I was brought up in South Africa and attended an Anglican church school from an early age during the apartheid era. We spent a lot of time in chapel, singing hymns, reciting prayers, listening to sermons on turning the other cheek, respecting our neighbor, putting the good of others before our own. Yet when I looked around me I saw the blatant injustice of the society where I lived. No one was respecting his black neighbor or putting his good before his own. I became a rebel, left South Africa, and turned my back on the church.
I married a young American who was still a student at Yale. When our first baby was born we visited his mother in Bologna, Italy, where she lived with her lover. We left our little girl, six months old, with my mother-in-law one evening to go to an opera in Verona. My mother-in-law left the baby with her lover who called in a babysitter, a young student who was the same age we were, not yet twenty one.
Paola, the babysitter, told us the story later of arriving at the house with some misgivings, having been called forth by this older man. She was given the key to the door by a friend and entered to find the older man, the lover, had gone out to his club. She wandered through the rooms until she found the baby, our little girl, fast asleep, fortunately, in her crib. When the child awoke Paola called her mother for instructions on what to do.
Anyway, Paola, as you may imagine, became an important part of our lives. She took care of our three children in the summers and even spent a year with us in New York. She was a devout Catholic, and I remember my aunt saying, “Watch out that she doesn’t convert your children!”
Paola never tried to do that, but she lived her religion in an exemplary way and filled their lives with love, humor, and understanding. She was a modest woman who knew everything but did not boast of her erudition--she became an Italian teacher in Italy, and worked every evening as a volunteer at the Casa San Francesco helping the terminally ill and their families.
When I heard that she had lung cancer I decided to pray to her God. Surely, he would bring about a miracle. I went back to the church where I had grown up, the Episcopal church as I was living in this country, and I prayed the prayers from my childhood and sang again the old hymns and listened to the same sermons. Many of us must have been praying for Paola who had filled her world with love and goodness wherever she went. She did live with lung cancer for five years but eventually succumbed.
The miracle, if there was one, was that I remained a churchgoer, happy to find some continuity in my life in the beautiful words preserved in the King James’s Bible and in the communion service which unites me with others every Sunday, and in the hope of one day, perhaps, seeing Paola again.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including the recent Dreaming for Freud.