Surrounded by Catholics, Part II: We Decide to Adopt — The Greatest Hits of Middle School
IN WHICH I see too much and not quite enough.
After blessing our home so expertly, Father Berube became the eager recipient of that Catholic middle-class beneficence those who once dispensed it now call “priest adoption.” Back then it was known as “welcoming a priest into your home.”
Priest adoption occurred more often than you’d think. Our family friends the Woodburys adopted a priest before they’d moved to Danvers, but he didn’t last.
“What a wet blanket he was!” said Connie Woodbury. “ Wouldn’t have a drink or tell funny stories and spent way too long saying grace. No good-time Charlie, that’s for sure. To be fair, he did bring over a ‘Stories from the New Testament’ comic book for the kids.”
My mother was “a lucky stiff” for landing Father Berube. Herve LeBlanque’s family adopted a priest, Father Berube’s predecessor, the previous year. He lasted just six months before getting transferred to another diocese for some reason.
Father Berube came over for dinner at least twice a month, whereupon my father would serve him “only the best cuts of steak.” He’d stay the whole evening, and keep it going with stories that set my mother giggling like Rose Ann Boisbleu in my eighth-grade American history class. (That girl thought the Mexican-American War of 1846–48 was funny.)
Berube played bridge like a pro with Curt and Mary Kingston, my parents’ Catholic drinking buddies, and when my parents held New Year’s Eve parties, he was there, too. At one of them, they were laughing about teen dances and he threw them into fits with his impression of the Twist.
As Berube explained it, “You wiggle your fanny like you just got out of the shower and are drying off with a towel, and you stick your foot out and rotate it on the floor like you’re putting out a cigarette.”
Said Mary Kingston, “I laughed so hard I tinkled.”
He rarely spoke to me and my brother, except to ask the usual questions: “How’s school?” and “Playing any ball?” Our answers to both were always “okay” and “yup.”
Sometimes I’d catch neighbors peering at the black Cadillac that Berube borrowed from the monsignor, parked in our driveway. They must have concluded that a priest was visiting us.
Once when Connie Woodbury visited, she asked, “What’s he like?”
“Oh, he’s very knowledgeable,” said my mother. “And so smart . . . about church matters.”
Mom never wore a cross around her neck, because she didn’t have to. A diocese car in our driveway was proof enough of her devotion.
A year into this conviviality, my parents invited him to stay with us during our summer vacation at the Prospect Slope Lodges of Melvin Village, nestled on the shores of New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee. It was expertly arranged. The previous year, my father had made friends with Carl Hanscom, the owner of the lodges, in the same way he did with all vacation getaway owners: he gave them advice about which mechanical gadgets they should buy and also demonstrated how to improve the ones they’d already bought. Early in life, my father had worked hard on his indispensable buddy skills. As a reward for any helpful services he would provide, we always stayed for free.
For a full week, Father Berube resided in his own cottage next to ours, also for free.
One day, after my father had recommended excellent seaplane pontoons for Carl, the man expressed his gratitude. (I maintained they should have been called “lakeplane pontoons,” but few appreciated my wise-assery.) He planned a big party that weekend at the clubhouse with enough Cheez Whiz, Ruffles Chips, and Jack Daniels for all the cottage renters. I was in the clubhouse when his wife Pearline started to bring in scores of waxy Dixie cups. I had been trying to play solo ping-pong with the wall and the wall was winning.
I hovered over her until she finally looked up. “Mrs. Hanscom, is there some party tonight?”
Pearline’s smile suddenly slammed shut like the clubhouse screen door. “Uh, yell.” This was how she pronounced the word “yeah.” Why, I never found out. But I was the only one who noticed it and wondered if she’d start yelling at me.
“Can I come?”
She pushed out her lower lip and flashed a sad face that dissolved seven seconds later. “Yell, Peter, I’m sorry, but this party is adults only. Please tell the other children that they . . . they can’t come either.”
It was the first time I’d ever heard the term “adults only.” A few months later, I heard it again in reference to films posted in the “Condemned” column of the Boston Pilot. I asked my mother what the phrase meant when applied to movies and she just said they were “nasty stuff.” Of course such damning labels made me want to see them.
That night my brother and I were shut up in our small three-room cabin while my parents attended the party. We could hear them whooping and guffawing two hundred yards away. We had tried playing checkers, but he kept cheating and moving the pieces all over the board in flagrant violation of the rules. There was no TV, so I reread old Uncle Scrooge comic books I’d swiped from the dentist office. Their fun element had a half-life about as long as a Snickers candy bar, so we gave up and went to bed.
My parents came back late. I checked my watch’s green phosphorescent dial and it read 1:26.
“So where were you just now?” My father shouted as the screen door whammed shut.
“Romey, I told you. We only took a walk. It was getting stuffy in there.” My mother’s voice was quavering.
“Tell me now! Where’d you two go off?”
“Outside for a walk. On the dock!”
She spoke faster than I’d ever heard her.
“We were only gone fifteen minutes. Ask him, why don’t you?”
“You were flat on your back on the dock screwin’ him, weren’t you?”
“Oh no!” my brother said in a loud whisper. “He’s hitting her!”
He certainly was. We had no idea why. They’d yelled at each other before, but slapping . . . this was new.
“We gotta help her!”
He zipped out of bed, but I got up and stood in front of the door.
“Oh no, you’re not going out there.”
“But we have to stop them.”
“You’re only nine! You wanna get smacked too?”
Only last month my father had bragged about being “strong as a bull” and having “a good right hook.” I said I didn’t know bulls had right hooks, and he warned me not to push my luck. So I didn’t. For several years.
Jeffy didn’t seem to care if they could hear us.
“What are we gonna do? We gotta stop him.”
“Yeah, how you do that? Whimper at him? Go back to sleep or he’ll smack you too.”
“He never smacks me,” said my brother, sitting on the edge of the bed. “Might smack you though.” He was pissed I was denying him the chance to be a nine-year-old hero.
I didn’t know what to do. I knew I couldn’t intervene because a few weeks before Channing Johnstone had warned me about this very phenomenon in his “Second Rule of War Between Parents and Kids”:
“Your dad’s drunk, never fight with him. Even if you get in a good whack, pain will have no effect and you’ll get whacked back twice as hard.”
It didn’t help that I was totally perplexed about whom was being accused of what.
The yelling got louder.
“I invite him into our home and find you two out there screwin’!”
“No no, oh no no no, Romey, I would never do that.”
Holy shit, he means Father Berube. He caught her screwing Father Berube? I’d never heard of such a thing, a priest screwing someone when they weren’t supposed to screw at all. What am I missing here? Okay. Something really messed up’s going on, and any minute it could turn into an exciting movie, like “Duel in the Sun” with that steamy Jennifer Jones causing no end of trouble.  The priest who’s causing it all will hear the noise from next door and barge into our cabin and then things will really get out of hand. He and my father’ll start rumbling on the floor, and my mother will try to break it up by grabbing somebody’s shoulder, and she’ll topple over, and me? I’ll be watching it all from around the corner. Shit. There must be something wrong with me.
It was not to be. He smacked her a couple more times and then it all stopped. My mother whimpered for a little while, then everything went quiet.
The next morning she must’ve called the priest over because there he was, outside on the porch talking with my father, looking all grave and concerned. I figured now would be a perfect time for one of his priest jokes to lighten things up a bit, but that wasn’t gonna happen. My mother stood behind my father, her hand on his shoulder. Father Berube was doing all the talking.
“Romey, I am a priest, a man of God. I honor nothing more than the marriage vows of my parishioners and I would never, never, ever do what you say happened to your beloved wife.”
I was hiding around the corner and could see my father only from the side, but he was rubbing his temples and maybe mumbling, I couldn’t tell. He nodded occasionally and looked like he had a wicked headache. An hour later, Father Berube was gone. My parents came into the house and we had eggs fried in bacon grease from the grease can. With no bacon. Nobody said anything.
What happened was never spoken of again. My father didn’t call the diocese to complain about Father Berube being a homewrecker. My mother didn’t replace Berube with another priest, like burly Father Cronin. But it was the ungodly end to our priest adoption.
People talk about family secrets, and this was surely one of those. But it was also a family mystery. Did she or didn’t she? To this day, neither my brother nor I have any idea. Perhaps it was decided that my father’d conjured up some fevered vision, fueled by too many Whiskey Sours. This despite the fact that he had hunter’s vision and could spot a gnat on a hawk’s ass at 50 yards. Could he have imagined it? For eight more years, I witnessed his many drinking bouts and never once did he hallucinate. Maybe he caught them engaging in something harmless, like hugging, and mentally translated it into fornicating.
And even many decades later, neither my brother nor I ever asked my mother about that night at Prospect Slope Lodges. Once, when I visited her in Florida a few years after my father’s death in ’81, she alluded to his drinking and said it “sometimes made him ugly. He’d swear too much.”
That he did. I remember one incident on a hot summer’s day after he’d come home from work and had had a few. I don’t know what had set him off when he shouted, “Jesus H. Christ, Nat! You and your goddamn relatives. You’re all full of shit.”
“Oh Romey, you sound like a truck driver!” she said.
That shut him up. Instantly. She’d just invoked the worst fear of a lower upper middle-class machine shop owner: that he was no better than one of the men he’d just hired or fired. He quieted down, and better than that, forgot that she’d tricked him, leaving the bulkhead open for her to use the truck driver slur a few more times.
That night at the Prospect Slope Lodges, Father Berube essentially took leave of our family. We still had to interact with him in weekly church affairs, and he even officiated at my confirmation. My brother became an altar boy under his aegis for about three years, where the man continued with the corny jokes, this time with the altar boys. However, no longer did he appear at our house for free steak dinners and top-shelf booze or get invited to parties or on vacations. We never did get that Infant of Prague statue. My father allowed the shiny golden cross over their bed and two living room paintings of teen Jesus by C. Bosseron Chambers,  but drew the line at the sacred infant. “$50? You could buy five crucifixes for that! And throw in a set of rosary beads.”
It could be that my father found the regally attired baby staring blankly at him while holding a globus cruciger a bit creepy. 
Father Berube died in 2001, but recently made a ghostly appearance on the internet. I located him on the Bishop Accountability database, a compilation of priests accused and/or convicted of sexual crimes, many of them against children.
Father John Berube has four offenses under his name, occurring in 1965, a mere four years after the Lake Winnipesaukee incident. Had there been more?
It looks like he’d failed to cast out his own devils.
Soon after discovering this, I emailed the link to my brother and asked him if he’d ever been sexually abused or even just pawed by the man. He denied it, but it’s possible he’d minimized memories of being hugged or hand-touched, like Father Berube did to me in the post-confirmation picture below. Now a deacon in his town’s Catholic Church, Geoffrey (formerly Jeffie) didn’t feel comfortable with this discussion, so I ended it with “Well, brother, we dodged a bullet on this one.”
There was a brief silence on the line and then he said, “At least he’s dead.”
One final thing I remember. When a Catholic youth is confirmed, he or she is instructed to choose the name of a saint they want to be like, someone who can pray for them from heaven. I had no idea which name to pick. My mother thought it would be a “nice thing” if I took the name “John.” For a few years, she’ d even call me that to underscore the point that I’d been confirmed and I should stop asking so darned many questions.
For years I couldn’t figure out why she’d felt so deeply for a man who looked like Bilbo Baggins from Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Just how deep did their relationship go? Did he call her on the telephone to chat? Did he talk to her after mass, those times she went by herself in the middle of the week? Was she drawn to him because she believed he had a divine connection, God’s phone number, so to speak? Maybe it was because she thought he was actually listening to her. And maybe it was his sense of humor. My friend Sajed once heard me tell a funny story at a party, which I later dismissed as “trivial.” He took me aside and said, “Peter, making people laugh. That is no small thing.”
Berube knew this.
There is a popular HBO TV series that ran from 2008 to 2014 called True Blood. It’s about contemporary “assimilated” vampires. The show’s writers duly observed the trope that vampires must first ask permission of people whose homes they wanted to enter. Some would let them right in; those that didn’t had to be “glamoured” (bewitched) into opening their doors.
In either case, once the vamps gained entry, what they did was unspeakable.
- Father Berube’s sardonic description was dead on. Yet the Twist was a more historic dance than people may realize. It marked the first time that white America had adopted a popular dance that required they move their hips. Latin dancers had the Merengue, the Middle East had belly dance, but most white Americans still danced ballroom style, without any erotic suggestion. Ironically, even though its dancers never touched, many churches (including Catholic ones) considered it risqué. But unlike the equally scandalous Jitterbug, it was easy to learn. Released in 1959 as the B-side of Hank Ballard and The Midnighters 45 rpm record “Teardrops on your Letter,” “The Twist” was rerecorded by Chubby Checker the following year and became the biggest dance craze since the waltz. No surprise. Its origins go back centuries. According to Jazz Dance (Marshall and Jean Stearns), a pelvic dance motion called the “Twist” came to America from the Congo during slavery. ↑
- Another resort owner/friend was Lang Holden, who ran the Attean Lake Lodge in Jackman, Maine. We stayed there during the hunting trip at which I learned (or rather relearned) The Facts. ↑
- The weekly newspaper of the Boston diocese, available at our church for one thin dime. Its views on film mirrored the Legion of Decency and listed its C (Condemned) films on the back page. The Legion condemned American classics like The Moon is Blue (sympathetic portrait of seduction), 1953; Some Like It Hot (transvestism), 1959; Room at the Top (immoral hustler goes unpunished), 1959; Never on Sunday (principled Greek prostitute), 1960; Splendor in the Grass (sexual satisfaction outside of marriage), 1961; and The Children’s Hour” (putative lesbianism), 1961. (“The American Catholic Church Censors the Movies,” William Doherty Ph.D.) ↑
- The Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency forced extensive cuts on “Duel in the Sun,” but somehow we ended up seeing the original version the previous Saturday afternoon in Wolfeboro with my parents. I actually tried looking down Jennifer’s bodice. ↑
- Incidentally, I dreamed up an explanation for the “H” in Jesus’ name. It stood for “Harold,” as in “Our Father who art in heaven, Harold be thy name.” When I found this out, I spread the word to my friends and we said it all the time in church. Nobody ever caught us, even when they saw us giggling. ↑
- C(harles) Bosseron Chambers (1882–1964) was known as the “Norman Rockwell of Catholic art.” He painted The Light of The World, using the son of a Catholic school custodian as a model. Between 1920 and 1940, it sold millions of copies, including one to my mother. He cornered the religious painting market and is even more popular today. The picture became so famous you can see it over the priest’s desk in the 1948 Fred MacMurrary film, The Miracle of the Bells (1948).
- Since the fifth century A.C.E. the globus cruciger (cross-bearing orb) has been associated with emperors, kings, clerics, and archangels, appearing on scepters, crowns, pictures, coins, and the papal tiara. After the overthrow of the Soviet Union, the cruciger started appearing in the national arms of some Eastern European countries, even those that didn’t have monarchs. Some say it was an attempt to fit in with western Christianity, or to reassure the West that Christianity had indeed been reinstated. ↑
- For more information, see http://www.bishop-accountability.org/priest/. Another account occurs at this page: http://www.bishop-accountability.org/news3/2004_04_13_Ward_SuitSays_John_Berube_1.htm ↑