My stomach began to twist into knots as we tried to find parking. We live in the suburbs of a major city, and the often vicious hunt for parking is a mundane part of life. But the country girl in me always takes it as a bad omen for the coming event; what do these people have against parking lots? We had left with plenty of time to navigate the cramped little side streets without being late, but the hassle added to the quiet unease already bubbling under the surface.
I hate having to go to church.
We park a block away and walk. The sheer number of cars, and the fact that I don’t recognize any of the people making their way in the same direction tell me that this is not what we’ve been told it is. This is a normal mass (on Saturday?) and not a memorial service for Zio. I feel trapped and angry and I carry those emotions with me as we pass over the threshold. We loiter in the entryway, alternatively poking our heads around the ornate double doors that lead into the chapel proper and looking back outside, frantic for a familiar face to tell us that this is indeed what we were supposed to be expecting.
A cousin appears, ushering four kids from that side of the family into the chapel. He kisses me on the cheek in the very Italian gesture of greeting, and I smile, hiding my growing anger as my “This is normal” mask slides into place. “I go to mass all the time,” my dead eyes say. And inside I’m struggling not to laugh hysterically. There’s a witch in your congregation.
We find an empty pew, though others quickly fill in the spaces behind and in front of us. I curse silently because I know that when they go to kneel, and I remain sitting, the person who is behind me will be breathing their displeasure down my neck.
We sit, we stand, they sing. We sit, there is a reading, we stand, there is a chant, an affirmation from the gathered, we sit. There is another reading, we stand, they sing, we sit.
My mother-in-law, sister- and brother-in-law arrive, scooting in beside us. They are not the only ones trickling in. The elder priest reads a list of names: those who are to be honored during this everyday Saturday mass. He mispronounces Zio’s name.
I watch the children dressed in white move around the altar, bringing things to the priests and moving things out of sight with smooth efficiency. This church has a girl among their altar servants, and I think dejectedly how progressive they must feel.
We stand, they pray, they sing, we sit. Then they kneel and I keep my seat, crossing one leg over the opposite knee.
I watch the priests shallowly bend a knee on their side of the altar before pouring red liquid (do Catholics use actual wine for everyday services?) and a vial of what I assume is their holy water into an ornate chalice rimmed in gold leaf.
The younger priest sings his blessing on the little crackers and the cup, and row by row, the crowd reshapes itself, flowing toward the front to partake in one of their most sacred rites. They return to their seats more quickly than they left, going back to their knees. I sit. I wait.
They return to their seats, tilting the cushioned planks back into their tucked away position. We stand. I tap the back of the pew and study the stain glass windows on all sides of me, and the beautifully detailed statues of their saints and deities. I can only guess at the cost of the things around me, but their fineness tells me nothing was cheaply bought. Didn’t their prophet tell them that the poor and the meek shall inherit the earth…?
Then comes the part of the sermon that under any other circumstances I might not have a problem with. “Please turn to your neighbors and offer them peace.” A gentle and thoughtful gesture, with a brief touch of fingers and hastily broken eye contact. But under their vaulted church ceiling, there are words not spoken that are attached to the peace, making it conditional. Don’t touch me! I scream inwardly, as I accept tentative wishes.
And then, something that I did not expect. A Mother’s Day blessing. An invitation for all of the present mothers to stand, be recognized before their fellows and families, and come forward to be blessed. I hold my breath, watching as my mother-in-law and sister-in-law navigate legs to reach the center aisle along with some sixty other women. They mass in the front in an unorganized cluster, and the priest stands on the raised platform of the altar, mumbles into his microphone and makes the sign of the cross. They smile and mutter as they return to their seats.
I wonder at people so conditioned to find such an impersonal blessing something to smile about. It seems like mere lip service to me, that there was nothing more prepared for these women whom are supposedly so cherished. No roses, no cards, no anointment from their god’s little tools. And at the same time, my panic is growing, and it is a kind of panic I have not endured since that day.
People who had not earned the right to be present while she is laid to rest. People who expect this Catholic charade. The need to stand on shaky and drug-addled legs and yell at the priest to shut up, to stop, to summon lightning and fire and burn the entire world to the ground. I am an outsider at my daughter’s funeral. And I hate them all for it.
I draw in a deep breath, closing my eyes and taking several moments to push down the memories and the panic attack. A different time, I remind myself. A different place. A different girl. You are alright.
We are finally released. My smile remains in place, and I know that no one will notice how violently I am vibrating, as long as they don’t look too closely. It has only been an hour, but I am exhausted, carrying the weight of distrust and resentment, unable to leave them at the door. Parting kisses are exchanged, along with the chit chat that always prolongs goodbyes in large Italian families.
The parishioners disperse back down the shallow steps to street level, and my eyes-forward, no-nonsense stride away prevent any further conversations. My skin crawls with taint and I cannot get away quickly enough. The urge to cleanse both body and soul in a woodland stream somewhere flitters through me, and I am momentarily amused. Then the weight settles back into my chest and I have to wonder why these places fill me with such unreasonable hatred, especially knowing that the entire charade means nothing to me. Why can I not simply turn off this reaction? I always find so much disconnected symbolism and empty ritual within their ceremonies, but my anger goes far beyond such momentary observations.
Leaving is easier than arriving, and physical distance dulls the importance of these contemplations. They fade into shallow graves, waiting for the next time I will dig them back out. And the only thing that I am left with is uncomplicated sentiment.
I hate having to go to church.