When I was a child, I could see angels in the clouds. The day I ran away from school, after the woman at the gas station took me home, I laid on my bed and watched them out the window. That was the day my Daddy dropped me off at kindergarten late again. The day Sister Isabel said late comers would get in serious trouble.
I waited till my Daddy had driven his car out of the school parking lot; then, instead of pulling open the heavy door and going inside, I turned around and walked away.
I walked my five year old self across the busy intersection. Rush hour traffic. I walked as far as the culvert leading down to the river. The one the bridge crossed over, the one where my brother sat on the floor board in the back seat and squeezed his eyes closed every time daddy drove across. That one. I sat in the tall grass, and thought to myself: where should I go now? I’m stuck. A little thread of panic made my heart jump, and for a minute I thought I might cry.
I looked over my shoulder at the Phillips Sixty Six station on the corner. There were people there, so I got up and made my way toward them. My legs were itchy from the grass, and I was getting sweaty. I tried to unbutton my coat, but I couldn’t make my fingers work right.
I stepped onto the concrete and saw a lady with a little girl sitting in their car. The filling station guy was checking her oil. I wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers, but I thought a little girl’s Mama might be okay.
I wandered closer, stopped a little ways from the car, and stared. The woman was paying the gas station man when she saw me. She sat there for a minute, then she and her little girl got out of the car and came over to me. She said,
“Honey where’s your Mama?”
“At home,” I whispered.
“Do you know your address?”
“I don’t think that’s an address. Is that your phone number?” I was confused; I knew it was something, I just wasn’t sure what. I dropped my head, looked up at her under my eyelashes, and sucked my finger.
She must have decided she couldn’t leave me there, so she put me in the car with her little girl. I remember thinking she smelled like flowers. Her little girl had curly hair and dimples. Her bonnet matched her coat.
She gave us each a stick of Wrigleys Spearmint, and when we got to her house the lady called my mother at 22336. She wrote down my address, then she and her little girl carried me home.
When we got there my mother thanked the woman profusely, but once the door was closed behind them, she was furious. We were Catholics, and that woman was the wife of a Protestant preacher, how could I have embarrassed her like that? She frowned, held her hand under my chin, and made me spit my gum out.
It was Mama’s laundry day; she stripped off my clothes down to my undershirt, painties, and socks. She told me to go get on my bed and stay there. The sheets were being washed, so I laid down on the mattress pad and scooched over to look out the window. That’s when I saw them. The angels. I’d seen them before. But today, more than ever, I was glad they were there. And given the adventure I’d just been through, it seems pretty clear they’d been with me all along.
“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Not sure why that saying came to mind this morning, but it wouldn’t leave me alone so I wrote it down.
I’m finding myself in an interesting place. The last quarter of last year was probably the most difficult, the most challenging, in my life. I say that, then I find my gaze drifting back through the past−pregnant at twenty, hysterectomy at twenty seven, trying so hard to be all I could be to everybody−and completely missing the mark on self awareness, self care, self sustenance.
Did it have anything to do with those Holy Cards? We were big on collecting them in second grade. They were like baseball cards for Catholic girls. The gilt edged ones with Saint Theresa, Saint Cecilia, Our Lady of Fatima, all were coveted.
Which brings up a whole different thing since coveting broke the tenth commandment. We were eight years old, and all guilty.
And then there’s the pride thing. Mary Margaret Snyder had more gilt edged cards in her Missal than anyone else in the class. She held it up during Mass, ceremoniously turning to each card as the priest said his Dominus Vobiscums, his Kyrie Eleisons, his Oremuses. We sat, stood, or knelt as was prescribed, but we were watching her out of “side eyes,” elbowing each other, and hating her. Rack another one up on our confessional hit parade. Hate. It’ll take at least three Hail Mary’s plus an Act of Contrition to scrub that off.
But where I was going about those cards is, they were Da Vinci-esque renditions of martyrs who died for their faith. They were bludgeoned, or decapitated, burned at the stake, nailed upside down to a cross, tortured in a wide variety of ways. And now were featured on Holy Cards, bathed in heavenly light, eyes cast upward, heads tilted ever-so-slightly, hands outstretched or coming together in prayer.
Every so often Sister Diana introduced a new Holy Card; she’d say in soothing tones,
“Children, which martyr is this who became a saint because he/she died for Christ?”
She held the small rectangle up like Vanna White, and cut her eyes toward it with her Mona Lisa smile. We were transfixed, and determined to add it to our collections. Two guilt-edged Michael Archangels in different poses were worth a fortune. Mary Margaret Snyder held three, and wasn’t trading. So you can understand the hatred.
But the point is that I recently started thinking about the focus on “dying for Christ.” A kid takes stuff like that literally. I remember trying to figure out which way to do it−I wanted it to be quick. Decapitation, maybe? I didn’t want any Daniel in the lion’s den stuff. That would take forever.
But eventually−third grade, I think, during Lent, when they took the boys for Latin lessons−we girls were told we should “die for Christ every day;” Some of the pie eyed looks traded amongst us are legendary. Karen Flanagan wet her pants and started crying. Jesus H. Christ, people, don’t EVER speak in metaphor to anyone under eleven!
But, you know, we got over it, and life goes on. We all grew up, went our separate ways; some of us probably separated from the saints, and the church, and the rituals of holiness.
Some of us learned, eventually, that the stories told about goodness are true, and that our lives are the very celebrations, the Novenas, the prayers of righteousness for which those icons sacrificed. So some of us found our way back.
Now, listen: I’ll admit straight up that I’m a holy mess. I’m a desperate contradiction between a hunger to express my own goodness and the need to barge right in, stop the proceedings, and tell the idiots running this world a thing or two. The older I get the more I care about telling the truth, and the less it matters to me how I’m excoriated for it. That, it seems, has become my Novena.
So there’s that. Stuff. DNA; corpuscles−all laced with it. Not the only ingredient, but it’s kinda like cayenne pepper: a little goes a long way. Remember to mind the burn. It will warm you, if you let it. And it can last a lifetime.