Though usually a softy — especially with me– my dad was strict about church. We went every Sunday –no exceptions. Of course I tried to get out of it:
” I feel sick.”
“Church will make you feel better. Get dressed and brush your teeth. Let’s go.”
So we drove to Mass at Most Holy Trinity in my dad’s 1978 wood-paneled Mercury station wagon. In the early years, Dad let me bring books or dolls or crayons, maybe assuming I would absorb the ritual even if I wasn’t ready to receive the message. I entertained myself back behind the pews under the not-particularly-watchful eyes of the ushers while my dad did the reading or presented the gifts or assisted with Communion. Mass had been so thoroughly absorbed into my dad’s consciousness that it felt like another language he spoke, another mode of expression, like Czech or carpentry.
I didn’t understand Mass — I still don’t– but I sensed what it meant to him and why he wanted to include me in it despite my resistance. He was inviting me into a ritual he had known all his life, a collection of prayers, songs and movements he carried in his veins and muscles through everything. That ritual, compact enough to keep with him even through the hell of Viet Nam, was still powerful enough to bring him all the way home. It wasn’t the only thing that protected him, but it was the essential thing. He wanted me to be protected too.
Mass had been so thoroughly absorbed into my dad’s consciousness that it felt like another language he spoke, another mode of expression, like Czech or carpentry.
Since my parents were (very) divorced, they divided my time right down the middle, including Christmas. Mom got Christmas Day for the big, loud family dinner at Grandma and Grandpa Thacher’s house. Dad got Christmas Eve, when we took the snowy, rural drive down to Lonsdale to visit Grandma and Grandpa Skluzacek. As the reliable Merc traced the dark, frozen farm roads it knew by heart, Dad and I listened to “Blue Christmas” and “Mele Kalikimaka” on the radio. Alone but not lonely, connected but allowed our own thoughts, we made that trip every year. When I think of it, I picture us in a snow globe.
The rituals I shared with my dad always made me feel like that … as if I were inhabiting a tiny, enchanted, impenetrable space while he held the world at bay for me. I imagine that’s what God does for him during Mass.
I struggled under a lot of fear and anxiety when I was a little girl — I still do. I was anxious about what the mean kids at school would do next, I was afraid my dad would die and there would be nobody left to understand me. I worried about tornadoes and bees and big dogs. My head buzzed from the fear of doing something embarrassing –something nobody would ever let me forget– like the time I accidentally left the blinds open while I was going to the bathroom at the neighbors’ house. All the kids on my block were playing street hockey in the driveway that day.
My adult self knows they couldn’t have seen anything, but my child self assumed they saw everything. Please please please don’t talk about that, I prayed every time someone mentioned hockey or bathrooms or peeing or the neighborhood or windows or driveways or playing or stopping or any of the kids who lived in that house or any of the kids who lived nearby. Or their parents. Or anything. Please don’t bring it up. Sometimes my prayers worked, sometimes they didn’t.
“Hey, do you remember that time Mar-duh went to the bathroom with the window open? Mar-duh, do you remember? That was so funny! I can’t believe you did that. Why didn’t you close the shade? Did anyone see your butt? Gross! That’s so gross! Hahaha!”
I hated the way they said my name, I hated that I had made such an expensive mistake, I hated every minute of those elementary school years. I concentrated on neither laughing nor crying — just enduring, waiting. I suppose that was a kind of ritual too, learning how to hold the world at bay for myself, even if the space I was inhabiting didn’t feel enchanted or impenetrable.
Childhood itself is a ritual, imposed on all of us: the unruly world intrudes on our safety and comfort and the adults who love us push it away –over and over again– until we are old enough and brave enough to push the adults away, invite the world in for ourselves, run out to meet it, get lost in it, find our way back again. The world is never safe. We eventually see that’s the beauty of it.
The world is never safe. We eventually see that’s the beauty of it.
When I was fifteen, I refused to go to church anymore. I had tried to connect with Mass all year during my Confirmation classes, but I couldn’t find my way in. My dad and I had one of our very rare fights about it.
“It feels dishonest!” I cried. “All I do is sit there and think about boys!”
“I daydream too, Marta,” my dad said back. “What matters is that you go to church.”
My mom laughed when I told her what he had said, adding it to her case against organized religion in general and Catholicism in particular. She heard my dad’s argument as evidence that his faith was only a meaningless habit.
My mother was a brilliant, perceptive woman, but she was wrong about that. He was telling me that absorbing the ritual matters, even if we aren’t ready to receive the message. The message is enormous — the questions are enormous — the fear is enormous. It takes a lifetime just to sit with all of that, let alone reconcile it. Every time we allow ourselves to get lost in the world, the questions, the message, even our doubt, we have to find our way back. Back to what?
My dad finds his way back to Mass. I still can’t get there, but I have the ritual he gave me. I step into the snow globe, into my dad’s old Mercury station wagon, and trace the old roads I know by heart –alone but not lonely, connected but allowed my own thoughts …not safe, but protected.