Dominoes and Biscuits
When I was five, my father signed us all up to be Catholics. My mother and brothers met this sea change with great resistance, but I was immediately gob-smacked by the pageantry and hoopla. This was Franklin, Indiana, in 1956, and there I was watching grown men wear dresses and speak Latin. Yowser. Plus, the incense was heady. For three years, I attended Catholic school, which included daily mass. There was also Sunday mass and special mass on holy days of obligation. I ate fish on Fridays, because back then, Catholics were required to abstain from meat every Friday, as a form of penance in honor of the death of Jesus Christ, our lord and savior who died on the cross for our sins. I was all for it. It wasn’t his fault I was born a sinner and he had to take the fall. Once a month I went to church and prayed the rosary at the stations of the cross. I was supposed to pray over the fourteen icons depicting Jesus’s last day on earth, but secretly I prayed for all the babies in limbo. I figured they shouldn’t be denied a place in heaven just because their parents didn’t get them baptized on time.
I suppose this would have gone on forever, but in 1959, having had it with civilian life, my father slipped off to Indianapolis, got drunk, and rejoined the Navy. We moved to the coast. After two weeks, I asked my father when we were going to church. He told me we weren’t Catholics anymore. He explained he’d only joined to get insurance clients.
Too late. I was eight years old, a sweet saint in the making and already determined to become a nun. Latin was my second language. The thought of marrying Jesus Christ consumed me. The thought of missing Sunday mass terrified me. I couldn’t deal with that level of mortal sin, and I was sure it would hurt my chances when I applied to convents. I had no idea what the punishment for pretending to be a Catholic for business reasons was, but I figured it had to be at least a decade in purgatory, even if it wasn’t my decision.
I was so distraught, my father drove me to church every Sunday. He picked me up at the end of the service, sometimes late and smelling like beer. This went on for six months. One Sunday, he was two hours late, and I’d had enough. I told him I was done. “Atta girl,” he said. “Dominus vobiscum,” I muttered. The Lord be with you. We got home, and I put my rosary and pint-sized child bible in a cigar box and stuffed it in a drawer. Gave up my nun dreams. On scary nights, I pulled the rosary out of the box and kept it clenched in my fist, but I didn’t work the beads.
At age ten, I succumbed to persistent guilt and repented; I signed myself up for after-school Catechism classes. I loved it until the nun started explaining Vatican II. Having been a lapsed Catholic for two years, I was out of practice, so I questioned these new rules that threw out the old rules with a casual—and in my view, blasphemous—disregard. The nun told me to, essentially, sit down and shut up. There would be no questioning of papal authority.
Too late. Brainwashing doesn’t last unless it’s relentless. The profane had overtaken the sacred. I decided I would marry a mortal and eat meat every Friday. Learn French. No more Dominus vobiscum. Dominoes and biscuits to all, as my brothers used to snort. The Lord be with you. The bride of Christ has left the building.
That was fifty-eight years ago. I never looked back, happy to keep my own counsel. My rosary is still in the cigar box, though. Just in case.
Paulette Zander writes short stories, flash fiction, personal essays, and creative nonfiction. She is a former editor and bookstore owner, and currently is earning her MFA in creative writing at Lindenwood University and completing her first novel. Her stories have been published by Flash Fiction World, 62nd Stories, Everyday Fiction, Pearce Publications, and Crack the Spine. Follow her on Twitter, @inktoyou.