Although it seemed my parents had a Catholic priest waiting in the delivery room to christen me the moment I first drew breath on this Earth, they failed to sign me up for catechism classes at the same time as my peers. Being that we live in a predominantly Roman Catholic neighborhood of Ozone Park, that was a faux pas that was not easily forgiven. As such I was enrolled as quickly as possible in the first available course at the local Catholic school. I was still a year behind and would not have my first communion until the 3rd grade.
It is important to note that while my parents were rather lax on the whole "going to church thing," they placed a great deal of importance on the rites of catholic passage. Actually, my father really did not care one way or another. He found going to church a rather trying thing, and avoided it when possible. It was probably left over bad blood from his years of being "disciplined" by nuns in school. My mom I believe just wanted me to go through the motions, as that what was expected in our family and society.
I personally did not really care about the religiosity, and cared more about feeling left out. Everyone I knew was going to these special classes and being the odd one out was never fun. Add to that the fact that I knew from the other kids in my class that having your communion meant having a big party and everyone giving you presents. That sounded pretty good to me, and I wanted it.
There were days during my catechism classes where I just didn't feel it. I understood the concepts, I memorized the prayers, I studied the stories... But I asked too many questions. The nun teaching the class always answered with a "it's God's way." I just wanted to understand "God's way" not just take it on faith. That did not gain me any favors with the nun, or the younger kids in my class... Who all knew each other from public school and had already decided to shun the interloper I was.
Every time things got rough, I would think of the party and presents and I'd make it through one more class. That worked for the first year. (Catechism classes were one hour, every Wednesday afternoon, during the normal school year, for 2 years to reach communion. More if going towards confirmation.)
The actual year that my communion would be done, I was begging to quit. I hated feeling like an outsider. I hated being treated like a trouble-maker by the nuns for questioning things. I was inherently shy, and therefore rather soft spoken and polite when asking any questions. I didn't pester. I was well behaved, did my homework, and aced tests. But I could not wrap my head around the concept that asking questions in public school was accepted and expected, but in Catholic school it was seen as questioning authority.
My dad told my mom to let me quit if I wanted to. My mom took a different route. She reminded me that I'd already suffered one year, why not two and finish it so we could have the party. We compromised. One more year and my communion, but that was all.
I still wasn't particularly happy.
And then around Christmas time I saw a Sport n Shave Ken at discount store we were shopping in. I fell in love. He had real hair, and a tennis racket... and I wanted him. My parents had already purchased my Christmas presents, and my birthday present, for the year, so I knew I had zero chance when I asked. Instead of being told "No," my mom, the shrewd parenting machine that she was simply said, "You can buy it with your communion money."
My WHAT?! I get money?!
I was then told that since most of my family was in South America and could not make the journey, they'd been sending cards with money for my communion... But she couldn't give it to me until my communion because it was a surprise.
I won't lie. That particular bit of knowledge sustained me.
It kept me strong when we'd journey into the big, dark scary cathedral style church (which in my memory is lit only with candles, which created the affect of moving shadows in front of the many statues of Saints littered all over the place, tuck in little alcoves.)
It kept my mouth shut when questions arose in my head.
It kept my brain calculating how many sins I could tell the priest in my first confession and still get away with the minimum of Hail Marys. (Some kids got stuck with doing full rosaries.)
And so when the day came, I was the model little catholic girl, in my white dress my Godfather purchased, reading from the bible during the ceremony. The only thing wrong was I had the flu, but my dad came prepared with a pocket full of tissues for me. Nothing was going to stop me from getting that Ken doll!
When they called all the kids up to receive communion, I got in line, bowed my head, and opened my mouth. As soon as I took the wafer in my mouth, I just about gagged. By the literal grace of God, I made it back to the pew where my father was waiting, without throwing up. As I sat down, I still had the wafer in my mouth. I couldn't swallow it. My throat was sore, my nose was runny, and I felt sick to my stomach. My dad noticed my pallor and asked if I was okay.
I shook my head no. I couldn't open my mouth, I was sure I'd throw up. Somehow my dad knew. He looked at me with a kind smile. He told my mom to go ahead if she wanted to receive communion, and that he'd stay with me.
After she left, he looked around and saw that the coast was clear. He pulled out his pocket hanky from his jacket, opened it up and told me to spit "it" out. Then he added the magic words,"quick before your mom comes back!"
We left the church that day with everyone congratulating me, taking pictures, and singing my praises... And I spit out the wafer into my dad's hanky.
Later on that day, I received presents, ate cake and ice cream, and celebrated my communion, not with the Catholic Church, but my communion with my dad. He was always bigger than life to me, and on that day he became the biggest hero I'd ever have.
I still felt bad about spitting the wafer out, since it represents the body of Christ... and I didn't keep up my end of the bargain with my mom. I didn't actually have my first communion.
The day we went to the store so I could buy my Ken doll, I felt the guilt eating me alive. I hadn't told my mom what really happened in the pew that day, and I felt I had cheated her. So there in the store with enough money to buy the Ken doll, several times over, I looked at my mom and said, "I want to buy my sister a real bike for her birthday next month, with this money."
She smiled at me, and said if that was what I wanted, it was my money. So I picked out a 2 wheeler bike with a pink basket and paid the man.
I left that store without my Ken doll.
But my sister loved her new bike.
I guess I did learn something from my catechism classes after all.