I'm an adult now (at least if you count my years) and I hope I react to things from a plane of some slight balance vs. torturous highs and lows. But it wasn't always so. Once I was 8 years old and I didn't have the same powers of reasoning, the same collection of life experience, the willingness to speak out, the suspicion of authority that I do now. I didn't have many coping skills. I wouldn't have challenged something an adult stated for anything. I'd learned not to bother anyone with anything that was bothering me. Life's little kicks in the ass sometimes crushed me, and I simply accepted them, soldiering on. I know that my own childhood traumas likely weren't any more difficult than anyone else's, and in many ways I was a fortunate little girl. But everyone has struggled with something.
My mother's large Irish family were Catholics through and through. Active in the parish. My father's family were decidedly not. The Morgan family, my grandfather in particular, could get going about Catholics and the Pope. I was not baptized as an infant, as my father objected. Mom finally convinced him to allow the baptism when I was 2 - just old enough to raise the roof when the priest applied those few drops of holy water to my forehead. By the time Gary came along, my dad had already given in once, so Gary was baptized as an infant, more typically Catholic. In very young childhood, I was not served up a lot of religion. Weddings and funerals, Mass at Easter. We were rather casual Catholics, my mother and I. Sometimes when very young, I was allowed to go to other churches of other faiths with friends. Casual. It may have been restful, convenient, to have me away from home in a wholesome environment, someone else's temporary responsibility. I don't know.By second grade, it appeared that I had a decent brain. There had been some discussion of my skipping a grade, but it had been determined my intellect could easily do that while my soul probably could not. I was delicate and sensitive. It could harm me. I now know myself better than anyone else knows me. It would have harmed me. My mother and her family began to work my dad. Putting me in Catholic school would not only offer me more challenging lessons and a good foundation for my lifetime education, there were all the wonderful extra-curricular activities and, and . . . he finally agreed, reluctantly. We'd try it for my 3rd grade year.
During the summer, my mother, a person who is not of the same species as I, had to teach me to write perfect Palmer Method cursive writing with a cartridge pen as the Catholic kids had all learned that in 2nd grade. They hadn't taught us that at public school. I was not grand at catching on to perfect Palmer Method. My mother and I should never have been allowed to occupy a room alone together. Certainly no one should have thought it was a good idea to have her try to teach me anything. Not good for her, not good for me. And I was a messy child, for the first time ever. That cartridge pen was a challenge to me. I remember it as the summer of permanently blue-stained fingertips and incredible stress. Ah ~ and in the fall, when I went to Catholic school, my uniform blouse would be white and there had better not be any blue ink on it. A stray lazy thought in my head today: Grandpa lived about 2 miles away, wrote in perfect Palmer Method, was soft and gentle with me, had even taught me how to handle a pocket knife . . . . . hmmm.
In 1960 America, there were good girls and boys and bad girls and boys. I had some cousins who were bad, and very fun. They were free enough to be bad, take their lumps and move on. I was a good child. Adults liked me. I was quiet and helpful, clean and tidy except for cartridge pens, industrious and bright. I think I would have liked the child who was me. The exterior was a cute little package, smiling, always reading, always trying to please. Trying so hard to please. And when I failed to please, I suffered agonies. I will write from time to time about ways I've punished myself in life for failing to please. But at 8, the punishment was just silent self-excoriation. My family's poisons had made me, by age 8, a very grand secret-keeper. I had seen, heard and experienced things to which no child should ever be exposed. I never spilled about the worst of it until I was 50 years old. I'd learned to get up every morning, study my mother and determine what she needed me to be on this day and that's the girl I'd be. And quiet! No, it didn't make for good mother-daughter relations. Does it surprise anyone that I sought out adult females? Granny and my aunts, friends of my mother, neighbor women. Because I was pretty smart, it didn't take long for me to figure out that all of them were pretty regular, pretty normal, pretty right.
In southern California, the Santa Ana winds blow in early September. The conditions become hot and dry. Major wildfires typically occur at this time of year. The Catholic school was a good deal farther from home than the public. That was OK. I was on a new adventure. In September, my new saddle shoes blistered my feet and the gray wool skirt was hot and itchy, but I tried not to complain. The white uniform blouse was adorned at the collar with a maroon clip-on bowtie that pinched the sweating neck, but that was all right, too. At Catholic school, we were assigned far more homework and used many more books than in public school. I lugged the books without griping and always did extra credit. My dad oversaw my homework every night of life and he could see how much I was learning. By first report card, we already knew this "trial" was going very well for all concerned. I was also learning about the Catholic religion in a way I'd never understood it before. We attended Mass, walked the Stations of the Cross, made our first confessions and studied for our First Communions, studied catechism each afternoon, were given rosaries and holy cards as prizes for spelling bees, and were immersed even more than that. Oh, I was a wonderful, true believer. Age 8, tender, gentle.
At least some of the reason for my success at school was the influence of Sister Maren Therese. She was young(ish) and quite tall. Her hands were long and beautiful and I stared at her gorgeous, very fair skin. She had a lovely voice and she was very caring while still remaining firm. Our school lay right in the flight path of the Los Angeles International Airport, already a very busy portal in 1960. When the huge classroom windows were opened because we were not air conditioned, Sister could present a lesson pausing every few moments as a jet passed over and then pick up right where she'd left off, without missing a beat. I remember I loved those windows that latched very close to the ceiling. They were latched by use of a device that was a sort of a hook on a very long broomstick. Only Sister, the janitor and the boys were allowed to use this device. That was OK with me. I am not graced with much grace. I could have put the device right through the window pane. That would not have pleased Sister. Have I mentioned that I absolutely loved her? And I knew she thought I was a very special girl. Yes, the adult me understands that Sister thought all the children were special. But the 8-year-old didn't know that.
It was in the spring, and for some reason, I believe it was April, not that it matters in the least. The windows were open because it was gloriously warm, Sister speaking in her stop-start mode because of the jets. It was Friday and Catholics did not eat meat on Fridays. I'd had peanut butter, cheese and crackers in my lunchbox, in place of - say - a bologna sandwich. We were in the catechism part of our daily lessons. It is interesting to me that I can still recite entire tracts of Catholic ideology and the Mass in Latin. I paid attention, you see. I was a young, budding critical thinker. I weighed facts that were tossed my way. Nearly 4th graders by now, we needed to be learning about the afterlife. Oh, we knew about heaven and all aspired to go there. We knew we'd meet others in heaven who came from different faiths and that was all right. Anyone could go there as long as they'd made a conscious decision to embrace God's ways. And we knew about hellfire. Some Catholic art shown freely and openly to children, at least at that time, was lurid and frightening. We certainly didn't plan to go there. But Catholics had a much wider menu than souls of other faiths. Catholics had a few different forms of afterlife, and one's behavior on earth would dictate where one ended up.
It's been said of me that I experience events with all of my senses and then relate them descriptively in a way that others can almost feel the way I felt at the time. Sitting in the warm classroom, I felt safe and well-fed. I listened attentively. Always. Sister explained the afterlife reward system. When the light came on for me, I shot my hand into the air. When she called on me, I stood up to ask my questions. It couldn't possibly be the way I'd heard it. Could it? My mother and I, card-carrying Catholics, could enter the kingdom of heaven if we remained in a state of grace. My brother was headed for limbo of the infants - not heaven, but a state of maximum happiness reserved for those who hadn't been able to make choices in life. My father's best hope was purgatory - a sort of temporary hell from which he might emerge if he'd been a very fine person. Dad's downfall? He wouldn't be baptized and live a holy (read: Catholic) life. What?? I know I flushed. My ears roared. I smelled something like burning leaves. I don't believe I heard another word spoken to me that day. I ran most of the long way home.I was done with Catholicism, religion and Sister. Finished. Maybe another child would have run home and said,"Hey, Dad, we've got to get you converted while there's still time. And what are we going to do about Gary?" But not I. No. I went into my room for the weekend and soaked in it. Silently. New secrets to keep. The people I loved best weren't going to get into heaven. I began this post saying I'm now an adult. I know that God didn't come down into my classroom and traumatize me. Perhaps it would have been better if he had. Better than Sister doing it. I had lay teachers for the next several years and then we moved to Salt Lake City where there was no Catholic school conveniently located. My mother did not react at all when I said I didn't want to go to church any more. I'd been faking it for a few years and wanted relief from that. A person in better balance than I might have found some other spiritual comfort or joined a different church. I am of the generation that freely explored eastern mysticism. I could have done that, too. I was so shattered, I spent decades running from the entire topic. And keeping those secrets.
When I was pregnant, Ex and I talked almost daily about our life plan for our child. Everything from her education to the color of her nursery walls was discussed in great depth. What would we do about the God/religion thing? Ex was a lapsed Catholic, although not particularly traumatized. But he had no strong need to include religious practice in our child's life. We landed on a plan. When Amber asked, and not before, we would begin the traveling church tour, visiting every kind of congregation we could find, for a few weeks each. We'd spend time in the car on the way home talking about what we thought and felt. She was about 10 when she posed the questions. We executed our plan. We did Protestantism, Mormonism, Buddhism, and - yes - Catholicism. We did it for a long time. After about 2 years, over dinner one evening, Amber said, "OK, thanks. I'm done." Oh. As easy as that.
In my ears right now: The sound of my own voice. I'm repeating phrases in Latin. I could likely conduct a retro Mass.
Something that charmed me: I was attending a 12-step meeting in support of a friend who was to be presented with a cake and a chip for a significant period of sobriety. One AA member wished to share, and that's always preceded by an introduction of oneself. "I'm X. I'm an alcoholic and a recovering Catholic." I laughed out loud. It was probably inappropriate.