Long before learning to read books, I learned to read people. Having a father with a mercurial temperament was the catalyst, no doubt. Being on hyper-alert for glaring eyes, exasperated sighs, raised voices—the phonics of dysfunction—often, but not always, kept one out of harm’s way.
A subskill necessary for people-reading fluency was learning not to ask questions. Way before ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ became a part of America’s political lexicon, I’d been trained in ‘Don’t You Dare Ask’—a skill I so perfected a mere raised eyebrow, a simple sideward glance was enough to stop. right. there.
The list of verboten topics was endless encompassing everything from family history to current events. Further complicating the problem was the fact that no map existed showing where the land mines lay and an innocuous inquiry often detonated an explosion of confusion that neither education nor therapy could heal.
“Dad,” I asked as I knelt at the family plot in Mt. Carmel Cemetery, “why are Little Nonna and your brother and sisters buried here while Grandpa is all by himself at Oak Ridge Cemetery which isn’t even Catholic?”
“You’re supposed to be praying for the dead not asking nosy questions that are none of your business,” he said in his usual you-are-such-a-pain-in-the-neck voice as he tried to shimmy the old gravestone the years had pushed off center.
“Mom, why doesn’t Daddy talk to Uncle Joe?” I asked, after observing at a family wedding reception that some of my favorite relatives were seated at tables at the opposite end of the banquet hall.
“If you were supposed to know, Miss Nosy Pants, we’d tell you,” she answered, staring straight ahead.
Once I was peering through our venetian blinds watching the public school kids walk by on their way to class. My brother, sister and I had the day off in honor of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. “Why do mostly colored kids go to Ward School and only white kids go to St. Jerome’s?” I wondered aloud.
“I suppose because they’re not Catholic,” my Mother said in a tone of voice suggesting I should be on my hands and knees helping her wax the kitchen floor instead of staring out the window.
Ignoring the hint, I persisted. “Aren’t they worried about going to Hell?”
“I guess not. Go do something useful.”
“What’s in a CONDEMNED movie that makes it bad?” I asked my friend, Janice, as I searched The Motion Picture Ratings in The New World, the Catholic weekly newspaper, hoping to find a movie my parents would let us see. "Don't even look at the Condemneds," she warned, "or we'll be in big trouble." Then she added, with cantaloupe-sized eyes, "We're not even supposed to be talking about this stuff, but my aunt said Baby Doll is a dirty movie and that's why it's a C."
After years of “don’t be so nosy” and “mind your own business," hundreds of grimaces and rolling eyeballs, I came to believe that not only our living room, but everywhere I roamed, was a veritable elephant graveyard.
Would I never know why Uncle Salvatore lived in a hospital, what Uncle Gio died from or why colored people lived two blocks away but never crossed Wentworth Avenue? Even Nancy Drew, my favorite girl detective, would have been hard-pressed to solve these mysteries with every question stonewalled.
Years later, I could really relate to the rabbi who prayed at the Wailing Wall for a half century with no reward. “What does it feel like to pray for peace at the Wailing Wall for fifty years only to have your country in constant conflict?” he was asked. “It feels like I’m talking to a fucking wall,” he said.
I sympathized with the rabbi, but at least he’d never been subjected to the Sister Adorers of the Most Precious Blood. Trained as human walls to not recognize a straight answer, they specialized in teaching a unique blend of God’s Word and bizarre folktale.
As a student, I tried very hard to restrict my questioning to only those issues which truly baffled me since these harridans had no compunction about playing the ‘God will send you to Hell’ card to keep kids in line. There were times, though, when I just really had to take the risk and at least try to get some of this straightened out. I knew I couldn't get to the bottom of everything at once lest I be expelled as a "troublemaker" and shipped to the public school so I'd judiciously drop a question here and there.
“Sister,” I asked when she was not on the warpath, “why would God punish a baby and send it to Limbo forever just because she died before she was baptized?”
"God knows what is best for us," Sister said.
“Sister, if your body must be buried in a consecrated cemetery in order to go to heaven, what happens to people who burn in fires? What happens if someone dies in the forest and an animal eats him? Does he go to Hell?”
"Finish your assignment instead of worrying about animals in the forest."
“Sister, what happened to the Christian martyrs who were eaten alive by the lions in Rome? What if the lions left an arm or a leg? Would the arm and leg get buried? Would just the arm and leg go to heaven? Would God say, 'I know all things and I know who you are even without your head. Come on in anyway.'”
"You are making Jesus very sad with all of your silly questions," Sister hissed.
But I couldn't stop wondering and worrying--not just about the Coliseum and the Limbo babies and the forest.
What about my friend Catherine's mother who was getting divorced and going to Hell? Catherine said her mother told her it was better to go to Hell than stay married to Catherine's father. How could anyone, in her right mind, deliberately antagonize God with a statement like that? I could just hear God say, "Lady, you are toast!" I said a novena for her hoping to mitigate God's anger, but boy, she sure was asking for it.
And then there was the boy across the street who was killed in a car crash the very same Sunday he slept through Mass. All the busybodies said his mother set the alarm clock for him but he'd turned it off. Did he turn it off deliberately and say, "The heck with it. I don't feel like going to Mass today." or did he turn it off thinking he'd just lie there an extra five minutes and accidentally fall asleep? Big difference. If he intended to slap God in the face, he was burning for all eternity. If it was just a stupid mistake, God might have shown him some mercy and he'd just have to make a stop in Purgatory before going to Heaven. How long would he be stuck in Purgatory? Oh, no. I hoped God didn't take that the wrong way--I mean, I didn't really mean stuck. I knew Purgatory was a lucky detour around Hell--no one cared if it took a little longer to get to heaven.
I prayed God understood I wasn't trying to be a smart-aleck. I just really needed more answers, but I was getting the message, albeit slowly, that asking made things even more complicated. Maybe I was supposed to stop with the questions and mind my own business. Maybe there were some things I wasn't smart enough to understand. Maybe it was true that if it was in my best interests , they'd tell me.
I asked the priest about it in Confession but all he said was, "Bless you, my child, just believe," but believe what?
Did Father not realize I wanted to believe, but I was having trouble with some things that just weren't adding up?
Then slowly, as I grew up, I noticed more inconsistencies, many contradictions, even some big fat lies and no one said a word.
Why did priests, who took the vow of poverty, drive luxury cars and get new ones every year? Why were our nuns paid $8.00 a month? What happened to indulgences that were supposed to get me into heaven sooner? How was it that the wealthy got annulments while the divorced who had no financial resources were banned from the Sacraments? Why did exorcism vanish? Abortion is killing, but war, well, that depends? What happened to the $4 million dollars that the National Council of Bishops lost when Chicago's Cardinal Cody was treasurer? Why, for over 25 years did the Cardinal's divorced cousin with 2 kids always live across the street from him no matter where he was assigned?
The questions kept coming and they ranged from the ridiculous to the scandalous.
Cardinal George announced at a press conference that the Pope had declared Limbo a thing of the past. “From now on,” he proclaimed, “Limbo will no longer be taught.”
“Does that mean,” an obviously pagan reporter had the nerve to ask, “that Limbo no longer exists?”
“I didn’t say that,” said the tap-dancing Leader of the Flock, “I said the Papal directive states it will no longer be taught.”
Nice turn of phrase--world-class parsing that would make Bill Clinton envious, but, let's be honest, Limbo is so last millenium the Faithful consider George's proclamation white noise.
Let's save our energy, some said, for things that really matter. Does a Holocaust denier qualify?
"In the interests of unity in the Church..." the Pope recently UNexcommunicated a bishop who loudly proclaims that no Jews were gassed in Nazi death camps. After a disastrous two weeks of international outrage, the Pope backpedaled insisting no one told him--the German Pontiff--about this hate monger's horrendous reputation.
Could it be that the world's premier Christian asked one of his sycophants and was not given a straight answer? Or could it be he did not hear the answer because of the trumpeting of elephants chained in the Vatican's dungeon of Dogma?
I'll bet at least two of those Papal bulls, Hypocrisy and Pedophilia, are making quite a racket these days and the College of Cardinals better pray that Complicity does not rear his ugly head too.