I never had a firm foothold on religion.
My mother was a practicing Catholic.
I remember frilly dresses and having to keep a hat on my head for the entire service.
My older sister did her first confession and then had her first communion. Somewhere around that time, she was even allowed to choose a new name for herself.
Even though it was not a name she could use for anything but church, I envied my sister the freedom of that choice.
I couldn’t wait until it was my turn to choose a white dress and miniature veil for the culminating faux wedding when like my sister, I would get to devote my life to Catholic worship. Along with twelve other little girls and boys.
When I was preparing for my confession, my mother discovered something that would bring shame to our family. Her solution was that I should change churches altogether.
I would attend a church that did not require confession at all.
The following Sunday I got ready for church. When I headed to the car with my sister and Dad, my mother pulled me aside.
“Not you,” she smiled. “You be going to church with the Toby’s today.”
“Then you’ll have pancakes,” she added brightly.
“They leave an hour from now, watch the clock.”
At seven years old, I didn’t want to admit that I couldn’t tell time yet.
As soon as my family pulled out of the street, I went next door to the Toby’s.
Mrs. Toby opened the door and looked exasperated at me, “Didn’t your parents tell you that we don’t leave for an hour?”
“No” I answered dumbly.
She pointed to the direction of the boys’ room with her chin and turned around and started folding laundry furiously.
I walked down the hall to George’s bedroom. When I opened the door and they were standing there in their underwear.
Nobody seemed uncomfortable. Not even when George’s Mom popped her head in and yelled at them to hurry up and get dressed.
George was my age and had been in my first-grade class, so I knew him pretty well. His little brother was about three and still spoke baby talk.
George had to translate for him.
Looking back, I wonder how much of what George translated was true, and how much was made up.
The protestant service was shorter, in a language I understood. Even the Lords Prayer was shorter.
The Minister said that we should all say a prayer of thanks for the birth of Baby Girl Jennings. While everybody prayed, I silently cheered. My mind was lost with thoughts of telling Janet how lucky the baby was, being born on a holiday. I wanted to tell her about my family and all our holiday birthdays.
I loved to talk to grown-ups.
After Mass, ( I was reminded by Mrs. Toby not to call it that) we were invited downstairs for punch, coffee, and cake, but The Toby’s had bigger plans.
They took me to Wall’s Diner and we all had Pancakes and Bacon, except Mr. Toby had a side of eggs with his. Scrambled I think.
That day, each member of my family came home from Catholic church with their own palm fronds.
The next week, Easter Sunday, we all had the same performance of short service, except with a celebratory surprise. The new Baby was being baptized and we were all invited down to a church reception in the basement for treats.
They were serving punch, coffee, dainty sandwiches’ and some ghastly pastel baby booties. These unholy concoctions were made with three marshmallows tooth-picked into the shape of a baby shoe. They were frosted thickly with pink, yellow and mint green cake decorating paste. Even I could only eat one.
But the Toby’s and I continued on, (Not until George, his brother and I each filched a baby booty.)
Georges parents pretended not to notice, and we all went for pancakes and bacon again.
The next week, my mother told me that George and I would be walking to church together with Georges little brother.
Apparently, those Pancake breakfasts and George’s parents were only for Holy Days.
It wasn’t such a big deal, it was only a short walk down the hill, I had done it loads of times by myself to run to the store and get cigarettes for my dad or a jug of milk so heavy to carry that it took forever to get it home.
“Surprised it hasn’t soured by the time you get it here,” my sister would muse
I didn’t care, I had missed a chance at talking to Janet Jennings about her new baby Melissa, last week and I still looked forward to it. I had rehearsed a speech in my head over and over, and it grew in eloquence each time I silently practiced it.
I hadn’t said it out loud yet, I didn’t want to give it away. I wanted the words to tumble out as an easy wisdom. A kind of blessing.
It wouldn’t do, to be caught, audibly rehearsing it.
The only problem with walking that day was that the wart on the bottom of my foot was bothering me. When we arrived at the church, instead of going into the chapel, George and his brother directed me upstairs to Sunday school.
There I was taught a song about the Bible.
I can still sing it today, but I’ll spare you.
We had a snack a break, with juice and plain vanilla wafers. After snack, we played some kind of religious Ring around the Rosie.
I don’t exactly recall the game, but I do remember it ending with one of the boys punching my arm.
“That just means he likes you,” Mrs. Anderson assured me.
Mrs. Anderson noticed me limping and asked me about it. I told her about a wart I had, and she sat me down, and I pulled off one of my black vinyl Mary-Janes.
I peeled off my frilly sock and revealed a blackened foot.
For some reason, I had skipped my weekly bath the night before.
Then I remembered my mother commenting that there was no way anyone would see my feet through socks and shoes anyway.
Mrs. Anderson looked at the wart and wrote a note to my mother.
After class, we were herded down to the chapel.
But it was the Old Peoples’ service. And it seemed to go on longer than the previous Holiday celebrations.
And it wasn’t the minister giving the sermon. It was his helper, who stumbled over bible phraseology, and wasn’t very satisfying.
When I think of it now, I realize he must have been a second minister.
During the boring service, I took off my shoe and started rubbing my foot leaving my sock on.
I looked up to see my neighbor, Mrs. Tebbits observing and scowling at me. Mrs. Tebbits is the kind of woman who will complain to your parents if you walk on her lawn, talk to her cat, or get her attention in general.
I put my shoe back on.
After the service, I told George, I would see him the next day on the school bus. I took the steps to the basement, hopping on one foot because the other one hurt so much.
When I reached the next to the last stair, I landed squarely face to face with old bitchy Tebbits yet again. She turned and hobbled away muttering about sanctity, not playgrounds. I was later to learn there was shortcut stairwell for the Altar Guild women.
I followed her into the basement reception room where the Church held cheap wedding and funeral receptions, girl scout meetings.
Instead of the array of treats that had been promised the prior weeks, the offerings were a plate of Coconut Macaroons and Sanka Powder with hot water.
I had stumbled into the old people’s coffee hour.
I hate Coconut.
When I got home as I changed into play clothes, the phone rang.
It was the old bitch Tebbits complaining about my behavior at church.
I gave my mother the note from my Sunday school teacher.
My mother read it and her eyes went fiery.
She said menacingly. “You took your sock off for your teacher?”
“She told me to.”
Later that night, at bath time, my mother scrubbed the bottom of my feet with unusual vigor.
“Ouch ouch OUCH!” I cried.
She rubbed and rubbed the sore wart over and over.
“If you weren’t so filthy you wouldn’t get warts.”
The next day she came home with a bottle of wart remover. She read the directions to me and gave me the bottle to use. A few weeks later, the wart popped out on its own.
A cylinder of skin. It looked so cool I was loath to throw it away.
My sister said it was gross, so I discarded it with great reluctance
My mother now declared that I was so bad, we all had to stay home from church. I couldn’t be trusted on my own.
About a week after we stopped going to church(es), I finally ran into a very tired Janet Jennings, absentmindedly pushing a baby carriage up and down our crumbly asphalt street.
I ran up to the side of the carriage and blurted out, “It’s lucky Melissa was born when she was.”
“Huh?” Responded a comatose new mother.
“She… well, she won’t die on a holiday, so it’s lucky, I mean some of us do, I mean, die on a holiday…” My voice trailed off.
“Yes,” She said distractedly, “I suppose…”
I hopped off, on my good foot, to protect my warty sole.