I don't know why they tried to scare me about it. They tried to scare me about everything. I think it had something to do with conscience. My family was a pretty basic, working-class bunch of folks living in an extended family urban / ethnic / Catholic / 1950's world. It was their way of instilling conscience in me. In all their children. The family had been straight and narrow all along. Deviation, criminality, even independence, was looked on as a great embarrassment. Don't you dare embarrass the family.
Whenever it would lightning and thunder - and we get a lot of that in Chicago - my European-born grandmother would bend down from her chair to where I was playing on the floor and point her finger at me. She'd tell me that the thunder that just rumbled so fiercely above us was God punishing someone. They told me he was always watching me, waiting for me to do something bad or wrong. They said he knew everything I was doing.
There were always these things out there that knew everything I was doing. God. Santa Claus. The Easter Bunny. And if you screwed up they would either withhold their treats and affections or arrange something so that you would be in eternal hell for the rest of your existence.
At our family Christmas parties there would always be one of the uncles who would dress up as Santa Claus to hand out the gifts. From time to time we'd get "mean Santa," whose idea of a good time was to be a little beered-up, have people get on their knees in front of him and pray to God before they could get their gifts, while he stood over them with a belt in his hand making like he was hitting people with it for whatever it was he thought they were doing wrong at the time.
I went to Catholic school and my teachers were nuns. Not flying nuns like the color TV show or the happy, smiling nuns that sang songs with guitars and perfect teeth who were true angels of mercy; but black-robed, snaggle-toothed, forehead-covered, long rosary bead-wearing like you saw in the Blues Brothers who moved menacingly across the floor without needing feet kind of nuns. The kind that whacked you in the butt with books and put a thimble on their fingertip and pocked you right in the head with it to get your attention. The kind that reinforced the vindictive, judgmental, brutish old man in the clouds who was always on your ass that your family was telling you about. The kind that didn't ask IF you went to church Sunday, but WHAT TIME you went to church Sunday. And heaven help you if you went later than 8 o'clock because only the horrible sinners went to late mass and you shouldn't be seen with that riff raff. I went to church 6 days a week because going to mass was the first thing we did every day of school. Every day.
And that's where the act broke down.
I would carry my little leather-covered missal (the boys had black, the girls' were white) and follow along with the priest up there and sometimes look at the pictures of angels and saints in the back and put the four or five different colored ribbon place-holder strips in different spots, trying to find a page I liked so I could just flick there and dig on the icons or fancy lettering.
And I would be in this magnificent, fantastical, awesome place...
(I sat center right, three or four rows from the front. This is actually St. Mary of the Angels. I was baptized here).
And what they didn't count on was me encountering a "God" that wasn't mean or vindictive or old or even bearded. The "God" I encountered told me not to fret about anyone who was pushing me around and willing to listen to my goofy made-up stories that I was inventing even then, and more or less always smiling and open and easy. I didn't see "Him" as the same "Him" everybody was scaring me about. And at seven I was already certain I knew better than everybody else so that was that.
I'm not a Roman Catholic anymore but a recorded member of a Quaker Meeting here in the greater Chicago area. My original version of "God" came with me.
(to be continued)