A few weeks ago my cousin sent me a message through Facebook: “HI Kim! Remembering your Mom’s 82nd birthday today…I offer mass this afternoon for her and will offer my rosary tonight as well. Hope you are well and enjoying the nice fall weather! Hugs!”
That particular day would not have been my mother’s birthday but I thanked her just the same. I know nothing about offering a mass or a rosary. I have my mala beads and meditation and they serve a similar purpose I am sure. It was kind of her and that I was grateful for her remembrance was all she needed to know.
Until I was about eleven, my family went to church every Sunday at a small catholic church in the relatively rural town where we lived in Ohio. When I say “my family went” I mean, my father took us to church for the eight a.m. service, dropped us off in front at seven-fifteen or seven-thirty and picked us up after it was over. I have no idea what he did while we were there because very little was open on Sunday mornings. He always had a used paperback western from the used bookstore we went to once a week called The Book Nook. He was probably reading in the car parked nearby but not in the church parking lot.
We were always the first one’s there, waiting outside for the front doors to open. It must have either looked like we had a lot to pray for or a lot to ask forgiveness for. We were always painfully early for everything. This constant hurry up to get somewhere and then wait was a normal pattern for us. It took me years as an adult to break that habit and start arriving places on time or even fashionably late. Still I have a highly developed ability to occupy myself during unexpected delays. That is my time to organize – to catalog the world around me and put it together in a way that makes sense.
My favorite part of church was the singing. I thought my mother had the most beautiful voice I’d ever heard. I would gaze up at her as he sang in absolute adoration. To me she had a high, sweet sounding voice that carried the words along the music like water in a brook. I told her this once. And she laughed and shook her head.
“My voice?!” she asked, shocked. “I don’t think you were listening to me.”
Religion was a sticky subject in our family. My father’s family was not Catholic. His divorced and remarried sister was born again and went to an exciting, large evangelical church in Akron that televised their Sunday services. This was not really acceptable to my mother’s family which was Catholic with a really big C. They never accepted my father.
Though we went year round, my recollections of those Sunday mornings were that they were always very crisp and chilly. This was probably because I had to wear a dress so my legs were generally bare. I had to put on my whitest anklet socks and hard shoes – somewhat shiny, somewhat scuffed, completely uncomfortable. I would have preferred sneakers and jeans, but who wouldn’t.
I always stuck close to my mother after we were dropped off. My brothers had each other and friends who went to the same church so they would very quickly disappear around the side of the building. All of my friends who were Catholic went to St. Augustine’s in a small city nearby. As a somewhat invisible child, I spent a lot of time observing adults in their natural habitats. Early on I was perplexed by the fact that as others arrived, the adults would stand outside the church in cliquish groups just like kids in school and gossip in hushed tones and then go inside and pretend they hadn’t just made some disparaging comments about their neighbors or friends? God wasn’t just inside the building, I thought. How did they not know they were seen and heard wherever they were? I wondered. It actually made me worry for them.
Inside the church, I generally passed the time either counting the number of bald men’s heads or hats on ladies. If the service seemed to be running long, I would classify the hats by style and color keeping track on my stubby fingers. If you are familiar with Catholic church services there are a lot of commands to sit, stand and kneel at various times. It all seemed very random to me. I am convinced to this day that only the people in the front row actually know when to do which action correctly and all the rows behind them follow suit. We never sat in the first row until my mother’s funeral service where we completely threw off the flow of the sit/stand/kneel ballet.
I never really felt the presence of God inside that church. I always felt a presence outside, in the woods, in the garden and late at night when I watched the fireflies through my window until I fell asleep. For me God was in nature and the outdoors was my church even then. It wasn’t anything I ever put into words at the time. It just was what I understood without question and I understood it would not be a concept to verbalize to my mother’s family. Church and religion was not a topic open for discussion. Church was a pretty solid concept that people depended upon in the Midwest.
I was more than overjoyed when we stopped going to church regularly because as I got older it made less and less sense to me. Firstly, it was a social gathering which was extremely uncomfortable to me. Secondly it was an unfair opportunity to add a school session afterwards on a weekend. It also seemed to me that religion divided people. Not just our church, in dividing my father from our family, but all churches seemed to divide people from each other. I didn’t get it. We all lived in the same town, we shopped at the same grocery store, we went to the same school, we cheered on the same sports teams. But for some reason on Sundays people from different churches seemed to look at each other differently. There were always glances with a look of superiority at the people at the Baptist church on the opposite corner from our church, that left a bad taste in my mind. Pretty sure the same glances were being thrown our way. I didn’t get it. We are all focused on the same subject but with different interpretations. Interpretations that bring together some, but separate others.
Every night I recite to myself the opening line of a poem that I first read in high school, “I thank you God for most this amazing day.” And then as I move a mala bead along the thread in my hands, I list things for which I am grateful. I fall asleep that way every night considering things. I often fall asleep near the beginning of the list and don’t get very far. Sometimes my mind wanders off and I have to bring it back to the beads. It isn’t always a recap of the day and it certainly doesn’t represent the religion of my parents. But it creates a place where I am not left standing outside looking in and I get it.