There are two Acts of Contrition, one long, one short.
As I prepare for my first communion in June 1965, the day I’ll get to wear white gloves, a new white dress and veil and become a bride of god along with fourteen other girls in catechism class, I have a few questions, such as what does god need so many brides for anyway, isn’t he already married to all the nuns? And what about the boys, do they become husbands of god? Sister Madeleine advises that everything I need to know is in Father McBoyle’s New Holy Catechism which we’ve each purchased for ninety cents. She says any questions not covered there are most likely frivolous in nature and not to be entertained.
We sit at long tables and study Father McBoyle’s while Sister Madeleine paces among us, prodding slouchers and slapping girls whose knees have drifted apart. We learn that only Catholic churches are real because Jesus invented them; that all others were made by men and don’t interest god in the slightest. We learn that Catholics are forbidden to marry non-Catholics because it would cause discord in their homes but if you ask very nicely you can sometimes get permission to marry your cousin. Before you plan a summer holiday you ought to make sure there’s a Catholic church nearby, and if you’re under twenty-one or over fifty-nine you don’t have to fast for Lent but as soon as you’re seven you can’t eat meat (or even chicken broth) on Fridays for the rest of your life. We learn that no Catholic can have peace of mind unless they give the church as much money as they can spare. God loveth a cheerful giver. It’s a mortal sin not to have communion if you’re about to die or at Easter. It’s a mortal sin to steal a large amount of money, to not baptize your children or to miss church on Sunday (and going to Friday night mass doesn’t count in case you’re thinking of getting around it that way). If you die with even one mortal sin your soul will be damned to suffer eternal torments in hell. There are many religions in purgatory but only Catholics get into heaven. We learn that rosaries are not jewellery and that if you must commit a sin try to commit a venial one, such as stealing only a small amount of money. We learn that every time you say the word goodbye you’re saying a prayer: god be with you.
Sister Madeleine makes me read out loud Father McBoyle’s message about how god made birds and sunshine and how the stories and pictures in our catechism book will make it easier to understand god, and we should try copying out some of the pictures and our teacher will be happy to help us and our mothers and fathers will enjoy hearing us read the stories to them at home and may god bless each of us.
Most boys choose to copy the drawing on page 11 of Father McBoyle’s, where there is a gun firing out a butt of smoke that says Forbidden Words—Lies, Rash Judgement, Detraction, Calumny. Another butt of gun smoke is labelled Telling Secrets. Roger Theibeault has not only drawn the gun but added a number of dead bodies and various body parts, presumably belonging to those who have spoken the forbidden words and have more or less killed themselves.
I do the church on page 78. A sign above it says Catholic Church—The only way to heaven. I have trouble with the ladder at the back leading to a butt marked Heaven and I ask Sister Madeleine to help me and she says Mary Jesus and Joseph if a girl my age can’t even draw a simple ladder how do I expect to be a bride of god, do I think god wants idiot brides?
On the roof of the Catholic Church are the words Authority, Infallibility, Indefectibility. I copy them out neatly and decide to forgo the ladder.
At home I offer to read a story to mama and daddy from Father McBoyle’s. Mama flips through the book and says it’s all crap. “Just learn it,” she says. “Then forget it.”
I want to know do cats go to heaven; mama says don’t be an ass and daddy says how the hell is he supposed to know, so I ask Sister Madeleine.
“Absolutely not!” she tells me. “Heaven is not fouled by animals!”
I say but they don’t commit sins, they don’t steal or lie, they mostly mind their own business which is more than you can say for a lot of people.
“Don’t steal? What do you call it when a dachshund runs off with your chicken leg at the Pentecost picnic? Isn’t that stealing? I would certainly call that stealing. And do animals go to church? Well, do they? Or confession? Or, tell me this: are they baptized?”
Sister Madeleine advises me to say the Act of Perfect Contrition as soon as possible so that if I die suddenly, before I’ve had the chance to go to confession, god won’t punish me for having the sin on my soul of thinking animals should go to heaven. I check Father McBoyle’s and see there are two Acts of Contrition, one long, one short. I choose the long one because the short one ends with “I will . . . never sin again,” which is probably a lie and I don’t need more trouble right now.
Mama wears blue satin gloves to church, a matching hat and her dead fox with the head and all four legs attached. She straightens my veil, links her arm in daddy’s, smiles at the priest who is telling us the church is certainly more crowded than usual and people who can only find time for god on their children’s communion should be ashamed of themselves because god finds time for us seven days a week, twelve months a year. On the way home daddy says he’s never heard such horseshit and who in christ does he think he is talking down to everybody like that and mama says what’s the matter, Gary, guilty conscience? Mama says she doesn’t have a guilty conscience because she goes to church every Sunday like goddamned clockwork whether she feels like it or not which is what normal people do instead of laying around in bed drinking rye and coffee or watching television until somebody makes their goddamned lunch. And why the hell, daddy wants to know, did mama make him put a two-dollar bill in the plate, isn’t fifty cents good enough any more, and mama says people were looking and does he want to come off as some kind of skinflint and anyway it’s-the-kid’s-communion-for-fuck’s-sake-or-have-you-forgotten?
After lunch mama goes into her bedroom while me and daddy watch a Martian movie and the Lennon Sisters on TV. Daddy is a firm believer of life on other planets ever since somebody at work loaned him a book on UFOs and underlined all the parts that prove they exist. Mama laughed when he brought it home, asked was he planning to go to college, his opinion of reading being that it’s something stuck-ups do and if you set your mind to it you can learn a lot more in less time by watching television. But the UFO book was different. One of a kind. Scientific. There are testimonials for god’s sake, people who actually saw spaceships, were kidnapped on them. So he gets me to read out loud the bits the guy underlined and now he’s an expert and goes around telling everybody about this book he read.
The Lennon Sisters look a little like they might be from outer space. Some happy perfect planet where everyone is exactly the same but daddy says no, they’re probably just fourplets, all born at the same moment which inclines them to wear the same clothes and share a sense of humour that no one else understands. They sing “Mexicali Rose” and “Doggie in the Window” and giggle after every song as if nothing could be more fun. During “Goodnight Sweetheart” I consider how easy it would be to transmit coded messages in songs; if the Lennon Sisters were in fact aliens instead of fourplets, they might be laughing so much because they know they’re pulling the wool over the whole world’s eyes while we eat snacks and think they’re singing about caged animals.
I wonder why we’re not informed in school about aliens—this seems an obvious oversight. We’re forever stuck on Magellan and John Cabot and all that used to be. You’d think there’d be some importance put on what is. You’d think we’d be advised about the possibility of strange invaders among us so we could at least figure how to protect ourselves, develop our own code. You’d think there’d be at least some planning.
I look at daddy looking at the Lennon Sisters. Now he’s laughing too. I might be a bride of god but I don’t feel any safer than when I was single.