When I was little, I used to escape the mayhem of our household of teeming infants, heated arguments over Risk games, hockey scores, and who was doing the dishes for 18 people (if it was a slow night with just a few drop ins), by going to Church. Ours was an Irish Catholic family with two devoted parents struggling to hang onto their beliefs against all odds and I saw my mother was extra devoted in her near clockwork attendance of mass on Tuesday nights. I went with her one night when I particularly wanted to get out of dishes, quickly realizing that God intended me for greater things than slopping through my brothers germy plates for hours.
It was an early December night and the crisp, crackly air went up inside my sinuses momentarily blinding me and causing me to slip immediately on the thick sheet of ice on our front sidewalk. My mom laughed. I looked up sharply–it wasn’t like her to laugh at my woes and I caught something in her eyes, a sort of mischief I hadn’t seen there before. I leapt up, thinking, maybe we aren’t even going to Church! Maybe we’re just busting out, and going to go for dessert or shopping somewhere? Maybe? But instead, she smiled and took my mittened hand and began the short walk to our Parish gathering place.
Overhead the moon was round and fat and hung low in the sparse, bitter winter trees as my mother and I walked in happy silence, listening only to the hard crunching of our boots and the wind now and then coming up from English Bay. As we entered the Church, there was Sister Helen and Sister Mary and Sister Margaret all smiling and pulling off scarves and chattering up a storm. I instantly realized we were not at Church but at a party. For women. In the guise of prayer. There clustered in the front row, Mrs. Clarke, Mrs. Miller, Mrs. Olivier, Mrs. Bideshi, all the regulars who also helped clean the rectory, put fresh flowers on the altar, and generally ran the whole congregation.
Since I was the only child in attendance, I was greeted like the baby Jesus himself. Okay, maybe not Jesus, but perhaps a mini-Mary. I basked in the glow and let my cheeks get squeezed and happily kneeled down on the hard leather strip in front of the hard wooden pew to pray somewhat theatrically to demonstrate my worthiness. Since it was Christmas, we sang fun Christmas songs, with the buck-toothed Sister plunking away to our small troupe as we bellowed out all the best hymns that had only a tenuous relationship to Christianity. After the very short mass, made mostly of music, we sat in the pews and chatted. I liked talking with these nuns. They were smart. And funny and not at all like the nuns that beat the hell out of my brothers. These were nuns in the 70’s so they were dressed in tight clingy knits with big wooden crosses and all knew how to play John Denver songs on their guitars.
Sitting beside my mother, surrounded by women, I realized why she was so religious. Who wouldn’t be? Why stay back at the homestead when you could escape drudgery under the kind auspices of God who incidentally, also provided cookies for you after the service? It was at that moment that Sister Helen, Principal of Our Lady of Perpetual Help school, decided that I was very spiritual, and wise and that I should just do my first confession right then. But wait! Don’t I have to be way older? And isn’t it a sacrament? Were these women drunk on holy wine? Before I knew it, they convened like the witches in Macbeth and I was sent up to the altar–which to me actually seemed really like our stage at school–where I knelt down in front of the priest. He asked me what I had to confess. I lied instantly. I mean, I was 5, what had I done wrong? So I said I didn’t pour enough skim milk powder in the milk jugs for dinner. That seemed to be enough and I was given a Hail Mary and an Our Father to say. Voila! All done. Clean as a newborn babe of all my mortal sin. I pranced down the stairs towards the cloven, but not before I looked out from that stage and thought, now this is really more like it, what a view! Just imagine the Priest gets to perform here all the time! For a moment I entirely forgot it was about God and not about me.
On the way home my mom started running the down the icy road, laughing out loud and acting like a lunatic. I sighed and followed, nearly cracking my head open in the process, but this was what you did on nights when you left behind the world and escaped duties and drab chores and crying babies and wicked brothers. You danced for joy. Maybe this Christmas I’ll try to remember that, so if you see me running like a lunatic down a hill or dancing onstage at a Church, you’ll know why.