Before every Fall and every Spring, my mother would call us into my parents’ bedroom, and we’d gather around the cedar chest she kept at the end of their bed. She would open it, and the musty smell of seasons past would creep into the cool air. Layers upon layers of shirts, shorts, dresses and pants lay waiting to be shaken out and held up to check size, length and color. At the bottom were the keepsake baby clothes she kept, along with my yellow blanket that still has the small burn hole in it from when we were playing hospital and needed “mood” lighting, and my sister Susan hung it over a bare bulb. With five daughters spanning thirteen years, it meant some of us would be walking around slightly behind the fashion curve.
There were two dresses, however, that were not kept in the chest. These were kept in my older sister’s bedroom closet encased in plastic. They had been worn only once. They were their first communion dresses. My two younger sisters and I looked at them in awe and sadness knowing that they were never going to be handed down.
Kimberly and Susan had gone to St. Francis Catholic School until the end of elementary school. That’s around the time my mother turned her back on the Church. I was last to even be baptized. See, while my mother was pregnant with me, her only sibling, Jack, at the age of twenty-seven died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. She could not understand how any God would make Jack’s death part of a plan. After that, it was public school for all of us and no church. My father is atheist so he didn’t care.
Except for Easter. Easter was the only Catholic service we attended as a family. Well, almost. My older sisters would take us while my parents cleaned up Easter basket plastic grass and drank mimosas and enjoyed a rare morning without children.
Easter service meant picking out your Easter Dress from the hand-me-down chest. Or going to Ruoff’s downtown on the Plaza in Santa Fe if none could fit. I usually got my new dress for my birthday in early March. It also meant grabbing the big tub of Vaseline from my parent’s bathroom and sitting down with a box of Kleenex to shine our patent leather Mary Janes to a greasy sheen. Gloves. We each had a pair of white kid gloves – some had tiny pearls to loop the buttons on the wrist, or some elastic zigzag stitching.
And hats. There was a stack of simple straw hats (usually white) with ribbons of various colors on the top of shelf of the coat closet next to the front door, stacked in the corner among the knitted scarves, hats and gloves. Plastic galoshes and go-go rubber boots with fur-lining stood at attention down below. We would pick the hat with the ribbon that best matched our dress.
Kimberly and Susan would put on their tiny gold crosses that hung on dainty gold chains which they had received at their first communion and would carry their personal small white bibles with the gold lettering. We’d put our coats on and walk down to the Cathedral on the Plaza (you’ve probably seen it in movies) for Easter Service. It looks like a small Notre Dame. It is quite spectacular, especially if you are only in it once a year and are short. We’d dip our hands into the holy water clumsily cross ourselves, “Caitlin!” Kimberly would admonish, “Don’t lick your fingers!” We’d do the little half curtsy at the end of the pew and scoot across the smooth wood.
I loved the kneeling bench that was tightly tucked with the worn red velvet pillow that ran across it. Everyone would kneel and press their hands together as the service would begin. It was almost as exciting as going to the Santa Fe Opera. Almost.
I would tilt my head up and look at the domed gold inlayed ceiling. I would learn later in college that those were flying buttresses and the columns that stood were Corinthian. My legs would swing, and the creases behind my knees grow bruised from the edge of the bench. Kimberly would put her hand on my leg to settle my fidget. And I would try to stay awake. Also, very much like the Opera.
But then came Holy Communion. The time when all the people would stand, sideways step-curtsy and walk down the aisle with heads proudly held in reverence. Except for the youngest Jasper girls. We sat. I saw most of my friends from school making their way to kneel before the man in the fancy robes while they got a little white disc placed on their tongue and sipped from a fancy goblet with a napkin held underneath by a young boy. My mouth would go dry trying to figure out what it tasted like. Then they’d bow their heads and make their way back to their seats. My classmates would turn, catch my eye and their solemnity would turn to smugness.
I would look down at my shiny Mary Janes, and my tears would turn greasy. I felt so left out. Everyone would make their way back, and then came the time of the “God be with you, and also with you,” part. Shaking hands with people around you. Veined, papery hands clasping mine. After standing and kneeling numerous times, we walked home to the smell of Easter ham ringed with canned pineapple.
I stopped going when Susan and Kimberly left home.
Susan died in a car accident on Easter Sunday, when she was thirty-four. Her memorial service is one of the few times I can remember standing in a church (Presbyterian) with my parents. Standing, crying and amazed at the number of people she had touched.
My mother’s faith returned, because there had to be a reason her daughter (her favorite and best friend) had been taken. She still doesn’t go to church, but firmly believes she will see Susan and her loved ones again. Kimberly regrets not becoming a nun or being Julie Andrews. Caitlin, in later years, would take communion regardless. My youngest sister, Julie let her thirteen-year-old son go to a Lutheran Bible camp with his best friend. He was curious as to what it’s all about, this religion thing.
Me? I recently moved to Vermont and bought an old cedar chest that sits at the foot of my bed. I place my yellow blanket with it’s hole in the middle at the bottom and I breathe in the memories of other families. And I sit down to write.
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