Thy Brother's Wife

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  • Edition: Original
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2009-05-26
  • Publisher: Forge

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The direction of Paul and Sean Cronin's lives was shaped the day their father, a self-made multimillionaire, decided that one of his boys would grow up to be a cardinal while the other would become president of the United States. For his elder son, Paul, the father had even chosen a wifethe beautiful Nora, who had come to the Cronin home as an orphan child years before. Obediently, and with a genuine vocation, the younger son, Sean, went into the priesthood. With a more cynical view, Paul went to Notre Dame to prepare for a life in politics until the Korean War intervened. Then came the newsPaul Cronin was missing in action. "If he dies," Sean's father told him, "you must leave the seminary and marry Nora." The words sang in Sean's head. Could he renounce his sacred callingand marry the girl he had always loved? Long out of print,Thy Brother's Wifeis a classic tale by one of America's most loved storytellers.

Author Biography

Father Andrew M. Greeley, a Catholic priest and sociologist, is an Honorary Senior Fellow at the University of Ireland in Dublin. He divides his time between teaching at the University of Chicago and the University of Arizona at Tucson.

Table of Contents

Thy Brother's Wife
I pray for them ... for those whom thou hast given me ... protect them by the power of thy name that they may be one as we are one ... I pray thee not to take them out of the world but to keep them from evil.
-John 17:9, 12, 15
After supper on Holy Thursday evening, Father McCabe motioned Sean Cronin away from the black line of seminarians filing in silence out of the house chapel. "Mistah Cronin," he snapped, "go to my office."
Sean walked down the dimly lit corridor and waited at the door of the disciplinarian's office, his heart beating rapidly. What would his father say if he were sent home in disgrace? As far as he could remember, he hadn't violated any rules, but in the atmosphere of suspicion and distrust that permeated Mundelein a sudden and final decision to expel a student could be made arbitrarily on the basis of very little evidence.
When the last of the seminarians finished reporting minor infractions of the rules to Father McCabe--being late for class; not turning out lights at 9:45; violating the "great silence" between lights out and the end of morning mass. McCabe shuffed out of his office, a tall lean shaggy dog of a man, and, almost without looking at Sean, beckoned him inside.
"Your father called earlier this afternoon," he said abruptly. "Your brother has been reported missing in action. He led a night patrol on the Punchbowl. They ran into a Chinese outpost. He didn't come back."
Time stood still for Sean. Abstractedly he noticed the rancid cigar smoke that filled the room, the disarray of papers and books tossed about on desks and chairs. Fighting nausea, he groped desperatelyfor control of his voice. "May I phone my father?" Why had they waited hours to tell him about Paul?
"I see no point in that," said Father McCabe. "Missing isn't dead."
"On the Punchbowl it probably is." Sean felt as though life were ebbing out of his body, just as it must have from his brother's. "May I go to my room?"
"Don't pamper yourself." Father McCabe's voice took on the machine-gun quality that was a sign of his impatience with a seminarian. "You may go to the chapel for five minutes and then join your classmates at recreation. Others besides the Cronin family have suffered loss in this world."
"Yes, Father," Sean said meekly, controlling his desire to smash his fists against the five-o'clock shadow on McCabe's jaw.
In the chapel, Sean was numb. Paul Martin Cronin, the bright, brash Medal of Honor winner who was supposed to become president of the United States one day, either a prisoner or dead. What was his father feeling now? And Aunt Jane? The favorite of her two nephews gone; what light would be left in her life?
And Nora ... . What happens to a sixteen-year-old when the man she has always known she would marry vanishes in fog and the snowdrifts of Korea?
A dry sob burst from Sean's chest. "Oh, my God! Why Paul?"
The five minutes allotted by Father McCabe quickly spent. Sean blessed himself with holy water and left the chapel. He descended to the first floor of the building and walked out from dark hallway into the twilight of the half-hour evening smoking period.
The knot of his classmates standing on the porch of the red brick colonial-style building opened to make room for him. Most of his classmates liked and even admired Scan--despite his family's wealth, his father's obvious ecclesiastical ambitions for him, and his own careful observance of the rules. They kidded him about being a "model seminarian," yet they always seemed pleased when he joined a group of them.
"What did the Moose want?" Jimmy McGuire, Sean's closest friend, used the nickname given to McCabe in recognition of his shambling walk and unkempt appearance.
Sean could not bring himself to share his grief. "He wanted to make sure that my sister is coming visiting Sunday." Sean tried to grin suggestively.
Nora was indeed the principal attraction of visiting Sundays. The seminary only grudgingly recognized the existence of family. Seminarians were not permitted to go home at Christmastime, and even on the day of their ordination their families were packed off back to Chicago while the young priests ate dinner with the faculty and the other clergy. It was the way Cardinal Mundelein wanted it; even though Cardinal Mundelein had been dead for more than a decade, it was the way things were still done.
Visiting Sunday, then, was a privilege conceded reluctantly three times each semester. The seminarian and his family--limited to three members--were permitted to visit for two hours in a classroom building with disciplinarians like McCabe watching with beady eyes to see that no contraband food or affection was exchanged.
In such an edgy and resentful environment, Nora was a sturdy spring flower who caused every male and most of the female heads to turn when she entered the large lecture hall. She was just a bit over five feet nine inches tall, with the lithe body of a woman athlete. Her flawless complexion was framed by rich auburn hair that fell halfway to a willowy waist. Nora was dazzling.
Joe Cleary, the class mimic, reenacted the now-famous scene between Sean and Father McCabe that had taken place earlier in the year, with perfect imitation of both their voices:
"Mistah Cronin, who was that woman who visited you today?"
"That was my Aunt Jane, Father. She's my father's sister and housekeeper."
"I don't mean her, boy; I mean the younger one. Who was that younger woman, Mistah Cronin?"
"My sister, Nora, Father. She's been here every visiting Sunday."
"That young woman has never been here before, Mistah Cronin."
"Sure she has, Father. She's just--uh, er, I mean she's grown up some since last year."
The cluster on the porch howled at Cleary's imitation of Sean.
"Is she your blood sister?"
"No, Father, she's my foster sister, but she's lived with us since she was a little girl."
"Then she may not visit you, Mistah Cronin. Only blood sisters are permitted. No foster sisters."
"Yes, Father. I didn't know that was one of the rules."
"Mistah Cronin, we make up the rules as we go along."
More laughter from the class. The last line, however true to character, had not really been spoken by Father McCabe.
"It's a good thing for all of us, Sean," said Jimmy McGuire, "that your father leaned on the Cardinal. What would visiting Sunday be without Nora?"
Roger Fitzgibbon, a smoothly handsome young man with black hair, pale white skin, and infinite charm, said, "I thought Nora was your adopted sister."
"Not really. My father never did get around to the formalities of adoption." Sean did not add that, as a foster daughter, Nora Riley was far more dependent on Michael James Arthur Cronin than any adopted daughter would ever be. Mike Cronin liked to keep his women dependent, however much he loved them.
At seven thirty the bell rang the end of the smoking period. Jimmy McGuire caught his eye, and Sean lagged behind the others to talk to him.
"Is it Paul?" Jimmy's freckled face was anxious in the fading twilight, the cheery leprechaun changing into the solemn good friend.
Sean nodded.
"Dead?" Jimmy asked incredulously.
Sean shook his head. "No, missing."
"While there's life there's hope, Sean. You know that," Jimmy said.
"Do I? I guess so. I'm too numb right now to know much of anything."
"Women are lucky," Jimmy said. "They can cry and get some of the pain out."
"Nora isn't crying," Sean said as they entered the budding. "She's not that kind."
"A real Cronin!" said Jimmy with a soft laugh. He patted Sean on the back, expressing more sympathy with that gesture than any words could possibly have.
"A real Cronin," agreed Sean sadly, thus breaking the rule against talking in the building, a violation he decided he would not report to Father McCabe.
In his room Sean took off his cassock and hung it carefully in the closet. They did not strictly insist that you wear a cassock in your room, although it was praised as a sign of virtue if you wore it all the time. He closed one of the windows; the late March evening was turning cool. He looked out on the courtyard across the neatly landscaped grass and shrubbery, toward the gymnasium and the dark night sky beyond it. The last thing he wanted to do was turn to his desk and see the picture of Paul.
Finally he forced himself to sit on the hard wooden chair and confront his brother's handsome face, with its devil-may-care grin and mischief-filled eyes: a black Irish warrior with the looks of a movie star. "Goddamn reckless fool," he said. "Paul Martin Cronin, you won one Medal of Honor up at the Reservoir. Why did you have to be a hero a second time?"
He laid his head on his arm and began to sob. It had all come so quickly. Only nine months ago Paul had graduated from Notre Dame with a diploma he had just barely earned and a commission in the Marine Corps that was awarded only because the NROTC commanding officer chose to ignore a couple of drinking episodes. The summer had been devoted not to water skiing and girls at their Oakland Beach home but to advanced officers' training at Quantico. Then, just as Sean returned to the seminary, Paul was fighting toward the Yalu River with the Tenth Corps, commanding a platoon of Marines who were even younger than he was. Five months later he was the recipient of a Congressional Medal of Honor from Douglas MacArthur himself.
Sean raised his head from the desk. Thank God no one had seen him cry. Especially his father. Michael Cronin had set rigid standards for his sons. He had mapped out their futures with a precision rarely seen outside of a war council room. There was no allowance in his plan for any sign of weakness, in his sons or in himself. He was a man of enormous energy and charm, the kind of person people turned to watch as he walked down the street, although he was only five feet nine inches tall and already balding. His body radiated vitality, his green eyes sparkled with rapidly changing emotions. His finely shaped jaw, tilted ever so slightly in the air, promised a fight or an evening of fun, or possibly both. Women, as Sean had learned all too well, found Michael Cronin irresistible, and men delighted in his quick wit and intelligence.
Unfortunately for his children, Michael Cronin firmly believedthat you raised two motherless sons by the same kind of quick, intuitive thrusts with which you assaulted an enemy position, courted a woman, or sank hundreds of thousands of dollars into pork belly futures.
Sean wondered what his father would be doing now. Calling the Pentagon for news? Cursing Truman and the Marine Corps? Damning the "Communist conspiracy" that had sent his son on "police action" in Korea?
Would Martha, the latest of his father's chic socialite friends, be around? Probably not. In times of rage and grief, Michael Cronin disdained the company of his always very discreet companions. He would doubtless be furious with the seminary for not letting him talk to Sean on the phone. On the other hand, his position had always been that seminary discipline was a good thing for someone like Sean; it would make a man out of him. So he would not push either Father McCabe or Monsignor Flaherty, the rector, to bend the rules--as he had forced them to bend the rules to permit Nora to come on visiting Sundays.
"Missing isn't dead," Sean told himself. The Moose was right about that at least. If he had any faith at all, he would resign himself to God's will and hope for the best.
Reluctantly he reached for the battered brown spiral notebook in which he was keeping a journal--an idea he had not shared with his spiritual director, who would strongly disapprove, especially since he would guess quite correctly that Sean was doing it in imitation of Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain, a book upon which Father Meisterhorst frowned. Sean began to write.
Holy Thursday. The Last Supper. The First Mass. The beginning of the Priesthood. The night Jesus washed the feet of his disciples to show what authority meant. The night he called us not servants but friends. The night that he prayed to the Heavenly Father to protect his friends from evil. Dammit, Lord, you didn't protect Paul from evil. What will I do without him? Sometimes I don't understand him, but I love him and I don't want to lose him. I would give up the priesthood, give up anything, if he were still alive.
Why am I writing these lines? Are you out there listening, out there in the night sky with the half moon coming up over the lake?
He hesitated, his pen poised over the page.
Life seems to be nothing but heartbreaks. Mother dead. Aunt Jane the way she is. Now Paul probably gone. This Holy Thursday evening, I don't think I believe in you at all.
He tossed the pen aside and slammed the notebook closed. He must get back to work. McCabe was right. He ought not to pamper himself. He reached for the green-covered Latin philosophy textbook. He would memorize the pages he needed to know for tomorrow's recitation. He opened the philosophy book and flipped to the appropriate page. It was not required that you understood what Carolus Boyer was saying. It was only necessary that you be able to repeat it verbatim to the professor.
Suddenly he put the philosophy text aside and opened the notebook again. In large, bold print he scrawled three words: MISSING ISN'T DEAD!
A week later, on the visiting Sunday after Easter, Sean paid little attention to the solemn vespers in the main chapel. That afternoon he had had a conversation with his father that left him badly shaken.
It had never occurred to him that, with Mike Cronin's obsession about the family, it would be Sean's obligation to keep the Cronin name alive if anything ever happened to Paul. But after visiting hours, as Mike was getting into his limousine, he had turned to his son and said, "So it's understood that if Paul doesn't come back, you'll leave the seminary?"
Sean had been stunned. "Paul will come back," he said, hoping he sounded confident. "We have to believe that."
"Well, if he doesn't come back, we have to keep the family going."
That was the way it was with Michael Cronin. Decisions were made as though there had been discussion and consultation and agreement from everyone, but in fact the decisions were his and there was no appeal. Sean had always been aware that it was only luck that his desire to become a priest had corresponded with his father's wishes.
Later, at the Benediction after the vespers, the thought came to Sean that if Paul were dead he would also have to marry Nora.She had been brought into the Cronin family after the war, not only because her father, Edward Riley, had been General Cronin's aide on Leyte Island, but because the Rileys were a family with "good blood." She had been selected to bear the children who would keep the Cronin line alive. If Paul were dead, those children would be Sean's.
As the four hundred male voices sang enthusiastically "Holy God, we praise thy name," at the end of Benediction, Sean decided that the thought of Nora Riley as his wife and the mother of his children was disconcerting perhaps but not entirely unpleasant.
Copyright © 1982 by Andrew M. Greeley

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