(Image from www.philomena.org)
BY BRIAN DOYLE
Probably my single favorite memory from teaching Sunday school, at the harried request of my pastor, who lost his usual Sunday School teacher suddenly when she married a Hindu doctor and converted on her honeymoon, was the time a small girl, this was a child named, I kid you not, Philomena, said to me, in her glorious piping voice exactly like the voice of a wren if the wren was four feet tall with a ponytail, 'Jessed Blesus!' in answer to a question of mine which required the answer 'Blessed Jesus', for reasons I cannot now recall.
However I do recall, as clearly as I can remember anything in my long life, standing there at the front of the classroom, trying not to fall down laughing, trying to be respectful to and protective of Philomena against the blast of howling merriment from the rest of the class, and trying to keep my brain in its brainpan, although it desperately wanted to sprint off giggling and contemplate the implications for Christianity and human history if the Thin Mysterious Genius had been called Blesus rather than Jesus.
Also a large percentage of my addled being wanted to then and there contemplate nomenclature (the evangelists Blatthew, Blark, Bluke, and Blohn, or Saint Belizabeth of Hungary, and things like that), but I had to pull myself together, because Philomena, who usually couldn’t care less about slings and arrows from her classmates, was starting to look a little shaky, and I really liked Philomena, who had once said to me that the greatest basketball player who ever played would have been the Madonna ‘if she had bothered to try, but she was busy,’ as Philomena said, so I quelled the class with my Dad Voice, the one that frightens dogs and birds if I use it outdoors, and we went back to studying holiness and grace.
After class, though, Philomena and I had a good long talk.
Her mum, I had learned, lived on interstellar time, and if she said she would be at the door of the class to pick up her daughter at two, that meant 2:44, although I had come to appreciate her creative excuses, and have often thought that I could never have written novels without the experience of Philomena’s mum, who once used the phrase ‘zoo emergency’ to me, two words that still warm me on cold mornings when I think of them, usually while shaving.
I have several times cut myself shaving after remembering the words zoo emergency. Try it for yourself, if you want. Just be careful.
Philomena knew full well that the class had laughed at her because she had transpoised the words, as she said, but her attitude to matters of this sort was that people in general were a little too fussy about vowels and consonants marching in proper order, and if you not only got the sense of what she was trying to communicate, but also a little zest and verve of novelty, well, that wasn’t so bad, was it?
I agreed wholeheartedly with her about this, although as her teacher, and a man who really liked and admired her, I did make clear that goofing and riffing on language was one thing if you knew the rules and regulations, but another if you did not, the latter being a slippery slope that would lead to the fifth circle of hell, where everyone wears Los Angeles Lakers jerseys.
She agreed that she ought to know the rules and regulations, and I assigned her some admirably clear and rhythmic reading as homework (any three chapters of the New Testament, in the King James translation, for the burly shouldery prickly cadence of it, which I thought she would enjoy), and then we spent about ten minutes happily riffing on names and words that we thought might wake up a little if we edited them a bit, ‘temperaturarily,’ as Philomena said – things like the man in the blycamore tree, and the Book of Blisaiah – and then her mum came, at 2:44 on the button.
I do not know what planet it is that operates exactly forty-four minutes later than this one, but it must be a very interesting planet indeed.
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, Oregon, USA. His most recent book is Grace Notes, a collection of spiritual essays.
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