I was twelve when my parents divorced.
My father was a 6’4” tall, golden haired, blue eyed American who’d served in the Pacific and returned home to the US, flourishing a delicate souvenir from the Philippine Islands. He was the first American she had ever met.
My tiny 4’ 10” tall mother, observing this new world through almond shaped eyes, looked up to see tall, white America, bending down to examine her. They spoke slowly and loudly at her, remarking to each other, “Isn’t she cute?” My mother had her Masters, a PhD in English literature, was fluent in four languages, and did not like to be referred to as cute.
After a painful decade and a half of having to buy her shoes in children’s stores, she broke the law and with two, half-white daughters in tow, escaped back to Manila.
I was a pre-teen when we stepped off the ocean liner. There was a fierce slap of intense heat, masses of laughing, hugging, kissing people, and as we drove to our new home, a general feeling of having fallen off the planet. There were signs with words that had no vowels. Even in those days everywhere was seriously noisy and crowded. People stared at me. At the welcome meal I thought the brown pudding was chocolate and was proudly informed that it was blood. Blood? BLOOD? Plus, we were in hiding because my mother was afraid my father would send detectives after us, so within a few weeks, my younger sister and I were installed in a private Catholic girl’s school: St. Paul’s College of Manila.
It was unclear. We were barely religious, maybe only very slightly Catholic … at Christmas. Who was St. Paul? We were children, why were we going to a college? Ah, the confusion was only beginning.
Both of us came equipped with English, Spanish and casual French. The lingua franca was Tagalog, which we could not read, write, nor understand in the slightest.
Both of us were much taller than the Filipina girls our age. My sister was a blonde. I had a tangled forest of curly hair. We were nothing like our classmates.
Like a nightmare in slow motion, we were buried alive in a landslide of shimmering, pitch black tresses, flowing from the heads of miniature nymphs. These girls didn’t guffaw their laughter, they giggled demurely. They didn’t argue a point; in disagreement they pursed their lips and lowered their eyes. They didn’t push or shove; they pouted and turned away slowly, lifting high, one perfectly curved eyebrow. We were prairie wildflowers blown into a hothouse of exotic orchids. They wanted to talk about love. They looked us over and asked … did we have a brother? We had no brother. Ohhh, tooooo baaaaad.
We also didn’t have the right shoes. The right socks. The right book bags.
This was the late 1960’s and we’d been raised by bohemians who’d encouraged us to speak our minds, ignore our appearance, and argue both sides of Fidel’s take-over of Cuba.
We were American peasants in bad need of a full spa make over.
To make matters worse, we had no father. Not only had my mother married a white man, she’d divorced him, and retuned home with two fatherless girls. This information produced a wave of scandalized shock that washed over everyone around us. Where is your father? Doesn’t he love you? Will he come to get you? Does he have another woman? Other children?
My sister, being younger, took it more in stride and prospered, artfully winning friends with her honeyed locks and dimpled smile. I closed and withdrew. My mother had managed to escape imprisonment on the wrong planet and one day, I would do the same. I was an alien who would never, ever, patronize a beauty parlor.
Then one morning, sitting alone on the steps of the school chapel, my life was changed by a bona fide miracle. I saw a tall man in a white cassock crossing the quadrant, Sister Nieves and Sister Joanna, hurrying to keep up with him. He was talking in the loud voice of the white male, not hushing his tones for propriety’s sake. He was striding along purposefully, not mincing his step to accommodate the women. The bright sun on his golden hair haloed him, making his approach akin to that of a bright comet. Was I dreaming? Was this a vision? Was I dead, but didn’t know it yet?
The vision marched straight towards me and hypnotized by my approaching destiny, I stopped breathing. Looking down at me, a homeless animal crouched on the stone steps of his domain, he smiled and said brusquely, “You must be the fatherless girl”. His eyes were blue, blue, blue. This was the first white man I’d seen since we’d left America. In coloring and shape he looked startlingly like my father, whose memory was steadily evaporating.
Sister Joanna said, “Her name is Lotis”.
Sister Nieves said, “Lotis, this is Father Reuter”.
I was paralyzed, a kitten before a tiger. Father Reuter put his large, white gold hand on my frizzy head and said, “Come on kid, talk to me, I’ll hear your confession”. Confession? What was that? What should I confess? That I felt ugly and stupid? That I hated this place? That I hated myself? Ignorant of the concept of personal sin, unaware of what confession was supposed to consist of, these were the things I told him.
I opened my heart to Father Reuter that day, and many, many more days, over the years to come. He heard my “confession” in person, every week or so, and the rest of the time, I talked to him in my heart, in my dreams, in my prayers. In reality he didn’t treat me any differently than any other little girl. I was no special pet or favorite. I don’t know if he even thought of me at all outside the confessional. I am unaware if I ever made any particular impression on him. No. It was him who made the impression on me.
Father Reuter, sent to the Philippines by the Jesuits just before WWII, was promptly interned by the Japanese at the start of the war. At wars end, the Jesuits asked him to stay on for a bit and he did … returning to the U.S. for a visit only once in the next 60 years. He was adamant about his love for the Philippines and was never shy in his affirmation of himself as intrinsically more Filipino than the real thing.
There was nothing of the effeminate about this priest. Nothing soft, flabby, or repelling. His love was not vague, distant, or carefully guarded. A gruffly practical, quick tempered, get to the point! kind of priest, he could grab you by the back of the neck, give you a shake, stare you down and demand immediate love and obedience in the same instant. He was a steely eyed, unflinching priest, who rarely whispered when he could shout, loved with an iron fist, and was simultaneously feared and adored, by all who knew him.
In this day of gross immorality, I don’t know if anyone can understand how, without the slightest hint of sexual impropriety, a little girl can love her priest and find salvation through him. But it is true. James Reuter was more than a man, or a priest. He was a father.
Before I knew God in the personal way I do now, I knew Father Reuter in place of Him. Before I could accept God as my Father, Father Reuter was there to model that role for me. I was a lost child who might have been lost forever, if not for this celibate male taking me for one of his children. He encouraged me to communicate my thoughts. He pushed me to develop my voice and believe in my dreams. He made me understand that even if I didn’t fit in, I was valuable.
After high school I went on to a life filled with many elaborate diversions. I did foolish things, and was pushed by a wild, curly haired nature, to adventures that sorely tried all around me. I can remember times I would pause for an instant and think, “I should go to Father Reuter for advice”, but pride mixed with shame, would erase the impulse. In my heart nestled a deep fear he might no longer love me. Anyway, I was an adult now, capable of dealing with life.
I no longer needed a father of any kind.
I finally did go to see Father Reuter, but only recently, some 40 years since I’d last seen him at my graduation. I’m not taller than I was in high school, but bent over with age he was now shorter than me. His trembling hands and feet were misshapen with arthritis. His golden hair was gone. He was wearing his cassock and seated in a wheelchair, yet when I entered he struggled to rise and kiss me.
I looked into his eyes and they were blue, blue, blue. I was twelve again and struck dumb with love. I could barely speak, and in his fatherly way he understood and did the talking for me. Nothing important really, just making enough sound to ease the tension and let the ghost years slip away. As time dissolved between us, the feeling of his strength, the powerful force of his love, the intensity and vigor of his fatherhood, coiled and wrapped itself around my heart, pulling me to my knees before God, in the very deepest of gratitude for this man.
Dear, dear priest of God, I never said this to you, but I always wanted to:
I love you Father Reuter, and I always will.