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 or why we were there. It seemed like an inhumane waste of my time, like being forced to watch the static fuzz on a television for an hour.
I liked the singing part, but the readings and homilies were monotoned gibberish. A 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 a Dr. Seuss thing, or space aliens. Colossians? Martians? Had nothing to do with me.
I passed the time flipping though the hymnal, memorizing the lyrics to my favorite songs. I’d sing them later on when at last I recovered my freedom and my solitude, perhaps while walking reverently through the woods in my backyard, disturbing the quiet with my soft, inquisitive rendition of "Here I Am, Lord.” I fancied myself a princess, singing to no one and yet, singing to someone—a Prince wandering through the same woods at the same time, no doubt…
Eventually, I'd be jolted back to reality by the sound of my father yelling my name from the back 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 get up at 4am and sit for the better part of a day in a fishing boat, or a deer stand, or on a metal 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.
Every now and then, as we passed him in the garage on the way to the car, I couldn't help but protest.
“But 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-bateerian" was, but I reasoned that it meant you didn't have to go to church on Sundays.
Wishing I, too, could be a Presbyterian, I’d watch my dad wistfully from the backseat as we left the driveway. He was usually shirtless, leaning back in an office chair he had found “on the boulevard,” watching television with his bare feet resting on the table. In a way, he was the paragon of happiness and self-determination; in another, a creature to be pitied, as if, because of his curse words and dirty jokes and easy-to-come-by wrath, 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 to shrill imperatives. She had to get to work on time, too, after all. Don’t ask me what she did for a living—I sincerely could not have told you. All I knew was that she worked in and amongst a sea of gray cubicles in an old K-Mart building.
One of my favorite stories about my mom is the time she tried to quit a volunteer group at church. She was psyching herself up before she left, and when she returned, my sister and I clamored to hear the details.
“How did it go, mom?”
“Are you finally free?”
She looked down and shook her head.
“They made me the president,” she muttered.
My sister and I roared with laughter.
My mother prides herself on keeping the peace, avoiding confrontation, and being likable, which means two things: any malice she does harbor seeps out as passive aggression, like the eye rolls I always prayed my dad wouldn’t see.
It also means 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 knowledgeable enough to discuss the faith, or maybe she doesn't 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 insisted we pray before meals and attend Mass and catechism class, but her own personal spiritual life was invisible to me.
Without having words for it, I longed for her to impart some meaning to all of this. I longed for answers, anything to help me make sense of this mind-numbing, Sunday obligation.
Whenever I had the presence of mind to question something, it would all get stalled in this brier patch of awkward silence and implicit mother-daughter authority structure. I never got a good answer, and the inexorable chain of Sunday Mass and Wednesday night catechism class continued ever on.
Maybe there truly were no answers—at least, that's what I had to tell myself. If there were, she would have given them to me by now.
Another part of me sensed that for whatever reason, in this most private matter, my mother was keeping me at arm’s length.