all of the selves we Have ever been
This short story is dedicated to my dear friend known to all as Aunt Jean. She is by God-given nature, the funniest storyteller I know. She has a magical pair of slightly bent glasses that see the entire world tilted toward the hilarious. This story is a potpourri of the characters and happenings from her actual lived life. I played with the ending. Thanks for sharing your stories, Aunt Jean, and for a lifetime of friendship, a friendship that rose to every occasion, especially in the worst of times. You belong with Erma Bombeck in the Hysterical Society.
Oh, how Mary wanted a lace mantilla for Christmas! Canon Law required Catholic women to cover their heads in church, and the lace mantilla was quickly becoming all the rage among the church-going women in Mary’s rural parish in the winter of 1960.
At first, Mary was subtle in her request. At mass on Sundays she would whisper to her husband Rudy, “Oh, look at the new mantilla Jenny’s husband brought her from Spain! And doesn’t Agnes look lovely in her lace mantilla? Just like the Blessed Mother.”
Rudy didn’t even look up. He owned and operated the local slaughterhouse and was first and foremost a butcher. His mind was always busy calculating the price of livestock and anticipating the special orders from his regular customers. Which cut of beef would Mrs. Shelton want for Christmas this year? She was always trying recipes for dishes he had never heard of. What on earth was cordoned blue chicken, and why was this woman taking cooking advice from a child named Julia? And that Davis family with its eight children always peppering him for the meat ends and asking for sale prices…
Mary knew that Rudy worked hard and was a good provider. She accepted his role as the breadwinner, but, darn it, she was a partner in the family business as well as the bread maker and the one responsible for the family’s salvation. She’s the one who herded them off to church on time, him with starched shirt collar and folded cloth handkerchief, the twins in matching petticoats with starched netting that gave their Sunday dresses a fashionable flare. All Mary wanted was a lace mantilla. And she wanted to wear it to Christmas mass.
Mary got a mixer.
“What’s this?” she asked Rudy
“But I didn’t want tools, I wanted a lace mantilla!”
“I don’t know nothing about lace mantillas.” That was the end of discussion. Mary knew it was pointless to persist. Unless she was talking about a cow’s innards, Rudy’s response was about as deep as he went.
Not one to give up on such an important need, Mary scheduled herself an “appointment.” “You will have to take the twins with you to the livestock auction. I have an appointment.”
Rudy did not even ask. While he could butcher an animal with his bare hands, he feared the details of a woman’s “appointment.” And so, on the day of the auction, with Mary already out of the house, Rudy put the twins into the back of the pickup truck and headed for the silent livestock auction. He hoped to get there early, scout out the livestock, and grab some good seats up front where the children might be entertained by the action.
That evening when Rudy and the girls returned home from the auction, Mary was already at their farm completing evening chores. She had a new lace mantilla.
Rudy had a new jackass. The winning bid had been made when one of the twins raised her hand to slap her bored and rambunctious sister upside the head. The girls named their new purchase “Taffy the Jackass.” The minute Taffy the Jackass bucked her way off the truck it became clear the animal was deranged. She immediately began terrorizing the family and the neighborhood. Her size and strength threatened the lives of small children, toppled fences, and trampled gardens. She ran away frequently and refused to come home. The county sheriff became a frequent visitor. The term “Taffy Pull” took on new meaning in this picturesque farm community. It consumed every spare minute of family time and some of the neighbors’--pulling and coaxing the stubborn jackass from one spot to another.
As all good Catholic mantilla-wearing women do, Mary feared that Taffy the Jackass was punishment for wanting something for herself—for coveting that lace mantilla. Humbled by a jackass, Mary had seen the light and done her penance. Now, Taffy the Jackass had to go.
A neighbor woman who also wanted a lace mantilla agreed to take Taffy if Mary would throw the lace mantilla into the deal. The neighbor knew Taffy, and so without shame or guilt, Mary sealed the deal. Gone was the lace mantilla. Better yet, gone was Taffy. Peace was restored, and so was Mary’s soul.
The next Christmas Mary requested nothing. And Rudy didn’t ask. He gave Mary some white doilies his mother had crocheted. Mary accepted the doilies, put one on her head and wore it to church. This move by Mary is said to have launched the chapel cap craze that continued until 1983 when the Catholic Church finally dropped the head covering requirement for women.
I turn the page on my calendar and discover that today is World Tuna Day.
A sometimes lapsed Catholic, I wonder if this might be a new Holy Day of Obligation. For the non-Catholics out there, a Holy Day of Obligation is a day on which Catholics are expected to attend Mass and refrain from work and other activities that might interfere with their worship of God.
I consider attending Mass, but that sounds like work to me, and I am too late anyway. I will add this latest lapse to my growing list of sins to be reported the next time I seek confession which is a Sacrament, another type of obligation, but not one that takes up an entire day, unless you are a child of Satan and have a lot to report.
With my curiosity aroused, I turn to the Tree of Knowledge to fish for some answers.
According to the information posted on www.un.org, in 2016 the United Nations passed a resolution making May 2nd World Tuna Day in order to spread the word about the dangerous situation faced by this important fish. Apparently, the future of tuna is threatened by overwhelming demand and unsustainable fishing practices. Overfishing has endangered the species and the delicate ecosystem of the ocean’s food chain. Overfishing also threatens to impact the livelihoods of people all over the world, and the United Nations is taking measures to safeguard the value of tuna stocks—the Wall Street version, not the stack of cans in a good Catholic’s pantry.
Sailing around the internet, I learn that there are seven commercial species of tuna fished from four different oceans. All my life, I thought Charlie the Tuna was the only one. As of 2018, the tuna industry was worth about forty billion dollars, and that does not include the tuna fishing gear industry.
I am more than a little surprised that with all that is at stake the United Nations waited until after Lent to bring this up. Let’s face it, observant Catholics are complicit in this developing tragedy. Before Charlie the Tuna, Jesus was a pretty well-known spokesperson. Jesus was really into fishing. Some of his apostles were actual fishermen before Jesus made them fishers of men. Jesus was also known for his famous loaves and fishes routine. I am pretty sure that was when the tuna fish sandwich became popular on the Catholic menu.
By the 1950s, the decade in which I was born, tuna noodle casserole was a mainstay of the American Catholic’s diet on Friday nights and all throughout the season of Lent. It was cheap to make, the ingredients were easy to find and non-perishable to boot. The meal was easy to prepare and provided leftovers. It was also popular at church potlucks and a nice gesture of comfort in times of tragedy.
I think we all have something to confess here.
But the Church is good at granting dispensations-- an act for which a lawful superior grants relaxation from an existing law in a particular case. You might need that if you find yourself craving tuna noodle casserole given the plight of the tuna. You might want to shoot for Eat What You Want Day which is coming up on May 11th. Eat What You Want Day is a day to eat whatever you want without fretting over fats or fishing. A day without guilt. I’m pretty sure that can’t be a Catholic Church holiday.
It’s eight o’clock on a Friday.
The out-of-town crowd shuffles in.
There’s an old friend sitting next to me
waiting for the show to begin.
She says, “I hope he plays me some memories,
something I’m sure how it goes,
the sad and the sweet that I knew complete
when I wore a younger girl’s clothes.”
Then he says, “I’ve got nothing new to play for you,”
and the crowd whistles and cheers with delight.
We agree it is sweet that we know them complete
‘cause that’s what we came for tonight.
It’s a pretty good crowd for a Friday
and every face young and old has a smile
because it is he that we came here to see
to forget about life for a while.
He sings us his songs our piano man.
He sings us his songs all night,
and we’re all in the mood for his melodies.
It is time for some things to feel right.
The atmosphere is a carnival
as the crowd slowly sips on its beers,
and we sit in the stands and clap with our hands,
and say, “Man it is good to be here!”
And then, just like that, it is over.
We wait for Brother Joel to return.
And he steps on the stage with an encore arranged,
and he plays ‘til a new day is earned.
On the eve of 9/11/2021, the 20th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center, I attended a revival. Our tent was the Great American Ballpark on the banks of the Ohio River. Take me to the water!
The leader of this traveling salvation show was not a preacher. He was a musical storyteller, a piano man. We arrived to the event weary and worried, pulling ourselves from the rubble of a global pandemic and reminders of the life-shattering events of 9/11. Then the Piano Man stepped onto the stage. He put his hands on the baby grand, and we were all born again.
He rocked us awake from our COVID sleep and out of our painful 9/11 nightmares. His old songs became our medicine, pain relief in a time capsule, taking us back to simpler days and better places: high school dances and college dorms, first concerts and first loves, songs on the road and songs in the shower, the ages of vinyl, cassette, and CD. There was joy and happiness, togetherness and hope. In a crowd of thousands, each person sang from the same page in a shared and familiar songbook. Bass or soprano, alto or tenor, it didn’t matter. There was harmony.
The Piano Man delivered the sermon in lyrics as familiar and reassuring as old psalms. By the time the night was over, we were all converts. Rising from the ashes of our sorrows, we found that we could survive the burns. Hallelujah!
On the eighth day, after some rest, God said, "Let there be music." And there was. He sent us a piano man. 'Cause even God's in the mood for a melody. He wants us feelin' all right.
It is Easter morning 2020.
As I shelter in place, I have plenty of time to reflect on the question, what is church?
Surely, it is more than legality. Church happens in places where people have no enforceable first amendment rights. Church lives in places too poor for cathedrals. It exists in places too dangerous to gather, places where militias roam the streets looking to take whatever you have, your life included.
What is church? My earliest personal memories of church begin with my maternal grandmother, my Sita. She was a deeply religious, devout servant of the Lord. My humble immigrant grandmother was so full of faith she glowed! Watching Sita could turn a person into a believer; I know it worked on me.
Sita walked from her home to church every day. On school days, I would see her from the adjacent school playground. Even as a first grader, my Sita’s devotion moved me enough to stop what I was doing to watch her pass. I saw a living example of faith.
In Sita’s house there were many religious symbols. I often saw the black beads of a rosary entwined in her work-swollen fingers. On the wall of her sun porch hung a copy of the famous painting of the sacred heart of Jesus, the one with the eyes that seemed to follow you. Sita had Jesus watching us every time we entered or departed from her home. On a mantle there was a statue of the Virgin Mary that reigned over the living room.
My father did not grow up Catholic, but he converted before marrying my mom. That was how things were done back then. I know dad did it for mom, but I believe he fell under Sita’s spell and did it for her as well. On the day my father left for military duty in Pakistan, there was quite a scene at Sita’s front door. The extended family gathered to say good bye. Pakistan was far away, poor, mysterious, and dangerous at the time. It is difficult today to appreciate the time before cell phones and internet. It was an era when landlines were new and international telephone calls difficult. Postal mail was slow. It was hard for families to be that far apart for so long with no word.
In the midst of the farewell, Sita took the statue of the Virgin Mary from the mantle. She brought it to my dad at the door. As dad stood there in his dress blues, Sita insisted that my father kiss the statue of Jesus’s mother. I saw tears well in my dad’s eyes, and he followed Sita’s instructions without protest. And then dad was out the door for what seemed like a very long time protected by both the smooches of his children and that kiss of faith.
A few years later, when Sita died, we were living on an Air Force base in California. My mother had flown alone back to Ohio to be with her family. I remember when my father got the call from my mother. He went into our small kitchen and pulled the pocket door so hard that it repeatedly ricocheted back and forth between the sides of the door frame. Realizing something significant was happening, I peeked into the kitchen. I saw my father bent over the sink weeping. It was the only time in my childhood that I saw my father consumed by that kind of emotion.
My father sure loved his mother-in-law. Sometimes we sign up and go to church to humor someone else, and then we find that church grows into a space inside of us. We borrow faith until it grows big enough for us to share with others. My Sita’s faith was both a cloak and a seed for her entire family. Church was in session wherever she was.
As a child I loved the rituals of church. I enjoyed the pause in the services as the collection plate was passed. I coughed up bits of milk money and allowance to place something into my tiny envelope as a church offering. In my way, I helped to pay for the new building and contributed to social causes. In school we donated money to save orphans and pagan babies around the world. I marched in processions carrying flowers and later candles. I witnessed countless baptisms, communions, confirmations, and funerals. I blessed myself with holy water and genuflected before I took my seat. As I got older, I joined the line of people coming forward to partake of communion. I learned when to stand, to sit, and to kneel. There were fasting and special prayers that gave the ceremonies significance. In my earliest days as a churchgoer, the mass was in Latin. The language difference added mystery and more significance to the service. I thought Latin was the language of God. Later, as missionaries visited our church and gave sermons flavored by accents from the larger world, I learned that God speaks many languages.
I also loved the sensory experience of church. There were beautiful stained glass windows, sparkling gold chalices, and shimmering votive candles. There was the cool water on my fingertips as I made the sign of the cross. The smell of incense said it was a holy and special occasion. Later there was the taste of the wafer and the wine. People packed the pews and sat in individual silence until it was time to join together in one voice of prayer and song. There were organs and later pianos, guitars, and violins.
As I grew up there were new kinds of services, new towns and new churches. I developed a broader understanding of church and of faith. Much later in my life, church would be at my bedside as I lay in an intensive care unit with one foot in the afterlife. Amid terror, tubes, and machines, a man in a familiar black uniform and white collar stood at my side to offer last rites. Surely, I was at church. There have been plenty of times since then that I have held church in the shower as I prayed for my children. I often hold prayer services in my car as I dodge traffic and aggressive drivers. I’ve prayed with others on front porches and over the telephone. I have been in God’s presence at hospice bedsides and in nursing homes.
The lessons of faith I learned while growing up in church were messages that included “love each other” and “feed my people.” Never have these messages been more universal. On Easter Sunday 2020 church attendance is up. It is taking place in ICUs and at food banks. Silent sermons are being shared at grocery stores where people stand six feet apart waiting to enter. Our Easter outfits are colorful face masks and purple latex gloves. Yesterday, a big white Easter bunny drove through town in the back of pick-up truck waving and sharing faith with children, reassuring them that the world is in good hands. It will go on.
Perhaps contagion is not just the story of disease. Maybe it is also the story of faith. We catch it from each other. And maybe that is why church is so important to so many. Especially now.
But Church is not a building. It can be found anywhere and everywhere that people heed the message.
From the church that is in me to the one that is in you, Happy Easter!