It’s impossible to tell a story you don’t even know.
A jigsaw story with lots of pieces that don’t fit together. But I can’t get this story that I don’t know out of my head.
I bought a book I shouldn’t have … at an estate sale. Found it in a danky basement. No one paid it any attention at all. Not even family members. But once I held it, well …
I couldn’t just leave it there. I’m not that sort of person.
It’s a prayer book. Actually a missal. A handsome-gorgeous leather bound book … from a 100 years ago. It has prayers and rites for celebrating different Masses … an all-purpose survival guide for Catholic holy days … and baptisms … Stations of the Cross … and funerals.
It’s not in English. Or even Latin. It’s in Italian.
And there are two names scribbled on the inside page. In pencil. And ink. In adolescent script. “Serafina” and “Cesare”. And the year 1923.
That’s all I know about the story I don’t know. And now you don’t know it, too.
But there’s one story I do know.
When I was a boy, I threw up God.
One week after my First Holy Communion, I followed my mother up to the marble altar to receive Communion for just the second time. And on the way back to my seat … steps behind my mother … I gagged … and threw up God … on to the slate floor. In the main aisle of the church. To the horror of three nuns.
In my seven year-old hands, I had my brand new missal … with a mother-missive on the inside cover. My name and hers. And a date. In English. Got it the week before … as a First Communion gift. Maybe just like Serafina.
It was the same size as Serafina’s missal … but I didn’t know it at the time. All I know is that I threw up the communion host … and all hell broke loose … in church … where hell doesn’t belong.
So there I was … having the worst communion after my First Communion … this little human being … maybe forty-five pounds of kid … clutching his missal … while three nuns went freaky-crazy over the body of Christ … on the gray slate floor.
And in their pious frenzy to save Jesus from this humiliation, they apparently humiliated me.
I didn’t know it. But my mother did.
So … this is the story I do know … the one I’ve never forgotten.
A moral tale that’s shadowed me for decades. An almost-allegory that’s popped into my consciousness over and over again … to remind me to be gentle with children. Soft with their feelings. And to remember that short people have long memories.
Serafina’s missal was more smashing than mine. Way more impressive.
Soft-worn, buckskin leather … with the feel of a well-worn glove. A magnificent pewter medallion of the Virgin Mother Mary was fixed to the tan cover. Seamless binding.
Like mine, it was made for a child’s hand.
But I don’t think Serafina was ever in the same sort of trouble as me. I don’t think she spit up Jesus.
I was shocked to see the host on the floor. I just stood there … looking down … completely frozen. Too stunned to even panic.
My mother turned her head … to glance me … when the nuns exploded into this mad scramble to cover the wafer with handkerchiefs they’d whipped out of their baggy sleeves … like magicians of Christ.
And in the holy commotion, I got knocked into an empty pew … by a plumpish nun … and I tumbled down on a kneeler … with my face smushed up against a rack of …. missals. Yup, those things.
This was not a swell day.
So three nuns … their small shoulders draped in virgin-white scapulars … and their cropped faces framed by starchy head-wraps … were on their knees … spreading out clean handkerchiefs to drape a small shroud over a piece of bread … to protect it from any possible trample.
It was … for them … a divine emergency.
And in this moment of solemn chaos … as we were all at shoe level … I can see the whiskers on the chin of this old nun … and I’m wondering if she shaves. Can you believe that?
Then … out of nowhere … my own blessed mother appears.
This tall, full-bodied beauty … with ocean-blue eyes and classic Germanic features. Unusual white, wavy hair for a lady so young … a fair-skinned goddess out to protect her small boy … who’d been bumped around by frenzied, middle-aged Dominican nuns.
They didn’t stand a chance.
She was bristling … in a controlled seethe … that my dignity had been sacrificed … and pushed into a pew … for a bit of bread.
I’d never seen this side of her before. This fiery, protective instinct.
She’d morphed into this Teutonic wonder woman … this power-lady … because I’d been ill-treated by the Sisters of Saint Dominic.
I felt her grip under my arm … and she hoisted me to my feet in one, swift motion. And for a brief second, I think my feet dangled above the floor. Then … then she knelt down … to huddle with the three nuns. And to say her piece.
The nuns were out-womaned.
She stuck her head right in the middle of the huddle … like a quarterback … and said in a commanding whisper …
“That … is a child.”
And she slowly moved her head from side-to-side … making sure they each saw her eyes … and her messaging face.
The twitchy nuns stiffened when they saw her motherly simmer.
“Who does Jesus care more about … that child or that host?”
There it was … all boiled down to a catechizing question.
Down to a mother’s statement … for those who were never mothers.
And there they were … three nuns on all fours … hovering over a piece of bread … and shrinking fast.
I wonder if Serafina had such a mother. Such a fierce heroine. One who would rush to her side in the most dreadful circumstances and rescue her from scary confusion.
Perhaps Cesare was her champion. At least I hoped so … because champions are important. Especially for children.
That was the last time I received Holy Communion.
Didn’t receive it when my grandparents died … not when I got married … not when my folks passed away. Never again.
Just twice. Two times. That was it.
Couldn’t keep dry things in my mouth. Had a reflex I couldn’t manage … and my mother allowed me not to feel bad. Not to feel guilty. And that was so important to me.
But her lesson was much more important.
A lesson about kid-kindness.
I leaned on that lesson again and again during my teaching time. It supplied me with a softness I needed. With the softness kids needed.
When I became a young father, I would ask my oldest son … who was perhaps three or so … how he knew this or that. He would tell me something I’ve never forgotten.
“I have a good remembery.”
I have a good remembery, too … of my sweet and blessed mother.
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