Bertha was in a contemplative mood this morning, the first of another new year and the day her husband had proposed to her so many years back. She stirred her granola again, put the spoon down and looked at her hands. They were so clearly aging now, the lines visible even in the dim light that fell through the windows. She used the thumb and index finger of her left hand to pinch the skin on the back of the other: almost waxy. When had that happened?
Her husband was reading a news magazine, grunting every now and then. She wanted to reach out to him, catch his gaze. Instead of disturbing his concentration, she straightened the napkin on the table. She had always liked things neat, as her mother had taught her. Maybe that was why her husband had chosen her. He had been so clearly out of her league. Forty-three years of marriage and counting, and she still couldn't believe he had taken her for a wife—socially awkward Bertha, who never thought of herself as pretty or loveable. He still had the same tall build and broad shoulders as back then and his gait was as forceful as it was in their twenties or thirties.
But there was so much more to him than these physical attributes: a charisma that touched those around him. It was rooted in the depth of his voice and in the way he could focus on you and hold your eyes, like he knew where you were ailing. The Lord himself said to look out for the lost lambs and they were the ones her husband cared about most.
It was true, there had been difficult times—especially before he had retired. The unavoidable distractions for a man in the spotlight. She could see it in the wistful glances of the women of the parish, every Sunday when he ascended the pulpit. When his rich voice made the words of the gospel resonate from the church walls and his sermon rang full of truth and wisdom, an inspiration to all, and his eyes shone like a prophet's. Bertha would be in the front pew, her heartbeat quickening with pride.
Even the young girls sat hypnotized and full of awe. She soon knew that they were the ones to watch. Their little smiles and hair flips were not nearly as innocent as they seemed. Those young bodies and bouncy breasts: it was natural her husband would react as any man would. Bertha fought the impulse to touch her own breasts, so changed over time.
He glanced up from his magazine. Bertha tried to catch his eye, but his attention was on the paper again. She suppressed a sigh. It really wasn't his fault when things happened. These girls, they craved his attention. They wanted to bathe in his glory. Surely, some of them saw him as a father figure. He took them on trips with the parish on which they spent long evenings together. There was wine. There were always some, at that age, with a desperate home life. He gave them generous hugs to make them feel better.
The pastor often insisted Bertha invite a girl home for lunch after Sunday service. So they'd sit at this very table, insecure young girls, fascinated by the opportunity to join the minister and his wife for a meal. At first, the girls were older than their own sons. With time, the boys started to ask and then complain about the visitors, another young girl every few months or so. Finally, they grew sullen, avoided the meals. They graduated school, left the house, and didn't come back. A continuous string of girls, however, would sit at the table for lunch. They seemed younger each year.
Conversation with them was usually bothersome and often exasperating. Although the pastor generally preferred the smart ones, Bertha still didn't know what to talk about with them. What did they have in common? They distrusted her. Bertha returned the sentiment.
What she really wanted to address, in those long moments at the table, was chastity, waiting till you are married. "Thou shalt not commit adultery," was another edict that came to her mind; that urged to break out of her mouth when she saw yet another girl at her table, barely hiding her giddy admiration of the pastor. But Bertha would straighten her posture, stroke the napkin next to her plate and tell herself it was not her prerogative to address these things unspoken.
The idea to confront and lose him, her home, her standing, was an impossibility. So she usually let him do the talking, remembering the moments when he delivered the sermon. Remembering her mother's words. Remembering that Eve was punished for her sin, that women had always tempted man, and man was weak. That a righteous woman was to be man's helpmate. Standing by her man, through all the temptation he faced, he succumbed to, he invariably regretted each time—it was an onerous task sometimes, but there must be a reward in the end.
Bertha noticed she was wringing her hands in front of her chest. Those young girls and their supple bodies. Their charm seemed naive, but was so clearly calculated. That is what she responded the few times someone from the parish, something like a friend, approached her, worried about the pastor and his relationships to teenage girls. Her husband was a caring soul, easily taken advantage of, easily misunderstood.
They also didn't comprehend that he always ended up cradled in her arms, begging for forgiveness. Those were the moments she treasured. When his vulnerability showed and he felt tortured because he had sinned. Did he not pray "lead us not into temptation" every day, from the depth of his heart? She added her own prayers on his behalf.
There had been times when she had to speak these prayers from profound desperation. When his very soul seemed obsessed with one of these girls. When he held on to that girl for longer than the usual few months.
When they were in their fifties, one had gotten herself pregnant and was reluctant to terminate at first. It took painful weeks for the girl to recognize what was best. He brought the little Jezebel home after the procedure. Claiming the girl was in no state to show herself to her parents, he expected his wife to house her. That night, Bertha found herself banging her head on the bathroom walls, hard, in front of that pale-faced girl. The physical pain was almost soothing.
She was relieved when, a few months later, that one, too, was out of the picture, and the minister asked his wife for forgiveness yet again. Such a precious moment when they both pretended Bertha had the option to reject him.
For weeks after she forgave him, he would treat her with so much kindness. His mesmerizing eyes rested on her and her alone as he tenderly stroked the side of her face; as they went into the bedroom and he gave her all his attention, undivided.
She tried to remember when the last time had been. Who had been the last girl. They blurred in her mind. Was it the pregnant one? The one whose pictures she had found? The one who was the same age as their youngest son? Younger? The one who had threatened to sue? How utterly preposterous to claim the pastor had abused his power and hurt and even traumatized the girl; that Bertha had enabled whatever crime he had supposedly committed. God was good, because that woman was years too late to go to court.
Bertha's cereal was still in the bowl. The tea was cold in her mug. The napkin on the table was in disarray, but she failed to remember when she had crumpled it up. Her husband's phone beeped with a message. He read it, threw a glance at his wife. He took time to type his reply.
"I'm going to have to go," he said. Bertha nodded. He got up and hugged her briefly. When he was gone and she had heard the car pull away, she got up and walked to the window. It was still overcast.
Too small, she thought. If the windows were larger, I could get some perspective.
Notes from the Author
When I learned about a Lutheran pastor who had been abusing young girls from his parish over years and decades, I wondered about the role of his wife. Had she not known? I knew several girls had been regular visitors at the parsonage, had been invited for Sunday dinner after church. As the couple grew older, the girls remained the same age, finally being younger than the minister and his wife's own children. There were so many questions that came to my mind and I decided to use writing to find some answers. I tried to dive into what might be going on in the mind of a woman who condones and facilitates this kind of behavior. It is hard to judge somebody when we learn about such a story and a different thing to be involved. In the end, after the process of writing this story, I'm still perplexed and perturbed.