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A Mystery of Iniquity

1946

In this picture Grandma Klimek looks worried. Or possibly she isn’t worried so much as simply concerned that things go well with the picture-taking, and was caught making a suggestion that would create more order, make things right. She had a knack for that, I think now, looking back. The beauty and order of her dining room at the Lodge. The perfection of her kitchen back in town.

Hers was a large kitchen with white metal cabinets on the two walls above the sink, the counters, the stove and refrigerator, and a large freezer chest that she had purchased as soon as such appliances were available for homes. On the back wall two windows looked out on the alley behind the bank and post office. A door led outside past a wild rosebush onto a path leading to her garage. On the opposite side of the kitchen were a table always covered with a fresh embroidered cloth and surrounded by four chairs. By the opening to her bedroom her black telephone sat on a round dark wood stand. The room is a map in memory, perfectly laid out, real as if I’d just had my eyes open to look at it, then closed them and saw each image reflected on the inside of my lids. By now, I suspect, it exists nowhere else in this world. I see the room as it looked when I entered it through the living and dining room from the street. I look from left to right, seeing each object, placed exactly as she wanted it. There’s no photograph of that room; why would there be? It wasn’t like the rooms at the Lodge. It wasn’t staged. And photographs had a rarity back then. People took pictures of the extraordinary and of what was loved. A room like this? Well, who knew something so commonplace would end up etched with such love on memory?

Grandma made hot chocolate here. She burned the tips of her fingers when the gas fire flared. She laughed and made her coffee cake. She sat by the telephone, lifted the receiver. She knew the switchboard operator by name. She started telling stories here in the kitchen on those nights Mary Jane stayed with her after her Grandpa died. And this was the kitchen through which Mary Jane ran on the day she tried to escape what I now would call the mystery of iniquity.

~~~~~~
Sister of St. Joseph from a book published in 1948
to celebrate 300 years since the founding of  the Congregation

The arrival of the Sisters every June was better than a circus coming to town. They stayed in our town for two weeks every summer and taught “Catechism” to prepare the children for their First Confession, First Communion and Confirmation. They arrived in a billowing of veils, the deceptively cool look of starched linen, and a clicking of beads. Sister Bernard twirled for the first graders, her skirts spreading like an umbrella, and when she collapsed in laughter on the ground they ran to her, threw their arms around her neck, then arranged themselves on the carpet of her skirt while she told stories.

Sister Bernard
The Sisters laughed often, sang loud camping songs, played ball and tag and Pum-Pum-Pull-Away. Sister Rita’s eyes narrowed to sharp points and her words fell like fireworks when she perceived any injustice, such as the time the boy named Billy placed a tack strategically on Mary Jane’s chair and she yelped when she sat on it. 
She had started going to Catechism a year early with an older girl named Joan. After only one day she wanted to continue regardless of her fear of the other older children. The whole experience kept her in a constant state of breathless awe. That first June nothing was required of her. Treated like a guest, she watched and listened. She stared at Sister’s face, at the white linen, at the black veil. Sister put her hands under it at her neck and shook it like a long fan. “Hot” she said. Mary Jane watched her walk up and down in front of the church pews where all the children sat trying to memorize Latin phrases to say at Mass even though the majority were never expected to be required to use them, not being the proper canonical gender. The nonsense syllables rolled out of their mouths importantly: “Ad deum qui laetificat juventutem meum,” they recited, raising their voices on the “ti” and on the “ju” and the “tu” as though it was a nursery rhyme and they were jumping rope.
 
Each summer it was the same routine. The children walked in long lines, hands pressed together, thumbs touching their breastbones, fingers pointing heavenward. They genuflected, back straight, head bent. They sang “O Salutaris” and “Tantum Ergo” while the altar boys swung the ornate brass incense burner and enveloped Father Merth in a cloud of smoke.  They pounded their hearts with their fists when Father lifted the monstrance holding the large white Host of the Blessed Sacrament behind a little round window at the center of a gold sunburst.
 
At noon they prayed the rosary just before Sister dismissed them all for lunch. The rosary was long and repetitious. It made Mary Jane’s knees hurt and her head float. She let it float and tried not to listen, wanting to be surprised by the last “Glory Be to the Father,” so she could run to the ledge by the basement stairs where everyone had deposited their bag lunches. She liked her thermos bottle–the reflective glass interior that looked like a crystal well.
After lunch the little girls always walked the two blocks downtown for ice cream cones or candy to be bought with the nickle their mothers had tucked into buttoned pockets of dresses. The year of her First Communion, when Mary Jane was six, she stopped by the Gambles store each day to press her nose against the window and stare at a blue and white Schwinn bicycle. She knew it was too big for her, but she’d been growing all her life and didn’t plan to stop. If she could own that bike… 
That year of her First Communion Sister Bernard told a story about a child who refused to tell a lie in self defense and consequently went to heaven where she became a saint. Mary Jane, who sometimes bent the truth a bit to keep from being scolded, vowed never to lie again. That noon, before joining the other children on their daily trip to Main Street, to Gambles, and to the candy counter at the drug store, she sneaked into the quiet church while the others were outside eating their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It was dim inside. Stained glass filtered and colored the light. She knelt in front of the blue and white statue of the Virgin Mary and looked up into her calm face. “Please,” the child  prayed, “always let me tell the truth. Make me a saint. Take me to heaven someday.” 
Afterwards, in town, she bought a chocolate marshmallow cupcake. Back at the church an older girl, nicknamed Peachy, invited a group in to sing by the wheezy pump organ. They sang everything she could play before Sister Rita Marie rang the bell that announced the afternoon class. At the end of the day, just before Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, all the children gathered in the pews by the organ to practice hymns. Sister Rita played the organ.  In the middle of “Salve Regina” the organ stopped. Sister Rita stood up from the stool and twisted her long skirts around to look at something. There, stuck to the back of her skirt, was Mary Jane’s chocolate marshmallow cupcake.
 
“Who left this here?” Her face was red. Her voice just avoided being a shriek. “Who is the naughty child who was eating in church?”
Dilemma. Tell the truth? But all the children were present, not just the little ones, but the older ones as well–Billy and Gary and all the other mean boys. They might laugh. How badly did Mary Jane want to be a saint? 
“I did it.” Her voice came out in a tiny squeak.
“Who said that? Speak up!” Sister Rita yelled.
“I did it.”
“Stand up!” The nun demanded.

Mary Jane stood up. Tears made a round wet ball in her throat. Every child’s eyes stared at her. Wasn’t it wrong to make a spectacle of her when she had told her the truth just like the child in the story? Sister Rita suddenly resembled the witch from Hansel and Gretel. “I’m sick,” Mary Jane whispered and left scrambled out of the pew to leave the church.
She ran, crying, up the street, turned onto Main, passed Gambles without even looking at the blue bike, slammed in through her Grandma’s front door, ran to the kitchen and threw her arms around the sturdy woman’s waist.
“I’m sick” The child sobbed when Grandma Klimek tried to find out what happened. It had to be the truth; little snakes crawled around in her stomach; her head burned; her eyes ached; her legs felt like seaweed.
 
“You just go lie down on my bed, Sweetheart. You take a little nap. You’ll feel better later.”
After waking, she told Grandma the story about the chocolate marshmallow cupcake and Grandma sent her back to apologize and offer to clean up the mess. Somehow the  Grandma’s matter-of-fact calm made it seem possible to fix this disaster.
 
All the children were gone when Mary Jane arrived at the church. She climbed the white stairs and checked the organ stool. It looked fine–no marshmallow. The sanctuary was quiet.  She opened the door to the basement. Sure enough, the Sisters were down there. But . . . they were laughing! Even Sister Rita Marie was laughing. How could she laugh? What about the cupcake? What about the tragedy of her long black dress with sticky white smeared all over the back? Mary Jane tiptoed down the stairs. Sister Bernard held a big industrial broom in her hands and her veil was pinned back. She had hitched her long skirt up almost to her knees and had a checkered apron over it. Sister Rita looked pretty much the same as she always had and was washing a blackboard. They didn’t notice her. She stood waiting. Finally Sister Bernard turned and saw her. “OH! Mary Jane. Are you feeling better, dear?” 
“I’m sorry about the cupcake!” 
“I hope you’ll think twice before you eat candy in church again,” said Sister Rita as she cocked her veiled head and lifted one eyebrow. “Now, how about helping us clean up this mess? You want to wash off the table tops?” and she handed her a wet cloth.

On First Communion Day she had so much to remember. Don’t drink water. Don’t eat anything. Don’t commit a sin. Don’t wrinkle that pretty white dress. Don’t scuff those new shoes. Don’t go in the road, it’s dusty. Don’t sit in the grass; it stains. Don’t forget the white prayer book with the mother of pearl cover. Don’t forget the white rosary. Don’t forget the white veil.  (How could she forget the white veil? It was the best part.)  She went to the side of the lodge and picked lilies of the valley. Her mother pinned them to her veil. I still can smell  the lilies and visualize the damp white bells hiding under the ferns

.
Sister Bernard had told the children over and over that First Communion day was the most important of any person’s life. Jesus who was God really and truly came into our hearts in the round white host that might stick to the tops of our mouths, but don’t put your finger in and pry it loose because you’re not supposed to touch God. If you stuck a pin in the host, blood would come out and this was true, because a little boy who didn’t believe what his priest said took the host out of his mouth and waited until after Mass. Then he stuck a pin in it and sure enough. None of us would want to do such a thing, of course, because it was a terrible sin and the boy certainly could go to hell for such a sacrilege, which was the worst of all sins that even God had trouble forgiving.
On First Communion Day, Sister Bernard said, God would answer any prayer, grant any promise. This is the way it worked: After the priest put the host on your tongue (the children practiced sticking their tongues out properly) you were to bow your head and walk slowly back to your place where you should kneel down and talk to Jesus who now was in your heart. Ask him. Probably you shouldn’t ask for a new bike. It would be better to ask for something he understood better, something holy. Mary Jane had heard enough saints’ stories to be able to grasp this distinction. She decided to ask Jesus, just as she had asked his Blessed Mother on the day of the chocolate marshmallow cupcake, to make her a saint.

Who could know how God saw things, or in His eyes what truth might be? All those times He must have been watching her with her nose pressed against the Gamble store window, and balanced that desire up against the moment of her First Communion prayer. What did she want more? And upon what fulcrum did they balance? Might it be that chocolate marshmallow cupcake stuck like sin across the back of Sister Rita’s black wool dress?
Or was it not like that at all? Maybe with one sweep of a divine wind even memories of such things are lost for all eternity. Maybe the only reality that continues is the reality held in our little minds, while in the grandness of Being it is as if it never happened at all.
The communicants sang “Jesus, Jesus, come to me…” and received the sticky host on their tongues, managing  to swallow it without putting fingers in their mouths. “All my longing is for Thee,” Mary Jane sang with them while she yearned with all her six year old heart to become a saint and live with God forever. It seemed she had forgotten, at least in that moment, all about the bike.
  
After each First Communicant had a picture taken with the Sisters and with Father Merth, Mary Jane went with her family to Grandma Klimek’s apartment. Parked in her kitchen was a brand new royal blue and white Schwinn bicycle. The child stared at it. It was the very bike that was supposed to be in the Gambles Store window down the street. What was it doing at Grandma’s?
Grandma laughed. “It’s for you, Sweetheart, for your First Communion. It’s from me, from Grandma.”
She didn’t dare touch it. “What’s wrong?’ Grandma hugged her close. “I thought you really wanted this bicycle.”
She couldn’t move. It was like a dream and she was waking up. Then her sobs came and tears fell.
And she couldn’t have told you why.

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