Sunday, March 05, 2006

A CONFESSION FOR ASH WEDNESDAY


Glass Feet
Originally uploaded by eye2eye.

This being written on Ash Wednesday, I have a confession that needs to be heard. I told a lie. A lie I once considered to be the one unforgivable sin of my life. And what was worse, I told it in Church. To a priest in a red tasseled hat.

But no lie--not even an unforgivable one, not even one told in church and to a Monsignor, springs from nowhere. They all have a history, and what’s more they have a purpose. There are lies of omission, and lies told in kindness, calculated lies, and spontaneous embellishments. In fact, there’s probably as many varieties of lies out there as there are liars. And that’s a lot.

Then there are the lies you tell because more than anything you wish they were true. I think my unforgivable lie was one of those.

As a child, I often played with my next door neighbor, Elsa. We were both only children, but our lives were vastly different. Elsa lived with a grandmother, who was considerably more well-off than most of the people in our working class neighborhood, but determined to raise her granddaughter with Depression sensibilities. Before she could play, Elsa had a long list of chores to do, followed by hours of practicing her piano. She wore the same dress--invariably something purchased at a thrift shop-- to school all week in order not to waste water or labor washing them.

I know this sounds Dickensian, but I believe her grandmother loved Elsa, and thought she was teaching the child values like discipline and fortitude. They were just the wrong values for the era. These were the child-centered years when the ME generation was just coming into its own. Chores? Unwanted music lessons? Excuse me?

I used to sit on her porch, listening as Elsa practiced the piano; I cringed when she missed a note because I knew what would follow. The grandmother who spent the afternoon on a day bed with her Chihuahuas in her lap, would reach out and crack her hand with a yardstick.

“Play it again, she’d say. “And this time, do it right.”

In our secret place in the woods, Elsa confessed what her piano teacher had told her: she’d never be any good no matter how many hours she practiced. Nor was she ever much of a student. Her ill-cut hair and Depression style dress insured her status as an outcast from the moment she entered the school building. She stole my toys when I wasn’t looking, and drew me into numerous fights in her defense, but I loved that girl beyond reason.

See, Elsa was more than a friend; she was the little sister I never had. Her straight and perfectly black hair felt like a miracle to me when I brushed it in the sun; the memory of her knobby bones fills me with love to this day. But most of all, I can still remember the wild laughter with which she greeted the day when finally released from her hours at the piano.

One day, when her grandmother hit her once too many times with the yard stick, Elsa hid in my closet, refusing to answer the old woman’s calls. At the time, I was preparing for my First Communion, and it was a Sunday school day. A particularly important Sunday school day. We were meeting in the church where Monsignor would quiz us on the tenets of the faith.

Don’t ask me how I got her to the church because I don’t remember, but somehow I smuggled Elsa inside, and hid her under the pew. She sat quietly, looking up at me in the dark space, her black hair a fringe beneath her beret. While I recited my answers in trepidation, she held my hand and nodded at every correct response. Her face never left mine.

We’d nearly finished the class when the boy beside me raised his hand. He looked pointedly at me before he spoke. From her spot on the floor, Elsa gripped my hand more tightly. In an instant, the Monsignor was standing beside the pew, calling Elsa out. Standing in the center aisle, her Depression skinniness, and the dress she’d been wearing for four days were accentuated by a slant of light that came through the stained glass window.

“What’s your name? And why are you hiding in the Church?” the Monsignor said not unkindly. He was an elderly man, arthritic, but I remember him crouching, meeting her at eye level.

But like spies and fugitives everywhere, Elsa was determined to reveal nothing. She lowered her head in eloquent muteness.

“Does anyone know this little girl?” the Monsignor asked, turning to the class.

I was silent for an instant, before I stood straight up, and in the presence of all the holy icons of the church, told my lie--loud and clear. “She’s my sister. My mother wasn’t home so I had to take her to Sunday School with me.”

It was a purely gratuitous lie. The truth--that she was a friend, and would be going home with me when my mother picked me up--would have satisfied the Monsignor just as well.

Elsa looked up from the center of that shaft of light and smiled widely--the way she did when she was released from her chores for the day. And I smiled back. For that one moment, we were no longer onlys. We each had the secret thing we’d always longed for: a sister.

I suffered mightily for the lie I told to the trusting old Monsignor. When we prepared for first penance, I rehearsed how I would confess it. But every time I tried to speak my sin out loud, it sounded more unforgivable. I imagined God’s thunder cracking the confessional booth in half when I filled it with my travesty.

Of course, as I grew older, I laughed at my child-self for her overdeveloped conscience. The story I told the Monsignor was an entertaining example of “Catholic guilt” when I was in college.

Only now when I look back and remember Elsa standing in the center aisle with her bowed head, or crouched below me, squeezing my hand in encouragement as I recited my catechism, I understand the true nature of my unforgivable lie: It wasn’t the lie I’d told to the Monsignor that mattered. It was the lie I told to Elsa.

It is perhaps a common lie. We outgrow people we say we love. We “move on.” As we grew up, I would disown the girl I’d called my sister a little more completely every year. I would pretend I didn’t know the secrets we told each other in the woods or the bump of her bony knees during a sleepover. Perhaps predictably, Elsa grew into a wild adolescent, an intractable outsider, the magnificent black hair bleached platinum, her old world name jettisoned for a new nickname and a persona to go with it. She became “Sunny”; and I became someone who pretended I didn’t know her.

The last I heard of Elsa she was a drug addict living in Florida. And yet the moment in the church remains. The moment when I told the Monsignor that she was my sister. The truth of those words continues to haunt me.

45 comments:

donna said...

We can't keep track of everyone, and we can't save everyone, even someone we love as dearly as a sister. Having a mentally disabled sister and nephew has certainly taught me that. I watch my nephew living in squalor, taken advantage of by the "friends" he refuses to kick out of his apartment who eat his food, steal his stuff, and destroy his property. I watched them destroy my mom's house and ruin her health before she died, but couldn't get her to kick them out.

You can't save people, even when they really are your family. How much more difficult when they aren't, really.

Your lie was certainly not unforgivable, at all. But there was no way you could save her.

Stephanie said...

This is absolutely wonderful. :)

Fred Garber said...

Patry, this post got me to thinking. About a lot of things. I am an only child. I have at least 3 blood brothers. You know where you cut each other with a knife and let the blood drip together on a rock then bury it. I can only remember 2 of there names. And I think of those brothers and sisters from other situations and pacts. And I think maybe they can't save me and I can't save them but...am I not my brothers keeper. I think Elsa is your sister.

Amishlaw said...

Patry, you have an unbelievable writing talent. That little story really moved me.

Lorna said...

Lovely story, but it makes me ashamed of the ease with which I lied to priests, nuns, parents, siblings, friends, neighbours and strangers, with no compunction, just because I could.

rdl said...

Really nice story.

kenju said...

You were trying to protect her, and I believe that God knows what was in your heart at the time, and you do not need to feel guilt over it.

Sky said...

This story touched my heart deeply.

lucky said...

Hauntingly well written.

Susan Messer said...

This question--what our responsibility is to others over the long, winding path of the lifespan--is a big, aching one. No easy answers, as you cleary understand, Patry. I believe that the pure ache of it is part of the human condition and unavoidable.

Rexroth's Daughter said...

A beautiful, compelling story, Patry. I love that you told the Monsignor the truth, at that moment she was your only sister, a true bond of your heart.

Patry Francis said...

donna: so very true. We can't save everyone--or change them either. Frequently, it's hard enough to save/change myself. And yet that truth doesn't entirely keep back the sorrow, the sense of loss--not to mention the frustration and anger. It sounds as if your family has been through a lot of pain--which makes the positive and loving approach you bring to life even more admirable.

stephanie: Thank you! I'm sure this is a story Dr. Theologian could understand.

fred: Another only child! I used to do the blood sister thing, too. Now it's mostly an "ink sister" ritual.

amishlaw: I very much appreciate your kind comment and your visits. You even introduced me to a new poet!

lorna: It sounds as if you were less intimidated by authority than I was. I admire that!

r: Thanks! xo

kenju: What a kind and compassionate response. It is appreciated.

sky: Thank you. And thanks again for your keen observation.

rainbow: Your comment and your visits are much appreciated.

Susan: Oh, exactly! But perhaps we grow somehow by grappling with the question. Or maybe the people we encounter in our present benefit by what we've learned from the ones we lost. I'm reminded of that quote you sent me recently. "Be kind. Everyone you meet is engaged in a great struggle."

MB said...

(You know this belongs over at Qaartsiluni.)

There is so much compassion in this story, so much truth, even in the face of the lie. What is the truth of the moment, relative to the changing truth of passing time? It's an interesting question.

Patry Francis said...

r.d.: thank you! I now feel a similar heart bond with many of my blog friends.

mb: Actually, I was inspired to write this by the qaartsiluni theme, but then thought it was too long for a group blog. Still feel rather regretful that I didn't submit it since I love being part of that.

MB said...

Ah, it's true isn't it, they have a word limit. I'd forgotten that. Too bad!! This is a really nice piece.

Perfect Virgo said...

Born and raised in a staunchly RC home I can relate fully to this story Patry. My family's lives were ruled by the rigid codes and blinkered attitudes.

Your little white lie is to be applauded because it showed compassion. Wasn't that always supposed to be a virtue?

Becca said...

I have thought a lot about loyalty, friendship, humility and faithfulness ... I hope Elsa will find another sweet friend, like you were to her when she was young, so she can be well.

Our well-developed, sensitive consciences are something I have become thankful for ... I had a very similar thing happen to me when I was young which I continue to regret and confess over and over (pointless and obsessive at this stage of my life). But I learned a huge and valuable lesson that has positively affected my life and my relationship with others.

This is a beautiful story.

zhoen said...

We are not the people we were when we were children.

You gave her everything you had at that moment. It could never be enough to balance out the abuse (not love) that her Grandmother infllcted on her unnecessarily. Home has to be where children can feel loved and respected utterly. When a parent tries to make it a place to teach the child how harsh the world is, it is simply abuse. It is akin to hitting a sapling with a chain to teach it about the winds that oaks must sustain.

You should feel no guilt for your kind act of love. Nor for being unable to stem the flow of the chaos of her life engendered by her 'raising'. Nor for growing up.

Nor are you the first to lie to religious authority. Nor the last. Nosy buggers.

Dave said...

I'm willing to bet the current qarrtsiluni editors would've stretched the word limit for this one. Now you really do have something to atone for!

This really made me think of all the friends I've drifted away from. The ultimate sin of omission, perhaps...

boulies said...

This really hit me hard, as I have had a few special young friends along the way who I had left back there somewhere. It's so sad to think back on younger more innocent days to the special moments shared with them, only to revisit in memories. This is a beautiful story Patry. Your poetry and stories really stick under the rib. When I settle in the next couple of days, I'll link you if that's ok with you.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Beautiful and multi-layered as always.

Alison said...

First came here from Via Negativa & have been reading via bloglines. Just wanted to say this is lovely & heartbreaking.

Patry Francis said...

p.v.: Yes, that was what made the lie feel unforgivable to me. I thought that when I lied to the priest, I was lying to God HImself. Since then, we've seen how destructive that kind of reverence for clergy can be...

becca: I agree. Right now guilt of any kind is thought to be a bad thing, but a "sensitive conscience" as you put it is a gift. What I felt for Elsa was not really guilt; it was more like sorrow for the way things had to be.

zhoen: I know you have a strong feelings about the treatment of children by their families; and I admire that a lot. (Your metaphor about the sapling beaten with chains to teach it about the wind is a powerful one.)Looking back, I think you are right: Elsa's grandmother was clearly abusive. What I believed was unforgivable as a child, I no longer see that way. It is time and change that betray us all. Though they might not be called unforgivable, they are surely unforgiving.

dave: Ah,"sins of omission". Of all our failures, I think that describes the most vast category...

boulies: thank you for your comment and the link.

richard: many thanks.

alison: Anyone who comes here from Via Negativa is most welcome. Thank you for your comment.

irina said...

I bet this moment has stayed for her too...

beth said...

Oh, yes, I'm aching that you didn't submit this beautiful story to qarrtsiluni -- but glad you were inspired to write it down. You're a wonderfu writer, Patry, and this story really touched my own memories of childhood guilt. Thanks.

Laini Taylor said...

Beautiful story, Patry. The writing makes me look forward to reading your book! And the lie is such an innocent and spontaneous one. I've known children who were compulsive liars of a very different magnitude and it's such a sad thing. Even my own niece, not a compulsive liar, told her first grade teacher her younger sister had recently died -- and she's an only child. The teacher waited for her mom after school to offer his condolences! Boy, did THAT cause a stir!

floots said...

i was drawn into this
(thank you)
guilt
lies
a past
i reckon we all have all three
and
as you have shown so well
we can draw on them
and learn from them all

Dale said...

This brought me to tears, Patry. I guess I made the same confession, obscurely, on my blog yesterday.

When I cast a look back over my life, it looks to me like I -- solid Hausmann husband and father though I may be -- have betrayed far more people than I was ever faithful to. We don't get much -- any? -- training in understanding our own volatility. In fact we're really encouraged, at every turn, to pretend we can speak for our future selves, to make extravagant emotional commitments. I don't think many people ever get so far as to look back like this and see the cost, see how many promises, spoken or unspoken, we let fray and fade.

But does that mean we shouldn't make them? Probably not. I don't know.

Mary said...

This reminds me how easy it is to fall in love with the emotion and the drama of the moment, which is always transitory.

Having said that, no we can't save everybody. And if we try we damage ourselves. I think the trick maybe is to realise and respect the power of spoken words.

dog1net said...

Patry,
A lie, yes, but a magnamimous one told out of selflessness and love. Your ability to reflect on the human condition in a way that lets me experience the angst you felt when confronted by the priest is both vivid and convincing. Your relationship with Elsa brought to mind Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany, especially in the sense that you have invested more faith in her than the priest you confessed to. Poignant, well-written and a testament to the simple recognition that all life is indeed a miracle.
Scot

Marilyn said...

I love this piece for conjuring up memories of all the twisted things I did in the name of Catholicism...smf for reminding me of childhood friends I left behind or who left me behind...

James Goodman said...

Very moving. It dredged up a few memories from my childhood.

Nicely done...

Moria said...

Hello. I've not been here before (came from Dale's). Very very beautiful. While I "agree" with those who said you are a fine writer I also protest -- there's a heck of a lot more to it -- and I think it is the thinking bits and the attitude bits that are the most admirable. (Possibly also other things I haven't lumped into words.) The "writing it out understandably" I see as an outgrowth of the other work. Not that this changes that this piece is quite wonderful -- I just feel you should get "full credit", as it were. --Moria

colleen said...

The first lie (for all the right reasons) I guess led to the second one, and the cover-up is always worse than the actual deed.

I can actually feel myself in the same situation doing the same thing. And can feel the fear. Fear is easy for me to dredge up.

g said...

This is an incredible post. You have touched many people with this story, and the responses here reveal the way your words opened memories, prompted expanantions, and drew out confessions.

And then, for you, the writing seems to have served as a personal spigot.

I wonder, did you have to re-work the words, or did they stream out essentially as presented?

Patry Francis said...

irina: I would like to hope so. In that way, we are always connected to those we once loved.

beth: Thank you. I think that is one of the great things that qaartsiluni's interesting themes do: they open the mind to rethink old events and buried feelings.

laini: maybe your niece has inherited her aunt's talent as a fiction writer. She innately knows the subjects and themes that move her audience. Now she just has to channel it in a constructive way!

floots: You make me see something I didn't realize--that our own mistakes and betrayals are a form of capital--to use or be thrown away. Use them to understand yourself and the world, to forgive yourself and the world or to change. Or toss them away and learn nothing.

Beautifully and prfoundly said, dale. And your final unanswered question says it all. I would say yes, but like you, I'm not sure there is a right answer.

mary: I have been in love with many "moments," but in this case, I don't think that was what I loved. What I loved, truly loved, was the child Elsa. I don't think we can save everyone, or that we should spend our life trying, but that doesn't mean we don't grieve for their loss..or for the inability to keep the extravagant promises our full hearts inspire us to make.

Scot: A lovely and thoughtful reflection. Thank you!

(more later)

Mary said...

Hi Patry. I didn't express myself well in my first comment. Your moment in the church with her was emotional and dramatic by the nature of the truth (in the "lie" that you told the Monsignore) that you found within you and which you spoke aloud.

It is a very moving story. Yes, the human heart can be changeable and volatile. And your story does witness to the power of words both for those that speak them and those who hear.

A beautiful piece of writing.

Patry Francis said...

marilyn: The amazing thing about telling a secret or revealing an experience that we think is so unique to us is that we find we are not so alone, after all. Thanks for the reminder...

james: Always great to see you hear, James. I appreciate your comment.

moria: Welcome! Yours is the kind of comment, the kind of understanding that writers live for. Thank
you so much.

colleen: So very true. Lies are like Chinese boxes. Inside the larger one is a smaller, more condensed and potent one.

g: It has been wonderful for me to read the different reactions to this piece. Guilt. Resistance. Identification. Disagreement. Memories of all kinds. It demonstrates how truly subjective the reading experience is--and also how once a writer delivers a piece to readers, it no longer belongs to the writer alone.
To answer your (very interesting) question, I pretty much opened the spigot and let this one pour out. The amazing thing was that I didn't know where I was heading myself, or that there was a second and more damaging lie that was told that day in the church until I wrote it out.

mary: Your honesty and sensitivity is evident in both your comments. Thank you!

Wenda said...

oh Patry, I see it has been way too long since I was last here. I am so moved and inspired by your writing, by the stories you choose to tell and how you tell them. The complexity of this one was delicious to me.

Wenda said...

Deliciously sad, if you know what I mean. Poignant.

Patry Francis said...

Thanks, Wendy! Great to see you here again.

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