I'm not much of a Catholic even though I was raised in it's church and school system. I gave up on the teachings of the church a long, long time ago for various reasons I don't need to get into to retell this story. My mother however, remained a devout Catholic until the end. Christmas 1996 Mom asked us all to go, as a family, to Christmas Eve Midnight Mass. Of course we all agreed to go because this might be mom’s last Christmas and we were going to do whatever we could to make mom happy. Truthfully, I hated sitting through the drone of the Catholic Mass, it rambled on for more than and hour and a half and the Priest who should have been rejoicing in the Virgin birth of our Savior this Christmas was scolding us all for being born sinners begging us to repent and ask our forgiveness. That Catholic guilt stuff gets a little old.
Our family was late for everything so we were stuffed together into a pew near the back of the church. The view before us was a sea of tacky Christmas sweaters and the back of people's heads. This was what we had to look at for the next 95 minutes. Perhaps, even though I am fairly tall, if I stood on tiptoes I would get to see the top of our priest's balding head. Perhaps.
The church was hot and overcrowded with all the seasonal Catholic Church goers - the ones who attend only at Christmas (me). Which incidentally is funny to me because they are never there at Easter when the mass goes on for two hours while the priest reads the Passion in its entirety. I figure those people had likely been trapped at my Church one past Easter when the tone-deaf Priest decided to sing the entire Passion, which took onwards of three hours and they had learned their lesson.
The priest said a few words and my parents along with the rest of the congregation would, in monotone, respond the appropriate phrases. I too had them burned in my head from years of Catholic school and regular church going but I refused to say them. No God would cause so much suffering to one family. I was not buying that “God doesn’t give us what we want only what we can handle” BS any longer. Our family was on overload. Recently my dad; who had a wife with breast cancer, a grandchild born with a genetic disorder and a mother who had suffered 5 strokes in as many months had vowed to change our last name from Shipley to Ship Wrecked. God was testing our love for our family and him – surely. Most Catholics would say this is when you get down on your knees and pray all the harder. But I was done with this charade. No-way was I going to mime the words from our book of psalms along with the rest of the congregation. No-way God, not this year.
While the sermon was going on I liked to people watch, it gave me a chance to see and say hello to old high school buddies. I have to say, it was, and is always fun to see how the high school kids grew up. Who got fat, who got thin, who came out, who got married, who bought boobs, who had not changed her hair or makeup styles since high school, who had kids…. and my favorite, who walked by pretending not to see me when clearly they did! Yeah I love that one. How wonderfully Catholic.
I passed the time by taking a count of how many women were wearing fur, and when we were asked to spin around under the guidance of our priest to extend the sign of peace to our fellow pew mates uber-cool me offered a peace sign with two fingers rather than shake a hand. For God's sake - it's cold season I am not touching people!
Another old standby used to keep me entertained during the sermon was to yawn and then see who caught the yawn and then I would watch it spread around the church. I learned this one when I was an alter girl in the fifth grade. It was very progressive at the time to have girls help the priest serve mass. My friend Laura and I would serve together and when we sat up on the altar on either side of the priest facing the congregation I would fake a giant yawn and then watch it rotate around the lower level and then up into the balcony of the church. This never got old and no one caught onto what I was doing – except of course my mother who asked me not to play that game when I was serving at our next door neighbour’s father’s funeral. Show some respect she had said.
This year I had a new distraction in the form of an eight-month-old baby boy. My sister had had a baby. Born in sin, out of wedlock and my Mother and Father couldn’t have been more excited or proud to be grandparents. The baby was our savior this year.
Our mother had held my sister by the hand, held her own wigged head up and proudly marched the unwed mother of the Cri-Du-Chat Syndrome baby boy proudly into the eternal judgment of our lord’s home. Amen.
My nephew was born deaf. Actually with no ears at all – he just had little nubs we call lobes. We had all been taking sign language classes so we could teach my nephew in the hope we would one day have some form of communication with him. All was going well with this I thought. My sister Sue was in night school taking sign language classes and I was learning through studying her books and under her guidance.
After mass I decided to take my Nephew up to see the Crèche at the front of the church to the left of the altar. There had been big ceremony in marching the baby Jesus statue into the church in the processional and placing him in his manger next to his Virgin mother and earthling surrogate father. Not that we could see this from our position, but, it was a once a year occurrence and I was certain what was going on up there. The Crèche was pretty and so I thought my nephew would like to see it up close.
Holding Aaron in my arms, I waded through the winter coat clothed people, who were either standing around in boisterous discussions or pushing toward the door, making my way to the front of the church. Pointing at the crèche’s inhabitants one by one I made the sign for each animal. There is a donkey, signing donkey, there is a cow, I sign cow, over here is a sheep, this is the Virgin Mary I make the sign for mother. She is the baby’s mother – I sign baby. The nephew stares off into the ceiling watching the fan twirl around.
My sister is waiting patiently at the back of the church for me to finish showing my nephew the crèche. I look back at her to make sure she is not annoyed with my side excursion. She smiles at me – a look of relief washes over her face telling me she is happy mass and the public scrutiny is over. I return her smile. I then go back to pointing out the wise guys, a cat and finally to Joseph, I sign daddy and then I sign beard and point out his beard to my nephew. My nephew has lost interest in the ceiling fan and decided to pay attention again – this sign for beard has caught his eye and he is entertained by it – so I continue to stand at the crèche in front of the altar and sign “beard.” Suddenly I can hear my sister’s laughter erupt from the back of the church, it is echoing off the nowhere near empty church walls. I spin around to look at her and she gives me a sign of her own. Her hand is flat waving in front of her neck – cut it – shut up! It says to me. She begins racing up the centre isle of the church toward me, her hand is pressed over her mouth in an attempt to muffle her laughter, and as she nears I see tears squeezing out of her eyes.
Sue what’s so funny?
That’s not the sign for beard idiot. That’s the sign for F- You.
F-You Joseph, F- you. You keep signing it over and over and it’s so funny. I had to come and stop you in case anyone in here signs. They are really going to think we are the worst Catholics ever.
But we are, I say, we are. And it was an honest mistake the two signs are different only by hand direction.
Still giggling, we hook arms and take our blasphemous selves out of the church and out to the car. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night – except you Joseph you surrogate baby daddy– F-You!