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.