This piece was featured in my published anthology,
"Product of the Storm."
Child of a Catholic
The smells of Sundays past live well within my nostrils. It’s not so much the presence of; it’s the absence of. Normally mornings at our house meant a melody of aromas, consisting of bacon, berry muffins, hot chocolate or various flavors of oatmeal. However, those specific mornings were select to the hustle and bustle of the weekdays. On Sundays, stale morning air accompanied the “Wake up…Wake up… …Wake up…It’s time for church,” echoing relentlessly throughout the hallways.
You’d hear her approach well from the other side of the house, and Mother would wait impatiently by your doorway until you began to peel the layers of covers from your body. It was beyond annoying. “Come on now…hurry up and iron your clothes…I hope you don’t expect me to do it for you. There’s ain’t no maids around this house.” Like she hadn’t given me that nagging speech nearly every Sunday since I was 6.
She’d bark the order as I’d attempt to gain my composure from a stiff body and red eyes. A night of too many gory “Tales from the Crypt” episodes, eating 4 bags of Cheetos, overdosing on very forms of high fructose corn syrup, and being followed by 2 hours of Sega will do that to you.
I’d drag each foot lazily on my way to the closet and fumble through various black khaki pants and multi-colored dress shirts. With one eye still partially closed, I’d pick out whatever remotely looked presentable and yank it off the hanger to be ironed. I found it incredibly irritating how Mom would not pick out my clothes for me and iron them anymore and yet, she had no problem critiquing my every article down to the “T”.
I never could make it to the kitchen—where the ironing board was—without my tacky apparel being spotted in my underarm. I’d ask her sometimes why in the world we had to dress up for church anyway. I mean, I was under the impression God wanted us to come as we are—not in a flashy way. Her reply was always, “We’re to show our best to God and to make an effort to look presentable and neat when coming into His house.”
My reply to that was, “What about the people that can’t afford the nice clothes like us?” What about the stinky, bum looking guy, that strolls in there every Sunday?” Does God not want him in there because he smells like cat poop?”
She’d say, “It’s an opportunity to bless God’s name.” We don’t wear them for everyone else, we wear them to show God we all appreciate what He has blessed us with.”
I wasn’t sharp enough at that age to challenge her seemingly confident notion, with the very conflicting fact she had just pulled a “Siskel and Ebert” on my wardrobe not but 5 minutes ago. So, I’d concede from such debates with little integrity intact. Because she was older and not because she was out of bed before me, Sis got first dibs on the ironing board. It was a rule that was not to be questioned and it was beyond contestation. This rule also applied to the bathroom.
Breaking this rule normally meant one of three things—being badgered and moaned at by Sis about how slow and incompetent I was within my ironing skills until I finished, having Dad raise his thunderous voice in some lecture about why I should let ladies go first, or being just plain ‘ol physically shoved out of the way in the middle of a crease job. So needless to say, I kept my distance.
In the case of the restroom, this left me as the last one to get to ready—frantically scrubbing my teeth, ripping through my naps with a wet comb, and incorrectly buttoning my shirt to a crooked catastrophe. It was unfair, but this was the way of life on Sunday. So, I had to cope with it.
We’d all wave bye to Dad and Mom’d kiss him before she left. Dad stopped going to church after a while. He used to be the main one to drive everybody out of their beds and into the pews on Sundays, but something in him dimmed that fiery spirit over time. I never felt it was out of laziness or pride that he stopped. It felt more as though it didn’t make sense to him anymore—like the point of motivation evaded him.
Either that, or maybe he just wanted to be alone with God on Sundays, but then, I’m like, “wait just a cotton-picking minute. How in the world could I get such coveted privileges?” I’d love to spend Sundays alone with God. I’d spend it with him alone on the basketball court, climbing trees, or even playing Sega.
The freedom of grown-ups appeared so infinite at my age. We’d all cram in the car and would have KLTY, the Christian station, on the dial as usual. But, on Sundays Mom would crank it up just a tad bit more. SIs and I would hum bits and pieces of it as though it was the only station that we’d ever “been exposed to.” “What is this rap and pop you speak of,” was our mind-frame on that day.
First, we cruised down Tenery to Duncanville Road, and then to Ledbetter. The familiar scenery along the way, seemed so much brighter than usual being bathed in the unblinking Sunday, Texas sunlight. I ’m pretty sure it rained on Sundays before, but Sunday had a way of making you think it never did. To a kid my age it made sense though. “Today is Sun-day.” So, therefore, maybe statistically the sun shone more on these days when they started keeping a record of the weather—right? Or maybe, it was the Son of God who rose on the third day. So, we named after that event; maybe they’re both true.
The journey to church provoked my imagination to run wild—the sounds, the sights, and the smells. Then again, it didn’t take much for that ADHD in me to run wild on any normal day. So, this intensified its effect tenfold. We had to travel through a rough and raggedy part of town to get to our church. It seriously didn’t matter though.
The smells from the Sweet Georgia Brown, Ray’s Barbeque, Church’s Chicken, Henderson’s Smoke House, Little Bob’s, and J & S Catfish—it was as if they were rewarding me for sense not present at the house this morning. I didn’t care the buildings had been there since the 70’s, at least that’s how long Mom said they were there. I liked to think they only generated aromas that good on Sundays to announce our arrival.
I’d make sly comments about how God would want us to visit such places with good food to show how appreciative we were of it. Mom sensed the sneaky motive and turned up the radio well over my voice. Owens—I have to say—was my favorite place to eat after church. I’ll never know what they put in sausage patties, but I wished moms had the recipe.
“Maybe you should focus more on where we are going, instead of where we are going after.” Mom had a way of violently shoving you back into reality when you were fantasizing about such things. “This is the Lord’s day—not Owen’s day.” I want us to talk about what we learned in church today when we get out.”
And, Mom meant every word of what she said. There was a time or two when she forgot to require this; I longed for those times. It was a fight staying focused—let alone staying awake—through Father Tim’s sermons. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the guy. He seemed really friendly and would make the mass chuckle with a wholesome joke from time to time. But otherwise, listening to the guy go on and on about bad and evil was about as exciting as watching grass grow.
After about 20 minutes of traveling and I finished off my granola, we’d pull around to the Holy Cross parking. It’s the parking lot of the Catholic elderly all moseying unsteadily into the building—some aided by walkers and some by a single cane. It was a parking lot of African colored head wraps, hot pink and baby blue church suits, and white dresses sprinkled with little yellow flowers.
Bells mixed with children’s playful laughter would sound off as we all migrated to the chapel entrance. Though I never admitted it to anyone—due to the risk of sounding like a total sissy, even an ungrateful, smart mouth, big shot, preteen like myself could appreciate that melodious combo.
Father Tim would be greeting people at the entrance. You’d think a man of his stature wouldn’t bother himself with the chore of shaking hands and talking with such common folk. Shouldn’t he have someone appointed doing that for him? I mean the guy talks to God directly and has very important robes draped over him; he probably has way more important things to do.
In the weirdest of ways though…it felt…reassuring—if I had to give a word for it. I remember not knowing why it felt that way. There was one time he even called us out by name which made me think that my mom knew the guy personally. “Hey, it’s the Busters, how are we doing on the Lord’s day?” I didn’t even know how to answer the guy so Mom and Sis always did for me. For a split second, it made you feel like your family was in a special club and had exclusive connections with the man upstairs or something.
“Hmmm…that could work out nicely,” I thought. I mean a brotha was in desperate need of some new Sega games for crying out loud, and praying for them every Sunday just wasn’t getting it done. Don’t get me wrong or anything. I prayed the wholesome prayers too, but what in the world is wrong with asking for some fun things? God wanted us to have fun. My prayers were a lot better than Moms at least.
Hers was kind of boring when you get right down to it. Sometimes she’d pray only for her children to be happy. I never really got that. What about her own happiness? Was that not important or something? I guess that was one of the things you just had to “understand when you got older,”—like the grownups were always saying.
Before Mom allowed us to sit down, we were to dip our hands in the Holy Water, make the sign of the cross in the air, kneel before the cross at the head of the aisle, and kneel for prayer. Some small part of me always thought that the holy water would start sizzling when I touched it—guess I’d seen The Exorcist one too many times.
Although—I didn’t want the money I’d stolen from Mom’s purse last week on my conscience, and I’d seen what it did for the girl in that movie. If it could help get a demon out of her then maybe it could help me in some way. The rest of the mass was nothing short of a workout. We had to rise for the opening song. Then you had to frantically thumb through the program book to find it. That was followed by painful attempts to stay on key with the lyrics. The choir itself would sometimes moan and groan—those elderly black singers with smokers’ lungs, Texas-baked skin, and gentle gestures.
How could you sing like that to the man upstairs and not be embarrassed? Heck, I was embarrassed for them. There were many ways to give thanks to God and maybe singing just wasn’t theirs—just saying. Yet, they still looked so happy to sing off-key. It was an odd joy they emitted. It was just a joy you couldn’t fake. It kind of made me…jealous in a way.
You were also expected to memorize various lines and when to say them—such as, “Blessed be God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. You alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, in the glory of God the Father, and He suffered under Pontius Pilate crucified, died, and was buried, He descended to the dead, on the third day he rose again.”
And then, there several bouts of kneeling, then rising, the more kneeling, holding hands, shaking hands, saying “peace be with you,” and getting finger flicked upside the head by Mom for falling asleep. At least, it wasn’t as bad as dad’s finger flicks, when he used to go to church with us—the way those thick log fingers used to seem to pierce your skull.
If one still fails to grasp this concept after reading this—just so you know—church just wasn’t my thing. I was asked to do things that defied my very nature. Church was repetitive, critical, and restrictive. I was ADHD, sensitive, and a free spirit. It was not my natural habitat, and one would probably assume I’d ditch the notion of church as soon as I wasn’t under Mother and Father’s household and jurisdiction.
Or at least, I could maybe start going to the Baptists churches my aunt and cousins went to. Those were kind of fun. I mean, the only thing I remember that even remotely intrigued me in Catholic mass was that thing where they go and eat the cracker and taste the wine. Didn’t quite understand how they were the literal blood and body of Christ, but it held my attention.
It was mysterious. It was focused. It was special. It was…kind of sad in a way. Plus, they got to drink wine—the forbidden grown-up drink I couldn’t touch. I couldn’t comprehend it, but I did know it was in the moments before The Son of God went on to experience some of the worst pain and agony in existence. “Do this in memory of me,” the priest would quote from Jesus. Like I said—I didn’t really get it, but the least I could do was to respect the guy who died for the sins of the world.
In addition to that, a little bit of jealousy crept through me that I wasn’t apart of such an honorable event. So, there I went one Sunday when the usher signaled our row to go up next. “Where in he…world do you call yourself going, boy?” Mom asked.
“I wanna get the…the wine and the bread with you.”
“Boy, please,” she scoffed. “If you want to do the sacrament, then get your butt in communion classes like I’ve been asking you for the longest.”
And just like that, I took on that challenge, too. No one was going to deny me such a coveted experience—especially wine, darn it! They were letting the kids drink wine, for Pete’s sake. I wasn’t going to pass up on that. I’d go and sit in class for a few months, learn about piety and charity for a few months if that’s what is was going to take. In the time period during communion, I was not attentive to the sermon and more concentrated on flirting with the Hispanic girls in my class. The stern and elderly nun, rightfully so, made it incredibly hard for me to have my thoughts of fornication in peace, though.
T’was especially true when she notified us of the wonderful “confession” part of class where we would, face-to-face, sit and state our very crimes against The Almighty Himself. Was that really necessary, I thought? Couldn’t we just tell God ourselves? You can bet those palms and pits were starting to saturate. One by one in a single file line, we made our way down that darkened hallway to the dimly lit office—all so symbolic of our juvenile nature of walking through our black ways to the light. Only this light was nerve-racking and extremely unsettling. Who in the world were we even confessing our sins to?
I recall my turn drawing near and me asking the girls what they were confessing. One girl, Angelica—I remember the name because it was so similar to “angel” and we were in church, said she was going to confess that she’d used foul language. “Cuss words are a sin?” I remember asking. “I don’t remember “hell” or “shit” being marked as sins in the bible,” I thought to myself.
Others said they’d told lies. The rest mentioned things like stealing, disrespecting their parents, and a few things I didn’t even think were sins. However, I wouldn’t dare telling those folks my business or the guy in the room. “What are you going to confess to him, Steven?”
“Umm…I stole a pencil from a classmate one day.” “Yeah, ‘thou shall not steal’”. How was I supposed to tell those girls that I just got through lusting over them 5 minutes ago?
“Okay Steven, your turn is up,” the nun grinned with a seemingly smart-alecky smile. She knew the things we were about to reveal. She’d probably been in the church business before our very conception. My steps were subtle and uncertain into that office of soft orange light. I then intensely questioned why I was doing all this for wine and crackers. My heart raced as if seeing The Man himself to be judged. And right as I caught sight and recognition of the gentle figure, the door closed firmly behind me causing me to jolt.
It was the wise and noble Father Tim—the guy that called my family by name. He was amused by my rigid demeanor. “Please come sit, my child,” he chuckled. Feel free to relax. What you say never leaves this room. What have you come to confess on this day?
I still recollect being in shock that it was the head of the church himself. I was somewhat comforted that he was friends with my family, but I still couldn’t address the guy. After a good 15 seconds of the most awkward of silences, he gently spoke. “Isn’t there anything that you’ve felt you done wrong? None of us are perfect. What can I help you with?” And it was then, I realized I was supposed to say my rehearsed confession I made in the hallway. It just refused to come out.
So, I blurted the most external thought in my head. “I was checking out the girls in my communion class!” He sat there emotionless. He and I didn’t react for a while at what I just uttered.
“Truly,” he asked in a concerning manner.
“Yes,” I answered. “I couldn’t help it. Mom told me lust is a sin. But sometimes, it just happens without me thinking about it!”
I won’t speak on what was discussed in that office that day. Of course, those conversations are exclusive. What I will say though is that, when I did get to walk that coveted walk to the altar for my blessed cracker and wine sip, it was the seed of a crucial concept. Maybe the reason I couldn’t get down with the notion of church was ‘cause I thought it was strictly what I was getting out of it. Maybe that wasn’t the primary motive at all. Perhaps it wasn’t even halfway about me? Maybe it was about what the choir, Father Tim, the nun, and Mom were putting in.
This piece was featured in my published anthology,
"Product of the Storm."