First Mass Day

My father taught me the Hail Mary when I was little, long before Dee was born. My father would be around for awhile one day, I would see him lying on the sofa listening to a ballgame on the radio, and then the next day when I woke up he would be gone.

“Daddy’s at church,” my mother told me.  I wanted to go with him.

“Not quite yet,” Mother said “You wouldn’t like it much.”

Daddy brought me a little book. Inside the front cover there was a real gold cross and I could stick my finger in the hole next to it but it didn’t go all the way through to the front cover. I couldn’t read the words, but I liked the pictures. I sat on the love seat and tried to understand the drawings. A man in a white dress  stood with his back towards me in front of a table with sparkling things on it, a cross, a golden cup, candles in tall candlesticks. He reached out his arms like he was tightrope walking. In the next picture he held up a white circle. “That’s the Host,” Daddy said. ”This is the offertory. The priest is asking God to forgive our sins.  The Host is Jesus’ Body.” I thought the host was the one who had a party or the most important person on a TV show.  Over and over I brought the book to Daddy and he read the words to me. Then one day he asked me if I wanted to go to church with him, to see what the book talked about.

The next day was a Sunday. My mother brushed my hair to pull out all the tangles and put me in my favorite dress. I wore white socks and patent leather Mary Jane shoes. I carried my Mass book.

“Doesn’t she need a hat?” my mother asked Daddy. She took out a little straws hat with black elastic that went under my chin. I snapped the band and my chin stung. When I complained, she said,”Then don’t snap it.” I took my father’s hand and we walked down the narrow stairs from our apartment to the car. It was grey and it smelled like cigarettes. I sat in the back, and my feet barely reached the end of the seat cushion.  I leaned over and pulled the braided velvet rope that went across the back of the front seat. Daddy lit a cigarette and blew out the smoke as he started the car.

“When do we get to church?” I asked him. “Not long,” he said, backing out of the driveway onto our street, and turning onto the big road. A streetcar bell rang and Dad drove faster. My grandmother didn’t have a car. She only rode the streetcar. But I didn’t see her that day. She went to another church, Daddy said.

Lots of people were going into the big church. A man in a long black dress, wearing a funny black hat, said hello to us. “Good morning, Father,” Daddy  said. I knew Daddy’s father was dead and in heaven so I didn’t understand who the man was.

“That’s Father Cronin,” Daddy said.

“Why is he in a dress?’

“That’s not a dress. It’s a cassock, priests wear them when they’re off-duty,” Daddy said. “He said early Mass. We’ll have another priest.”

The church was full of people. Daddy found us a seat on one of the benches. He went down on one knee fast and then up again, his hand touching his forehead and chest and then each shoulder. I saw other people doing that too. There were no more seats, and men stood under the colored windows on both sides of the church. They stood up all the time. We were far from the priest and the table in front, but I could kneel up on the wood bench and lean out into the middle to see the back of the priest. His cape was green, not  white like the one the priest in my book wore. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but he was talking in a low voice. My father took out his black rosary beads that I liked to play with at home. He knelt down and closed his eyes. I looked at the pictures of the priest in my book, with his gold and white cape.

After a long time my father pointed to the front and said the boys in black and white dresses  helping the priest were going to ring a bell three times and to be quiet. Then they rang it three more times. The priest held up a big white circle first and then a gold cup. I couldn’t understand what he was saying. Daddy said it was another language, it was Latin.

Afterwards we stopped at the bakery across the street to get sticky buns and Vienna bread to take home. Mother was Protestant, that’s why she didn’t come to church.  That’s why we had to bring the sticky buns to her. When we got home, I got out my dolls and sat them in my play chairs. I made believe they were on the wood benches at church and I was the priest.  I didn’t have a bell, but I pretended that one  rang. Daddy said girls couldn’t be priests but I could make believe  if I wanted to.

So  I decided to play train, and I was the conductor. Daddy  helped me bring chairs from the kitchen and I had dolls and toy animals riding my train. I gave out the tickets and then I collected them in my special bag. He got off at the Baltimore station and said it was time for my nap. The day was warm and the sun fell on my face, and before I knew it  I fell fast asleep.

5 thoughts on “First Mass Day

  1. This is a lovely piece of memoir. I felt as if I were in your shoes — and hat. I remember those hats. This has lovely language, layers of meaning — and such a tender, sweet ending. This is my first visit to your site, but I will be back.

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  2. Lynne, I love the language you use here, pretty close as it is to the little girl’s. I agree with Dominique. I, too, can feel the sensations and imagine the child playing “church,” the way I used to play “school.”

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  3. How lovely and evocative….I can just feel that sun on your face, and the exhaustion settling in on a small girl after such a long and intense day of rosary beads and sticky buns….

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