Claire, it turned out, did expect us all to go to church. You might think she’d be down on church after having married a preacher who then cheated on her and dropped her like a hot potato when he found out she was terminally ill…? But I had a feeling she’d want us to go, because waking people up at the crack of eight to demand they get dressed up was the sort of thing she’d do.
I was of course not really awake at that point, but as I made it to the kitchen I gathered that there was some argument going on about which church we were going to.
“It’s a much larger church, and it’s more traditional,” Claire was saying.
Janine was trying to get the coffee going. “That’s not the point.”
“It’s the only church in the area with stained glass windows like that. I mean, it’s not St. Patrick’s, but it’s got that ornamental stonework on the outside.”
“You’re going to like it, I’m sure. It’s much more like the church we used to go to than that place we went last week.”
“Nice big organ.”
“Oh, come now. You know I didn’t mean it that way,” Claire said in her I’m-scandalized voice. I realized Claire was holding in a laugh. She knew perfectly well she was yanking Janine’s chain and Janine couldn’t help reacting all sorts of ways.
Janine stepped back from the coffee machine as it began to brew. “Look, Claire, I get it. You want a… a big, beautiful church. But that’s not the church where we’re picking up Landon.”
Claire pursed her lips. “Oh, come on, Jan. Just call Jake and tell him to meet us at Sacred Heart. Everything doesn’t have to be a crisis.”
Janine stared at the ceiling like it was way too early in the morning to be getting on her last nerve. “Why can’t we just start at Sacred Heart next week instead of this week? If it’s been there for a hundred years; it’ll still be there in a week.”
Remo arrived then with a box of donuts.
“You found a donut shop open on a Sunday morning?” Janine marveled as she set the box in the middle of the table and opened it. Nice looking selection.
“Had to ask around a bit but yeah,” he said. He was in a Tennessee-appropriate version of his Sunday best, which meant his hair slick-combed, a button-down western shirt, creased jeans, and shined cowboy boots.
I figured I better head this off before it got worse. “I didn’t really bring church clothes with me, you know.”
“Daron!” Claire said sharply, though not half as sharply as I expected. She looked me up and down. I was in black jeans, a black turtleneck, and a red flannel shirt. (At least it was the one without holes in the sleeves?) “Is that what you planned to wear to my funeral?”
I nearly choked on the donut I was eating. “No one told me to pack for a funeral, either!”
“He looks fine, Claire,” Remo said.
“Hush, you. I’m trying to make a good impression at a new congregation.”
“All the more reason for us to wait until next week to check it out,” Janine said. “Now, come on, the one thing we don’t want to do is be late no matter where we’re going.”
It was cold that morning, around forty degrees, so I put a dark knit winter cap on my head to hide my red streaks and that seemed to satisfy Janine even though I’d have to take it off during the service, and I swapped my red flannel shirt for my black wool winter coat, which Claire deemed acceptable.
We took two cars, Remo and Claire in one and me and Ziggy with Janine. I had not slept much after the late night talk with her, and I am never at my best early in the morning anyway. The half a cup of coffee I’d had with the donut hadn’t soaked in yet.
We pulled up at a rectangular brick building that looked to me more like a school than a church except for the minimalist modern cross on the front of the building. The small parking lot was already full, so we parked on the grass in an open field across the street where about a dozen other cars were.
I was about to ask if this one was a Catholic church, too, when I saw the small font of holy water as we stepped inside. Pretty sure that was a yes. Claire and me and Ziggy dipped our fingers. Remo stayed away from it as if he were a vampire.
“Mama!” Landon cried excitedly and rushed out of a pew and over to meet us while both Janine and Claire tried to shush him. Jake waved from the third pew from the back.
We filed in, Janine with Landon first, then Remo and Claire, then Ziggy, and me last. The pews were a light-colored laminated wood. Around the altar they’d decorated with potted poinsettias to give it a Christmassy look, but generally speaking, compared to what we were used to in Catholic churches, it was all rather plain. Ziggy whispered to me, “I’ve seen VFW halls with more pizzazz.”
“No wonder Claire wants to go somewhere else,” I whispered back. I mean, on the one hand, yes, it was rather narcissist for my mother to insist on a fancier church for her funeral (not to mention macabre) but I could kind of see her point, I guess?
The choir was only six people and the organist was at a keyboard right next to them. Not kidding, I think she was playing a Casio CZ-1.
We kind of eyed each other when the first point in the mass came out when it was time to stand up and sing. The four of us, Remo, me, Claire, and Ziggy, could’ve out-sung that whole choir. It was like we made an unspoken pact not to do that. We all sang very, very quietly. It was weird for more than one reason. I mean, aside from being kind of strange to feel like we should hold back so as not to be too conspicuous, maybe the weirdest thing was being on a wavelength with my mom. Seriously. When had that ever happened before?
It was a typical mass. If you don’t know, the Catholic mass doesn’t vary a lot from place to place. It’s pretty strictly defined. Just about all the variation comes in which songs to sing and when. Each week there’s a different selection. The missal has a ton of them in there, and some are to be sung by the whole congregation as a form of worship, while others are done by the choir or organ as a kind of soundtrack while some rite or another is going on. Like while everyone’s taking communion, for example. Can’t really sing while the wafer’s in your mouth.
Speaking of which, when communion time came I realized I was on the end of the row. I either had to go take communion or stand aside so everyone in my row could get out.
Ziggy gestured toward the aisle, toward the altar, urging me to go. So we went. Me, him, and Claire got in line to get the host. Remo, Jake, Janine–and of course Landon, who wasn’t old enough for his first communion yet–stayed behind.
Do I have to explain communion? I grew up with it so it seems obvious to me, but I know not everyone did, and the more I think about it the weirder a ritual it is. You know about the Last Supper with the apostles? At communion basically each person gets to role play being a modern-day apostle and eat some Jesus. In the old days you used to get a wafer and a sip of wine, and I guess in the Episcopal churches they still do, but most Catholic churches since the sixties you just get the wafer.
I’ve heard that in some churches they give it to you in your hand, but the church where we went when I was a kid the priest or one of his assistants put it right into your mouth. This place they seemed to let you decide whether you put your hands out or opened your mouth. I was watching the people in front of me trying to figure out which to do.
When I got up there I still hadn’t decided so I resolved to do whatever the woman in front of me did. She opened her mouth. So I opened my mouth.
The host is really dry and basically has no flavor. It isn’t even baked like a matzoh. It’s more like a styrofoam packing peanut. It sticks to your tongue and then hopefully you’ve got enough spit to dissolve it. Since it has no flavor at all it doesn’t really stimulate your saliva glands. I’m sure that bread at the actual last supper wasn’t like this. I have no idea how it got be like this. To prevent the altar boys from snacking on it?
I went back to my row trying to tickle that spot under my tongue to make myself salivate. Communion is sort of the highlight of the mass. There’s only a little bit after that, some closing prayers, and then usually the priests and attendants do a procession out to a closing hymn. In some churches the whole congregation goes out on that song.
There are no encores, of course.
I put my hat back on as we exited the building in case we were supposed to attend a “coffee social” afterward–which had been mentioned–but Claire had other ideas. “We can still make it over to Sacred Heart for their eleven o’clock mass,” she pointed out. “If we get a move on.”
Yes, Claire had decided we should do two masses in one day.
“I think it’s too much to ask a five-year-old to sit through a second church service,” Janine said.
“Fine. You take him home and I’ll take the boys with me.” Claire seemed very sure we’d accompany her.
Of course we would. I mean, think about it. She was prepping for her own damn funeral. It would have been really cold-hearted of any of us to say no.
Landon, though, wanted to know where we were going, and when he found out we were going to another church it didn’t deter him from wanting to go with us.
“All the cool kids are doing it,” Ziggy said under his breath, amused.
So after saying goodbye to Jake, who was apparently not required to join us on this jaunt, we headed off to another church.
Sacred Heart was clearly older as well as larger than the other place. A plaque outside said it had been founded in 1879 by German immigrants. It had a prominent steeple and a small garden of saintly statues outside. Inside–although, as Claire had said, it was no St. Patrick’s–the colored light of the stained glass windows criss-crossed the pews and the upright lines of the organ pipes. The organ was already playing the start of the processional when we got there so we hurried into the last row right before the priest and his attendants came in.
I know it’s funny how deja vu hits, but sometimes there’s a really obvious reason for it. Like the fact that this turned out to be the mass held for Spanish-speaking immigrants. So it was all in Spanish.
I’d gone to mass in Spanish in Seville all the time. Ziggy seemed delighted by it, and so did Landon, who I gather from hearing him talk about it later had the closest experience to visiting another planet that he’d ever had.
“Mom,” he asked while we were eating lunch. “Is Jesus a space alien?”
“No, dear, I don’t think so,” Janine had answered, trying to figure out how to head off this potentially blasphemous line of inquiry.
“Because I think maybe he is. He and God come from Heaven, and that means outer space, right?”
“Um, I think it’s a metaphor. That means a story that isn’t literally true.”
“I thought stories that weren’t true were bad.”
She was in trouble and she knew it, but she hung in there. “Lies are bad, and lies are when you tell an untrue thing. Metaphors are more like when you make up a story in order to make it easier to understand the truth, okay?”
“Okay. I think I understand, then. The story that Jesus is a space alien isn’t true, but it’s pretty close.”
“Um, yeah, sure.”
Much, much later, when Ziggy and I were alone, all he would say about the whole church adventure was, “Your family is a trip.”
That is the truth.
(Okay, we snuck a little into 1992 for this song. Funny, it charted really well, but I don’t remember it at all. -d)