I was jealous of my friend, Brenda, and I can admit it now. We were sophomores at Massapequa High School, a year that was neither fish nor fowl for all of us, except her. She was athletic, could sing harmony and play guitar, and proved herself to be absolutely fearless in social situations. And on top of it all, she was Catholic.
I had been shuttled to Presbyterian Sunday School until my confirmation, and after that my parents seemed pretty much done with anything organized on Sundays. I must have been a fiction-writer kind of child — that’s all I can come up with — to explain how I loved to make up stories that supplanted everyday life. Maybe I loved mystery, too. I sort of fell into my love of a religion I knew practically nothing about thanks to weekend sleepovers at Brenda’s house.
Brenda’s mother seemed okay with my tagging along to Mass, but I sometimes got the feeling I was making her bend a rule.
She’d say, “Remember, Linda, you have to stay in the pew when Brenda takes Communion.” She’d remind me not to touch the Holy Water. And she insisted I wear a white borrowed mantilla, when I would have far preferred the more dramatic black.
I longed for all the have-to’s the Church required of Brenda. She had to go to Confession. There were things called Holy Days of Obligation, a phrase that let you know right off the bat that Catholics didn’t fool around. Before we could go to the movies, her mother had to look up the title in the Legion of Decency. She couldn’t eat meat on Fridays. She fasted on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. In our house we had the Golden Rule, which was a disappointing second place to everything Brenda got to do.
I wangled an invitation to Mass whenever I could. I learned the Hail Mary and Apostles Creed, never saying it aloud, of course, but watching Brenda recite it with a confidence I envied. And then there were the occasional young priests or seminarians up in front, for whom I’d invent an elaborate back-story. My favorite was that they’d suffered a heartbreak for which there was no other cure. They had given their lives to the Church in an act that was noble and final, but always caused them to look pensive and wistful during the Our Father.
Earlier in my childhood, I’d gone through a period where I’d been in love with the Nun side of Catholicism, too. My mother had a cousin who had taken her final vows in her early 20s, and we would visit her a few times a year at the Convent. Her name had gone from Bonnie to Sister Mary Benedict in what was something of a jolt for me, as if overnight she had reinvented herself. She dressed in full habit with only her face and hands showing. I was enamored. She was graceful and paid attention to me. She seemed perfectly serene. She wore a slim gold band on her left hand, which she told me meant she was married to Jesus.
True to my bent for fiction and drama, when Vatican II came along and raised Sister Mary Benedict’s hemline and let us see her hair for the first time, these visits seemed to have less of an emotional pull on me. A few years later, when she left the Order entirely, her father blamed her decision on the changes that John XXIII had brought about — mostly her shrinking habit and the fact that she could now drive a car.
“Well, you know, you can’t keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree,” my uncle said at Sunday dinner. I nodded solemnly though I had no idea what he was talking about.
After she became Bonnie again, I would still see her at family gatherings, and she was still lovely to me, but it would never be the same. I wonder if Maria von Trapp noticed people treating her differently after she made the big move.
One weekend when I was sleeping over at Brenda’s, logistics demanded that we go to Mass on a Saturday night, so her mom said she would drop us off at St. William the Abbot Church, in Seaford. On the drive over, I tried to think of something Catholic to say because that always put Brenda’s mother in a good mood. I mentioned that I’d seen the Pietà at the World’s Fair two years before. It was pretty dated content, I agree, but it was all the Catholic I had.
“Wasn’t it magnificent?” she asked.
I said, “Yes,” but the truth was that the experience had left me confused. I had gone with my grandmother, a woman who loved art but was suspicious of all religion. It started out well, with Mary and Jesus lit up in front of the blue velvet curtain, and you got to pass the statue on a moving walkway, something I’d never seen before. But I started watching a group of old Italian widows in front of us, all dressed in black. They began making the sign of the cross and praying aloud. Overcome with the moment, I crossed myself, too. My grandmother’s purse grazed the side of my head.
“We don’t do that!” she said in my ear.
It was true. We didn’t. But I couldn’t see any reason why we shouldn’t.
On the way to St. William the Abbot with Brenda and her mom, I was relieved that my grandmother was at home in Queens and had no idea I was on my way to Mass, where I fully intended to make the sign of the cross as many times as possible.
Brenda opened the big wooden door of the stucco church, and the smell of candles and incense and the old wood swept me up. St. William’s was smaller, older, and somehow more Catholic than her regular parish church. We sat toward the back. The kneeling bench was sticky, and I had some trouble getting it down so I could talk to God about how much I wanted to be Catholic and getting to the logistics of how we could make that happen.
My eyes must have been open because I knew the moment the McNamara brothers strolled in. They were followed a moment later by the Fitzpatrick boys — all four of them like perfect Irish nesting dolls — in navy blue blazers, madras ties, and khakis. They knelt and crossed themselves in one fluid motion and then sat down a few pews in front of us. Then they nudged each other about something hilarious in the row in front of them. It was my first inkling that I had a “type,” and apparently most of them lived in Seaford and went to St. William the Abbot Church.
Just a few minutes before, I’d been thinking that maybe I’d given up prematurely on following in Bonnie’s footsteps. Though becoming a Nun hadn’t exactly dovetailed with my way of thinking lately as I practiced kissing boys in the mirror in my bedroom, perhaps it deserved a second look.
Two minutes after pondering a life of sacrifice and piety and chastity, the Seaford boys walked in. And by the time the Priest said, “Go in peace,” the door on that career had slammed shut forever.