My Catholic friend and I used to spend hours sitting on the couch with the latest Sears catalog spread across our knees, pretending that we got whatever was on our side of the page. I played this game with anxiety and grief, always thinking that the better dresses and shoes were on my friend's pages and that I would have been OK if they had just been on mine--and if I'd had her tall stylish mother, with the wonderful cleavage showing like the bottom of a baby in her low necklines. I knew I was not pretty because people were always making jokes about my looks. (Once, at a pizza joint, a stranger had included me in a collective reference to the Catholic children, and you would have thought from the parents' outrage that he had included a chimpanzee.) And I knew I was not OK because I got teased a lot by strangers or by big boys for having hair that was fuzzy and white. Also, I got migraines. I got my first one midway through kindergarten and had to lie down with my face on the cool linoleum in the back of the room until my father could come get me.
My friend and I gathered blackberries from the bushes in the train yard, and her mother made pies. She made apple pies too. We peeled each apple with precision, aiming for one long green spiral of peel, and my first memory of watching someone be beaten was on a night after we'd prepared apples for pie. My Catholic friend and I had been left with a baby-sitter and all those babies, and after we had sliced up and spiced the apples, we'd gone to bed without throwing out all those green snakes of peel, and I awoke with a start in the middle of the night because my friend's father was smacking her on the face and shoulders, fuming alcohol breath on the two of us in our one twin bed, raging that we were slobs, and I don't know how he knew to beat her instead of me because I don't remember there being any light on. We both cried in the dark, but then somehow we slept and in the morning when we woke the mother was frying up bacon, a baby slung over her shoulder, and the dad was happy and buoyant, thunderous in his praise of the pie now in the oven.
It was Sunday morning and I got to go to church with them. All the children got dressed up. The parents looked like movie stars, so handsome and young, carrying babies, shepherding the bigger kids, smooching in the car.
I loved every second of Catholic church. I loved the sickly sweet rotting-pomegranate smells of the incense. I loved the overwrought altar, the birdbath of holy water, the votive candles; I loved that there was a poor box, and the stations of the cross rendered in stained glass on the windows. I loved the curlicue angels in gold paint on the ceiling; I loved the woman selling holy cards. I loved the slutty older Catholic girls with their mean names, the ones with white lipstick and ratted hair that reeked of Aqua Net. I loved the drone of the priest intoning Latin. All that life surrounding you on all four sides plus the ceiling--it was like a religious bus station. They had all that stuff holding them together, and they got to be so conceited because they were Catholics.
Looking back on the God my friend believed in, he seems a little erratic, not entirely unlike her father--God as borderline personality. It was like believing in the guy who ran the dime store, someone with a kind face but who was always running behind and had already heard every one of your lame excuses a dozen times before--why you didn't have a receipt, why you hadn't noticed the product's flaw before you bought it. This God could be loving and reassuring one minute, sure that you had potential, and then fiercely disappointed the next, noticing every little mistake and just in general what a fraud you really were. He was a God whom his children could talk to, confide in, and trust, unless his mood shifted suddenly and he decided instead to blow up Sodom and Gomorrah.
Excerpted from Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott. Copyright© 1999 by Anne Lamott. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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