I believe I may have had the most awkward first communions in the history of communion. As a seven-year old with the Vietnamese orphan haircut my mother insisted I always wear, (I had a habit of chewing on my hair,while chewing on gum,) I sat for what I felt were months of catechism classes, preparing us for this most holy of days. Catechism class was mostly taught by mothers of the parish, but in the preparations of the communion, a real life nun came in and taught us. She wore a habit and a long, black sack , exactly like on TV.
It may seem strange, being a Catholic, and finding the sight of a nun an odd manifestation. However, the only Catholics that see them on a day-to-day bases are those raised in a Catholic school, which I mercifully was not.
This old woman was nice and smelt as old women do, a mixture of rose, witch hazel, and old newspaper. She was wrinkly soft, and I knew if I touched her, she’d feel like the smooth, well wore leather of my father’s wallet. When she spoke the letter ‘s’ ,her voice would make an odd whistling sound, like a tea kettle. I covered my mouth to stifle my seven-year old disrespect, as the other kids did as well. The Sister took no notice. Looking back, I’m sure it was something she’d grown accustomed to, which only highlights her kindness and lack of bitterness the more. We practiced, one-by-one, going up to Sister Tea-Kettle, holding out our tiny palms for saltine crackers. (As we hadn’t made our first confession yet, we weren’t allow to eat Jesus’s body.) For those out there who aren’t from this culture, there are two ways to receive the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist:
1) You cup your hands, left under right, where the priest will place it. You make one step to the side, then consume the flat, roof-of-mouth-sticking cracker. You make the sign of the cross, then go back to your seat
2) You step up to the priest and stick your tongue out. He places it there, you step to the side, consume, then make the sign of the cross.
The method number one was how my fellow seven-year olds were doing it. The tongue thing was weird. From my silent observations through the years, as I had sat quietly in the pew and watched the adults, (and my smug sister, who is three years older than me,) file past to take communion, I noticed only old ladies did method number two; their dry, eager tongues were for some reason very upsetting to me. I decided, when the day came, I would do method number one. It was hip, and normal, and I didn’t want some strange man sticking his hands in my mouth, anyway.
Next we had to prepare for our first confession: a prerequisite to receive communion. We learned the proper speech and sins to confess. Being children, we usually had to be told what our sins were. I knew a little of what to expect, as I’d witnessed my sister CW’s confession years earlier. Sitting out in the pew with my parents, I remember her entering the private chapel Father D awaited in, then very shortly exiting, slamming the door shut by accident on her way out, her face grim and guarded.
“Well, that doesn’t look good.” My Dad mumbled with a grin, him and my mother chuckling together. I swallowed a gulp. As a four-year old, knowing my day was coming, my little mind worried.
However the preparations weren’t so hard: “Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been ______ days since my last confession.” was pretty much all we had to memorize. When entering the chapel, we could either sit in a chair directly in front of the priest, or we could keel behind a screen, hiding us from view. At the time my sins consisted of tantrum throwing, kicking the back of my sister’s legs when she was not expecting my revenge, or whipping the seat belt’s female part at her face, (which resulted in Dad trying to reach back and smack our knees to stop the fray, only to swerve wildly on the road.)
Even so, there was no way in hell I was sitting eye-to-eye with Father D. So behind the screen it was.
First confession is about a week or so before first communion. I sat in our special pews with the other wide-eyed children, our hearts pounding, convinced we’d be the worst, refused, humiliated. My name is smack-dab in the middle of the alphabet, but it still seemed like an eternity before I was called. I entered the chapel, and knelt behind the screen. There, I confessed my sins as quickly was possible, not really listening when the Father called to God to forgive my trespasses, mistakes, impoliteness. When I stood up to leave, the whole screen almost tipped sideways with my awkward raise. I ran out of that room like hell’s fire was already raining down on me.
The day came. I wore my sister’s old gown and veil. I knew, after, that there’d be a party, where I’d get lots of presents. Plus, I got to wear a fucking veil, like the weddings I’d make my Barbies go through with Aladdin or Malibu Ken over and over again. Pictures were taken. We the children were gathered together like little doves and shoved into our own pews, parents and relatives in a safe but photo-op distance. However, while I sat there, surrounded by children who were not my friends, (my childhood friends always ended up being Lutheran or non-denominational,) I began to fidget. My white communion gloves, a gift from my only living grandparents, began to collect sweat. So I pulled them off. But then I had no where to put them; my gown had no pockets. I could shove them into the hymn book case, but what if someone took them? Or what if I didn’t end up in the same spot after I took the sacrament? My decision, then, was to hold them cupped in my small hands.
Whatever the Priest was babbling about ended,
and it was time for us to file out. Following suit, I realized I still had my gloves trapped between my hands. How, then, could I properly enact method one? I could cup my palms together,but the gloves were in the way. I realized with horror I would have to resort to method number two. Closer and closer I drew to the Priest, Deacon, and parishioners helping out on this special occasion. I arrived at a random parishioner:
“Body of Christ.” She asked/stated.
“Amen” I dutifully replied. Then I opened my mouth like those stale old woman. I could feel the parishioner’s shock and embarrassment at my choosing of method number two, which even my devote mother would never do. However, Jesus was placed into my mouth, I stepped to the side, did the sign of the cross, then returned to the pew feeling a fool.
Then it was over, and it was money and gift time. Returning home, I stood in my room deciding if I should stay in my gown or change for the party. For some reason, I threw a tantrum, probably over what I was going to wear. My mother grew frustrated. She went to leave my room, but turning at the door, she said words which would haunt me forever:
“If you wear your gown, wear a slip under it. Everyone could see your underwear.” With that she closed the door, leaving me to my numb mortification. I undressed, pulled on a slip, then put my gown back on. Not only had I used the embarrassing number two method, but the whole parish, the Priest, the Deacon, my relatives, and God had all seen my Minnie Mouse underwear.
I got over it, well, a little bit. Enough to open saving’s bonds, money and pretty bibles with pictures of a blue-eyed Jesus making a shit ton of bread and fish. Later I changed into my softball uniform, to show off my great batting skills. Out in my yard, I pulled my aluminum bat back sharply to make what was surely to be a home run, when I heard a metal “Twang!!!” Looking behind me, I saw my curly, blonde-headed, one-year old nephew, (who I loved more than the sun,) holding his head.
“Ow.” He stated simply. Then he burst into tears. His mother, my sister K, swooped in like a mother bird, carrying away her baby without a look or word towards me, lips thin in anger. It was the first time I realized I was really bad at social occasions.
From then on, I got to eat those stale, flavorless round crackers every Sunday. I’d even go over to the wine, which my mother never did because of germs. I felt adult sipping that bitter blood, and maybe I was already developing the family inclination towards alcohol.
Another memorable confession was with another priest, Father L, when I was 9 or 10. I sat behind the screen and confessed my sins, now a seasoned pro. Then Father L said:
“Forgive him, Lord, for ____ and ____and ____, let him-”
I felt the draining of the blood from my face, which the priest couldn’t see was clearly female. I didn’t correct him, I said ‘thank you’ and left. I wondered, though, what if God didn’t know who he was asking forgiveness for? How could he, when Father L didn’t even know my gender?
Maybe all this planted seeds for what happened six years later, when my confirmation came up, (which is a different post entirely.) I got gifts for my first communion, including a sugared egg, which I could look into and see a sugared yellow bird, (which survived in my sock drawer for about three years, until my unsavory neighbor convinced me to consume it.) I received some of my only surviving gifts from my grandparents, who died within the next two years, (nine months apart from each other. ) I received a savings bond which later helped pay for a text book I had lost, during a horrible summer when my parents were hard on cash, (the broke summer, which has influenced my sound ability to save money and use it wisely.) However, it didn’t make me think of my sins. It didn’t make me want to think more of others, as Father D often preached, (and less of the jelly donuts awaiting me when that impossibly long hour was over.) It taught me that Catholicism was not so much about faith and God, but about family, culture, and ceremony. It’s hard to explain to a person who isn’t Catholic. It’s like being Jewish or Muslim; believe, faith and practice is a part of it, but it’s also a way of live, a set of ideals, and ceremonies which brings together communities.
That being said, I will always defend Catholics. They are my family, my culture. My happy memories of laughing at the old women who belt out those hymns,
“~Laaaamb of God….WHO TAKES AWAY THE SIIINSSSS OF THE WORLLLLLD!!~
reducing my sister CW and I to uncontrollable church laughter, until we’d have to be separated. (CW next to Mom, me next to Dad, the only person who’s ever been able to control me.) Hearing Latin or hymns now comfort me, and make me think of my family.
Latin, bloody art, bloody history, blood of Christ. It belongs to me, even if I don’t belong to it.