The day my sister received her First Communion, she declared that she was going to grow up and marry God. That breezy May afternoon, as I tried to disappear by pressing my back against the wire mesh of the church garden fence, I watched my mother drop to the grass, squeeze Rosemarie’s face in her hands, and kiss her cheeks until they glistened. Having been handed some kind of hard lemon candy during the service, I sucked on it furiously until my mouth felt slimy and hot, and stared at the gray tights that dribbled downward from my gray skirt and curdled around my ankles. In my imagination, my small hands sank into the spotless white meringue of Rosemarie’s dress and yanked her back and forth until she collapsed into the staining green of the lawn.
“Lovely news, everybody,” my mother repeated later on as she strolled through the house at the family brunch, “Rosemarie, bless her heart, wants to be a nun.” I wanted to be a papergirl.
I remember the day when she came to a breathless halt before me on the black hardtop during her first round ever of Girls Chase the Boys and, swatting her hair from her eyes, announced, “I think I’m going boy crazy, Teri – don’t tell Mom.” From then on I preferred to spend my recesses standing on the stoop outside the second grade door, far from the path of sixth graders practicing seventh grade cheers, despising the ruffled ankle socks that my mother had shoved on my feet for the day and feeling sorry for myself, some seven-year-old baby who should be falling from the swings. I longed to be half as important as Rosemarie when I reached the fourth grade, darting expertly across the field in white Nike sneakers tattooed by red and blue ink – initials and hearts and bubble exclamation points – and tackling boys with sweaty foreheads that would writhe under my palms and those of a half a dozen others. “Yes, I’m related,” I said immediately when teachers read my name from the roll on the first day of school each fall. “I’m her sister.”
By the end of October, Rosemarie had developed a crush on her C.C.D. teacher. “He’s a batch-lor,” my mother said when Rosemarie was assigned to his group. “There must be something wrong with a 30-year-old man who is still not married.”
“He has a dog,” Rosemarie said. “I like dogs.”
Once a week, she tossed me a goodbye from the top of the Hoover Elementary School driveway and bounded across the street with her friend Andrea, cutting through somebody’s unkempt yard on her way to Mr. Kelleher’s apartment building with the turquoise foyer walls.
“Mr. Kelleher took us to St. Joseph’s to light a candle and say a prayer,” she said one Tuesday night as she slid into her seat at dinner with her skin blotchy from the air, breath whistling quietly. Her freshness energized me, the waft of cool air she brought to the table. “We’re going to do it every week.”
My mother’s lips pursed in delight. “Who did you light a candle for tonight?”
“Heather Manzelli,” my sister replied, “because she broke her leg playing kickball yesterday.” She wrinkled the freckled nose that I had always coveted. “We all heard it pop. It was gross.”
My father deposited his keys on the kitchen counter with a clang. “Well, aren’t you the little angel,” he said, and winked at me. My mother snatched up the keys and hung them on the white plastic hook magnetized to the freezer. I lowered my eyes to my plate. My filmy shadow hovered in the pure white ceramic circle that awaited nourishment.
“From now on,” my mother continued, and placed her hand gently on the crown of Rosemarie’s head, “I’ll give you a dollar every week to light a candle for someone, because you see, you should donate to the church every time you borrow a wish.”
“Okay,” Rosemarie said.
She confided in me as we brushed our teeth that night, explaining how Mr. Kelleher had brought out the special boxed cookies from the bakery once everybody besides her and Andrea had gone, how they had listened to jazz music on the record player and danced barefoot on the scratchy rug in the living room until my father’s cheerful series of curbside honks serenaded them from their exclusive party. And then, every Tuesday, with her matter-of-fact air, she began to relay to me the sweet way Mr. Kelleher had instructed her to read aloud from the workbook in front of the group, or how he had let her stroke samples from his porcelain dog collection that was off-limits to all others, or how he had offered her the only pink lemonade juice box left in the refrigerator when he gave everyone else iced tea. I began having dreams about him taking my sister away, riding on the backs of angel-winged canine figurines that had come to life. Then, two-thirds into the school year, Rosemarie let it slip that Mr. Kelliher had sent all of the other kids on a scavenger hunt around the neighborhood for “natural signs of God’s presence” while he let her watch the movie Sixteen Candles on the new TV/VCR combo unit in his bedroom.
“But I love Mr. Kelleher,” Rosemarie sobbed. “You’re mean.”
My mother kept her back to us and shifted back and forth at the white-tiled counter, her hands working on something we couldn’t see. I studied the way her dress pulled taut across her back and then relaxed into creases and ripples with her jerky movements. I held my breath.
“A young girl being alone with a man like that is inappropriate,” she said evenly, still not facing us. “Mr. Kelleher is inappropriate.”
“I wasn’t alone,” Rosemarie insisted. “I was with Andrea.” She dragged her nose across her sleeve, then rubbed her sleeve against her jeans.
I leaned against her and patted her thin hair, slick strands of it clinging to her red, damp skin. It worried me to see my sister the target of my mother’s unfairness, but at the same time, it made me feel satisfied and safe, as if I were standing just outside the circle of a very bright and incriminating spotlight on an otherwise blackened stage.
My mother paused. “All right then. Two young girls being alone with a man like that is inappropriate. When you grow up and live a little, you’ll thank me. You’ll learn.”
“I won’t learn,” Rosemarie said, and instantly produced more tears. “I won’t.”
“I’ll teach you the Catholic faith on my own,” my mother said. “Both of you. Enough of this nonsense.” She turned around and smiled at us with the kind of smile that reflected in her eyes, the one that meant her temporary grudge was over, but also that the discussion was over and she had won. “Besides…I bet Mr. Kelleher doesn’t serve your favorite chocolate-banana trifle.”
Later on, as Rosemarie and I were sitting in our respective doorways talking before bed, I watched her chip dried white paint from her door frame with her fingernail until natural pine finish emerged. She was breaking the little shards in her palm and then scattering them on the Oriental runner.
“Rose?” I said.
“What are you doing with that money Mom gives you?”
“I’m saving it,” she whispered, and took her fingers away from the paint. She pulled her knees to her chest and stretched her nightgown over her legs and feet, studying how her body now looked beneath the red flannel. “Someday, I’m gonna go somewhere. On a bus. Or maybe a plane.”
My throat pulsed with fear. “Can I go?”
She let her nightgown spring back into its normal shape. “You better start lighting candles,” she said.
Catholicism became one, all-encompassing rule for me, a kind of huge plastic mold, as if my mother were pouring Rosemarie and me into it little by little, maneuvering us into all the crevices. “My perfect little holy morsels,” she would say when we dressed in ugly pastels on Sundays, and I would feel like a cartoon walking across the church lawn and then up to the altar for the Eucharist, flawlessly shaped and packaged. Our tenth grade weekend Confirmation retreat at St. Joseph’s was supposed to be the most enlightening experience of our young adult lives, she said, something that would finally make us “thoughtful” and “appreciative.” I remember thinking that things could be worse than making biblical tree ornaments and playing some mock trivia game show with categories like “Genesis” and “Miracles,” sleeping on the floor in musty sleeping bags that smelled like the wooden floors in attics and passing around a bulging tube of pre-packaged cookie dough. And then, Saturday night, the coordinators shuffled us off to confession.
“We have a treat for you later,” they had been teasing us all day. “A surprise.”
My mother had forced me into confessionals plenty of times, where I knew the wire grating between cubicles sliced the image of my face into dim, indistinguishable pieces, and the priest was only a voice that mumbled detached words of forgiveness. But now, we waited somberly in pews outside of Father Roland’s office, and I rehearsed my part silently while picking at the stiff, chapped skin of my lips. “Forgive me father, for I have sinned…” I hoped that I would be able to survey him without giggling at his sincere, grave expression. “I forgot to say the rosary last night because I was studying for a history test…” His office was tiny and dark and smelled like new plastic upholstery – and something else. It could have been cigarettes. “I swore at my mother behind her back because she made me stay in on Friday night…” I sat before him on a cushioned chair and crossed my legs, pressing the palm of my hand against my chest to slow my heart, and struggled to think of sins that were contemptible enough. “I look and sound like a Catholic, but that’s all.”
“What did you do when you went in there?” I whispered to Emily once I had reached safety in our pew afterwards, not meeting her eyes, my hands clasped against my forehead because we were supposed to be praying.
“I kneeled in front of him but faced the wall to show that I was modest,” she said. “That’s what Gina Crimshaw told me to do.”
“Oh,” I said. “Yeah…that’s right.” I closed my eyes and my face tingled. “I did that too.”
The following day, as my mother drove me home, I told her that I felt something, crouched in that enormous and ghastly quiet place, only the figure of a limp Christ on the cross with his head bowed in reverence – or was it defeat? – illuminated over the altar. She claimed that I had sensed Jesus entering my body, preparing me for my acceptance of the Holy Spirit. I thought it had been panic.
In my opinion the Catholic Church has made a lot of mistakes both in its doctrine and its choice of clergy. Many of us brought up in that faith have been misled and traumatized. However, we have free will, and the message of most religions in an absolute belief in the power of goodness, so we ignore human falibilities and concentrate on the god -like power of our own capacity for goodness. Children learn most powerfully from the messages of goodness, charity, forgiveness, and respect in the words and example of their parents. I’m sorry for your little girl character who is being upset by Catholicism,
The dreaded box . . . sitting in the pew waiting for the red light to turn to green signaling my turn is coming. While waiting for that turn, dreaming up “sins” that would make this all worthwhile. What did we have to confess at age 7 or 8 so that we could be holy and pure again? Liz, you brought all those feelings back that I haven’t thought about in decades.