I sat on the edge of Mom’s bed, staring, not at her, but at the palm frond that had drooped and dried over a picture frame—left over from last Palm Sunday. I focused back on Mom’s brown eyes—that held half the hazel of my own—sucked in a breath for courage.
“I want to join the Baptist Church.” The bright Baptist auditorium blinked through my mind with its ever-changing menu of sermons and songs and single-use prayers. Then, college kids sitting in a circle upstairs stretching their lives over the loom of the Bible.
Mom’s eye brows pinched, penciled dark to match her almost onyx hair—now paled with strands of gray.
I studied her, tension taut between my shoulder blades.
Mom preferred laid back parenting, probably thinking my twelve years with Dad had been punishment enough. After the divorce, I’d pirouetted through my teens with a handful of chores and perfect freedom. Getting what I wanted had nailed down a nice new normal.
Mom, an R.N. was even chill about health issues. She didn’t say a word when I announced I’d get cancer and die before I’d go to a gynecologist. Sue Ellen Henderson had told me the tale of a shoe horn she’d endured. Mom must have figured—correctly—that eventually I’d change my mind.
Please let her think that now.
But I wouldn’t change my penchant for Protestant.
My religious history hiked through my head. Mom had single-handedly hauled me to Mass every Sunday of my life—never helped by my neo-gnostic father nor my Lutheran stepfather.
Ash Wednesdays dirtied our foreheads. All the holy days we dotted. We crossed ourselves before every meal.
We counted the sins we confessed. A rosary cluttered our junk drawer. St. Christopher was clipped to the ceiling of our car. When troubles came, we lit candles beside the Stations of the Cross and said Our Fathers and Hail Marys, our knees creasing the vinyl cushions of the kneeler.
In seventh grade I’d worn a pink dress I’d hemmed too short to Confirmation. The bishop passed his hand across my cheek, branding me Catholic forever.
R.J. had balked at some point in childhood, but I never had. Mom had given him a pass on weekly church attendance. Maybe now she’d let me slide.
I’d hung with the Baptists enough to know the mandate to obey one’s parents, no matter if you were legally—albeit, barely—adult. I swallowed what I wanted and plunged ahead. “If you don’t want me to, I won’t. I’m totally willing stay Catholic.” That was true, but I wouldn’t be happy about it.
Mom opened her mouth then shut it.
I wondered if she was thinking of her own Catholic school days in Cleveland. Or mine and R.J.’s at St. Hugh’s in Miami. How I’d ridden a school bus to Saturday Catechism classes at St. Michael’s when R.J. was a baby. Did she remember my passing out while practicing for Holy Communion? Maybe she counted the money she’d spent so I could spend the bulk of my teen summers at Our Lady of the Hills Catholic camp in North Carolina.
She cleared her throat and my backbone came to attention.
“I’d like you to stay Catholic.”
The ridiculous hope that had cartwheeled through me smacked into the wall of Mom’s no. My shoulders wanted to slump, but I held them firm.
So be it.
I thanked Mom, ran my hand across the bumpy pile of her chenille bed spread, and walked down the hall into my life of martyrdom.
I stepped into my room. A February breeze wormed its way through the cracks in the jalousie windows and chilled my fingers. Liturgy looped through my ears—the meaning long worn off the words. Life stretched out like a yawn in a stained glass shadow. My knees would creak as I cycled from standing, to sitting, to kneeling over and over again. I’d intone prayers by rote, boredom punctuated by Gregorian chants and incense at High Mass. Fish on Fridays for a girl who’d already doubly consumed her lifetime allotment during the boat years. The long, long days of lent. Guilt painted on layer by layer till I died. They’d count my rings like a tree to calculate how long I’d been Catholic. God would forever feel far away.
The next morning, not even twenty-four hours into my lament, Mom said, “I had a dream last night. I’m supposed to let you make your own choice.”
My religious self-pity somersaulted and sprawled on the kitchen floor.
My arms flew around Mom. “Thank you!” I beamed at her, joy shooting from my eyeballs.
She smiled, happy that I was happy.
A month later, I waded into a windowed rectangular tank high on the wall of Southside Baptist Church in Lakeland, Florida. I was there because this was how you bought a ticket to Baptist. I wasn’t giddy or expecting an emotional connection with God. Those feelings had come, but in private moments, often recorded on the pages of my journal.
I didn’t invite Mom. Didn’t want to press my luck. But as I looked out over the congregation, the faces of my friends down front, her absence sharp-elbowed through me.
The choir robe I wore slurped up tepid water that smelled happy—the chlorine scent from my father’s lifeguarding years and my own tenure on the swim team.
Guided by the pastor, I dipped lower and lower until water infiltrated every orifice. I contemplated the symbolism that I died with Christ, then, when lifted—resurrected to live with Him.
Would that my next death be as warm and fear free.
Water sluiced from me and I made my way back up the steps as the next person took my place.
I’d entered the roundabout of baptism Catholic and was spit out an improbable Protestant.
Later I would hear Protestants vilify the Catholic Church. But the Catholic Church did not fail me. I failed the church.
My family had been Catholic for four generations that I knew of and probably back to Ireland before that. Catholic blood ran in my veins. I hadn’t needed the bishop to confirm that fact. Nor did a dip in the Protestant fount change my bloodline. And I’d been treated kindly, kept safe, by the Catholic Church.
It is not Catholicism’s fault I felt God far off. Not the church’s fault I needed new words to frame my faith.
Later in college I would connect with Paula Reid, a Baptist who would become a Greek Orthodox nun—Mother Theadelphi. M.T. (the nickname Paula let me call her), my mother, my grandmother, and myriads of people down through the ages have loved God through liturgy.
Almost forty years after my defection I can still taste the sweetness of the host melting on my tongue. Whether or not God is physically present in the wafer, He was with me then. He’s with me now.