Holy Family

I thought the sets of our childhood were supposed to shrink with age.

The little church looked larger. Much larger.

“That’s because it is,” Momma whispered a bit too loudly — people two pews in front of us turned around to look. I smiled and put my arm around her. They smiled and turned back to the front.

“That’s the Franciscan Room.” She pointed forward and to the right. Just beyond The Stations of the Cross (carved by the brilliant, drunken man who beat his wife and children and died alone and blind three years ago), stood an open door, above which hung a limestone cast of The Virgin’s head in silhouette. I had no memory of it.

If it’s The Franciscan Room, why is Mary’s head hanging over it?”

My mother gave me a look that has not diminished in potency with age. A familiar look that meant Why do you always ask such silly questions?

I hushed.

We were early. Of course. On Time for my mother is twenty minutes early — minimum. Still, there were others even more timely than we, and the church appeared to be filling up rather quickly for a Saturday evening mass.

“Are there always this many people?” I asked, forgetting for a moment that she would no longer know. Momma had been too ill, too broken in body and spirit to attend mass alone — to attend mass at all — for almost three years now. I was still unsure why she had asked me to take her tonight.

“I don’t think so,” she answered, choosing either to ignore my mistake, or, like me, finding herself swept into the past, into a time when she was the indefatigable, independent Matriarch of a Good Catholic Family. “Just leave your coat on if you want to.”

I smile, recognizing the code for, Don’t take off your coat — you’re not dressed up enough.

She certainly was. At seventy-nine, after a major heart attack, a triple by-pass, the death of an adult child, and years of countless other challenges, my mother still “looks like money”, as an uncle always says. She refuses to leave the house without starched clothes, make-up, jewelry, and “my hair” — a beautiful clip of curls that just matches her own and pins to the back of her head.

Sitting beside me as the last rays of a winter day filtered softly through the stained glass, she was aglow with a translucent beauty born of struggle and pain. I slipped my hand under hers. Looking forward silently, she squeezed it.

I looked around. The little church was sparsely but beautifully decorated for Christmas. Two large trees flanked the altar and blood-red poinsettias paid homage to each statue — The Virgin, The Sacred Heart, St John the Evangelist. From above, came the tremolo refrains of,

“The Old Rugged Cross???” I whispered.

Momma squeezed my hand again — much tighter — and leaned in to whisper, “That’s the old man who used to play for First Baptist. He converted a few years ago and really wants to play the organ here. But, he can’t read music, which means he can’t play from the Catholic hymnal, so…”

“So, The Old Rugged Cross…” I smiled, turning around to try to catch a glimpse of him.

Momma poke the top of my hand with her mauve-painted nail. “Turn around,” she hissed. I did.

“They only let him play before and after — not during,” she said, as though the man were lucky to be allowed even that. I smiled and shook my head, looking around at the filling pews.

I had not been in this church since my father’s funeral, eighteen years before. Walking into it tonight, I was flattened first by the smell — incense, flowers, cold air, crisp marble, waxed wood — scents that had not changed since the childhood years I had spent in this building. Spent at first in love, then in loathing. Love, when I was innocent enough to believe without question that there was, indeed, a God; a God who gave his son — his wonderful, loving, kind son — and that I could visit them both at any time, just by walking into this church. The loathing grew as I did, as my questions were met by the slaps and whacks and bitterness of women whose habits covered more than their wizened bodies; as my wide-eyed innocence was exchanged for wide-eyed disgust at what passed for “one holy, Catholic, and apostolic faith”.

“Are you alright?”

My mother’s brow furrowed as she looked at me. “You’re sweating. Are you sick?” She touched a tissue to my forehead.

I swallowed, tried to nod, then was jolted into the present by the ringing of bells and the metal scrape of swords unsheathed. I jumped and turned in the direction of the sound.

Lining the aisle were a dozen men. Middle aged to aged men. Each dressed in a black wool uniform with a red sash and a white plumed hat that made me think of Napoleon. The men each held a sword above them across the aisle to another, creating a kind of canopy the length of the aisle. I turned back to Momma who was struggling to her feet.

“Whats that?” I asked, helping her to stand.

“The Knights of Columbus”, she said, holding tight to the pew in front of us. She was so shaky.

With one arm around her, I turned to watch as the poor, Convert organist was replaced by a Cradle Catholic who began the strains of some hymn that was not The Old Rugged Cross. From the foyer came a procession of white-robed men, boys, and, to my surprise, one woman, each carrying a candle, book, or censer, leading the way to the altar before a green and gold robed priest and a red-mitred,

“Bishop,” my mother whispered. “I wonder why hes here?”

Watching the procession, the lights around me seemed to dim while the pew-back turned to putty beneath my hands. I sat down hard, the seat creaking beneath me.

Watching the procession, the lights around me seemed to dim while the pew-back turned to putty under my hands.  I sat down hard, the seat creaking beneath me.

“What is the matter with you?” Momma hissed, causing others to turn around as well. “Do you need to go to the car?”

I had to laugh. That was a question we never wanted to hear growing up. Going to the car meant a thrashing, either in the car or once we got home. Laughing softly, I pulled myself back up to stand beside her. Momma was not smiling.

Somehow we made it through the first half of the mass with all its sitting and standing, to the Homily, where we found out the reason for all the pomp. It turned out that my mother had decided to go to mass for the first time in three years on a triple-holy-day — The Feast of the Holy Family, The Name Day of St John the Evangelist (patron saint of the church), and the induction of a new parish priest.

“It’s about time they found one,” Momma muttered.

We’ll be here for hours, I thought, looking around as the bishop spoke.

The church was about three-quarters full, with a great number of Hispanic families and others that I couldn’t even begin to recognize. Yet, I noticed two “family pews” filled as from my childhood — the O’Hara’s, third pew left and the Coopers, tenth pew right. n my youth, the O’Hara’s had taken up two full pews with fourteen children and grandchildren that began before the last child of the first generation was out of diapers. Now, Mr and Mrs O’Hara were alone, his Irish head still thick with black hair and hers with red, though both seemed smaller and more bent than I remembered.

The Cooper pew, however, was full. Full of still-blonde heads though some showed more scalp than others. Kit and Jim, “the twins”, my age, were both there, Jim with a dark haired spouse, Kit alone. I seemed to remember Momma saying that Kit had been through a bad divorce and had “taken to drink, just like her mother, poor thing”. The mother was there beside her, next to her husband and his spray-on hair. Had it always been like that, I wondered, or was there a time when it really was bushy and brown?

Sitting there staring at the back of Cooper heads, I tried to imagine their past forty years. Forty years spent coming “up the hill” each Sunday to 10:00 mass — The Mass — from when Kit and Jim were barely more than toddlers until now with children, even grandchildren, of their own. How do you do it?, I wondered. For years in the same tiny town, the same little church. Forty years of life in the same pew.

Everyone stood to walk to communion and I turned to Momma. “Would you like me to walk you up?”

“You can’t go,” she said, then was immediately sorry she had — I could see that in the quick look she gave to the tops of her shoes. “I mean, I don’t think I can walk that far”.

I patted her hand in agreement and reassurance. I knew the walk would have been difficult for her, but I also knew why she really didn’t want to go. She knew that I was “unfit” for Communion — the fallen away always are — unfit and unclean — too unclean to receive the body and blood of Christ. Walking her to the rail, I’d have had to step behind while she received. I’d have had to stand, waiting and marked,or, even worse, I might have dared to take the host and wine myself and been damned for all eternity — and in front of the entire congregation.

Twenty years earlier, I’d have started a row about hypocrisy and the evils of The Church. Ten years earlier, I’d have condescendingly insisted that she allow me to help her up there, regardless. But tonight, I simply sat with my arm around her, holding her as she cried softly into my Granny’s handkerchief, sorry that I was — still — another disappointment in her life.

The mass finally ended and the procession made its way back down the aisle beneath the Knights’ crossed swords. Momma’s exhaustion was palpable as she worked her way into her gloves. Two or three friends came by to greet her with hugs and exclamations of love and happiness to see her — genuine exclamations I could tell and for perhaps the first time since her illness, I realized that her family are not the only ones who miss Betty Jo.

The little church was almost empty when I stood to help her to the car. Still sitting, Momma looked up at me, her eyes shining with sadness. I’m sorry, sugar,” she said quietly.

“Sorry?”, I asked. “Sorry for what, Momma?”

“I’m sorry for making you come here,” her voice was solemn, soft, sincere. “I know how miserable it makes you.”

Uncertain how to respond, I sat back down beside her. She took my hand and kissed it. “I just want you to know how much I appreciate it.”

In that moment, all the closeness of the world slipped away. All that my mother had ever wanted for me, all that I had hated her for wanting, all the anger and disappointment we had heaped upon each other for decades, dissolved into the incense filled air of that little church on the hill, leaving behind two women, a beautiful older one, and her not-so-beautiful middle aged daughter, smiling head to head in the deepening dark.

c. sdmrogers 2008