I’m five, and I’m supposed to be praying.
This is the very first memory I have of ever being in a church. It’s just me and Mom; my brother Chris would have only been two or three, young enough that my mother knows he wouldn’t be able to sit still, so he’s probably at home with Dad. We’re in St. Joseph’s, the bigger church at the center of town. It’s not our usual church; Mom prefers St. Margaret’s, the smaller chapel next town over, which is only a five minute drive from our house. But St. Margaret’s only has Mass at nine, and if my dawdling (or Mom’s) kept us too late she’d sometimes give up and take us to the 11-o’clock Mass at St. Joseph’s instead.
I like St. Margaret’s better too – it’s where all the other families on my street go, and I know everyone there; the Killeens, with all their kids (even though sometimes Karen and I don't get on well), the Fenns, Mrs. Breault with her son Neil sometimes – he’s Chris’s age, but sometimes she still takes him – all our neighbors. I don’t know anyone here, and the paintings and windows are different, and it’s so big the priest sometimes has to use a microphone and it sounds funny. And St. Joseph’s also has different songs in its hymnal – it has two hymnals, actually, one of them a mocked-up thing done on a mimeograph with plastic spiral binding, with just the words to songs, none of the notes. But we’ve only used it once or twice, and one of the songs was “My Sweet Lord,” and we all knew the tune already anyway.
I don’t remember any of the details about this morning – whether it was me making us late, or Mom, or what the songs were, I only remember St. Joseph’s. I’m sitting on Mom’s right, staring at the sculptures behind the altar, no doubt swinging my tight-clad legs – I never like tights, they never seem to fit quite right around my thighs where things bunch and pinch and it always feels like you have to pull your pants up. And then I notice that Mom is putting down the kneeler and getting to her knees.
I get to my knees too, glancing up. But then I study her. When I was still sitting and Mom was kneeling, I’d noticed my head had been almost level with hers. But now that I was kneeling, it was shorter. I sit back on the pew, studying her; yep, I’d just gotten taller. I kneel again, my head sinking down; sit back, head coming back up. What if I stand – would I be as tall as Mom if I stand? I slide off the pew onto my feet, eyes fixed on the top of Mom’s head. Sure enough, I'm as tall as Mom if I’m standing while she’s kneeling. Well, almost.
Mom’s sensed me moving and glances over at me, smiling indulgently as she watches me sit, then stand, then sit again. Even at five, I somehow know that she doesn’t know what I’m trying to do. All she sees is a slightly fidgety child, but a child who’s trying to behave anyway so she doesn't say anything. Her glance reminds me that I should be praying like her, so I kneel back down; Mom turns back to her prayers, figuring my performance is over.
Mom’s not far off – somewhere at the base of what I’m doing, I am fidgety. I’m old enough to behave somewhat, but not really old enough to get what church is about. Sometimes we stand, sometimes we sit; sometimes we get to sing, and that’s fun. But most of the time we have to sit still and not talk, and listen to the priest talking on his funny-voiced microphone and droning on about things that don’t really make sense to me. Sometimes he talks about stories from the Bible, and I understand those, but then he starts talking about other things I don’t get, and sometimes when he says something and the grownups laugh I don’t get that either, so I just look at the church and wish I didn’t have to sit there.
But at least we’re almost over now. Just sit one more time, and then we’re standing up and singing one last song while the priest begins his stately walk down the middle of the aisle, and only when he passes our pew does Mom finally start getting her coat on. I’ve already got mine, and she takes my hand as we join the throng of people heading out.
And then we finally are in the parking lot and Mom lets go my hand, and I start running to the car – finally I can move again. I’m done with church, and we’re going to go home and I’m going to change out of my tights and into jeans and I’m going to go play – maybe go across the street to play with Lisa, or down to where the Killeens and the Fenns are, or maybe we can all find Molly and Diane for a game of Tag, but I can run and chase other kids and skip and move, reveling in this body I have and using the energy I’m bursting with, this endless source of burning new life I am starting to be aware of and rejoice in. That comes when I get home – for now, I’m reveling in the feel of my feet slapping on the pavement, the blood moving through my limbs and my coat flapping in the wind as I sprint for the car.
I’m five, and this is how I pray.