Raised in Rectories

Holly Tree, High Line, Manhattan, December 15, 2021

When I was in my 20s, I wrote some short pieces of autobiographical fiction I pictured as parts of a novel that never came to be. Though my sister and I were born in Manhattan, we in raised in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts and its rectories, the daughters of an actor-singer who became a priest; I was using all this background.

One episode, set at Christmastime, sprang into my mind all of a piece on a sunny lunch hour in late 1984, while I was walking through the Boston Public Garden. I’m sure many writers have had good ideas there. At home in my studio apartment on the back slope of Beacon Hill, I eventually finished the story in one big overnight burst during Advent, hopeful that my father might read it in place of preaching a Christmas Eve sermon, but he declined. I had a pile of copies made and gave them out as presents that year. A lot more people have gotten copies since then; somewhere along the line (probably at a temp job) I retyped it on a good Selectric II or III, and that’s the final manuscript below. Over the years, as you’ll see, I took a lot of stabs at fixing the misspelled murmurs, but missed some.

You might be reminded, at the story’s climax, of an almost identical happening in the marvelous British play (later filmed), Shirley Valentine. I was very shaken by the coincidence in 1989, when I saw Pauline Collins in the title role on Broadway (the play itself premiered in 1986). I thought it served me right, for not having tried to publish first, and now this playwright Willy Russell would get all the credit for an inspired idea; I thought of Emerson and the line in Self-Reliance, where he’s been saying to “Believe your own thought. . .Speak your latent conviction,” and continues: “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” Though I hadn’t been rejecting The Holly, The Ivy, and the Innkeeper (after all, I think I gave a copy to practically everyone I met, for years), so much as I’d been neglecting to push it forward into public, where it belonged; in any case, the fear that I might be accused of plagiarizing Shirley Valentine kept me from making any more efforts to place it. Eventually, however, I wrote The Lutheran, a short novel in which large sections of the plot revolve around an unauthorized Long Island production of Amahl and the Night Visitors, an Epiphany show. No one is putting that idea on Broadway anytime soon, I bet. 

Revisiting this earlier work after a very long time, despite its sanitized parent portraits and clumsy last-second miracle, I’m still proud enough to share it for Christmas with a new world of digital readers. And as for that climax—the talented Mr Russell and I were never the only ones, I’m sure, with this particular idea. Which has probably happened in real life anyhow, times without number. With warmest wishes that it should happen again, somewhere, maybe to you, this year, and always, I leave you with the story.

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