A chapter from my memoir, “Midnight Mass.”
My father had a choice the Christmas I was 11: Stay home with a glass of scotch, alone in our house in his basement sofa bed, or attend Midnight Mass at which his wife’s lover, the priest, would be officiating.
My mother had helped to arrange the service, and Father Poisson had invited her to read a passage from the book of Titus. They worked together in the campus ministry at Iona College, a Catholic college in New Rochelle, New York. She had agreed. Our Christmas Mass would be at Iona, then, instead of our own St. Patrick’s Church in Armonk.
Dad chose to attend. He would not stand down.
I lovde the drive to Midnight Mass and back, whether we were driving to St. Patrick’s or farther afield. It was the one time of the year we got to be out late. I did not know deep night like this, beyond sometimes staying up late to watch TV on weekends. Being out so late seemed maverick. We were refugees of the day, making our way through unmapped lands.
And they were lit, miraculously, with colored lights, twinkling through the cold darkness, casting glows over snowy front lawns and beckoning us toward the front doors of otherwise darkened homes, where I knew other children were already tucked in, asleep.
I sat in the still back seat, on the hump between John and Beth. My little sister, Beth, and I always bickered about it. “I get the window!” we had each cried, running for the car, and Mom had hushed us, telling us to choose who would take the middle on the way out, and who would ride there on the way back. I opted to get it over with. John, the oldest, never had to sit on the hump.
Now, as I watched the light displays rise up on the sides of the road, rush at us like waves, then fall away, subsiding into the darkness, where I sat doesn’t matter. Strings of big, tear-drop shaped bulbs lolled in reds, greens and ambers over doorways and across rooftops. Christmas magic may be about warmth and merriment and families gathering, but this was even better: It was about lighting the cold night with a glimmering scrap of hope.
Brown-sugar packed snow lined the route, crunched under the tires. The drive had a hush, as if we were the only ones out. There was a strange mix in the air of Christmas magic and Dad’s sullenness. I didn’t see what the problem was. I didn’t much care. I, like my mother, had grown to disregard him.
At Mass, held in a cafeteria with linoleum floors and concrete walls, we sat in metal foldout chairs and listened through Father Poisson’s greeting and his homily. Local families made up the congregation, and the rag-tag types who hang around college during Christmas break. One of them, with a beard, a ponytail, and dirty fingernails, sat to the side hunched over his guitar.
Mom stood up to read. She wore a teal dress, tailored at the waist, with a subtle, spiraling pattern of gold and black wheeling over it. Her dark hair was soft around her face. She had a quiet, inward presence, a gravity that I aspired to, that drew people’s eyes to her.
“For the grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires, and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age, as we await the blessed hope…” she began. I lost track of the words as I watched those slender gold threads on her dress spark.
We filed up for Communion to the soft strumming of the acoustic guitar. Dad stood behind me in line, his bald head bowed. He was a reverent Catholic, much more of a church-goer than my mother, who was too old to be a hippie but had those leanings.
When I reached the head of the line, after my mother, my sister, and my brother, I winked at Father Poisson, regal in his white vestments but, at only five feet, two inches, tall, on my own level. I impishly opened my mouth wide so he could place the communion wafer on my stuck-out tongue. “Body of Christ, Cathy,” he said in a low voice. I let the wafer dissolve there, dry and tasting of paper, as Dad received communion. He kept his head down, and offered his cupped hands for the wafer. He placed it in his mouth and sipped the wine from the chalice Father Poisson’s student assistant offered him.
“Body of Christ, John,” Father Poisson intoned. That’s when Dad’s head rose, and as he made the sign of the cross, he looked straight into Father Poisson’s eyes with the righteous gaze of a good Catholic. Watching, I felt a little knot in my throat, one I hadn’t noticed before, pull tighter. In his crisp, imposing three-piece, charcoal-gray lawyer’s suit, Dad held his shoulders straight, standing eight inches taller than the stocky priest.
I stepped away from the scene, which held longer than most, as if a taut wire bound the two silent men. I strode back down the aisle, feeling privileged and smug to be friends with the officiant. After a moment, Dad bowed his head again and followed me back to our seats. The metal chair had grown cold in my absence.
Father Poisson’s scruffy student helpers passed around a basket filled with thin strips of paper, narrow as a fortune in a fortune cookie, but as long as a page is wide. Then came the pencils, stubby little jobs without erasers, like the kind we used when we played miniature golf in the summer.
The five of us sat in a row, with Dad grim on one end and Mom intensely focused on the other, one hand in her lap, the other at her side, held in a loose fist. We gripped our stubby pencils in our hands, waiting for instruction.
“Write down whatever it is you need, or what you’d like to let go of,” Father Poisson instructed. “Nobody is going to read this, so you can write anything.”
Father Poisson struck a match and lit a small fire in the hammered copper bowl on the altar. The firelight flickered in my father’s eyeglasses. In a ritual of renewal, we would burn our wishes, hopes and anxieties away.
Even though nobody was watching, and nobody would read it, I wrote it.
“I wish Mom and Dad would get back together.”
I knew it is what a child is supposed to want for her parents. But do I want it?
I loved my father. I wanted so much from him. He didn’t provide it. I hated him.
My mother, determined on the aisle, turned her face upward, warm in the glow of the flames. My father’s face was down, as he scribbled I don’t know what, looking into the shadows. I folded up my own slip of paper and put it in the offering basket passed around, just like everyone else. I watched my wish that wasn’t my wish go up to the altar. The shallow bowl of hammered copper took the growing firelight and magnified it, throwing it up in stuttering patterns on the ceiling.
Father Poisson took the basket of wishes and griefs to be released. For a moment, I thought he might pick up one slip of paper, just one, and read it. Maybe not even aloud, maybe just to himself. What then? He’d have it; he’d know how I felt. He would understand if he read my wish. Father Poisson was my friend. He would know what it was I truly want, even if I didn’t.
He grabbed a handful and dropped them into the fire. They fluttered down into the flames like snowflakes and disappeared. He took another bunch and threw them in, then another, until the bowl was empty.
“Let us pray,” he said, bowing his head. I watched the heads around me go down, and I ducked my own, not even knowing at that moment what a prayer was, or how to make one.
“Mass is ended,” Father Poisson announced. “Go in peace.”