Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Keys to Me

When my father was a little boy, my grandmother dropped him off at the neighborhood Catholic church for confession.

After waiting in the car for what seemed like an inordinate amount of time, she decided to go in and see why he was taking so long.

He was kneeling in the front pew reciting Hail Mary's.

"What's taking so long?" she asked him.

"I'm saying my penance," my father told her. "Father gave me a hundred Hail Mary's."

She grabbed him by the chin and turned his face up to hers.

"Exactly what did you do to get so much penance?" she demanded.

"I don't know, Ma," he told her. "Father said I was born in sin. I don't know what he was talking about."

My grandmother marched to the confessional. She was a tall, skinny woman with the carriage of a forties movie star. I can only imagine how her stalking footsteps echoed in the nearly empty church.

She threw open the priest's door and dragged him out by his ear, ignoring his stuttered protests and the shock of the current confessor.

"Why did you give my kid so many Hail Mary's? I've been waiting for him all morning!"

The priest drew up his druthers. "Madam! We all know that he and his little red-headed satan's spawn of a sister were born in sin. A child born of a mixed marriage is doomed to hell."

And my grandmother socked him one.

Right in the jaw.

And he went down. Hard

She grabbed my father's arm and hustled him out of the church. Never to return.

And do you know what kind of "mixed marriage" that priest was referring to? My grandfather was Catholic and my grandmother was Protestant.

Yes. They were both white, lower class Christians, but apparently, their differences were enough to doom their children to hellfire.

My grandmother loved to tell this story. She said she put a curse on the church that day. I can almost believe it since the roof fell in one Sunday and the church was closed for fifty-odd years.

She also swore never to set foot in another church again.

She came to all of our sacraments, First Communion, Confirmation...but she never actually entered the door. She just stood outside in her suit and hat and smoked a cigarette.

She died before I was married. Unlike most brides, I wouldn't ever say how I felt my grandmother's presence in church with me that day. She wouldn't have come within a hundred yards of the alter on my wedding day. Besides, organ music always made her cry.

I never understood it. She hated the church. She hated religion of all kinds, but she insisted that we all be raised and confirmed Catholic. But she forbid us to go to Sunday mass. And if she heard music that even remotely sounded like something you might hear in church, she would cry. And then get angry at her tears.

Maybe she mourned for something lost. Or maybe she cried in anger--a trait I have inherited. Maybe she just cried in remembrance of the simpler days of her youth.

Her funeral was held in a Catholic church. They said prayers over her casket and played organ music throughout.

My aunt looked at my father at one point and said, "She would have hated this."

I think she was right. She would have hated it. But she wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

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