wrote a small post (http://kathyb.booklikes.com/post/1399999) about how Jean's struggle, though in reverse, reminded me of a documentary I watched years ago about Mother Prioress Dolores Hart who left Hollywood at the height of her career to become a Benedictine nun. If you'd like to read it and watch the documentary (it's about 40 minutes), follow the link. Both Jean and Mother Dolores had to be still and "listen with the ear the heart" to discover which path is right for them. But happy ever after doesn't happen for Irene Pribil.


Irene, by the end, slims down and resembles her vivacious sister, Krystyna, more than ever. Though she and Eddie declare they are friends only after an incident in which he almost seduces her and, though it was mutually halted, I wondered about Irene's feelings after. Eddie stopped for a jumble of reasons - a bit of lust mixed with a generous amount of loneliness and yes, not a small degree of frustration regarding Sister Regina/Jean. She stopped because the situation reminded her too much of that incident with the bastard who attempted to rape her and then verbally abused her. I loved that she was able to tell Eddie about that incident before they parted ways. There was at least some healing for Irene. However, it was clear afterwards Irene still held out hope that Eddie would see her as a woman who loved him, his daughters, and would accept crumbs from him if she could have nothing else. And that's how LaVyrle Spencer hooks me with not only the main characters in her books but with secondary characters, too, ones I love, cry with, laugh with, cheer for even against the odds. It's pretty powerful to be able to imbue a secondary character with enough honest emotion, both good and bad, to pull me right into his/her story as much as the hero and heroine.


Jean and Eddie marry and live in Browerville. Though I was a little troubled by how excited Jean was to pick up where Krystyna left off with Eddie and his daughters, I could see the differences between Irene and Jean. Irene would have been Krystyna's double, she would have traded her identity as Irene for a poor facsimile of Krystyna, and neither she nor Eddie would ever have been happy. Krystyna would always be a ghost in the house with them. Jean, though she is eager to be and do all the things Krystyna did for Eddie, Anne, and Lucy as well as the community will put her own stamp of individuality into anything she does, making it her own instead of a carbon copy of Krystyna. Krystyna's memory will be preserved, both will continue to miss and love her, but she will not be an obstacle to true happiness in Jean and Eddie's marriage.


I was happy for Jean and Eddie, but I wanted to cry for Irene. She has firmly been pushed into the background. I admired her for her graciousness when Eddie and Jean marry, and I sympathized with her reasons for not being able to watch the man she still loves marry another woman.


Richard and Mary Pribil came, too, but not Irene. Irene, they said, wasn’t feeling well that day and had decided at the last minute to stay home.


Anne and Lucy did, indeed, act as flower girls. They were outfitted in their first long dresses ever, petal-pink and pouffed over crinolines, lovingly stitched by their aunt Irene who sent a little note via her parents telling the girls how sorry she was not to see them march down the aisle, but that she’d be thinking of them all day long. (328)


Irene needed a happy ever after. In my mind, I invented a tall, ginger-haired Irishman with twinkling blue eyes who buys the Clarissa Ballroom and falls immediately and hard for Irene one Saturday night when he sees her dancing with Romaine to the tune of "Goodnight, Irene." He sweeps her off her feet and marries her within a month of their first dance. I wanted that for Irene Pibril, just as I wanted more for Charles Bliss, Kerstin Johanson, James Reardon, David Melcher, and Kristian Westgaard. I'm sure there will be more characters like them as I continue to read LaVyrle Spencer's backlist.