Blinking slowly, I swallowed as the room swam into focus. Ms. Kemp’s gently lined face came into view too, very close to mine, and she pressed a can of lukewarm Coke into my hand. “Drink this, dear. You had quite a spell!” Memories trickled back as carbonation bubbled in my throat, and I released a sudden anguished wail:
“Oh, NOOOO! I dropped Jesus on the floor!!!”
These are the perils of being an underage altar girl.
I grew up Episcopalian, and there were certain expectations. You were baptized, you served as an altar kid, and you eventually got confirmed. At the time, I was so into this. I remember the strict hierarchy among the altar kids – helping the priest serve the BODY OF CHRIST was no laughing matter. Our tasks were straightforward. We sported itchy white robes, tied on a rope belt just so, and walked in behind the priest during the opening hymn, carrying a five-foot crucifix. Jesus was always to be facing straight ahead, not winking drunkenly off to one side, and when we reached the front of the room we had to slip the cross into a bronze holder and sit our butts down until Communion time. We lit some candles, extinguished them again, carried the Holy Son back out of the room, and slipped off the robes. Dones-ville, baby doll.
I remember how cool we all thought we were. Not just anyone could be an altar kid. (I mean, of course they could – it was actually the most inclusive club ever – but there were only five of us who were truly committed.) I was one of just two girls, and Molly and I used to stare in awe as our idol Sharp held his hand over a lit Lenten candle, slowly counting each infinite second as the flame coursed over his skin. I genuinely believed he was God’s favorite among us, because I definitely couldn’t stand the heat.
Out back of the church was a tall mulberry tree. After I was released from my miniature angel robes, I used to run there and climb as close to Heaven as I could get. I fought the sparrows for ripe purple berries and rubbed the juice over my lips to mimic my mother’s bright red mouth. Church filled me with a deep calm that I relived while reclined among the branches, enveloped by green. Sometimes, I trembled with emotion during the hymns. On days when I sat with my parents, I’d surreptitiously hold the back of a hand against my father’s belly so I could feel the rumble of his deep voice in my flesh. On my right side, my trim mother sang in a tone that matched her perfectly: sweet, sincere, and not too loud. On days when I served at the altar, I could feel their proud eyes upon me. I wasn’t allowed to look back at them or smile, but I sat tall on my rough wooden bench and thought about Saint Francis and his animal friends.
On the fateful day – the day I dropped Jesus – we were running a bit late for morning services. I didn’t eat my usual toast and fruit, instead tugging at my father’s hand to get him out the door. “Come on, Papa! If I’m not there they’ll give the cross to Sharp!” Not donning the white robe on your appointed Sunday was about the worst sin an altar kid could commit. At least, this is what I thought at the time. Twenty minutes later, when I was walking down the aisle singing “Welcome, Happy Morning!”, I started to notice a subtle buzzing in my ears and began to dread something much worse.
If you’ve ever passed out before, you know what comes next. The buzzing got louder. My vision faded to pinpricks. Just as the pinpricks closed completely, I lost consciousness. My last sensation was of struggling to keep the cross from tipping, tipping, tipping…
Of course, no one except the devious Sharp blamed me for my failure. Apparently, once I swooned, my father burst from his pew to scoop me up and away to the safety of Ms. Kemp’s ministrations in the quiet church kitchen. Meanwhile, our priest gathered up the cross in his well-worn hands and carried on with the service. Afterward, he confided in me that it felt nice to hold the sacred symbol aloft again, as it took him right back to 1950s New York and the church where he himself began serving at the altar.
And in the end, there was an up side. After that brush with low blood sugar, Ms. Kemp was eternally concerned that I didn’t eat enough for breakfast. My mother tried to reassure her that I always got a square meal but, undaunted, she found me in secret before each service and slipped me a napkin filled with butter cookies. I always saved them in my pocket until after the last hymn, when I’d tear out to my tree, climb into my secret perch, and pair the cookies with mulberries for an exquisite mid-morning tea.