Benedicamus Domino

Benedicamus Domino

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A Short Story

by Beverly Stevens

“The most important thing is not to end up like my mother,” I was telling my therapist Dr Becker, who nodded at me in a slightly disapproving way. She disapproved, I knew, because it is not healthy for a woman to not identify with her mother.

Also, because there is nothing so wrong with my mother; she is like every other woman of her generation in Germany. They are called ‘the 68-ers,’ the university students of 1968 who rebelled against the Establishment and ushered in the modern Germany, leader of Europe. Here in Mittel Europa, at the beginning of the 21st century, the 68ers reign supreme.

I am seeing a therapist because, at age 32 and a successful gynecologist, I am despondent. You see, my partner Andreas  has left me. We had been together since university, in the early, wonderful, warm and giddy days when we brought our sweet Otto home. He was a lovely puppy; our child, really. When he died of old age twelve years later, our grief spilled over in a black pool, flooding our bedroom and the boredom of our life together.

You see, my partner Andreas has left me. We had been together since university, in the early, wonderful, warm and giddy days when we brought our sweet Otto home. He was a lovely puppy; our child, really.

It was not long afterwards that Andreas told me that he had accepted another position, a significant promotion at the Uniklinik in Hamburg, 500 kilometers from the university town where we have lived together since our student days. He said that it would make no difference to our relationship, and that the promotion was too good to pass up.

I have known him too long to be deceived by his lying. He gradually eased himself out of my life, and I let him go reluctantly, feeling helpless all the while.

Still, I didn’t become despondent until I learned about his new, Norwegian wife, and the child she was carrying. Andreas had never even spoken of marriage. I had always taken it for granted that we would be together wholly of our own choosing. Marriage seemed unnecessary, really.

And now he was beginning a brave new life. And I was alone. I felt so old.

My family was not very much help in all of this. My mother shrugged, tossed her long gray hair and tried to look sympathetic. She does not hold men to very high standards. She has had too much experience. My father was one of her serial relationships; growing up, I saw him twice a year when her current lover would drive me and my sister Sabine to Munich for a brief visit. Though a brilliant mathematician, he was a pot-head, pure and simple — and as soon as he could he buggered off for a decrepit farmhouse in Portugal, where he lives now, painting abstracts and smoking weed.

Our half-brother is ten years younger than me, an East German truck driver, like his father before him. And like his dad, he is blunt-spoken and hard-working. My mother is still living with his dad, though I know it’s just because she dreads being alone. He is not at all what she, a retired teacher, would have expected for herself. As for me, I respect both my step-father and my half-brother, but we do not agree on many things.

“You’re like all the other German women,” Stefan said, quaffing his Bitburger beer. It was Christmas Eve, at our parents’ apartment. “You think you’re too good for German men. That’s why German men are marrying foreigners. All of you women have no real interest in having a family. Feminism has ruined you.”

“You’re like all the other German women,” Stefan said, quaffing his Bitburger beer. It was Christmas Eve, at our parents’ apartment. “You think you’re too good for German men. That’s why German men are marrying foreigners. All of you women have no real interest in having a family. Feminism has ruined you.”

This was outrageous enough, but it was the later conversation with my 37-year old sister that put me over the edge. She had had way too much to drink.

“You think because I’m a teacher, that I’m pretty boring, don’t you?” she asked me, in a drunken, challenging sort of way. Everyone else had gone to sleep. Sabina lives in Wiesbaden; she has a good position, an excellent salary and no man since her last relationship disintegrated. “Well, I think you might be a little surprised at how much fun I do manage to have.”

Before I could stop her, it all came out. How she’s ‘registered’ with an online website that sets her up with ‘hot’ dates. It’s all perfectly proper, she assured me. The men are all attractive, and she never has to do anything against her will.

“I’ve come to understand that I have a very strong sex drive,” she told me in a sly, confidential whisper that made my skin crawl. “It’s probably inherited, don’t you agree?”

All of this sent me to Dr. Becker’s office, where I blubbered for hours into the tissues she had discretely placed near the low-slung, Bauhaus-style leather chair I occupied once a week. She was kind, but she didn’t understand why I could not accept any of these things. Even though I am a trained physician, fully cognizant of how modern people live, I still could not help but wishing for, dreaming of, something better.

“So what is it that will make you happy, do you think?” Dr Becker asked. “You are not like your mother, or your siblings. You have worked hard through medical school. You are a professional, used to setting goals. Where do you want to be in five years? What do you envision your life to be like?”

The single answer that came immediately to my mind was embarrassing in its directness: I wanted children. I wanted to be a mother. What’s more, I wanted to be successful in a way that my mother never has been. I want a forever husband. I want a forever family.Where did I get such ideas?

I wanted to be a mother. What’s more, I wanted to be successful in a way that my mother never has been. I want a forever husband. I want a forever family. Where did I get such ideas? 

Though she found my ideas distasteful and unbelievably naive, Doctor Becker is a good therapist, and a practical woman. “Some of that is under your control. So, what is the problem, then?”

The problem, of course, is that I have no man. And I know that finding a man to marry and have children with is pretty nearly an impossible goal these days in Germany. But that is not what Dr. Becker was referring to.

Don’t do it,” said Jennifer, for the umpteenth time. She is an American, a pediatrician who trained at Mainz. Like me, she is youngish and single. Unlike me, she is religious. “You do not need to live like these people. It is a dead end street. There is a better way to live. There is hope.”

“Probably half the German women in our maternity ward are pregnant by artificial insemination,” I replied, trying to sound rational as we walked through town, hunched against the early spring wind. “Most of them are over 35 and not married. Why should I wait that long?”

I could talk to Jennifer that way because we are friends. I say this with all due respect to every European who thinks that Americans are incorrigibly shallow, and incapable of true friendship. When Andreas moved out of the apartment, I was virtually immobile with grief for days. Jennifer patiently stayed by me, sleeping on my couch and cooking me simple meals, talking to me endlessly about her God, and how He would help me if I would just ask.

While I appreciated the sentiment, it fell on deaf ears. Perhaps it is because I do not come from a religious family. My mother’s idea of religion lies somewhere between Celtic earth goddesses and the Tarot. My siblings and I acquired good German skepticism about these things in our education; in this, we are like most Europeans. To be perfectly honest, talk of religion makes me uncomfortable. And my Christmas experience, coming so soon after Andreas’s desertion, had made Dr. Becker’s brisk suggestion that I simply go to the sperm bank very attractive.

My mother’s idea of religion lies somewhere between Celtic earth goddesses and the Tarot. My siblings and I acquired good German skepticism about these things in our education; in this, we are like most Europeans.

Not a good idea. Look at these women,” Jennifer responded with emotion. “I see them in my practice, all grim and stressed out. Man-less, or between lovers. Their kids alternately cling to them or berate them, depending on whether their current man is in the picture or not. I am telling you, this is not a good idea. This whole way of life – the contraception, the abortions, the artificial inseminations…it is all playing God. Women deserve better than that. You deserve better than that.”

The tears suddenly sprung to my eyes, unbidden. I swallowed, hard. I really don’t understand why, but suddenly all I could think of was the abortions. Not even the panicked young girls coming into our clinic, sometimes accompanied by their grim-faced mothers. (Almost never by their boyfriends, of course.)  No, what I was thinking of was the selective abortions, when too many babies are conceived by artificial insemination. And one – or more – must be aborted.

When she arrived three years ago, Jennifer made a name for herself in the clinic by going on record in a very public way against this practice. After that, no one at the clinic trusted her; she was seen as a religious fanatic. She became marginalized, almost invisible in the clinic.  Such marginalization would have almost killed a German in her professional shoes, but Jennifer is an American.

“I have lots of friends,” she shrugged, grinning at me disarmingly. “I really don’t need to be popular with people at this clinic.”

Something about her spirit made me like her, and we became friends – which is how I wound up sobbing in the back of an 18th century chapel in an old folks’ home that evening. Tears rolling down my face, I followed numbly as Jennifer led the short way to the Catholic chapel where she attends the Latin Mass every night, after work.

She had invited me before, telling me about the group of young Catholics that followed the Latin Mass, but as I said, I am not a religious person. (To be honest, I’d pictured some intolerable nerds following a ghoulish priest — though of course I wouldn’t tell her that.)

However, when I dried my tears, I found this old chapel to be oddly comforting. It was very quiet. Aside from the spring evening light filtering through the stained glass windows, a single, stout beeswax candle glowed before a bank of radiant pink hydrangeas adorning a Pieta of surprising beauty and power.

Soon, the door opened and a youngish priest in a cassock strode in, followed by three men. The priest nodded at us with a smile, and vanished into an anteroom with one of the men. The other two grinned at us wordlessly, and took up their places at the rear of the chapel.

A few minutes later, a golden bell rang. The priest and altar server emerged. The small group of worshipers who had quietly assembled got to their feet. As the evening light slowly died, the two men lifted their voices in an ancient Gregorian chant.

A golden bell rang. The priest and altar server emerged. The small group of worshipers who had quietly assembled got to their feet. As the evening light slowly died, the two men lifted their voices in an ancient Gregorian chant.

I listened, transported, as the centuries fell away. 

I was in a trance when the Mass ended. All I wanted to do was stay there, and breathe the incense-scented air. Jennifer stood up, though, as the priest and two of the men approached us, smiling.

I saw immediately that one of the singers was enamored of her. Jennifer returned his admiring glance with a radiant smile and introduced him as ‘Josef;’ he shook my hand earnestly. Then she presented me to the priest, who welcomed me. The other singer stood quietly by.

“And this is Christoph,” whispered Jennifer, and we shook hands. He was a tall, calm man with aristocratic bearing. I suddenly thought of my tear-stained cheeks, and wished I had a lipstick.

Christoph was a tall, calm man with aristocratic bearing. I suddenly thought of my tear-stained cheeks, and wished I had a lipstick.

“So very pleased to meet you,” he said, in the correct manner that Germans always know indicates good family background. But his smile was genuine, and his grip was warm.

“This was beautiful,” I said to the priest, sotto voce and somewhat abashed. 

“Did you like it?” the priest said, a pleased grin lighting up his face. “Was it your first time, then?”

“Y-yes,” I admitted. “I-I had no idea…”

“…I’ve been trying to bring her here, Father,” Jennifer said, grinning.

“But she is no doubt a very busy person at the clinic, no?” said the priest, still smiling.

“I-I am,” I faltered, not sure of what to say.

“Perhaps you will join us for supper?” he said cordially. 

“N-now?” I said, somewhat nonplussed.

“Yes, now,” said Christoph, with a teasing smile. I liked his dark eyes. “Your Jennifer has taught us her casual American ways. Nowadays we often will simply go and eat something together, after Mass.”

I liked his dark eyes. “Your Jennifer has taught us her casual American ways. Nowadays we often will simply go and eat something together, after Mass.”

“And a glass of wine is mandatory,” said Josef, laughing. “Shall we go?”

As we filed out of the empty church, I watched as each of my companions genuflected briefly, then crossed themselves, eyes on the altar. Once outside, we shivered in the cold night air.

“’Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine…’” Jennifer said, in English.

Christoph took up the refrain, smiling broadly. “’…there’s always laughter and good red wine.’”

“’At least I’ve always found it so…’” continued Josef, his arm around Jennifer.

“’…Benedicamus domino,’” finished Father, smiling at me. The group laughed.

“W-what is this?” I asked, amused but perplexed.

“A very clever Catholic Englishman wrote that,” Jennifer explained, grinning. “A man named Hilaire Belloc.”

 “A mere Englishman,” said Josef teasingly, winking at Jennifer.

“A genius!” exclaimed Father, laughing.

As we walked together through the old streets, a strange, giddy feeling came over me. I looked up at the tall, grave Christoph walking beside me and returned his smile.

I began to feel younger, for some reason.

Lighter than air, actually.

 As we walked together through the old streets, a strange, giddy feeling came over me. I looked up at the tall, grave Christoph walking beside me and returned his smile.

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