Growing up Irish Catholic, I learned the three most important rules for gaining eternal Salvation: #1: Never eat meat on Fridays. #2: You must attend Mass every Sunday. #3: The only way to Heaven is to follow rules #1 and #2, period.|
In the summer of 1974, the Foley family challenged church doctrine and rocked Catholicism to its very foundation by discovering another path to the pearly gates.
That Sunday started out like all others. My mom led the family into church on a quest for the perfect pew. She by-passed all the open spots in the center and headed directly for the pew in the darkest, most remote corner of the church. If there was a bench outside, that's where we would have ended up. As Mom took her seat, my three sisters and I would jockey for prime pew positions, which was anywhere but next to Dad. Normally, sitting next to him was fine but in church, this seat slot meant you had to contend with two issues: his singing and the fallout associated with it.
My dad loved to sing during Mass and—why not?—he had an exceptional voice. However, if Dad was singing, you were singing. Lip synching was not an option. If he couldn't detect audible sounds emanating from your flapping lips, he'd jam his fingernail into the top of your head and turn slowly, like he was adjusting the volume on a radio. He'd keep driving his fingernail down until you squeaked out a tune loud enough to satisfy him. Being seen in church by any of your peers with a father that was singing would get you teased mercilessly on Monday. And if they caught you actually singing, a severe beating at recess was in your near future. Saint Michael's third grade class's tolerance and appreciation for the performing arts left something to be desired.
The other pain associated with Dad's singing was much more subtle but far more lethal, and short of death itself, there was no escape.
Occasionally on Saturday nights, Dad would indulge in the adult delights of aged cheese, garlic and wine from a bottle with a screw cap. By Sunday morning, this deadly combination fermented into a noxious gas we frightened children referred to as “The Beast.” As the congregation began singing the opening hymn, my dad's dulcet tones drifted heavenward while the expelled fumes from his empty stomach would murk downward in a fine mist and engulf any nearby victims. Invisible to the naked eye, the Beast had substance; you could feel its smothering effect on your face and sometimes you could actually taste it. The only protection between you and the Beast was a thin veil of Close Up toothpaste residue which had quickly dissolved by the time Mass began. On this particular Sunday, I detected a new twist on the
Beast, a stench I could best describe as ill-prepared yak.
Maureen occupied the position next to Mom. This was good pew placement for her. She was the oldest and most willing to trade a spanking for a smartass remark to Dad, so Mom kept them separated. Maureen, like Dad, was not shy about her singing. Although where my dad excelled at reading music and producing a pleasing tune, Maureen sounded as though she was reading her musical notes off of an optometrist's eye chart. I don't recall “Z” on the musical scale, but if there was, Maureen could hit that note.
Next in line was the second oldest, Kathy, whose rancor and foul disposition frightened all who peered into her squinting eyes. The priest would purposely avoid eye contact with her out of sheer terror. She wanted nothing to do with church services and did her best to ruin the experience for everyone with whom she came in contact. When she received Communion, the priest would place his hand on her head then mutter in Latin as he made the sign of the cross. Mom described Kathy's disposition by saying that she was “as miserable as cat crap.” As a cat owner and one familiar with this odor, Mom was much too kind.
Between Kathy and me sat my four-year-old sister, Beth. Sitting next to Beth made my engagement with the Beast a little more tolerable. The best part of the Mass was listening to her version of the Our Father. She'd bow her little head, fold her hands and in her high-pitched little voice she'd pray...
Our Father, whose art is in heaven
Halloween is not in May.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
On mirth and it isn't seven.
Give us today, some daily bread
And forgive us for trespassing.
As we forgive Thones for trespassing against us
And lead us not to the Temptations
But deliver us from weasels. Amen.
Shortly after the Our Father came the sign of peace, wherein the congregation embarked on a massive exchange of germs through the means of hand-shaking. I dreaded this part of the service. Instinctively, after I heard the word “weasels,” my palms began sweating profusely. I'd put my hands in my pockets in an attempt to dry them but that only made them hotter and wetter. The more I worried about it, the moister and clammier they became. By the time the sign of peace rolled around, all I could offer was a dripping hand that felt like a hot, wet mop. However, I did enjoy watching people grimace with disgust as I hung on extra long and gave them a good soaking. When it came to shaking Kathy's hand, all she'd extend was her index finger, middle finger and thumb. She'd pinch the tip of my hand and through gritted teeth, growl the word “peace.” Getting three fingers from her was such an improvement over the single finger she usually offered me outside of church.
On this Sunday, things were progressing as usual; stand, sit, kneel, yawn, repeat. However after Communion things became quite interesting. Beth, who was not old enough to receive the host, came back to the pew, stuck out her tongue to my dad to reveal that she in fact had been served Communion. My dad, a strict follower of church dogma and etiquette, knew that Beth could not swallow the host and that it could not just be thrown away; it had to be consumed. This meant that one of us remaining kids would be forced to take one for the church.
Dad passed right by me. I guess he figured suffering the Beast was torture enough. Next he glanced at Kathy and quickly moved past her. I'm sure he thought better of whacking that bee hive. That left Maureen as the chosen one. Now when Maureen played sports or became stressed in any way, she had a habit of gaping her mouth wide open, a habit she'd soon regret. Upon realizing what she was being coerced to do, her mouth dropped halfway down her chest. Seizing this opportunity, my dad, quick as a cat, scraped the partially digested host off of Beth's tongue and flicked it to the back of Maureen's. The sound of that host splattering off Maureen's tonsils haunts me to this day.
As the congregation sang the recessional hymn, I could hear Maureen dry-heaving in the pew. A state of euphoria overtook me knowing that I had escaped her fate. I recall gleefully singing at the top of my lungs, arm in arm with my dad and the Beast. Kathy even managed to crack a smile at Maureen's misfortune.
That Sunday, I think Maureen found a fourth way to achieve eternal salvation. When her time comes, I can see her at the gates of heaven being personally greeted by Saint Peter.
“Oh yes, chewed host girl, no waiting for you. Come right in.”