I was raised in a devout household. My mother was a devout Catholic and my father was a devout Agnostic. The product of such a union was a bewildered girl with a strict code regarding what I’m not sure I believe in. But as a child, on Sunday mornings while my father was either working or fishing, my mother took my sister and me to mass.
My mother, having been educated by the Jesuits, knew all the complex rules and elaborate codes of her faith. You would think I would have been spared knowing these things, being fortunate enough to have a cheap mother who sent me to the public (read: free) school with all the other little heathens. But my mother made sure to pass along all her Catholic wisdom to my sister and me. For instance, we were not allowed to eat before going to mass, so we would be “pure” to receive the host. Another rule we strictly adhered to was that we mustn’t wear shorts to church or else we’d burn in hell.
But my mother’s favorite rule was that no wine could be left over after the service ended. So every week after mass, as people streamed out of church toward the pancake breakfast or the bars downtown, my mother directed us to the room behind the altar known as the sacristy where she volunteered for her Christian duty of finishing off the wine. It did not seem to matter to her that every member of the congregation had either dipped their host in the chalice or sipped their share from it outright, she grabbed it with both hands and guzzled Jesus’s blood just the same.
For many children, attending church for an hour a week isn’t for listening and learning, it’s a test of patience and a chance to see just how entertaining your imagination is. Each week I tried to will God to send a lightning bolt through the skylight above the priest’s head at the altar during the consecration of the host. I wasn’t trying to kill him, just wow the congregation with a sign from God. I would work on other psychic abilities too: trying to get the cute boys to turn around and sneak a peak at me, or dropping a ceiling fan on the old lady in front of us who warbled when she sang. And then there was the day I thought I acquired the unusual ability of being able to smell over extraordinarily long distances. I was staring in boredom at the flower arrangement below the lectern and then … I smelled the fragrant blooms. From fifteen rows back! (I counted!) I thought maybe God had given me the gift of superolfactory perception. It was a couple years before I realized it must have been perfume from one of the ladies nearby.
On typical Sunday mornings as children, we would attend Sunday school classes at the Catholic school on church grounds at 9:30 a.m. before heading to mass at 10:30. Introduction to Sunday school came with my own mother, who was the religious education instructor for the kindergarten class for more than a decade. I may have been only five at the time, but I can recall some of her lessons. One of them involved all the kids in class having to say what we thought God looked like. After a handful of “Santa” answers, my mom was overjoyed to hear me say I thought God looked like a cloud.
Another facet of teaching catechism to kindergarteners, according to my mother, was reading us Jewish literature, or at least Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. She read this book to her class every single year and still could never keep herself from sobbing at the end and terrifying all the children.
In fourth grade, our Sunday school teacher, Miss Miller, tried expanding our horizons by teaching us about other faiths. She drew the symbols of other religions on the chalkboard and then described to us what they stood for.
“This one is the cross. We are all Christians and our symbol is the cross because Jesus died on the cross.” We all nodded our heads. This we understood.
“This one is called the Star of David. It is the symbol for the Jews and may be what King David’s shield looked like when he was a young warrior.” Our eyes were beginning to glaze over. We lived in a small farming town in
. What was a Jew? Wisconsin
Next she drew what looked like two tadpoles canoodling. “This is the Yin and Yang. It’s about things that are opposites. Day and night, summer and winter, empty and full. It is a symbol for people who believe in the Chinese philosophy of Confucianism and Taoism.” Okay, we got the opposites, but that’s where it ended.
There were a couple other symbols she showed us that I have completely forgotten. At the end, Miss Miller asked us if we knew anyone who was a religion other than Christianity, symbolized by the cross.
My hand immediately shot up. Because I was the only one in the class raising her hand, Miss Miller called on me.
“Kelly, who do you know who has a religious faith represented by one of the other symbols on the board?”
“And which one is it?”
I had already decided on my story the first time I saw the symbol on the board. I liked space and wanted to think I partly came from some place cooler than Earth. “The star,” I told her.
“Oh!” Her facial expression was awash with wonder and acceptance. “The Star of David,” she gushed. “That means your dad is Jewish.” She was clearly fascinated to learn that a half Jew was sitting right here in front of her, in Catholic Sunday School. Jews for Jesus! That would also explain to her why my father was never at church with the rest of my family.
A little later that same year as we were studying the sacraments, we were taught how to baptize someone in an emergency. If there was not a priest around to perform the sacrament for an unbaptized person who was on death’s door, any individual could perform the rite. Therefore, the nine-year olds in our class were given instructions on how to wet one’s fingers and make the sign of the cross over the afflicted individual.
I was trying to think of a situation in which one of us could possibly find this information of use. Perhaps one of my little classmates would stumble upon a beaten-up drunk in an alley on the way home from school. Or maybe someone’s parents would still be in bed Saturday morning as one of the fourth graders sat up watching cartoons, and there would be a knock at the door. The child would open it, only to have a man pitch forward into the room with a bloody knife sunk in his back. Of course the kid wouldn’t really know if these men had already been baptized, but why take the chance that they hadn’t?
Fortunately for me, and everyone else in the class, Miss Miller already had a situation in mind when she decided to teach us emergency baptisms.
“For example,” she said, scanning the room until her eyes found me. “Kelly, let’s say you’re playing catch in the backyard with your father when he suddenly clutches at his heart and falls to the ground, his eyes rolling back in his head. Find some water, or if there is none available, spit will do, and wet your hands. Then make the sign of the cross over him, touching his forehead, heart, and shoulders as you say, ‘I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’” As she said the words, she drew a big cross in the air with her hands, blessing my father’s imaginary dead body in front of her.
I committed to memory the lesson of that class. Although I never did have to perform an emergency baptism on my father, I did put the lesson to use a couple years later.
My mother had found a “cute” holy water font. I would love to know at which store she was shopping when she ran across this item. The font was made of porcelain and meant to hang on the wall in a home. Above the small bowl for the holy water knelt a little angel praying. We decided to hang it on a nail above the light switch in my bedroom. In the lobby of our church was a little tin barrel with a spigot that was filled with holy water. Church members were welcome to take some of this water home with them to use for I-cannot-even-begin-to-imagine-what-purpose. One Sunday my mother took an old used cottage cheese container to church with us and filled it with holy water to put in the font in my bedroom.
Besides doing the sign of the cross when I entered and exited my bedroom, I soon found another use for the holy water.
My sister and I rarely got along. Four years older than I, she was in high school at the time and headed down the road toward becoming one of the world’s few female serial killers. She appeared to me to be nothing but evil. Her days consisted of spewing out insults at me, physically harming me if I so much as crossed the threshold of her room, and listening to an unhealthy amount of Prince on her record player. So for the most part I stayed out of her way and hid in my room, organizing my filing cabinet or rearranging my furniture, while she stayed in her room, trying on clothes, putting on makeup, and making lists of who she was going to kill first. Pretty much everyone in the house avoided her, except for one helpless little soul: her cat. And so it happened one night, after a particularly violent tirade that had her storming back in her room, slamming the door, and cranking up When Doves Cry at an obscene volume, that I whisked the vulnerable Kitty into my bedroom, locked my door, and performed the emergency baptism to save him from my sister, the Devil.
I dipped my fingers in the holy water in the font on my wall and recited the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” It was a bit tricky, because I wasn’t sure exactly where a cat’s shoulders end and the neck begins, but I fumbled my way through it, touching what I figured was close enough to the proper body parts.
Kitty lived to the ripe old age of twenty-two, and my sister never did become a serial killer. (That I know of.) My sister took it pretty hard when the cat died. She had the cat cremated and the ashes put into a little vessel that was small enough to wear on a chain around her neck. (Totally normal.) I never told her that I baptized her cat, but I like to think about how surprised she will be when she gets to Heaven and finds Kitty waiting for her.
After the sixth grade, religious education classes were taught on Wednesday nights instead of Sunday mornings. It was common for all school districts to hold sports practices Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, with Fridays free for our own recreations and Wednesdays for the kids to attend church classes. For my junior year, the classes were held in the basement under the rectory. There were two classes held in separate rooms, each taught by a volunteer from the church.
My class was taught by an older lady named Ms. Kulwicki, who was kind and maybe just a little too gullible. My friend Melanie and I could get her off topic and chatting endlessly until class time had run out and we had accomplished nothing on the curriculum. One day we got her going on the subject of capital punishment. We fueled the flames of her rant by asking innocent questions such as, “Why does the government think it can play God?” or “Doesn’t Jesus say that an eye for an eye is an outdated teaching and that we should learn to turn the other cheek?”
And then there was the day that Ms. Kulwicki didn’t show up. The fifteen or so kids in our class sat around the long table in their cold folding chairs and talked amongst themselves. About 10 minutes after class was supposed to have started she still hadn’t shown up. Someone decided to head upstairs and look in the parking lot for her. The rest of us thought it would be funny to turn off the lights. The room, being a windowless cement cell in the basement, was pitch black. A few kids started crawling under the table, poking at the other kids.
The student who had left returned to say there was still no sign of our teacher. We were not yet ready to ruin our “night off” by reporting her absence to the alternate teacher in the neighboring room or the priests upstairs. Kids began turning the lights on and off at random, walking in and out of the room, breaking off into groups to make jokes, sitting on the table, and hitting each other with their folders. The noise in the room was turning into a dull roar. After 45 of the 60 minutes of class time had elapsed, Melanie and another girl, Anna, volunteered to preach from the bible as a joke. The other students sat around the table and watched the stand-up routine while I said I would take one last look upstairs for our teacher. I walked out the door and turned the corner in the hall and nearly ran right into Ms. Kulwicki.
“I was just coming back out to look for you!” I exclaimed, unable to hide my surprise.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, rushing by. “I accidentally fell asleep!”
She opened the door to the classroom, and there, seated around the table, were a dozen 17-year-olds quietly listening to two of their female classmates taking turns reading from the bible. Our teacher was overwhelmed with the wholesomeness of her class and thanked Melanie and Anna profusely for taking over for her.
God has an amazing sense of humor.
But all was not fun and games in the Catholic Church. After I left home for college, the stories first began to break about the sins of certain Catholic priests and how the church had been hiding the fact that a number of their own had been molesting young boys. This did not come as a surprise to everyone. As many had already asked, What man feels a calling to a vocation where women are dressed in black obscuring sheets and are not given equal status to males? Or one that forbids marriage? I think it is a little telling that there is an old joke that says, “How do you get a nun pregnant? Dress her as an altar boy.”
I had my own version of this joke. I first told it to my sister on Christmas. I had just attended Christmas services with my boyfriend at his Protestant church. When I returned home my mother insisted that my sister and I go to Christmas mass with her. I was furious to be forced to attend two holiday services on the same day. We arrived at church just as the ceremony was starting, and since all the “faithful” had suddenly come out of the woodwork for the holiday, there was a full house. We were forced to stand in the back vestibule for the next hour, peering through the windows at the service with the other latecomers. It was at this point that I turned to my sister and whispered, “How do you get a nun pregnant?”
She gave me a blank stare.
“Fuck her,” I said.
It was good that we were standing outside the chapel, because there’s a chance that the priest didn’t hear us laughing till we cried. And now you know why I’m going to Hell. I’m going to miss Kitty.
Back when I was still going to Heaven.
First Communion, May 1981