In a lifetime there’s no telling what we are exposed to that wriggles in deep and impacts our psyches, for better or worse. One of my first memories is seeing a woman speeding across the J.C. Penny’s parking lot and my sister’s blonde hair hurling itself- what seemed like six feet into the air, along with the rest of her five year old frame, first the thud, then the reality. The woman in her silver car still continuing on as if she didn’t just hit a small child. I can still hear the aid car sirens and see flashes of red light making my shy sister the spectacle. I was three and well, she was the bossy older sister, always the smarter; this should have never happened. I am 45 now and I remember the day like it were last week. The slant of the sun was nothing more than welcoming, it wasn’t in the driver’s eyes. She was simply speeding. I can see the grey bumpy rock façade on the Department store outside the Penny’s building. Thank god it didn’t kill her, what an ugly place that would be to die. I remember the horror in my mother’s face. Was my mom tending to me-is that where my sister’s anger towards me truly began? Had she died, being three, I wouldn’t even have known to tell her I loved her.
In contrast, I have seen many pleasant things in this life too…. so why can I more easily recall the bad ones?….the blood pooling up in the parking lot where the tires of a Chevy Sedan crushed a boy’s head, during pick-up after Catholic Catechism? This was the first time I questioned God. So much brings me back to being Catholic, which was the only qualifying value imparted from the likes of my step father that was good and that stuck. His rigid rules felt like love, his laughter felt like love, his love of red wine, well I learned to emulate that too, like any good Catholic does, as a way to soften the blow of not measuring up to Catholic Perfection. Their were good things about my Catholic upbringing? Donuts and dressing up for our First communion. It felt fancy like we were royal blood, I felt distinct from this priest, robed and using this word “worship.” He was seemingly so special in God’s eyes, he probably awoke without morning breath? I liked a father figure since we had a step dad that worked nights. The smell of his late night pan seared steaks filling the air as I slept, were comfort enough that he indeed had come home. He was not A father- but he was a dad. A father was “Father Peter,” his soft hands, his full smile that fixed his eyes on you long enough to actually see you, hear you. He was an important contrast to this man, my dad, the airplane mechanic, wearing overalls and Chukka boots and lighting up when I called him Daddy. He was sometimes nice and sometimes hurtful. I feel grateful today he stepped up for the job. And most grateful that he insisted we kids go to Sunday Mass. If for nothing more than the candles and the music and the hope it inspired. I can hear the priest cracking a joke, despite his garb, robed in a starched looking garment, embroidered with gold etchings and fabric stiffer than my grandmother’s curtains. How comforting, I would think, that even the perfect souls cracked jokes? I marveled at how and why he would wave sage and incense; its puffs of steam coming from the tiny holes in the large brass tea sieve. He didn’t seem to clue in how silly this seemed, making strokes as if he was painting the air with the seriousness of an impressionist artist. I wondered if, when he waved it over the body of my grandfather- if it did anything different than it did now?
I guess I owe a lot to this figment-the one I pictured looking like the Eskimo on the tail of the Alaska Airlines jets. Even if I refused the idea, the notions dipped into my life and pulled back-surprising me with it’s force, like a jet passing by. And without that Catholic school dance in the basement of St. Stephen’s church, I may have never had my first kiss? There in the downstairs in plain view with God himself upstairs, shadows teased at our faces… speckling the plain beige tiles of the floor with rainbows of color. Without God being witness, I cannot imagine it being so perfect, they way my heart spilled under the disco ball as our lips touched. Somehow there was this odd knowing, this presence, that erased any hint of shame or insecurity, this knowing stood as if on legs before me telling me, these are the very memories that blot out the bad ones?
So when I try not to fixate on those OTHER days, to escape the child at the air base in Glen view, Illinois, a very real witness to the excitement of a plane taking off and the horror of that plane crashing-right before my 8 year old eyes. What mattered good or bad was how it affected us. What mattered more than ugliness was that there was somehow a beautiful lesson nestled deep inside of it. That bushy almost handsome bearded guy they had me visualize in mass had told me so-not in so many words. My hope is that he also finds time to send a message bigger than words to tell my sister that the good…. will eventually ..outweigh the bad.