It’s Sunday morning. My daughter May and I are sitting in the hot tub, listening to “Yellow Submarine” on the outdoor speakers and watching dried leaves skitter across the patio. My husband strolls toward us, carrying a cup of coffee in one hand and a box of Nilla Wafers in the other. He passes me the cup and I take a sip, noting with pleasure that he has spiked the coffee with Kahlúa. He leans forward and offers a golden wafer, pinched between forefinger and thumb. Without thinking, I tilt my head, close my eyes, and extend my tongue. He sets the wafer down. I close my lips and press the disc to the roof of my mouth, sucking hard until it dissolves into a sweet, sodden mass. “The body and blood of Christ,” I murmur, bowing my head. May’s eyes widen. I can almost read her thoughts. “Has she finally lost it?”
My 10 year old is unfamiliar with the mysteries of the Eucharist. She spent only a single year — her Kindergarten year — in Trinity Catholic School, before I unceremoniously yanked her from the ranks of the forgiven. With her First Communion looming like a full moon on the first grade horizon, I spun the big redemption roulette wheel and withdrew her from Trinity — unbaptized, unconfirmed, unforgiven.
The shocking part isn’t that I pulled May from Trinity before the ink had dried on the tuition check; it’s that I enrolled her in the first place. “You’re doing what?” my husband gasped, taking me by the shoulders and peering into my eyes. “Who are you and what have you done with my wife?” He had a few good points. The $10,000 dollar a year tuition for half-day Kindergarten, for one thing. The fact that Ilchester Elementary, a top-ranking public school, is steps from our house and funded by our tax dollars, for another. The minor detail that neither of us believe in God. Little things.
But old habits die hard, and when May turned five I had only one frame of reference for primary school education: Saint Margaret’s Elementary, a crumbling Catholic school with mossy walls, a decrepit playground, and narrow hallways perfumed with chalk dust and incense. I have fond memories of my plaid jumper years: lighting the advent wreath, its pink candle rising in phallic splendor from a tangled nest of evergreens; draping fragrant garlands around a sad-looking ceramic lady, as if dolling her up for a luau might help ease the Good Friday blues; kneeling in a kaleidoscopic splotch of color thrown by a stained glass murder scene. In middle school and high school things got even better: planning class masses so Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” was the processional; rolling my herringbone skirt so high under my sweater that genuflecting became an indecent act; cruising back roads in a Trans Am with an altar boy, drinking Boone’s Farm and blasting “Don’t Fear the Reaper” on an 8-track. Come on now, who wouldn’t want all this for her little girl?
On the first day of Kindergarten, I deposited May in front of a dingy, moss-covered Tudor-style building, and she scampered off in a sea of tartan jumpers, navy blue tights, and hunter green cardigans. With a rush of nostalgia, I noted the dented metal slide, the sagging swing set, the rusted teeter-totter. All seemed right with the world.
And indeed, for a while, it was. May reveled in Trinity’s pagan-influenced rituals: she painted pumpkins and stuffed scarecrows at the Fall Festival, dressed as a witch for Halloween, cuddled with Santa in the chapel, painted Easter eggs in the rectory, and frolicked around the maypole at the Spring Fling. Meanwhile, I played parochial school parent with the zeal of the newly converted. I bought a Trinity bumper sticker, ordered overpriced wrapping paper and frozen pizza kits, sold candy bars and bull roast raffle tickets — hell, I even hung a picture of the Last Supper over my stove, just in case some stray church lady ever wandered in for tea.
One afternoon I stopped by May’s classroom a little early, just before the final bell. As I waited in the hallway, breathing in that familiar chalk dust perfume, the loudspeakers crackled to life and Sister Catherine’s monotone filled the room.
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee
On cue, the children bowed their heads, clasped their hands, and began apologizing like mad for all those bad, bad things that five-year-olds do.
And I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell
I stared at May as she mumbled along, her eyes squeezed shut, her little brow furrowed.
“Oh Christ,” I thought. “What the hell are they doing to her?” I cursed myself for being seduced by incense and icons, for turning a blind eye to those oozing puncture wounds on the sagging, lifeless corpse hanging by the classroom clock. Did May feel responsible for the scarlet stains on that porcelain skin?
I firmly resolve to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life
I glanced at my old friend in the corner, that sad ceramic lady, saddled for all eternity with an absent baby daddy, who beat a filicide rap then went on to terrorize generations of schoolchildren with threats of abandonment and third-degree burns. Like Jesus in Gethsemane, I knew the jig was up. I gathered May’s backpack, lunchbox, and jacket, but left her salvation on the table, like an unsold raffle ticket. A razor blade helped with the bumper sticker.
“Hey, mom. How long do you think I can hold my breath?”
May inhales, then plunges underwater. All I can see is her long black hair, swirling in a sea of chlorine and bubbles. I count off the seconds until she resurfaces, keeping time with the distant, clanging bells of Saint Paul’s Church in old Ellicott City.
One . . . two . . . three . . . . The outdoor speakers crackle, and John Lennon’s voice fills the Sunday morning air:
All you need is love,
All you need is love,
All you need is love, love
Love is all you need.