Wednesday, December 1, 1999


Assignment: " Writer's Audience"


Perhaps I should dedicate this sketch to Ray Gripp, in apology for having so rudely asked him what was so damn funny that day long ago, but I choose instead to dedicate it to Linda, who last Thanksgiving weekend sat and laughed with me over family stories from our past, as we invariably do when we get together, my four kids and I.  Each oft-told episode is so familiar that any one of us can repeat it by rote.  We seem to never tire, neither of the telling nor of the laughing.  It was a hectic time, their rearing, yet a fun time, and sometimes on a dreary Pittsburgh day, sunless and chilly, when their father and I seem to rattle around in a lonely house, I miss it terribly.

The following is one such episode from those dear days of some thirty years past.



What demon could have possessed me that Good Friday afternoon?  What dementia could have taken hold of me and made me think I could get away with taking all four of my lively little ones to the service? -- especially since the church bulletin of the Sunday previous had, in ominous bold type, warned us: 

"....once the "Passion of Our Lord" gets underway 

this coming Friday at noon, no one is to talk... 

nor leave... nor distract the devotion in any way

whatsoever.  Except for the prayers of the priest 

and the responses of the faithful, until the service

is concluded, reverent silence is to be strictly


By eleven-thirty that morning, I had all four children scrubbed and nicely dressed and ready to be herded into my blue Oldsmobile station wagon.  It sported front and middle rows which faced forward and a third row that faced the back, and was so long that we referred to it as the Blue Monster.  The dents on rear and front bumpers showed that it was indeed a monster to park. 

"Why do we have to go?"  Tommy, the five-year-old, asked.  His play had been 

interrupted, and he was not happy.

Linda, seven years old and undisputed leader (then and now) of her siblings, said, "because we're supposed to suffer on Good Friday."  Was she being devout, or sassy?  To this day I can't decide, but the year was 1962 -- too soon for her to have been infected with the irreverence of the Sixties and Seventies.  

Stevie offered no protest.  He probably was unaware of our destination, nor did he seem to care.  He was a few months shy of  four, and in those days blithely inhabited a world all his own.  Annie, at two, was content to be carted along as usual.  The five of us were a package deal; daytime baby-sitters were not on my agenda.

Good Friday used to belie separation of Church and State.  It seems to me that most of the world such as I knew it catered to Christianity in those long-ago times.  Many businesses, including the local bank if I remember rightly, were closed from noon to three, and the churches were full.  This particular Good Friday was no exception, and by the time I had found a parking place large enough to contain the Blue Monster, St. Scholastica Church was already packed.  I had hoped to slip quietly into a back pew, where my brood would be as unobtrusive as possible, but Ray Gripp, who happened to be one of the ushers that day, was inside the entrance, and he insisted on finding the five of us seats together up front.  Grandly he led us to a spot four-pews-removed from the altar, and made its occupants scrunch over to make room for us.  So much for being unobtrusive!

The priest had no more than made his way to the altar when Annie began to fuss about not having enough space, so I took her onto my lap.  Tommy poked Stevie and hissed for him to move over.  Stevie opened his mouth in preparation of delivering his trademark, "Mommy, Tommy hit me!", but a look from me stopped him in mid-wail.  The organist, from the loft, filled the church with soft, lamenting music.

"Why are the statues all covered with purple rags?"  Tommy asked.  Even at five, his voice was man-size.

"Shhh!" Linda said.

Tommy persisted in a loud whisper, "Why are they, Mommy?"

"Tell you later," I said.

Annie wanted to play with my necklace.  I moved her hand away.  She turned her attention then to my large silver clip-on earrings and pulled one off.  It ricocheted on the kneeler before clattering to the floor tiles, and rolled under the pew in front of us.

"I'll get it!" helpful Tommy boomed, but I shook my head.

People were frowning at us.  I feared the priest, hearing us, would turn and scold us from the altar.  I perspired under my coat.  Stevie, looking up at the tiny lights that twinkled on the high ceiling, said, "Is that God looking down at us?"

Linda giggled.  

Annie reached for my other earring, and I deflected her hand away.  She started to whimper.  I rocked her gently in my lap.  Her whimper became a cry....then a howl.  Now people were shushing us.  I stopped perspiring and commenced to sweat, and tucking the now screaming Annie under my arm, rose and stepped out into the aisle, motioning the other three to follow me.  They stumbled over each other and we started our exit with what seemed to me to be thousands of angry eyes upon us.  In retrospect, the looks I was receiving were likely not angry, but sympathetic ones.  Some may have been looks of gratitude -- that it was I and not they disturbing the sanctity of the Lord's Passion.

The church door seemed miles away, but doggedly, I led my children ever toward it.

"But Mommy," Linda said as she trailed behind me, "we're not allowed to leave."

"Come on!" I said.

"But Mommy....."


"Well, okay," she said, "but you told us no one was supposed to leave once it started."  

Stevie stopped to smile up at the lights one last time.  Tommy gave him a shove, and Stevie's howl was added to Annie's, which all the while had never seemed to stop long enough to allow her to breathe.

At last we reached the end of the aisle, and there, like a sentinal, was Ray.  He grinned broadly, and as he reached to open the door for us, I heard him chortle.  Suddenly rage gripped me, that having set out to do a holy deed, I was made to suffer such humiliation.  

"And just what do you think is so damn funny, Ray Gripp?" I asked, but it came out much louder than I had intended, and in horror I heard my words echo and echo again in the cavernous church.  For a split second I dared hope that I had only imagined the enormity of my voice's volume, but the many faces turned my way banished that hope.  I felt a good cry coming on.

At the sight of my tears, Annie stopped her bellowing.  Tommy took my hand and Linda put her arm around my waist.  Stevie, having slipped back into his private sphere again, turned his chubby little face up to Ray and smiled.  Ray, apparently unscathed by my rude remark, smiled in return.  "'Bye, young man," he said, and patted him on the head.

"Mommy!" Stevie shouted, "Mr. Gripp hit me for no reason!"

"I...." Ray started to say, but I held up my hand.

"It's all right, it's all right," I said weakly.  "I've got to get out of here!"  With that I hurried us outside.  Forlorn and spent, with three cherubs around me and one little one in my arms, 

I turned and watched as the great door of St. Scholastica's closed behind us.

Two nights later, all night long, it snowed.  As we rode down Delafield Road on our way to Mass that Sunday, we saw that someone had built a snowman in their yard and had placed an Easter bonnet on its head and had hung a purse on one of the sticks that served as arms.  My children were in snowsuits.  My new pink jacket and hat remained in the closet at home and  I wore the same old warm black coat I had worn all winter.  But Easter came all the same, and although at first I entered the church sheepishly, I soon was caught up in the joy and fervor of the day, and before long, I could laugh at what we came to call our "Good Friday Performance."