Near the end of seventh grade, we had to complete a Sacraments of Initiation booklet, writing brief narratives about each of the sacraments we had received, tracing our personal transformation thanks to having been filled with God’s grace. For each sacrament, I focused my story on the fact that we went out to celebrate afterward at D’Angelo’s Summit, the only nice restaurant in the neighborhood. On the final page, under the heading Future Me, I write:
“I hope to be a good, caring person. I hope to be a professional athlete in the future, but if I do not succeed in that, I want to work with animals. In the future, I could give money to the parish, put money in the poor box, and help take care of my parents.”
Under the heading Hospitality, Service, and Me, I write:
“When I’m with my friends, I help them if they are hurt and I am nice to them. In my parish, I try to help the people around me and help old people carry things.”
That second sentence is arguably the funniest thing I’ve ever written. I imagine seventh grade me chasing down old people and demanding that they allow me to carry their things. Old people throughout my neighborhood, helpless and laden with things that can only be carried by me. Bags of bowling balls and lug wrenches carried from one end of the nursing home to the other. Me going door to door with an empty sack and asking local old people to fill it up with all their wishes and regrets. One can only hope that some young person has stepped up to fill the void since I left town.
Even taking into account that I was at this point deeply distrustful of the institution of the Church, this is a surprisingly lazy effort. I am disappointed in the shallowness of my thought, the sloppiness of my prose. I feel guilty about the time my teacher had to waste reading this and assigning me a grade. I don’t know what grade I received, though I obsessed over such things then, even when I didn’t care about the content of the work; I was desperate for the approval conferred by high scores. It wasn’t until much later that I learned your grades have no bearing on your life outside of school.
The booklet is, infuriatingly, not organized chronologically, and so the first page features a picture of me in my Confirmation garb, standing alongside my grandmother, who was my sponsor. She’d cried when I asked her to be my sponsor, a decision I did not consider seriously, because I did not take the sacrament itself seriously. My Confirmation name was Damien, which I had picked because my friends and I thought it was a funny name. I never understood what I was supposed to get out of Jesus. I smuggled Far Side books into church with me, and once a nun caught me and announced to my entire class that I deserved the “Sneak of the Year Award.”
When I talk about Catholic schooling, non-Catholics usually make some comment about the priests now, a joke about molestation. For some reason, this is a thing people still think is funny. Two of our best-liked priests ended up on the lists of abusers in the Diocese. Neither faced any consequences beyond being shifted to different parishes. In Camden County, NJ, where I live now, the Diocese just released a list of fifty six more priests who have been identified as serial abusers, though they waited until most of these men were dead to share their names. One of these priests gave a moving sermon at my father-in-law’s funeral, and afterward we all raved about how he was the kind of priest we wished we’d had when we were growing up. The likelihood is that I do know someone (probably several people) who was abused by priests. It’s a great ongoing crime against humanity, reduced too often to a naughty little joke. I have been to Catholic churches a few times since leaving high school, but only for weddings and funerals. I try to make it a habit not to spend my free time hanging around criminal organizations.
My grandmother had devoted most of her life to serving the Church in one way or another. In retirement, she volunteered at the St. John the Baptist rectory, doing odd jobs: cooking, stuffing mailers, answering the phone, proofreading the bulletin. She delivered care packages to ill and disabled parishioners, and she also was in charge of ferrying a statue of the Virgin Mary between homes across the city. It was the size of a bedside lamp, and heavy enough that I needed both hands to carry it. It migrated to a new home each week, promising comfort and healing to good Catholics praying for miracles. I was there for many of these deliveries because my grandmother was my primary caretaker while my parents were at work. I’m sure she hoped to impress upon me the importance of actually helping people, in specific, meaningful ways.
We entered one woman’s house — I think her name was Helen, but for a brief period I believed every woman over sixty was named Helen — and found her on the floor in the back bedroom. Helen was clearly alive and yet the stale odor of the house, the helplessness of her sitting upright on the floor with her hands in her lap, the eerie chill in the air made, it feel like we had stumbled into a crypt. My grandmother, exasperated, shouted: “You know you’re not supposed to be on the floor!”
Helen’s response: “I saw lint on the rug and couldn’t stand looking at it.”
My grandmother’s heavy sigh. Calling me across the room to help her lift this woman off the floor and guide her back to the couch.
She was an actual good person, the kind who I have to remind myself are everywhere, and though she was working on behalf of the Church, the positive impact she made on people’s lives was real and tangible. I didn’t appreciate how good she was until long after her death, which occurred within a year of my Confirmation. My mom’s mother would die soon after. I went to their funerals with no understanding of how one is supposed to act, and I read the pamphlets they gave me at the funeral home. My dad asked me how I felt and I shrugged and he asked again and I shrugged again and he asked if I was fine and I said I was fine.
A week later, my mom got a call from the school because I’d been in a fight at recess. This was nothing new; we all got in fights, all the time. Fighting got you attention. It was a preemptive strike to signal that you couldn’t be bullied. It felt good, to get hit and hit back. A bruise or a black eye gave you something to fixate on when you were alone. My mom spoke privately with the principal and told him both my grandmothers had died and I was having a hard time with it, and so I didn’t get any punishment at all. The kid I’d fought got suspended for a week, and now he’s in jail, though it would be hard to draw a straight line between those facts.
In fiction, every person who appears ends up being consequential in some way; my fight and my Confirmation would have to mean something. You’re not allowed to include extraneous details. The difference with memoir is the same as the difference between the precision of baking a cake versus tossing a bunch of leftovers into a pot to make a soup.
My dad wrote a letter to me to end the sacraments booklet. It’s the only sincere effort in the whole assignment. He stresses the importance of loving Jesus, and he ends like this:
“Please remember that hate is a negative emotion, and you cannot hate someone and love Christ. You can hate their actions, but you should not hate them. The emotion of hate detracts from you as a person and makes it more difficult to show your love of Jesus.”
I don’t know much about Jesus, but I know about hate, and I know when I was thirteen I rolled my eyes at that letter, and I never envisioned the version of me, twenty four years later, fatherless for most of them, finding it and trying not to cry in front of my wife, trying to turn it into a joke, somehow.
about the author