By Hope Gatto
I meant to. Honest, I did. But the phone book was just so far away that I didn’t have the enthusiasm to walk into the other room to find the number. I knew it would be a series of extensions and messages until I found the right person in our church who could tell me what I had to do. I was sure I had to bring something in or sign a stack of papers and, well, it tired me out just thinking about it. So I figured it would be okay to put off signing him up for Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) class for a while longer, at least until it became really important. Then I forgot about his religious education altogether.
One day, my mother went to the grocery store and ran into Lily, a mutual friend of ours whose son goes to Max’s school. Lily asked how Max liked his CCD teacher and what night he went to class. My mother said she was pretty sure that Max didn’t go to CCD.
Lily gasped. “Isn’t he going to make his First Communion?”
“Hope is too lazy to save her child’s soul,” answered my mother. (This from the same woman who didn’t get on the ball to send me to my own First Communion class until I was fourteen.)
“You saw Lily today?” I asked when my mother frantically phoned me that night.
“Yes. I did.” She sighed heavily, as if she’d run into the Pope himself who made her do penance right there next to the hot dog rolls for having a Satan-worshipping daughter. “You know, Hope, Max is really behind. But Lily said to call her. Maybe she could get him in since she’s knows Karen who runs the religious education department at the church. You don’t want Max to be left out, do you?”
I thought about Max as a hulking teenager walking down the aisle with a bunch of seven-year-olds in white suits and dresses, and I shivered. I mentally traveled back in time to St. George’s church, circa 1987. The younger kids owned the front of the line while I had been regulated to the rear with Jeanie—a loud and mentally challenged woman in her forties also receiving her first communion. After the Mass, my mother invited my grandparents over to the house and served a small cake purchased from the nearby bakery. We poked it with our forks half-heartedly—possibly because it should’ve been served seven years earlier.
While my mother continued to enlighten me on the requirements of Our Savior, I looked over at Max playing his Game Boy and eating grapes on the couch. Next to him, his younger sister, Riley, attempted to put a pair of swimming goggles on our English bulldog. Did they really need to learn about Hell, sin, and bloody wine just yet? In their current world, the Day of Reckoning only meant that report cards had arrived in the mail.
In our defense, the fact that I didn’t get to the distant phone book on time didn’t necessarily mean we were a wild pack of heathens. My husband Lou and I took the family to church on occasion, the kids said their prayers at night before bed, and we even said grace before meals. Without warning, my thoughts suddenly returned to my procession partner, Jeanie—who had yodeled the entire trip up to the altar—and the lame, late, last-minute cake.
I hung up with my mother and decided to call Lily first thing in the morning.
* * *
“Why didn’t he start in the fall?” Lily asked.
I actually like Lily very much. She is one of the only other moms I know who runs a chaotic two-kid household with a sense of humor. I could’ve easily told Lily that I wasn’t ready for my son to learn that decent people can be crucified no matter how perfectly they lead their lives. At the very least, I could’ve explained how difficult it is to locate a phone book in my house. But I didn’t.
“I really thought CCD started next year. Do you think there’s any way he could start now and make up the work?” I asked.
“Well, here’s the thing, Hope. I don’t think that telling Karen that you just forgot to sign him up is going to cut it. She’s kind of bitchy like that. And when I say bitchy, I mean all into Christ and goodness and people doing what they’re supposed to be doing. She might say that you would’ve known if you actually went to church and, you know, there’s that whole thing. I’ll have to give her a story. Know what I mean?” she asked slyly.
I felt Jeanie poke me in the back repeatedly as I walked toward the priest.
“Tell her we had leprosy. Tell her that locusts swarmed our house. I don’t care. Just please, Lily, help me get Max into that class.”
“Okay. As long as you don’t mind if I kind of fudge it a little.”
“Fudge away,” I told her. Max’s cake just had to be sweeter.
Lily called two days later and said that Max was the newest member of the first grade CCD class. We’d have to go to the office to sign him up, pay fifty dollars for the books and materials, and he’d have to make up the work, but he was in. Our son could still get his First Communion on time like a normal Catholic child and could proudly appear as if he had parents who weren’t comatose when it came to important things like the redemption of souls and whatnot.
“Now here’s what I told Karen at the office,” Lily continued. “I said that you lost your job over the summer,” she said.
“Okay.” That was true, although it was a contracted temp job that was only meant to last six weeks anyway. Lily knew that.
“I told her that money was tight, and that you and Lou were upset over the financial situation. I also said the kids had been sick, but now things were better and you really want Max to be involved in the church.”
“Perfect,” I said. I was in awe of Lily’s ability to take the truth and manipulate it into the closest thing to a lie without actually being a lie. Money was always tight, but we were stable, and the kids did have a stomach virus that lasted almost a week.
Lily finished up by saying that we were to bring Max to the office the next night to sign some paperwork. I was overjoyed. Everything had fallen into place. I thanked God for friends in high places and felt grateful that I didn’t have to call the multitude of phone numbers and make up a sob story of my own in which I would’ve undoubtedly come up with the most creative, outright lies I’d ever told in my life. Lily had taken care of it for me.
As instructed, my husband and I went to the church office, met Karen, and signed Max and Riley up for some faith. Our son got his books, and we got our daughter into the kindergarten class that met once a month during Mass. That was the other thing. We had to start going to Mass regularly now, and not just on holidays or when my grandmother visited. Though that new responsibility kind of bummed me out, I thanked Karen profusely for squeezing Max in. My family left the office hot to trot in what I assumed to be the Lord’s good graces.
As we walked outside, I heard Karen run out of the front door onto the sidewalk behind me, calling my name. I told Lou and the kids to go ahead to the car, and I went back to see what Karen wanted. Maybe she needed to know if I’d be willing to be an officer for the Rosary Society.
“Mrs. Gatto, I am so sorry. I wasn’t even thinking. I didn’t mean to take this,” she said and held out the fifty-dollar check that we’d given her just minutes ago. “Lily told me about your … situation.” She whispered the last word as if to save me from being shamed, even though we were the only two people standing there. “I’ll gladly waive the fee.”
Oh. My. God.
I recoiled from the check in her hand as if it were a serpent. This unexpected token of good will was definitely not part of the Get-Max-Into-CCD-Late plan. There was no possible way that I could take that check back. None. It would be so completely wrong on so many levels. But just as I started to tell her that we had plenty of money and could surely afford the tuition, I panicked. I became absolutely terrified that she’d kick Max out of his CCD class before he even started because he had a giant liar for a mother.
“Things are getting better, though. Really. They are,” I stammered as I shakily took the check from Karen. The more I spoke, the more I sounded like we were living on scraps that we found in our affluent neighbor’s garbage cans. “We’re getting there. Slowly but surely. I’m working now. I’m teaching, actually. But … this will help.”
After looking around for the lightning that was sure to strike me any second, my eyes fell upon my husband who had been keeping busy in the parking lot by rubbing Riley’s arms. She had insisted on wearing her favorite pink jacket; it was definitely not warm enough for the season. Since we were only running in and out of an office located two minutes from our home, we allowed her to wear it instead of the $125 ski jacket hanging in her closet. To Karen, it was clear that my children didn’t have proper clothing.
“You have the keys!” Lou screamed over to me. “Riley’s freezing!”
Karen put her hand on my shoulder in a pure act of kindness. “Please let us know if you need anything else at all. We have a committee that helps families in need in all types of circumstances. It is very discreet. It’s there to get people back on their feet.”
“Thank you, but I’m positive we won’t be needing that. Really,” I said. I was amazed that she didn’t burn her hand when she touched me.
“I’m hungry,” my son whined to my husband. Karen looked over at him.
“I’m sorry, Max. There’s nothing I can do about that,” Lou told him.
I would have bet my four-bedroom, two-bath house that Max had asked again for the gigantic lollipop in the glove compartment that he’d begged for on the way to the church office. We’d told him repeatedly that it was way too late for that amount of sugar.
At that point, I really wanted to cry. I’d lied to the church—worse, I’d had someone lie for me—just so I could get my son into a class that was only important to me when I thought he might be ostracized. Because of that lie, I had to steal—steal—fifty dollars from people who were actually broke and starving, just to keep my lie straight. And there was a committee that was willing to help my deceptive family through the rough times. I realized right then and there that I was destined for Hell.
Karen stared at my shivering daughter and my hungry son standing next to their father whose clothes didn’t match. (She had no idea that was completely normal for Lou.)
“Thank you,” I said one final time. I couldn’t think of anything else to say, so I turned from Karen and made my way over to my needy family and herded them like refugees to the car. I cringed as I thought that if he’d just gotten into the car right away with the kids, it might not have been so bad.
“It wasn’t even locked!” I screamed at my husband as I opened the door.
“You always lock it,” he yelled back as we piled in.
“We’re in a church parking lot! Who’s going to do anything to it?”
As we drove home in silence with the heat blasting, I thought of all of the liars and thieves in the world, including the biggest one in New Jersey who that night drove a brand-new red Mini Cooper with white racing stripes out of God’s parking lot.
* * *
The next morning, we sent an unmarked envelope to our church with a one-hundred-dollar bill tucked inside. A fifty would have covered the check we’d gotten back, but more was required to make up for the disgrace and deceit. I wondered if simply doubling the amount was enough to buy my soul back from the devil.
Later that afternoon, I came home from the grocery store to find a bag of children’s toys—some new, some used—on my front porch. They were in a plain brown bag with nary a note attached.
Toys for the poor.
“I get it!” I screamed to the heavens. I immediately walked to the mailbox and mailed more anonymous money to the church. “This will go to actual poor people,” I said aloud. At least that’s what I had to tell myself in order to put away the groceries safely and not slit my wrists with the sharp plastic edges of an ice pop wrapper.
That evening, we found out that the toys were meant for our neighbor, a second grade teacher at a local elementary school. A friend of hers thought she could use them in her classroom and got our houses mixed up. So it was not the charitable display that I imagined, and we were now out another fifty dollars. But I was calmed, thinking that the situation was now entirely over. We had paid our way out of it with both cash and humility. I assumed that we could comfortably return to our normal guilt-free lives.
The Tuesday of Max’s first class was a little more hectic than usual. I rushed home from the playwriting class I taught to take Max to the church while Lou stayed at home with Riley. I looked at my watch, saw that we were dangerously close to being late, and honked the horn as I pulled up in front of the house. Lou sent Max out with his religion book, a pencil, and a warm coat. I believed my husband had been sufficiently briefed on my fear of continuing to look poverty-stricken in the eyes of the church.
I barely looked at Max in the rear-view mirror as I drove and pulled up to the church building two minutes late. We bolted out of the car and I took my son’s hand as we jogged across the parking lot. When we finally got to the classroom, I stopped and knelt down to give him a kiss. Max’s face was covered in dried ketchup from dinner. I unzipped his coat to find a T-shirt on him about two sizes too small and a giant grass stain on his jeans.
These clear indications of pauperism made me cover my face in horror. How could I have been so stupid to think that my husband, a wonderful father whose only defect lies in his dreadful fashion sense, could ready our son properly, especially in a situation that required meticulous attention to detail? We were not to look poor, but we couldn’t appear that well off either. It was a fuzzy line we had to walk, and I was silly to think my husband could do it with his orange-goes-with-everything attitude. I found a tissue in my purse, spat on it, and then wiped as much red condiment from Max’s face as I could.
“Come on, Mom,” he winced from under my maternal grooming. “Quit it.”
I wondered if Mary ever grumbled bad things about Joseph as she wiped Jesus’ face clean before the kid went out in public. I begged Max to leave his coat on during class.
After pushing Max into the room, I walked out of the building and couldn’t catch my breath. God was still tormenting me with guilt and confusion. He’d made my husband extra backward that night on purpose just to teach me a lesson.
I walked back into the building, checkbook in hand, and found Karen sitting at her desk in the office. I confessed the whole story except the part about sending the anonymous money. I realized that any good karma points I’d get would be shot to Hades if I owned up to that.
Karen listened to me babble on as I wrote out the new check for fifty dollars. When I burst into tears as I handed it to her, she gave me a warm, long hug. She said she would never even think to pull Max out of class and he was where he was supposed to be. God works in mysterious ways, she said.
I realized then that I had actually required a helping hand, but not in the obvious form of free tuition and toys. My true poverty was much more private, and it was exclusive to my wallet of ethics, my Visa card of priorities, and my checkbook of personal sacrifice. When Karen hugged me in her office and accepted my son into the class despite my flaws as a parent, I was given a great big basket of non- perishable humility. I was grateful for the gift, and deeply appreciated the beautiful place from which it came.
I’d like to say that I now volunteer for that Helping Poor Families committee, or whatever it is, but one can move only so swiftly on the path to righteousness. What I can say—three weeks before Max makes his First Communion—is that I am extremely fortunate for a lazy mother. However, I do believe in the miracle of baby steps.
I’ve moved the phone book closer to the phone.
Author’s Note: Max made his First Communion on time like a normal Catholic child. As he walked down the aisle in his tiny suit, hands folded in prayer, I knew that my family was in a special place and among special people. Next May, we’ll do it all over again with our daughter. We are, however, expecting her journey to go much more smoothly. We’ve paid her tuition in advance.
Hope Gatto’s work has been in numerous newspapers, produced on New York stages, and published by Dramatic Publishing, Inc.
Brain, Child (Fall 2006)