Ever wonder how all the different religions came about? Well, wonder no more, because I have a highly sophisticated theory. I think entire families stand in a long line before they are born, and a deity hands out religion like an ice cream truck guy hands out SpongeBob SquarePants bars, strawberry shortcakes, and fudgsicles. How do I know this? It’s the only way to explain my family.
I can see a long line of families snaking off into the distant puffy clouds. I imagine even an omnipotent being could get bored doling out religion all day, passing out Christianity, Judaism, Muslim, Hinduism, Buddhism and all the other isms. And maybe it gets monotonous and s/he wants to mix it up. But s/he’s omnipotent, s/he knows not to get too crazy—these things must be done delicately. S/he’s feeling cheeky when s/he spies my family in the line—some even-keeled French Canadians on one side and some tolerant Dutch on the other. All are headed for the US, and the American generation will be born in the late 1950s and early 1960s. S/he smiles mischievously. With a wave of her/his celestial hand, s/he respectfully hands the older generation Catholicism. Over the American-born generation, however, the wave is different. Spirituality falls like jimmies over us and we gaze up radiant and expectant. Then s/he moves us along. No religion is given. “See what you make of that!” s/he chuckles.
Cut to life on Earth: The French Canadians make their way from Lac Noir, Quebec through New Hampshire and Vermont, and they land in Bristol, Connecticut. As predicted, that generation and the next are hard-core Catholics. As a teen, my grandmother recovered from a serious illness by believing in Mary, (aka the mother of Jesus, and no I didn’t just swear). When my m other was a teen, she entered the convent. The conditions in the late 1940s—working long hours in a hot laundry, washing priests’ vestments, and eating meals that would make Oliver Twist seem gluttonous—wore her down. She got sick enough to be sent home to recover. Twice. Mother Superior believed it was a message from God that this is not her path. My mother was crushed, but maybe dealing with that blow helped her through what her kids were going to put her through.
My mother met my father, a Dutch-born Catholic, and they married in 1957. The babies came in 1958, 1960, 1962 and 1965, and for a while things were looking pretty good. Our family of six attended Mass every Sunday morning and every holy day. We kids went to Catechism and the sacraments were all distributed like clockwork: baptism, communion, confession, confirmation.
Then came the 70s. I imagine the omnipotent being was chuckling.
My father jumped ship first, having had more years to contemplate spiritual matters than us kids and becoming disillusioned with organized religion in general. He began to study the many facets of Eastern philosophy and was soon talking about the universality of life and the idea that the separation of man and god were human constructs. A favorite theme of his: we are the watcher and the watched.
And then there were five.
Once my Dad opened the door, I think maybe we all started consciously or unconsciously to hear the Catholic Church rap differently. The faith of my grandmother and mom transcends the words of the church. While the words can be lyrical, they can also be contradictory and absolute. My siblings and I were born to be people who listened to the words and thought too much about them. We also asked a lot of questions—not really traits the Catholic Church was looking for at that time.
When my oldest sister, Julie, left home about a year after high school, she found a religion that not only invited questions, but could provide answers, with footnotes. And so she became a Jehovah’s Witness. At first it was hard for the rest of us to understand—we were a little afraid it was a cult. But over time we could see that it made sense to her. Except for missing holiday gatherings (they don’t celebrate any holidays except wedding anniversaries), she was still pretty much the same person. The weirdest part was that all the Jehovah Witnesses she introduced us too were always super nice. Being close-to-the-vest New Englanders, we had a hard time with that, but we got used to it.
And then there were four.
A year after Julie left home, Sharon went off to college. By her fourth year, she met a nice Jewish boy and decided to marry him. Although many interfaith marriages work, Sharon felt the pull of the Jewish faith. She liked the Jewish emphasis on family and being a good person (as opposed to say, burning in hell for transgressions). The final piece was the idea that children must be born to a Jewish mother be considered Jewish, so she converted. It was toughest on my mom. Julie’s religious departure was still based in Christianity, but for my mom, Sharon had left the fold entirely. As for my brother and me, we were now getting pretty experienced in this religion switching thing; my greatest concern was figuring out the Jewish holidays. It also helped that Marty, my brother-in-law, had no problem celebrating Christmas and Easter.
And then there were three.
By now, my brother Mark and I were teenagers, and we picked religion as our rebellion. Mark pulled the age-16 card, “If I’m old enough to drive, I’m old enough to make my own decisions.” He stopped going to church and finds his spirituality in the cool wind of a mountain peak after a long hand-over-hand climb and in the stillness of a snowy wood on a crisp January day. We accept that it works for him, but the rest of us still prefer a little heat with our holy moments.
And then there were two.
Around this time, my mother became a lector, which is a layperson who reads the scriptures during the Mass. She sat on the stage up front, while I sat alone and stewed and sulked by myself in the folding chairs. Yes, we had Mass in folding chairs, in the Catholic school gym because the congregation had outgrown the church. Being in an actual church wouldn’t have made a real difference—I think it just hastened the end. Sitting in my hard metal chair, I had plenty of time to review the all the things I didn’t like, starting with my fourth grade Catechism teacher—did I mention I can hold a grudge?
“You have a choice,” she said, one day. And I perked up, because I liked choices. “You can be good,” OK. Not very compelling, but not a deal-breaker either. “Or, you can go to hell.” Well, even a fourth grader knows that’s no choice. For me it was downhill from there, so when I turned 16, I also declared my independence. My poor mother tried to dissuade me, but she knew she was on thin ice. She let me go. I have since become an agnostic, with Eastern leanings, who is more comfortable considering celestial questions than finding answers.
And then there was one Catholic left.
The Catholic Church is still a major part of my mom’s life, and it has given her the grace and generosity to accept us all. And we’ve accepted each other. Oh, sure, I may have glossed over some of the hand wringing, regrets, and recriminations we’ve had with each other over the years, but heck we would have had those even without being the religious United Nations.
Earlier this year, my mother accepted an award for her many years of volunteering at her parish. The event was held at the Hartford Cathedral and honored parishioners from all over the diocese. The Jehovah Witness wished she could have made it, and the rest of us were there—the Eastern philosopher, the questioner, the Jew, and the cold nature guy. Because, you know, that’s how we roll. It was a testament to our love, respect, and acceptance of our religious diversity. That, and we had taken bets on whether we would burst into flames. Obviously we didn’t, otherwise I would have written about that. I do believe, however, I could hear a deity stifling a giggle. Well played, my friend. Well played.
Photo credit: My own photo of the ice cream truck near the Public Gardens in Boston.