Father, Son, and Holy Mulberries

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.

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42 responses to “Father, Son, and Holy Mulberries

  1. Oh sister wife-
    your writing voice is so lilting, so poetic and musical – if I work really, really hard – can I write a post like this?
    So evocative. sometimes, the stories – which are truly beautiful – become almost secondary, as I lose myself in the imagery. Each sentence takes me on an individual journey, and i find myself re-rereading my favorite ones over and over.
    “rubbed the juice over my lips to mimic my mother’s bright red mouth.”
    Damn, you can write. Thank you for my morning inspiration. I want this.

    • I love when you’re my first comment! To paraphrase 50 Shades (which I have never and will never read): My inner goddess does cartwheels when she sees your name

      Thank you for your wonderful words, warming me right up on a snowy day. But I would never, ever want you to write like this, because then there would be no one at all who wrote like you. I’m so glad you liked the bit about the berries – I used to think I was so glamorous, when the result was really more like a giant purple smudge. I kind of think… who cares? It felt extremely glamorous. Would you trade away your hours on the forest floor, just because the reality was less gorgeous than the vision you had?

    • Thank you! I’ve always been somewhat in love with the idea of tea time. I inherited the obsession from my mother’s mother, who briefly lived in England. There’s just something so elegant and refined about that small meal.

  2. Another lovely story and I must thank you for finaly teaching me how that fruit is even called. I used to have MY tree of it, which was on a secluded path leading from school to home and I would always stay there after classes and climb and eat.

    • Soul sister! I love that we share this memory! It is the perfect tree for climbing and when the leaves are thick, the whole world falls away. I always loved how long the berries were – there was twice as much to eat with mulberries as with blackberries. πŸ™‚

      • I agree! Plus, the tree I (still!) call my own was like out of time and space, each part of it had different varietis as in how ripe the fruit was. It was like a quadruple enjoyement,because I like the ones less ripe too πŸ˜€

  3. I went to a parochial school for five years. After that, my mom ran out of money and the church isn’t THAT charitable so I transferred to a public school, where I received my inferior education.

    When I was six years old, I didn’t know what a metaphor or allegory was. I literally thought the hostβ€”the body of Christβ€”was made from pieces of flesh and that there was actual blood in the chalice. I thought the priests were all vampires! Turns out that in many cases, that was accurate. They start teaching this stuff too young. What child can grasp these fantastical concepts?

    When I was a kid, girls weren’t ALLOWED to serve mass. How backwards is that?! The Catlick church treats women like second-class citizens. They always have and probably always will.

    • Ha! J also went to Catholic school because the education was said to be better… I would never, ever trade places with him. At least in my “lousy” public school I didn’t get told I “had a darkness in me” for daring to ask questions about the finer points of biblical interpretation!

      I think a lot of kids share your confusion about Communion. I never cared because when I first started going to church, we were part of a congregation so tiny that one grandmotherly woman baked us a loaf of bread every week, and it was enough. That bread was so good that if I ever worried it was really flesh, I guess I decided to be a cannibal. Switching to those dry, flavorless wafers, though, may have caused the first dent in my religious armor.

  4. Just lovely stuff, Jennie. Climbing as close to Heaven, indeed. This is what this post gave me – a little glimpse of the holyness of a child’s point-of-view, untainted by the stains of the world, still sweet on the tongue, still climbing and stretching out.

    There is a charm here that captured me, and others, as I can see. Deft and lifting, this is a tonic to the blistery weather that slaps at my windows and doors.

    You haven’t lost a lot of that little girl who dropped the undrunk Jesus. She’s still in the words you write. Perhaps still stumbling along, like we all are, and getting swooped up when we stumble.

    Wonderful stuff.

    Paul

    • I love everything about your comment, which is every bit as lyrical as my original post hoped to be. “A tonic to the blistery weather that slaps at my windows…” – may we all always find one! What you said about that little girl really touched me. Lately, I keep struggling to keep her from getting buried under work and responsibility, and wondering how to be a grown woman – even a mother, eventually – while still allowing myself to have something of the child about me. Maybe I can swoop her up myself whenever I need to be reminded. Thank you for giving me that image. πŸ™‚

  5. I loved this! I was raised in Fundamentalism and made my way to the Anglican Church abut 8 years ago because my husband fell in love with it. I did altar guild for awhile, but it was stressful for me. Nothing where I came from needed to have that much attention to detail. I jumped right in at the start and gradually dropped off jobs until now all I do is the reading at the beginning of the mass.

    • That happened to my mom, as well! She was eternally nervous about dripping wine on someone’s Sunday best, and eventually backed out. My dad read, like you do, and had the best voice for powerful proclamations. Do you enjoy that part?

  6. Your post brought back my own memories of church-time foibles of my own. I don’t think I ever dropped Jesus, though. Good one. I’m glad you got your blood sugar thing under control. What kid doesn’t like a few cookies now and again? πŸ™‚

    • Ha! Yep, I am grace personified. At least I had the excuse of the low blood sugar – I’ve always been a bit clumsy, and fumbled the cross once or two other times out of sheer butterfingeredness. Thankfully, the full-on drop was a one-time occurrence. So… foibles, you say? Pray tell…

  7. Jennie this was a beautiful story! It goes without saying that it’s a little funny that you dropped Jesus. πŸ™‚ I was raised Catholic and went to private school where we had our own Mass on Fridays and then the regular one obviously on Sundays. The cool boys were always altar boys. πŸ™‚

    • It is funny. I reallllly wish I had it on video tape somehow. I bet my face as I watched it fall, played in slow motion, would be hilarious.

      So, Mark was telling me that in the Catholic church girls couldn’t be altar attendants. Do you know whether that’s changed?

      • I’m a bad Catholic so I couldn’t tell you. I would think that it hasn’t. It’s funny that I just wrote that first sentence….it goes right in line with Kelly from Are You Finished Yet latest post. πŸ™‚

  8. I was also an altar girl! There were three things I was really afraid of: falling asleep during sermon, tripping as I walked down the aisle, and passing out. Sometimes the church would be so hot, and I’d be standing in front of the priest, holding the bible up, and I’d feel my knees shake. Luckily, I never did, but that fear was real.

    • Yes! You totally get it. Did you grow up Catholic? I’ve heard the Episcopal faith called “Catholicism Lite,” which sounds true, because we definitely didn’t have to hold the Bible up. That’s not a light book!

  9. Jennie . . . I have the secret of life for you . . . even thought about you when I posted it (this not a see my blog add) but it’s my latest post . . . .

  10. A beautiful writing. I can just see you serving as an alter kid – and then going out back into the tree afterwards to have your REAL communion with God. Lovely.

  11. Very well written and an evocative post Jennie. I too have a bit of experience with passing out. For me, it usually involves the sight of blood (mine especially), but I can’t say that I’ve dropped the Lord. Usually, it’s just me in a heap. As an experienced fainter, I know that the biggest problem with passing out is that once you know that it’s going to happen, it’s too late. And the wake-up is always a surprise involving lots of faces and cooing. I haven’t had cookies, but I did get a nurse’s cheesecake once. ~James

    • Spot on! Once you know it’s coming, it’s just a question of how many seconds you have before… *slump.*

      Have you ever passed out in a public place? It happened to me fairly regularly in college, and I usually made it to a public restroom where I’d lay down on the floor of the largest stall. I’m sure many people wondered why I was in there like that, but you do what you gotta do! (At least the cooing is pleasant.) πŸ™‚

  12. Samara wrote the response I was feeling. I so love the way you write a scene, and bring us right into the place and circumstances. Just gorgeous, Jennie. Your posts always take me away to such lovely places… even when they involve dropping Jesus.

    I fainted while rehearsing for musical once. I remember singing “in the meadow we can build a snowman and pretend that he’s………….” Pow! When I came to, all my classmates staring at me, I was totally mortified. No one gave me cookies.

    • Thank you so much, Dawn! I’m sorry I’ve missed Saturday voting on your stories the last two weeks – I’ll have to go back and read them anyway, so I can enjoy your breezy strings of words. I so wish Tipsy Lit would hold the contest on a weekday – it’s rare for me to sign on over the weekend.

      To get back to your comment: what musical has that song in it? And damn… no cookies?! Did the adults do anything to help you out?

      In middle school, we used to think it was the height of cool to make each other pass out. At sleepovers, a bunch of us girls would take turns basically restricting each others’ air flow until we passed out, then wake up and tell each other the crazy visions we had. I still remember one from eight grade, where I was a mouse running into a tunnel that looked like a cat’s gaping maw.

      • By musical, I simply meant school concert. Not musical per say. It was a Christmas concert. No cookies, and just adults squatting around me, and holding a wet paper towel on my forehead. VERY embarrassing!

        Making yourselves pass out…? You are so much younger than me! We thought it was “cool” to stick someone’s hand in water and make them pee. Yeah, we were that edgy. πŸ˜‰

  13. During my travails at a Catholic school we girls used to try to make ourselves faint so we could leave church early. After all, everything was in Latin and we weren’t allowed to talk or be altar servers. But we sure could faint!

    • That’s brilliant. Where did you grow up? And when you fainted, did the whole family go home, or were you just whisked away to a recovery room? I love the poetic imagery of scores of young girls swooning out of sheer boredom. How do you even make yourself faint? Do you lock your knees and hold your breath?

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