You Can Believe In Me
My tiny, nine-month-old nephew is getting baptized in July. A few months ago my sister (his mother) called me and asked me how I was feeling, religion-wise.
“I don’t not believe in god,” I said, aware that she knew all about my boyfriend and his much Facebooked-about atheist beliefs. “But, I’m not convinced enough to worship regularly or change my life over something I can’t prove.”
We discussed it a bit more. She is not terribly religious either, and her husband is even less so. But she felt something when she looked at her son and when she talked to our mother about it, and that something seemed stronger than anything else. I told her I supported her choice to have the baby baptized — if that is what she thought was best. After all, something I do believe in is that every new baby deserves a party.
The church we grew up in was a small parish, in the center of a predominantly Jewish town. I don’t think all the pews combined fit more than 100 people. The priest, Father Martin, was a thin man with completely silver hair and eyes that matched all the blue Virgin Mary silhouettes on the stained glass windows. My parents warmed to him because he had openly accepted us, even though my father is Jewish. Father Martin spoke of Jesus’ love, and extolled the worship of the Catholic God as an all-inclusive pleasure cruise for anyone who wanted to hop on. He did not ask too many questions, or proselytize to the point of offense. Forgiveness of each other, and of ourselves, was what Father Martin spoke of the most — which allowed us to be particularly lazy, nogoodnik altar servers.
I don’t recall being an overachiever growing up, but god damn, my brother, sister, and I were at that church all of the time. Though my mother would argue that it was probably not enough, we were there for CCD every Wednesday or Thursday, choir practice on Saturdays, and then inevitably one or two of us would be altar servers on Sunday. “Oh, two Abber children at the Altar, those are my favorite Sundays!” My mother would proclaim, letting us know she was not only proud of us, but also thrilled that our family was literally front and center. We would smirk and poke each other in the backseat of the car on the way to church, and continue the small acts of sibling harassment throughout the entire mass. There were several times when I had to elbow my sleeping brother, or felt the back of my robe tug when one of them ‘accidentally’ stepped on it.
Altar servers in our church typically started at twelve or thirteen, I imagine this was to ensure they were tall enough to hold the book up for our 6’2″ ft priest. However, this is actually a terrible age to do anything that involves being in front of a crowd with nothing to do for over an hour. I spent so many Sundays off in a daydream about a boy, or wondering if period blood had stained the back of my white cloak. I cringe now to think about what was going through my mind all those years — so many amens mumbled while thinking about what oral sex might feel like. So many “peace be with you” sweaty-palmed handshakes with boys I longed to see naked. It’s funny now, but back then, I am sure I did feel a little guilty about it — if only for my mother’s sake.
A few times a year we were packed into the car and driven to the North Shore of Massachusetts, where my Jewish family lives. Along the way we’d pick up our Nana, and she’d pinch our arms and question us about whatever was hot right then. “Are you guys listening to CDs now?”, “What do you think of that Britney Spears? She has a terrific body.” My grandmother was always pointing out the obvious, but in a way that made her seem endlessly cool and aware. A favorite family story is that a few years back, when she was about 85, she and her friends got some weed from my cousin and sat around in a little circle in one of their assisted living apartments and smoked up. It was after her death that I heard this for the first time, but if it was even possible, it made me love her more. Her desire to cling to whatever was current, including youth, is a trait I cherish in people whenever I see it.
The mood and food at the Jewish holidays depended on the occasion. For Passover, the adults have too much wine while the kids munch on pickles and matzo. It is the youngest child’s responsibility to learn the Four Questions, and my mother always spent the week prior grooming us on the proper way to make the phlegm bubble in our throats so we would sound authentic. For the most part we can still recite all four Q’s from memory, in Hebrew, with little help. My purebred Jewish cousins whizzed through the rest of the Haggadah at lighting speed, but we reveled in what we were able to accomplish given our deficit and lack of time. It also made our grandmother happy and proud of us, which was worth more than any of the afikomen hidden around the house.
Serena and I met at freshman orientation. We were assigned as roommates, and immediately hit it off. She was this good girl from California, with dreams of becoming a dancer. I was a foul-mouthed artistic kid, with foolish and typical aspirations. We shared a love of Jesus Christ, and decided every Sunday we would go to our college’s chapel and partake in the mass, which was led by Father Davidson.
Father Davidson was as old and droll as a stack of books. He was not just my priest, but also a professor for an 8:30 a.m. Addictions: Shattered Lives class I was required to take for my Social Sciences degree. Lesson plans were about the effects of heroin, or a presentation from a student who had sat in on an AA meeting that week. I spent half of the classes during the semester falling asleep due to a hangover, and the other half perked up and peppy on coffee. In the back of my mind maybe I thought, ‘since he gives me communion, Father Davidson is just not allowed to pass judgment on me.’ As it would turn out, that Father Davidson was a really spiteful grader.
We stopped going to Sunday mass midway through sophomore year. It was 2003, and the Boston archdiocese had just gone through the biggest sexual abuse scandal in history. Many people were blamed. Everyone was angry. Lots of people stopped going to church. Serena, my mother and I began to question.
When I returned home for Christmas, my family planned the usual traditions. We would have Stromboli on Christmas Eve, and open one present each. This all usually took place after the 5 p.m. mass, which I remember from my childhood as being the most magical. But there was no talk of that this year. Instead, it was skipped over, like all the things Father Martin had left out about what the Catholic Church really believes about gays and abortion. If we just don’t talk about it, maybe it doesn’t exist. And I accepted it, most eagerly, as I did not fully understand what I was getting out of going to church anymore. It all seemed false, a lie, and not such a great place for women. I never made a decision one way or the other about my feelings about god, but I knew if I stopped practicing, the people who I loved most would forgive me — and that seemed to be all that really mattered.
My boyfriend’s atheism only bothers me when he forces the issue. I don’t think he realizes this is what he is doing, but when he tells me I am wrong for continuing to believe in heaven, he makes things sound so bleak. I tell him this, and we discuss it and agree to disagree, as adults in love so often do… but the questions linger. It’s hard for me, even as an intellectual person who maybe should know better, to be truly convinced that I will never again see my grandmother, or that she isn’t out there somewhere, proud of who I have become. Because I can prove she was real, her awareness of me, and omnipotent witnessing of my life makes me work harder, live life more fully, and hold myself more accountable. It is the one thing I have clung to, when all else has been tossed aside: there are people out there, alive and dead, who want and expect good things for me. It is my responsibility to make them proud.
So, when my sister asked if I would be her son’s godmother (he will be baptized at the church we grew up in), I was honored. Though I may not believe that there are devils out there, trying to ravage his handsome little soul, I do think that my presence in his life, and his awareness that I am watching over him, will give him even more character than he already has. I think that if there is something he can definitely believe in, it might as well be me.
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I wish to God I’d had a list like this when I was 23.
Answer phones better than anyone else has answered phones before. Relay messages so brilliant, they bring people to tears. Turn the coffee run into the choreography of Swan Lake. Become best friends with every intern and every underling and every taxi driver you encounter.
I remember taking the pen and notebook from that woman outside the courtroom, flipping to a clean page in the book, and writing, JESSICA IS SAD in big, bold, uncoordinated letters. “My sister is going to be a good writer someday! Look at how nice her lines are!”
To begin, I got totally screwed over in the dental genes department. I was born with a pretty severe overbite and a mouth that was too small.