"I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I write and I understand." - Chinese proverb

Monday, January 25, 2010


Most of what I wore in 1968 was short vinyl skirts, white lipstick, and T-shirts that said things like "Sock it to Me, Baby" on the front. I don't remember what I wore to the memorial service that the Catholic church was having for Bobby Kennedy. My father roped me into going with him and I guess the reason he went was because he was a town official; we were not Catholic. (Or maybe I was, in a way...my mother had been raised as one, and only converted when she married my father ten years before I was born.)

It seemed that a woman -- any female -- had to wear a hat when she entered the church back then, even if it were only a lace-edged hankie pulled from a purse or pocket and placed squarely on top of her head. I did not wear scarves or hats on my head in church, so stood out as not being Catholic. But my father was with me in church, so I wasn't alone.

There were as many Catholic kids in my school as there were Protestants, so I knew a little bit from hanging out with my friends Beth and Mary and Carol. I knew about saint's names you take at First Communion (or was it Confirmation?) I knew that Catholics stopped short when they said the Lord's Prayer, while we Protestants went on to finish it off with "For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever," with an unuttered "so there" feeling about it. My father, in the church that day for Bobby Kennedy, started to finish the prayer after the rest of us said our "A-mens." His voice trailed off and his eyes flickered upward in some surprise and I thought, I wonder if he is embarrassed, and I felt smug. What a marvelous thing it is when you know more than your father and you're only 12. (Now, more than 40 years later, I am at a crossroads: still trying to show off and make my father proud, but protectively watching him so he'll do things and say things properly.)

The Catholic church was definitely another world. There were vessels of clear water in the vestibule that everyone dipped their fingers into and touched to their faces and their chests in the sign of the cross. Inside, they bowed quickly in the aisles, making this sign again before they went to sit down in the pews. There were platforms to kneel on inside the pews, too; my father rested his feet on one, which I thought might be shameful, but I didn't say a word. Perhaps, I thought, he will look at me, so poised and reverent, and take a notion that this is how one behaved in a Catholic church.

Inside the dimly lit sanctuary, smoky trails ran heavenward from pots of burning incense, caught in the thousand colors from the stained glass windows on either side of us. There were no cushions to sit on, but there was an opulent feel nonetheless; the church I'd been baptized in was devoid of ornamentation. It was a spare looking boxy white Congregational with a dirt driveway and a PA system that at Christmas time, played off-key carols from the belfry. It seemed larger than St. Joe's, but I suspect the opposite may have been true.

There were white-painted (usually peeling) pews with slippery red velvet cushions and dusty brown hymnals stuck in brackets on the backs. The floor was plain wood, carpeted in bits and pieces, scratched; the windows were tall and bare, and the altar always full of simple, fresh flowers almost still bearing the handprints of the stocky, aproned women of the Ladies Benevolent Society who had picked and arranged them moments ago.

The Catholics did not sing the same songs as we; we sang "Onward Christian Soldiers," and "This Is My Father's World." The Catholics sang unrecognizable Latinish operettas that I nonetheless heard for what they were -- genetic memory, perhaps.

Even back then, though, I envied the Catholics their rituals. I envied their nonchalant piety, the cold comfort they seemed to derive from rite and ceremony. They were pious and honest in their hypocrisy. I wondered what would really happen to the Catholics if they ate meat on a Friday, or thumbed their noses as they drove by the statues on the front lawn outside. I wondered what it would be like to commit a wrongdoing -- any wrongdoing -- and have it wiped from existence by repeating the same prayer the required number of times. (Was the number subjective, or was there actually a formula for redemption? I still don't know.) In our church it wasn't that simple. We were supposed to be good and do good because if we weren't we would rue the day, and God would not forgive us until some time after we'd died. If we got into Heaven.

In the Catholic church I watched as parishioners filed up front and solemnly took a wafer into their mouths from the priest's hand. I could do that too, I thought, if it made you feel better in some way, made you forget some of the anxiety and uncertainty and indecision and very grown-up fears of not knowing what I'm supposed to do next in the world. In our church there were tiny wooden shelves with three round holes in them tacked to the back of the pew in front; inside were round rubber rings designed to hold the small glass Communion cups. We rarely had Communion, though. As kids, we'd surreptitiously work the work the rubber rings out of the holes during boring sermons, and see if we could bounce them off of other kids without anybody noticing. I imagined the custodian sweeping up on Sunday afternoon or Monday morning, finding legions of these rubber rings in the aisles and under the pews. Sometimes I would hang back after church while my parents made conversation with people, and I would scramble around after the rings I could see and wedge them back into the holes. It made me feel better to do this. There was no doubt of that.

Around the time the Catholics were relaxing their rules about meat on Fridays and women without hats, our church was jazzing things up with "Friendship Sunday" where you had to turn and shake hands with the people on either side of you, in front and in back, whether you really felt like it or not, and announcements of fund drives and meetings and tennis camp were all made from the altar.

And then P.F. Sundays where the teenagers took over (imagine, 1972, when the words "peace in our time" had such a tired, desperate ring, and we all went up front to strum our guitars and sing "Morning Has Broken," thinking it was an original Cat Stevens song). I still went to Lenten potluck suppers, but in paisley jumpsuits with silver rings on every finger and leather earrings and patchouli oil. Was the whole world breaking into bits or was it just me?

With my father standing stoic and very tall beside me, we were sad for Bobby Kennedy and his wife and his dozen children, and for a world always at war -- small wars and big wars -- and even for not saying prayers the same as the Catholics. My mother's small Bible, white leather with silken ribbon bookmarks and gold-edged, vividly colored pictures of saints, presented to her by "Sister Mary," would fit very nicely into this church. My father's, black, straightforward and dog-eared, would probably not.

Ceremoniously, the Catholics dipped to their knees again and we filed out of church, heads down, that day. I once heard someone refer to the Protestants, like Republicans, as the "haves," and the Catholics the "have-nots" of America. This made me worry. What could I have possibly had that my mother, growing up Catholic, did not? Worry, perhaps. That things would not stop changing, that my world would not stop spinning for the moments it took to say five Hail Mary's...that no heavenly symmetry existed to guide me, that I would never know a miracle.

On that day, though, I walked out of church with my friends Beth, Mary and Carol, while the constables held back traffic for us and we ran ahead of our mothers and fathers to the parish center parking lot.

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