Not only was yesterday Valentines Day, but it was also my parents’ wedding anniversary. They were married in 1942, in Elkton, Maryland, by a Justice of the Peace on the day before my father left home for his participation in WWII. They were Catholics but had no idea what a stir their wedding vows would cause the family ten years later. All was well until 1952, when by youngest brother Reid, was born. Mom and Dad decided to have him and my brother, Zed, baptised when Reid was about a year old. The big day was scheduled with relatives coming from New Jersey, and my grandparents who lived nearby.
Just before the event, my parents went to talk to the priest who would perform the ritual. He wanted to know more about the family. I had been baptized in a different church shortly after I was born and had received my first communion a year earlier at the same church where the baptism of my brothers was to take place. When they were asked by the priest where they were married everything came to a screeching halt.
They were told by this man of the church that they were not married in the eyes of God and so were living in sin. He also said that my brothers and I were bastards because my parents were not married and therefore we were illegitimate.
My parents held the family gathering anyway, on the Sunday that the boys were to be baptized but weren’t. There was much talk about the situation, how unfair it was and serious anger was expressed. Being about 9 years old, I listened as everyone pissed and moaned about the church and how cruel it seemed to this family whose early time together had been interrupted by a long war in which my father narrowly survived and was awarded at least one medal for his heroic service. I soaked it all in and when I never went to that church again, I understood that we were not permitted to return, because we were no good.
I’ve carried this story with me all of my life, wondering why I never felt worthy of acceptance by most other people. In October of 1990, I finally came to grips with how I felt about the church and my own encounters with nuns and priests. Healing the hurt, I wrote the following poems.
When I was eight I went to church where a nun prepared me for my First Holy Communion; learned about the body and blood of Christ, a white wafer to be swallowed whole.
She told me that money collected on sunday went directly to God. I dreamed of baskets filled with coins, sprouting wings, ascending to Heaven where he didn’t allow dead babies that hadn’t been baptized.
The nun choked in her long black habit, white gorget pressed around her puffy face like a rubber band, hiding her hair, ears and the neck where a heavy black cross swung on a silver chain bowing her shoulders. She rapped the knuckles of dreamers with a ruler producing red streaks, tears.
One Sunday after reciting the Act of Contrition, confessing a multitude of sins and pretending to do penance, I walked down the aisle dressed like a bride, in white.
Sunlight filters parables of glass, stains the alter, the Virgin Mary. Above me Jesus hangs on a wooden cross, his face serene. He died for my sins. Now I must gather them up, tell the priest hidden in the confessional: the turtles died because I forgot to feed them, how I hate my father when he hits me, all the lies I’ve told. I wait my turn to kneel in the dark. My stomach aches. I have to pee, practice the prayer about being sorry.
Children hang in rows on gilded crosses beating their breasts for priests who smell like whiskey and smother the question: What have we done?
I kneel at the altar dressed in white. Angels float above my head. The priest approaches, presses the wafer against my tongue. I choke as the body catches, bleeding in my throat, scraping its way to my soul where shut in the dark It will not grow.
They are living in sin. My brothers and I are bastards. The priest said so.
They were married by a Justice of the Peace the night before my father went to war.
They are not married in the eyes of God. My brothers and I do note exist in the eyes of God. The priest said so.