I was baptized Catholic over Easter weekend in 2007. I was 27 years old. The ceremony was long and involved a candlelit procession, which I loved, and a full body holy water dunking, which I did not. When I’d agreed to do it months earlier I had imagined a gentle sprinkling of water on my forehead like I’d seen done to the babies, enough to give me a dewy glow under the hot lights of the altar but not enough so as to give me the unattractive look of a person unexpectedly saved mid-drown.
It’s not surprising that I had it so wrong, really. We didn’t go to church in my family when I was growing up, didn’t talk of God, didn’t say grace around the table or get on our knees bedside in the evenings. You don’t know to miss a thing you’ve never had, either, so it wasn’t until later when my friends were throwing first communion parties that I thought ask my mother: why not us?
Because she’d had enough of all that growing up, she’d answered, that same pained look she would have on her face whenever she talked of her childhood, like she had tasted something bitter. So it surprised us all when she quietly started going to church again a decade later. “You’re doing what?” I spat when she asked me if I wanted to come along one Sunday. “Are you serious?”
Eventually curiosity won out and I did go along. It was confusing, all the sitting and standing and kneeling, but even more so was how hard I had to work to keep from bursting into tears every time the music swelled. It wasn’t the mass itself that really moved me, although it was beautiful in its own right. It was more the way my mother seemed so small and docile there next to me, her softness a stark contrast to the hardness of both the wooden pew we sat in and her normal personality.
Church Mom was different though, softer somehow. I watched her walk back towards me after receiving communion, her hands still clasped together and her head bowed and I felt like I was seeing something intimate that I shouldn’t see. It was the same way I’d feel a few years later when we walked in the house and found her drunk and unconscious on the floor in only her underwear, like there were parts of her that should be reserved only for her to know and I was doing something wrong by witnessing them.
Later we had dinner and I asked her how she could want to be in church again after hating it for all those years. “Didn’t the church hurt you?” I asked, remembering how her face would cloud when she spoke of it, the stories she told of nuns that hit and taunted, the disappointed way the church saw her many divorces, or women’s reproductive rights, or gay marriage.
She nodded, sipped her Pinot.
“So why voluntarily go back now, after all this time?”
“Sometimes you just want to be able to go home, no matter the rest,” she said, assuming I understood.
I didn’t. Not yet.
But she kept going, every week. When she didn’t have a boyfriend or a fiancé to go with I would go, loving the ritual of the 5:10 service and the meal we’d share afterwards. I never learned much about the mass or what any of it meant but I’d pass the time in church gazing in wonder at the intricate stained glass windows depicting the saints, wondering if I could convince Nick to name one of our future babies after one of them, maybe an Ambrose or a Thaddeus.
There was such a comfort too in the crowd there, the mix of stately elderly women wrapped in fur and homeless people from the nearby shelter who either hid the shadows of the farthest back corner or sat right in front under the altar but never in the middle, always one or the other. When my mother called one evening and asked me if I would consider becoming Catholic and joining the church, I surprised myself by saying yes.
“Really?” my mother asked, after a pause. “You will?”
I was sitting outside on the front stoop smoking a cigarette, a holdover from a bad habit I’d had as a teenager that I still allowed myself to indulge in from time to time. It would prove to be the last cigarette I’d have in a very long time though because while I didn’t know it then, I was newly pregnant. I took a long drag and exhaled the smoke into the night. The air was still summer warm but smelled subtly like fall and I could feel the sense of seasons turning under my feet. Seven years later almost to the day my sister would call to tell me my mother was gone, and immediately I would feel again that same sense of time shifting.
“Sure,” I said. “Let’s do it.”
We went to classes together for months, her picking me up every Saturday morning to drive me to the church until I realized she was arriving a little more intoxicated each week and I offered to drive instead. We would sit in those same pews, me trying to swallow back my morning sickness and her trying to stay awake. Often she would lose the battle and her head would drop onto my shoulder while she softly snored, me daring the other women in the class or the steely nun who led it to go ahead, say something.
They never did.
By the time Easter weekend arrived I was five months pregnant and my mother was clearly an alcoholic. She didn’t show for the rehearsal, which is where I learned I was going to be dunked. “Wait, what?” I said, wondering if I could get an exemption because of the baby. “I have to go all the way under?”
“You can freshen up afterwards in the back,” steely nun said, as if that settled it.
I called my mother twice that afternoon to make sure she was awake and coming. “Leave me alone,” she said. “I’m getting ready.”
“Well don’t make yourself too pretty,” I said. “Some of us will be all wet.”
“I’m doing this for you, you know.” I said, half under my breath.
“You better bring a hair dryer,” was all she said back.
It was pretty though, the ceremony. I hadn’t paid as much attention as I should have to the details and I fumbled over what to say when, saying “thanks, you too!” out of habit when the priest said “the body of Christ” and handed me the wafer, for instance. I wasn’t sure whether or not it was appropriate to plug my nose in a pool full of holy water and as a result had an ugly choking fit and thought for a second I might die (you know what’s even less appropriate? Having to blow holy water out of your nose.) When it was evident I was going to live I ran back to the rectory to dry off, reapplying my makeup next to a recycling bin full of the bishop’s empty gallon-sized whiskey jugs. “See?,” I thought, running my hands through hair warm from the dryer. “She’s not the only one.”
Afterwards, over the tea and cookies we nibbled in the harshly lit parish rec hall my mother told me the acoustics of the cathedral allowed for the sound of my hair dryer to be amplified so loud it drowned out the bishop.
“I did this for you, you know,“ we both said to each other, as if on cue.
A decade later I sat in the same pew at her funeral. I remembered the weight of her head on my shoulder as she slept, the way her cropped hair tickled my cheek and her breath had gotten slower and softer as she fell deeper into it. I hadn’t been there in years, had never really seriously gone on my own at all and then stopped going entirely when she did. I still didn’t know the words or when to sit or stand, but I was first in line to receive communion. I turned to walk away, echoing her in the bow of my head and the way my hands clasped contrite in front of me, resting on the swell of yet another pregnancy. I took a step and then turned quick, for old time’s sake whispering back over my shoulder to the priest: “Thanks. You too.”
I’d been mad at her for so long, mad at God maybe too, but she’d been right all along, I realized. Sometimes you just want to be able to come home, no matter the rest.