Naughty Catholic Girl
Mother frightened me when she declared, "When you die you're going straight to hell and your father will be playing the fiddle there." Although mother had conflicting beliefs about Catholicism she was still determined to guide her own brat pack of children into the church. First there was baptism followed by First Communion, and finally, Confirmation. "I don't care what you do after you're Confirmed," she said.
At age six I thought my soul would be forever saved from the fires of hell if I dutifully participated in the religious ceremonies. First Communion is considered one of the holiest and most important occasions in a Roman Catholic person's life. Gliding down the aisle in my billowing white Communion dress and singing in Latin made me feel truly holy. Receiving Communion also meant I could join the adults at the altar to receive a wafer that symbolized receiving the body of Christ. After the priest made the sign of the cross over me and placed the tasteless wafer in my mouth I basked in the pure light of God's love.
"Maybe now Ma will stop saying I'm going to hell," I told my older sister after the ceremony.
"She's just trying to scare you into behaving."
My younger brother, Craig added, "Ma told me I'd be dancing the can-can in Lucifer's ballroom, whatever the can-can is. Grandma says she's off her rocker."
"Don't say that! She could be speaking for our Father in heaven. He once talked to a woman named Joan of Arc and she was just a regular person. God told her to lead a mighty war in the name of the Lord. I'm hoping he talks to me next because I've got a lot of questions about why he didn't obey his own commandment, 'Thou shalt not kill.'"
"What makes you so special you expect Jesus to talk to you personally? You're supposed to ask questions in catechism," Craig said.
"The last time I asked the teacher she got mad and said I was disrupting the class with my nonsense."
"What kind of questions did you ask?" Cheryl said.
"Well, Sister Morgan said our Father in heaven sent his only begotten son to earth even though he knew he would be betrayed and killed. I wouldn't have done that to my kid. Also, why didn't he tell young Jesus the whole story so he could have chosen whether he even wanted to be hung on a cross to die? Another time I asked if the Virgin Mary had a baby girl did she also get to be God and rule with Jesus? Sister Morgan yelled something weird, like blash-foe-me."
"You should read the Bible for your answers," Craig snarled.
At the urging of our local pastor, Cheryl, Craig, and I entered Sacred Heart Catholic School in 1956. Grandmother Belenger bought over our school uniforms and I gasped when she unwrapped them. I was so accustomed to wearing hand-me-downs I was overjoyed receiving something new. I couldn't stop fingering the crisp white shirt and plaid pleated skirt with its matching bowtie.
On the first day of school Mother was in a cross mood. She braided my long dark hair with such a vengeance I bit my lip to keep from crying. "If you had curly hair like your sister we wouldn't have to go through this," she grumbled. My stupid brother, Craig, laughed and said, "You look Chinese."
"Good because I don't want anyone to know I'm related to you," I sniped.
Cheryl and I eagerly dressed and walked several blocks to school. At the school's entrance I stopped to trace my fingers over a picture with Jesus holding his hand up over his chest. "He looks perfectly healthy except his heart is bleeding," I told my friend. A gold sign under the picture said, "Truly I say to you unless you turn and become like children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." I felt my spine tingle as we walked in a single file past a long line of stern-faced nuns in long black habits.
"Hello class, my name is Sister Claire. Our first lesson is how to curtsey like ladies and bow like gentlemen." I ran from nun to nun bowing and fanned my skirt out for maximum effect.
"Good morning, Sister!" I said gleefully.
"We start each day with a song to God," the nun said. "Follow along."
"Jesus loves me, He who died, Heaven's gates to open wide/He will wash away my sin/ Let his little child come in/Jesus loves me, loves me still, though I'm very weak and ill."
On our way home from school Craig said, "You know, I think it's working already."
"What's working?" I asked.
"Our souls are being washed clean of sin. I can feel God's magic dissolving them."
"You're crazy! The only thing I feel is hungry and now I have a few more questions like why do we have to sing about being weak and ill? Mother says it's going to take a long time to wash away the sins of our family."
"I don't know why you keep questioning everything. You have a very active brain."
"I guess I was born this way. Ma says it's because the Devil leaned down and kissed me in my crib. Maybe that's how I got this red mark on my forehead from his sizzling lips."
Each morning I bounded out of bed eager to attend school. It seemed a safe haven away from mother and her unpredictable emotions. Parenting did not come easily to her. After my father abandoned her with three children she spent a great deal of time being angry.
Money was scarce in our lives. My mother worked as a waitress in our small New England town. Each August she counted out enough money to get each of her kids a cheap pair of school shoes at Woolworth's or the Five and Dime store.
One day my mother came home from her waitressing job with a beautiful pair of shiny black patent leather shoes her boss had given. My heart pounded when mother handed them to Cheryl to try on. My sister tried to cram her feet into them. "Let Jasmine try them on," Mother yelled. I was thrilled my sister could not fit in them and felt like Cinderella as I slid into the shoes effortlessly. "Wow, they fit me perfectly. They're the most beautiful shoes I've ever seen."
"They're too fancy for an six-year-old. They would look better on me. You just want everything don't you?" Cheryl said.
"They didn't fit your big old feet remember? Look how they shine in the light. The buckles are probably made of pure silver."
I proudly wore them to school the next day stopping often to admire the shiny buckles and the way they caught the light. These were the most expensive shoes I'd ever owned and Cheryl was quite envious. "Hurry up, and stop looking at those stupid shoes!" she yelled.
The first week of school I was elated to be there. I was a quick learner and the nuns seemed to like me. I pranced about school in my new shoes delighted I was the only one with black patent leather with silver buckles. The other girls also admired them. I kept it a secret they were handed down.
"Your family must be rich," one shabbily dressed girl said. I gave her a thin smile and demurely bent over to wipe the dust from my shoes so she couldn't see my bursting pride.
The second week, Sister Claire said in a loud tone, "Jasmine report to Mother Superior's office now." Though I had gotten along well with my classmates, they whispered and giggled as I headed in the direction of the nun's pointed finger.
Mother Superior? The name alone frightened me. What made her superior anyway? I thought we were all equal according to the flag.
Walking down the long marbled hallway toward the wrought iron doors of her chamber, my imagination was in full gear. What sort of an animal does she keep in there? As I entered the dark paneled room the high arched ceilings dwarfed my small frame. I trembled as the nun at the window turned slowly to face me and was startled at the sight of her pallid face lined with age. The long black folds of her gown concealed her body. She must be a hundred years old.
"You sounded like such a nice girl when I spoke with your Mother. She said you wanted to be a bride of Jesus someday so I'm quite surprised with your behavior. It's been only two days and you have already violated an important rule and offended our Lord."
"Sorry, Mother, but how can I know when I'm breaking a rule? Jesus doesn't talk to me like he does to you."
"He's talking now and is commanding you to stop wearing those glossy shoes to school. You need to burn them." Her voice ricocheted off the walls.
I was stunned. "Why? They're brand new and I've kept them clean!"
"The boys can see your underwear reflected in them!"
"Did someone complain?" I asked.
"I have things to complain about too but I wouldn't tell him he had to burn his sandals."
"You have the nerve to compare your shoes to the kingdom of God?"
'But I love them! My mom can't afford to buy me shoes as nice as these."
Mother Superior snarled. "Desire for pretty things will lead you to the Devil's playground. You cannot wear them. Your parents should have read the handbook. It states no patent leather is allowed for the girls. Do not wear them tomorrow or I will expel you."
These shoes were my most treasured possession and I was quite upset at her orders.
Tearfully I stomped away from her inner sanctum and spent the rest of the day refusing to curtsey or tell the other kids what happened. Cheryl badgered me to tell her about my office visit. I fabricated a story to appease her since I knew she would run home and tell mother.
"Oh, she just said she heard me singing and liked my voice. She didn't want to tell me in front of the other kids so they wouldn't get jealous."
"Is that the truth? She didn't seem very happy, " Cheryl said.
"Give her a break, she's old and it's hard for her to smile with all the wrinkles in her face."
My mind spun as I walked home from school. I had to come up with a plan since I was so attached to my shoes! My esteemed reputation was at stake.
I went to bed early that night without mentioning anything about school. Kneeling by my bed I prayed, "Jesus if you are listening I could use a little help. I'll pray harder every night if you let me keep my shoes. Tell Mother Superior you changed your mind or made an exception for me. Oh, yeah and try to talk to her before she undresses. That might scare you. What did you say? Jesus is that you? I can barely hear you." The answer dawned on me just as I started to drift off. Yes! It made perfect sense! "Amen and thank you Jesus!"
After a fitful night I bounced out of bed and dressed before my sister's eyes were even open. I happily fastened the buckles on my shoes. After I had spit-cleaned them to a lustrous glow, off we went to school. Within an hour of class, I was told to see Mother Superior.
My classroom erupted into giggles as I left the room. It seemed I was already getting a reputation for making trouble. I thought this trip to the office would be my final redemption. Huffing away from those insensitive classmates I walked into her office prepared to settle this matter once and for all. The piercing look from Mother Superior sent shivers up my spine. "Little Miss, why are you still wearing those shoes? Didn't I say you would be expelled?"
Bravely, I announced, "Don't worry, Sister, I took care of the problem!"
"Don't you dare to smart mouth me!" her face became red and contorted.
With great pride I told her, "Sister Mary, it's all right! I thought of the perfect solution. The boys won't be able to see my underwear reflected because I took them off. All they can see now is natural skin."
Her horrified expression was not what I had expected. "You are piercing a knife through God's heart with your wantonness."
"I have seen pictures of Jesus and he already has a bleeding heart. And what is wan-ton-ness?"
Mother Superior's face turned an ugly red color. She yanked me by my collar and shoved me over to a stool in the corner. "Your Mother is on her way. You might want to drop to your knees and beg the Lord for forgiveness."
After ten minutes passed I craned my neck back to see what she was doing and a hard smack of the ruler hit my back. I stewed in my corner, "Doesn't Jesus have more important things to worry about? Why did he create patent leather shoes if they are so evil? I thought he loved children. What kind of God was this anyway?"
It was a long fearful morning as I waited for my angry mother to pick me up. She had to leave work to take me home. I counted her footsteps as she clopped down the hall and into the office.
Sister Mary warned my mother. "The devil is in that girl and in those shoes. It's best you pull out your Bible and read her some scripture before it's too late to save her soul."
"I thought that was your job, Sister," Mother snapped. "Thanks for nothing!"
I glanced proudly at mother as we strolled toward the exit.
"Wipe off that smirk. I just said that to save face. You're going to have to pay the piper someday," she said.
"Does this mean I am going to burn in hell, Ma?"
"You'll get your first glimpse of hell when we get home. You'll start by cleaning out the basement then scrubbing the bathroom."
"They should call that school the cold heart instead of the Sacred Heart."
"Well, now you've just guaranteed your address in Hades."
"So what! I don't care anymore about saving my soul when I die. If God is going to be so mean I'll just go hang out in hell with my patent leather shoes. It sounds like Satan is a lot more fun than Jesus anyway!"
That afternoon, confined to my bed after a beating, I clutched my shoes and wailed. It was truly my first disappointment with my holy Catholic life. The following semester Sister Claire suggested I go elsewhere for schooling.
"Now you get to be just a public school brat," Ma said.
I told my friends, "The devil's playground suits me just fine and at least I can wear shiny shoes there."