The following essay was the Nonfiction Winner of Tiferet’s 2019 Writing Contest and featured in our Autumn/Winter 2019 issue. Click here to purchase the issue in digital format to read the rest of Laura’s story and the entire issue.
There was snot on my white oxford sleeve and my mother’s fingernails were digging into my forearm. Everyone at St. Christopher was staring as I howled– elderly women clasping crystal rosaries, men kneeling at the rear pews with missalettes, and some of my second-grade classmates, who were also there to make their first confession before First Communion next week.
I had refused to participate in the sessions we lined up for after Mass at school. I loathed interactions with male strangers. I like to think this is a quality I would admire in my own hypothetical seven-year-old daughter, but to my mother it was a grave sin and a deep embarrassment. She was a devout Catholic, and New Orleans is a city where Catholicism is a cornerstone of local culture, the dominant educational system, and practically a governing body. Believing in God and/or Jesus was almost beside the point. At seven, I understood religion to be a reason to receive Christmas presents, which is also more or less what I understand it to be as an adult. Mass inspired certain ritualistic practices for me, but not the ones my mother or teachers intended: it was my designated time to write stories that might best be characterized as Ninja Turtles fanfiction in a pink Hello Kitty notebook.
I wasn’t even sure what to confess. In religion classes, seven-year-old sins had been suggested to us: talking back to your parents, hitting your brother. But even with a script, the matter of talking to a stranger, of being alone, was frightening, too intimate, and I didn’t see how telling someone else about a sin could change the past.
After I tried to storm off for a fourth time, Father Ken emerged from the rear of the church, chuckling and walking in our direction. His hands were outstretched, and then on me, and I screamed in wake-the-dead horror as he picked me up by the underarms and said come on, now, it’s all right and carried my flailing body all the way to the altar and placed me in a chair before a different priest.
I sat in silence, tears soaking the front of my blouse, as the other priest recited the Act of Contrition on my behalf and volunteered sins for me. Then I ran, bright colors of stained glass blurring around me. My mother caught up to me and sighed. “I’m sorry,” she whispered when she caught up to me. “I didn’t know — I didn’t know he was going to pick you up.”
For the rest of my childhood Sundays, I’d scream and beg to be left at home when my mother woke us up for Mass. I only tolerated going for the Christmas season, up until the day in early January when our discarded tree would be picked up for the coastal restoration effort: a festive wall for a doomed land.
LAURA MARSHALL is a New Orleans native and long-time New Yorker currently based in Los Angeles. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Hunter College, and her work appears or is forthcoming in Salon, Reductress, Kestrel, Raleigh Review, Tiferet, Points in Case, River Teeth, and The Chattahoochee Review as a 2020 Lamar York Prize finalist in nonfiction.
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