November 24, 2010

I Have A Photograph / Preserve Your Memory

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)


B.E. Earl said...

I grew up Roman Catholic as well. Not so much anymore. But Kevin Smith did a film a while back called Dogma that was basically about growing up Catholic (with a couple of wayward angels trying to get back into Heaven, a shit-demon and Salma Hayek as the physical embodiment of an ideal).

And there was a line in that movie that rang especially true. Speaking of Catholics:

"I have issues with anyone who treats faith as a burden instead of a blessing. You people don't celebrate your faith; you mourn it."


sligo said...

as mr. P. Simon says, "it's a wonder i can think at all." i was smacked, punched, and shaken like a seal in a great white's mouth (i got caught cheating on a religion test, which is kind of like standing in front of a bull and poking it in the eye). they were creatures like no other. one even denigrated my mother to the entire class. Midway airport was closed at this time (yes, kids, RW and i are very old), but for several weeks i would skip school, walk to the airport, sneak in and hang out in the empty terminals.

and yet, i wrote my first original song lyrics at the encouragement of one of them. obviously, she was an aberration.

still, what an amazing cadre of pitiable souls.

i've done more for myself and for the world at large as a Buddhist than i ever would or could as a Catholic. blessings on you Catholics who worked it out for yourselves, those of you who use condoms, have gay friends, and understand you always have a direct connection to your God.

RW, thank you for allowing me to leave this baggage at the station. it shall go unclaimed.

RW said...

Strangely enough I really didn't intend this so much as an indictment as just a reflection. The truth is for all the guilt-laden old-school darkness involved I have a lot of nostalgia for the time.

I think what happened to me is that they all did their worst, but it didn't get through to me anyway.

sybil law said...

My kid would most definitely NOT be going to Catholic school if it was anything like that! No nuns teaching, and the current priest is close to my age and actually a goofy dude.
I wasn't raised Catholic - I am not a Catholic, but my daughter (and husband) are - I will never make steps to join that religion. I really don't belong to any religion whatsoever, but my God preaches love and faith and yes - doing the right thing, even when it's hard; but there's forgiveness when you screw up (which is often).
I have to say that, personally, the Catholic religion really irks me to no end - I don't "get" so much of it (and I learned about a lot of it when I was much younger, thanks to my mom going back to school for her degree in theology and me reading the books she had laying around). However, I'm glad the school Gilda attends isn't like your experience, and that they at least seem to realize that loving techniques are the way to go.

Gino said...

i thought the old school nuns were kinda cool. i had mostly the new generation (things had changed a lot after the 60's, and changed quickly).

one thing was certain fact, that i knew i could carry to the grave, 'Srs Old School', despite their issues, (and we didnt always get along) always had my back when/if the Devil called my name.(and she'd fight him if she had to.)

i learned that love wasnt always kind, sometimes it had to tough to be love.

Trish said...

So you grew up in/near Chicago? Last year, for the first time, I saw that very tree you have in your post for the first time when visiting my sister Sharon in Chicago. She took me to that store to experience the holiday experience there which is part of the quintessential Chicago Christmas experience. I also visited the German marketplace (Kris-something) and bought a beer stein there. Visited Field Museum, too. She showed me office she used to work in as an attorney in the downtown, etc. FINALLY got to visit the heart of Chicago. She's lived in the area since 1966 but I never got there until now. Long story...LOL Anyways, cool post thanks for sharing! I love stuff like this...