In 1962, my dad sat next to a boy who ate blue crayons. If my dad missed school, he’d later open the Crayola box to find empty slots where all the shades of indigo and sky had been. At the desk one over, was a kid with a guilty grin full of wax.
This was a Catholic grammar school in Northeast Philadelphia, a place run by nuns and stuffed with children. A classmate fled in a doomed escape attempt on the first week of school, and a car slammed into him as he ran across the street. The nuns told the students that the accident was a divine consequence of his disobedience.
Their first-ever assignment was to color in the outline of a butterfly. My dad worked for hours, sitting on the floor with his crayons. A week later, when the nun returned the pictures, his was marked with an F, cardinal red and slicing through the butterfly’s wing. Imagining that F — so defiantly cruel — cracks my heart in half. I can see my dad, at 6 years old, little nose still sunburned from the summer, his confidence and pride seeping away.
What began as the crumbling of belief in himself, faith permanently suspended, became anger at the nuns who’d repressed and belittled him. Doubt hardened into resentment. In his schools, no one was allowed to question or challenge. He saw priests smacking kids’ skulls against the painted cinderblock walls. Boys were tossed into closets by their collars, girls shouted at for uncovered hair in the chapel. He was sure, at 17, that college was no place for him, because the only teaching he’d ever known was rote, dictated, fearful, spooned out in classrooms smoky with chalk dust.
Evidence of my dad’s anger at the Catholic church was scattered throughout my childhood. In between our Bibles were books about the men who wrote the scriptures, about a Jesus who took real steps on Roman stones, about the litany of sins committed by the Popes. I went to mass and Sunday school for 10 years at my mom’s insistence, but her nighttime prayers dueled with my dad’s words about the Church’s black past.
My mom’s faith was harder to understand than the absence of my dad’s. In her girlhood, she had daydreamed about becoming a nun — or having eight children, at least. Her religion was inheritance. To rest her elbows on the ledge of a pew and bow her head was to assume a pose she had held thousands of times, one that she learned at my grandmother’s side. Mass was a ritual about memory and the comfortable shapes of routine, a way of communing not just with God but with the ghosts of her mother and brothers. She was always wandering into dark churches to light candles for the dead.
I remember standing in a graveyard near my house with an uncle when I was 5 or 6, the headstones woozy in the morning fog. Is Abraham Lincoln in heaven? I asked him, picturing the president lounging in a room of white. Is everyone? Yes, he said, and I was giddy with possibility. I didn’t yet know how not to believe, or that faith could be a thing to lose and bury.
I was a graceless girl — all bruised knees and misplaced elbows — and one of my falls, in the year I turned 9, brought my grandmother’s crucifix, and my palms, skidding across our flagstone patio. The sculpture splintered and the blood on my skin was sticky with fragments of cross. We were sorting through her things because she’d recently died, and my mom’s voice quaked when she found me bleeding among the wreckage of my grandmother’s piety. I spent the rest of the week polishing my grandmother’s silver with a rag soaked in ammonia. The smell lingered in my hair and clothes like a penance.
My mom told me that I could see my grandmother in the stars that blinked on, in the skylight over my bed; that their brightness meant she was watching over me. I could sense that this idea comforted her. My dad looked out my window and named the constellation my mom had pointed to, Orion’s Belt, three spheres of gas spinning in space light-years away. A light-year is the distance light travels in a year, he explained, billions of miles. The flicker I saw every night was very old light, completing an ancient voyage to earth. “Isn’t it amazing?” he whispered.
By the time I was 10, I believed I was hell-bound, because in the hours before dawn, I often wondered if God was a fiction.
In rehearsals for Communion, the nuns had scolded me for holding my left hand above my right when I bent to receive the host, and I was nervous that I might repeat this mistake. I drew an R on the inside of my wrist in pen, forgetting that my gloves would obscure the clue. I practiced making the sign of the cross, sure I’d perform the gesture wrong.
I perched in a pew with the other children, a row of us in tiny white suits and skirts, fidgeting in our seats. I followed the girl in front of me to the altar, pinching the host and carefully laying it on my tongue. I knew already that I hated the wafers. We had prepared for this moment in the church’s cafeteria, where stacks of unconsecrated hosts were left on paper plates. The wafers had sharp edges that sliced at the tender parts of your mouth as you waited for the starch to melt into pulp. Christ’s body tasted like Styrofoam, slivered.
I turned toward the attendant waiting at the corner of the church. He held the goblet of wine representing blood, a white napkin draped over his arm. He handed me the goblet and I lifted it to my face, the upper lip of the cup obscuring my vision with a curved wall of dark pewter. He took the cup back and I realized that he was staring at my dress, and so was everyone else: A red stain was opening like a gash down my front, liquid dripping off my hem where it pooled on the floor at my feet.
By the time I was 10, I believed I was hell-bound, because in the hours before dawn, I often wondered if God was a fiction. I told my dad that I didn’t believe a few months later, a whisper trapped between cupped hands in the dragging shadows of the fire. My mom was asleep in the next room, and I didn’t want her to hear.
In the years that came later, I still went to mass, and was confirmed, a Holy cross drawn on my forehead, my grandmother’s name struck between mine. I mouthed the “Our Father” but I didn’t speak. I sang no hymns and mumbled no prayers.
Any faith I had clasped as a small child was gone, and in its place my dad’s anger curdled, joined now by my own indignation. What possibilities had the church stolen from my grandmothers and theirs? What routes might they have taken, if there hadn’t been so many babies, and so fast? I cursed the priests who’d taught me to fear death before I knew what it was. I told my mom that I didn’t believe and she cried.
As a college student, I left my hometown and found signs of my family in expected places — the Victorian house in West Philly where my grandmother danced at the piano with her siblings in the 1940s; the Galway Harbour that my great-great-grandfather had watched fade into the horizon in 1862 — and in unexpected ones, like St. Peter’s, in Rome, where I was comforted, unwillingly, by the familiar songs and words. I contemplated Orion’s Belt on a winter’s night in England and found that the stars’ constancy brought me joy.
I was still a great skeptic of the Church but I began to see it through the prism of my grandmother’s eyes instead of my own. Here was a connection, however crooked, that ran like a ribbon through generations, something that tied me to the people who’d once lived on Ireland’s rocky coast; men and women whose faces and names are forgotten now (except, maybe, by dusty Church registries).
The summer after I graduated, my mom’s best friend was diagnosed with cancer. She was told she had six weeks to live. My mom dealt the way she always deals with tragedy: by diving into any concrete action that might lead to a solution. She arranged for the best oncologist in Florida to see her friend; she offered to pay for a medical transport for her to be airlifted to Pennsylvania; she instructed everyone she knew who’d survived cancer to call and deliver pep talks.
But there came a time when there were no more common sense things left to do, when every option and treatment had been tried. My mom sat on the couch in the dark with the phone shaking in her hands. “There could still be a miracle,” she said, her eyes glassy.
I looked at her, feeling at war with myself. “Yes,” I said. “There still could.”