June: and considering again my recent, um, ruminations of the centrality of cigarettes in my almost-teenager life in the latter sixties, I thought, tonight as I write, I might extend that reverie. Easy enough – after all, it was not only cigarettes that organized and ensorcelled those distant hours – from acquisition to accoutrements – but, of course, and for all practical purposes nearly concomitantly, alcohol, too. And drugs (to varying degrees, more for me than others, for reasons I’d explain). And cars. And music…
So: Chafed hands, figuratively. Deep breath, cinematic. Fresh coffee mug along with a blister 10 pack strip of Fruit Chill Nicorette, 4 mg, beside my books, envisioning the usual disquisitions, say, on the taxonomies of cheap beer (not to forget either those ravishing elixirs Boone’s Farm Apple and Pear Ripple) and hash pipes; anecdotes on and analyses of the finer points of car theft; and the first Velvet Underground album, and such, I set out. But stopped. Why? Certainly not because I have exhausted my supply of material on these subjects – though that might very well not be the case for your patience, Reader! (I mean, I have read other journals’ Editor’s Notes, and understand full well the self-indulgence and general irrelevancy of mine.) Nor because I had tired of my …style, which, alas, is my style. Rather, as also per usual, a matter of serendipity: a few moments ago a rustic Ecuadorian crucifix crashed to the floor in the next room and split in pieces, beneath our cat’s indifferent gaze.
Thus, to Catholicism.
Briefly, I promise. And neither apologia nor indictment– those bills of particulars having long ago been presented to the court — but a curious admixture of the two, extemporaneous, part Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, part The Devils, illustrated as has been the custom of these notes via les petties observations of the purely familial.
Here, in memory, then, are the Ursuline crones squaring their black shoes, readying their heavy rulers; the fat and venous priests like something out of Artaud – or Banksy. How we feared them! Their depredations beyond out comprehension, their petty cruelties meted out so randomly we were like those lab rats who tremble constantly after being once shocked with an electric nib. Beneath my eyelids I still see the scarlet cheeks of A—, a merry child crushed beneath the weight of our third-grade teacher’s daily examination of the contents of her lunchbox before the whole class, searching out the Hostess Cupcakes or cache of Lemonheads her mother had wrapped in a napkin, holding her up find with a practiced admonitory flourish before depositing it in the trash can. And hear in my sacral ear again the plaintive scrape of Jimmy H—‘s braced foot across the linoleum as once more he is called to the blackboard to work out some math problem or other, his trembling left hand stuffed in his pocket. (Summoned there out of what? Some misguided sense of the as the yet un-invented term “tough love”? I doubt it.) Among this spectral assembly I might take my own seat, too: that pitiable first grader there, a damp vaguely Africa-shaped spot spreading across his lap as he sits hog-tied to his desk in punishment for running away from school. So, feared, yes, and why not? But also timidly mocking our prosecutors with whatever profanity we could muster, exploding in fraught laughter at every ventriloquized stutter or lisp, or imitated arthritic crooked finger, when we were together, on the bright or snow-swept playground.
(But, awful as these images are, do they represent the gallery entire? No, and hence all the more unnerving, as uncertainty usually is. Sometimes a mysterious tenderness would flare up in our torturers, kinetic installations floating up beneath my closed eyes Twilight Zone style – or was it Night Gallery? I recall Sister Carmalita, she of the slide rule hurled like a tomahawk with deadly accuracy across the length of a classroom, weeping openly as she spoke to us of her young father, as best we could tell murdered somewhere in Mexico, on the afternoon the intercom announced the President had been shot. Others as well — giantess Sister Teresa dredging a handkerchief from her voluminous sleeve to staunch a nosebleed; Sister Emmet’s nonchalant broadcast of grainy orange Vo-Ban that drew attention away from an unfortunate’s puddle of sick.)
None of the above to suggest that we, either, were entirely innocent – although at a glance it might have seemed so: hands carefully steepled in prayer, or poised as in a scriptorium above phonics worksheets and lined notebook paper at the top of which we’d reverently inscribe “F.G. A”. – For God Alone; in the chaste way a girl would lower her head to receive a proffered Kleenex to cover her head in church when she had forgotten her beanie. No, not entirely, but on the whole I think we were innocent , and when we weren’t our transgressions barely would register on today’s miscreance scale: e.g., that quivering first-grader peeing his pants? A scant two years later, an erstwhile altar boy in the dim sacristy after 8 o’clock Mass, secreting under his cassock a plastic bag filled with Eucharists, to gobble for breakfast while quaffing a bottle of Chocola behind the dentist office. Or, only slightly more blasphemous our play “Masses,” conducted in Steve Roberts’ basement. The priest – our host, of course – donning his sister’s peach-colored terry-cloth bathrobe and mincing (this was 1964, remember) in the style of slight-framed Father S—around the altar — a sheet thrown over one-half of a ping-pong table –intoning in a hilarious if barely comprehensible Latin/English mash-up: Conf- eat her Deo omnipoténti / et vobis, fratres, / quia pecker/Et cum Spíritu….
The natural order of things, I hear you thinking, children “testing the limits” of legitimate authority as the phrase goes. Surely so. Perhaps Catholic children do the same even now. But how to explain those other, grander tragedies I witnessed?
A cousin, for example, who lived across the street from us: the sweet, shy, handsome and soon-to-be psychotic bookworm R—who a) for the whole of his twelfth year believed himself to be and acted as if he were (I’ll leave the details of maquillage and haberdashery to your imagination) an incarnation of the pale boy-martyr Tarcisius pictured in our Lives of the Saints, supine and near death beneath the blows of a suspiciously swarthy mob of “Roman” ruffians on his way to deliver Communion to an imprisoned fellow-traveler; while b) shortly thereafter suffering that most Catholic of all maladies, scrupulosity, which the website Catholic Answers (really) defines as “one who is anxious that he has committed a sin when in fact he has not or is convinced that his venial sins are mortal when they are not.” Hardly the stuff of the psychiatrist’s couch, one might be excused for thinking. Except R—‘s mental state led month by month to his withdrawal from all social interactions but for telephonically arranged daily trips to take penance lest he die in said mortal grievance and be transported immediately to Hell. Eventually even these short excursions seemed occasions of sin, as they were called, and the time came when he would or could not leave his bed, his body composed in a flattened board-like paralysis in a futile attempt to ward off all but the most ephemeral enticements of Satan, sexual chief among them, I suspect. One fine October afternoon he was ferried down the front stairs on a stretcher by two burly neighbors and slid into the back bay of one or the other’s station wagon, bound we would later learn for Central State Hospital, in whose dank wards he lingered for several years before decamping narcotized to a kindly aunt’s home, in Baltimore, I think.
Or my father’s sister, Katsy, Sister Mary Karyn, a figure preserved in my memory mostly thanks to a few appearances in old photographs: a smiling slip of a girl with a tomboy’s veiled mischievousness in her close-set, intelligent eyes, usually posed en plein air throwing a baseball or waving from a window of my grandfather’s receding green Dodge; or if somehow captured indoors, standing stiffly on her front porch or folded into a lawn chair with a book, the spitting image of Anne Frank. At eighteen, according to my mother, she vanished into a limestone convent in distant Lafayette, Indiana, where someone’s camera (my older sister’s new Brownie?) found her, striped shadows from the iron gate behind her cast suggestively across her blue dress and the suitcase at her feet, eyes downcast under the brim of a nondescript hat, beneath which her auburn hair is gathered save for one untamed ringlet. The final picture of her, as far as I know, was taken seven years later on the front lawn of that same forbidding edifice, at the conclusion of her novitiate. A Mercy nun now, she is in full habit: a dull navy pleated skirt and top, white wimple and white headband; large-framed seventies eyeglasses that seem to interpose themselves between her life and the secular world’s.
It would be two decades before I saw her again, in person this time — and this not in any happiness but on the occasion of her mother’s dying day, a visit emblematic of the church’s then-despotic grasp of every detail of its servants’ earthly existence. How diminished, beaten I remember thinking she seemed, when she knocked at our door. Although I didn’t know it at the time, of course, here was a woman who, in those intervening years, had earned a Ph.D from Notre Dame (dissertation: The Ceramics of Wallace Stevens: Aspects of Imagery and Theme), published widely, earned a second degree, a Master’s in Gaelic, yet was not allowed to teach or lecture, reduced for all intents and purposes to the status of a child: among other indignities she could not enter her own brother’s home, our house, where her mother was by now comatose, expiring of cervical cancer in a spare bedroom, unless accompanied by another nun. I see them, too, still, the one silent, bolted to a hardwood chair in the den, refusing every hospitality – a cup of tea or a piece of crumb cake; the other bent over her mother, fingering the black beads of a rosary as I peeked through the door momentarily left ajar. Not the end of the inanities imposed upon her by her benefactors, either. At the funeral, not a single representative from the order – save for the required chaperone. My last sight of her, stepping into a (rented? owned by the convent?) beige Plymouth Valient and out of our lives, forever. Or I should say, my last corporeal encounter with Katsy. Years later, rooting around in some boxes in my mother’s basement, I found another manuscript, not scholarly and obviously unpublished; instead comprising what can only be called a nearly 400 typed page prose poem-paean to her mother, a gesture of love and regret from a long-absent daughter to her equally absent mother, her beloved Mater the church in its wisdom had kept her from most of her adult life. So moving and beautiful I cried, in the dim light of the ground-level windows, as I wheeled through each yellowed chapter, one of which offered an anecdote that still chills me: how after leaving our house after visiting my grandmother, Katsy had somehow escaped the convent later that day and taken a bus to visit her mother’s small home. It was winter, and a dry snow had covered the walkway and scurried up onto the porch. Without a key, all that was left was to peer in the windows. Her mother had passed quickly, a matter of two weeks from the onset of her illness to her dying breath. The house must have been just as her mother had left it, she recalls, lingering over what contents were available to her: the Emerson TV, an Irish lace tablecloth draped across a sofa table, a picture of Christ with two Palm Sunday palm fronds wedged criss-cross beneath its frame. As she turns at last to trudge up Speed Avenue to catch her return bus, she notices a flash of scarlet in the side yard, and then another, another – a rose bush in full bloom in December. A miracle, a sign from heaven, that her mother has been “received into the arms of Jesus” – and is “happy in his embrace.” What else? Such were the contradictions, the overlapping oddities and wonders of the Lawless’s deep faith.
Nor was Katsy the only member of my father’s family to suffer such treatment. His brother, Tommy, followed a similar path – seminary (Terra Haute) at seventeen, years of isolation, intellectual accomplishment – a biophysicist at Rockefeller for thirty years. Likewise effaced, constricted by the hoary rules of the rigorous regime of the Xavarians. The similarities are striking, down to his miracle, one that breaks my heart forty years on. The story goes that, long before her illness and eventual death, my grandmother had been involved in a serious car accident – her husband drunk at the wheel, though of course this was never so baldly stated – that left her doctors calling her children to her beside for what surely would be her last hours. So they came, the boys Jimmy, Johnny, and Tommy, the last arriving late but oddly…unconcerned was the word employed to describe his demeanor whenever the tale was unfolded. The reason? Why, he had made a pact with God. If He spared his mother’s life, he would not become a priest – his most ardent desire since he was boy – but would forgo that highest of all callings and become merely a Brother. And how did he know the former had accepted the deal (before he knew she would recover)? It was Easter time. As Tommy was preparing his traveling bag a sparrow had flown into the opened window of his cell. After some minutes spent attempting to shoo it out again, he resolved to leave it – in a hurry to catch a Greyhound bus to Louisville. As he turned to take a final inventory…cot made up, window shut (against the cost to the seminary of the heat escaped in his absence), books stacked tidily on his desk… no bird. Only, on the windowsill, two strips of plastic Easter basket grass “in the perfect shape of a cross.” I kid you not.
Quite a Kunstkabinett – cabinet of curiosities – wouldn’t you say? And there are others I could add to the collection — but enough.
For without question, and this is the point I suppose I wanted to make in the first place, for all its chimerical astonishments, its iniquities and hidebound, provincial ratio decidendi , its incomprehensible ambiguities, faith – Catholicism, in our case, though surely faith in general – also can be utterly transformative, life-saving – even when that life is so hellish as to be unwanted. Petronius comes to mind:
“I myself have seen with my own eyes the sybil hanging in a bottle at Cumae. And when the little boys asked her “Sybil, what do you want?” she said, “I want to die.”
I refer to my two remaining siblings, now in their sixties, both (as you know all too well, reader) afflicted with schizophrenia since the age of fifteen, and both alive today – of this I am certain – due entirely to their implacable belief in a Catholic God who promises them eternal life in exchange for enduring their almost unimaginable tortures: minute by minute appointments with hallucinated demons and their rasping taunts and lurid propositions; the disembodied insults of passersby; and not least the medieval puppetries of tardive dyskinesia that make their limbs twitch and their mouths drool. Horrors incalculable visited on the somehow knowing mind – as they have told me at times: they are quite conscious of what is happening to them. I shiver at the slightest thought of it. Yet they endure. Do not kill themselves (as I, unbeliever, surely would have) – because, simply, their faith forbids it. And so they have done their best to carve out lives for themselves, small, attenuated, routinized lives – church, Krispy Kreme, a garden, a bookstore– bounded by three or four blocks around my mother’s house – the house they have not left in half a century – but lives, nonetheless. Lives that are utterly inscrutable to me, that I behold in awe and terror at once. The same entwined emotions I felt, it occurs to me this moment, when some years ago I happened to be visiting a friend in another town when a tornado struck, that knocked down the brick walls that surrounded a nearby cloister where a group of Carmelite nuns had existed in protected seclusion for many years. Thinking it would be good sport to peer into that exotic world, my friend and I climbed to the top of an adjacent hill, where quite far below we found neither an empty courtyard as we half-expected or bent figurines in attitudes of exposed, panicked restoration, heaving the wall’s fallen bricks and wheeling mortar in jerry-rigged barrows. Instead, merely those nuns going about their business as if nothing at all had happened: pacing limestone Stations of the Cross, picking up sticks; a bench, a shed, a clothesline strung with white blouses, wind whipping through and lifting up their sleeves making them appear to be gesticulating wildly, as if hailing someone off in the distance now in joy, now in caution.