It was my husband who first broached the subject of our daughter, Annie, making her First Communion. This touched on the sticky issue of organized religion--a concept our family had all but ignored for years. It's not that we're heathens exactly. Both my husband and I had gone to Catholic school as children, but by the time we were grown and married, we had become the dread "fallen away" Catholics the nuns had warned us about in sixth grade.
After Annie and her younger brother Alex were born, church meant attending Mass twice a year. I remember carrying a howling 3-year-old out of Easter High Mass and cleaning up Cheerios strewn on the pew on Christmas Day--not exactly beatific experiences.
But when Annie turned 7, it was fish or cut bait. If we ever wanted her to know what it meant to be Catholic, we couldn't skip her First Communion. And that was how she and I wound up in the basement of Saint Anthony's Church along with 40 other mothers and their second graders, each signed up for 12 Saturday mornings of instruction.
A wave of nostalgia passed over me the first time I came in and sat on the familiar folding metal chairs. But much had changed--the class was led by a volunteer in a business suit rather than a nun in full Dominican habit. A TV/VCR stood in the corner. The catechism text had changed, too. There was less emphasis on purgatory and plenary indulgences and more on spirituality. Annie, however, was not impressed. None of her friends from public school were Catholic, so she was without her usual coterie. She squirmed, she sighed. It was only when the children were allowed to color the saints in the prayer book that she perked up.
"What did you learn today, Annie?" my husband asked when we got home.
"Uh, forgiveness," Annie said shortly. "Can I go roller-blading now?" And that was that.
Meanwhile, each Saturday I was having piercing flashbacks to my youth.
As I was paying for Annie's communion prayer book, I happened to glance up at a high, narrow shelf of dusty statues of saints. Idly, I scanned them for my own patron saint. There she was--tall and fierce in her green pants and royal blue tunic. St. Joan of Arc seemed to tower over the others, holding her sword and shield.
I had a sudden memory of all of us in second grade coming to school dressed up as our patron saint. The other girls in my class, as St. Catherine, St. Claire, and St. Rita, had to wear boring long dresses and veils and stand around with their hands primly clasped in prayer. But as St. Joan I got to wear pants and carry a tinfoil sword. The nuns used to tell us that our patron saints watched over us; they would protect us and our loved ones from harm. I had been certain that St. Joan had helped me sink the winning basket during sixth-grade intramuals and pick the prize raffle ticked at the St. John of Nepomuk annual church picnic. Despite my long struggle with my own faith, the belief that someone or something would protect us, not just from evil but from all the harm in the world, beckoned to me. I looked up at St. Joan again. Although the statue was $57, I bought it.
The day of the communion dawned sunny and bright. I was so busy organizing the party for after the service, I didn't notice that Annie's normal exuberance was subdued.
My parents had driven from the Midwest, and as we rushed to get ready, my mother took a moment to show me three old black-and-white photographs of my grandmother, my mother, and me--each taken at our own First Communion.
But later, as we walked into the church basement for our lineup with the other communicants, Annie ripped off her veil. "I'm not wearing it," she said flatly. "It itches."
I exchanged a look of panic with my husband. He first tried the stern approach. "Annie, you have to wear the veil or else we're leaving," he said. "Fine, let's go," said Annie. I shot him a grimace.