My mom says I didn't mind going to Mass on Sunday as a young kid, but as far back as I can remember, I resented it. I mostly had no idea what was going on. I liked singing the hymns, but the readings and homilies were hypnotically unintelligible to me. Some middle-aged woman announcing, "A letter from St. Paul to the Thessalonians," was my cue to check out--I had no idea what Thessalonians were. Sounded like some Dr. Seuss thing, or space aliens. Ephesians? Colossians? Martians? Had nothing to do with me.
I passed the time by flipping though the hymnal and memorizing lyrics. I'd sing them later on when at last I recovered my solitude, perhaps while walking reverently through the woods in my parents' backyard, disturbing the quiet with my soft, inquisitive rendition of "Here I Am, Lord," feeling like someone was definitely listening to me--a Prince wandering through the same woods at the same moment, no doubt. . . Until, finally, I'd be jolted back to reality by the sound of my father yelling my name from the porch, checking to see that I hadn't fallen into that "damn river."
My dad never had to go to church on Sunday, just me, my little sister, and my mom. My dad can sit for the better part of a day in a fishing boat, or in a deer stand, or on a frigid folding chair on a frozen lake, but ask him to sit for an hour of church, and suddenly, he has a medical condition where he can't sit on hard surfaces and his knees start bouncing up and down and he needs a cigarette pronto.
Inevitably, as we passed him in the garage on our way to the car, one of us kids would protest, "Why doesn't dad have to go?"
"He's a Presbyterian," my mother would answer, conclusively.
She had me beat. I had no idea what a "press-bah-teerian" was, but I guessed it meant that you didn't have to go to church on Sundays.
Wishing I could be a Presbyterian, too, I would watch my dad wistfully from the backseat as we pulled out of the driveway. He was usually shirtless, leaning back in his chair with his bare feet resting on the table and watching television--in a way, the paragon of happiness and self-determination; but in another way, a creature to be pitied, as if, because of his curse words and dirty jokes, which I overheard and memorized, and his easy-to-come-by wrath, which might have resulted in homicide if anyone ever messed with his family, he had long ago been pronounced "Irredeemable" and "Unfit" for church. Each week, we gave up on him anew.
My mother, by contrast, is naturally very "good." She's a thoughtful, generous, universally well-liked woman who seems to be constantly serving others. She went to great lengths as a mother. On cold winter mornings, when it was especially hard to get up for school, rather than flip on the lights and rip away our covers, she would put our outfits in the dryer for a few minutes and entice us out of bed with toasty clothes.
If that didn't work, then her gentle nudgings would turn into shrill imperatives. She had to get to work on time, too, after all.
My favorite story about my mom is the time she went to a church meeting on a week night, fully intending to quit that particular volunteer group as gracefully as possible, claiming she just didn't have the time to help them anymore.
When she came back, and my sister and I asked her how it had gone, if she was finally free, she looked down and muttered, "They made me the president."
My sister and I rolled with laughter. "Mom, you're such a pushover!"
My sweet mother prides herself on keeping the peace, avoiding confrontation, and being likable, which means two things: any malice that she does harbor seeps out as passive aggression, like the eye rolls my dad better not catch.
It also means that she'd be really hard-pressed to discuss religion with you. It might make you uncomfortable, even offend you, and what would be the point of that? You'll probably make it to heaven one way or another, doing what you're already doing. Maybe she doesn't feel like she's knowledgeable enough to discuss the faith, or maybe she doesn't even believe in it 100% herself. Maybe, like the volunteer group, her heart's not fully in it, but she shows up anyway.
My mother frustrated me in this regard. She would insist we pray before meals and attend Sunday morning Mass and Wednesday night catechism, but for whatever reason, her own personal spiritual life was invisible to me; it seemed unapproachable, and when I dared to approach it, impenetrable. Despite all of her niceties, in this most private matter, my mother kept me at arm's length.
The things I longed to know she either couldn't or wouldn't explain, and as a result, I grew up feeling smarter than her and very separate. I was the philosopher, always asking "Why?" My mother, for whatever reason, only ever responded, "We just do."