Kittie Howard

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Ma Throws a Hail Mary Pass

A large Roman Catholic church usually centers most small towns in South Louisiana. The various rules of France and Spain, both strong Catholic countries, the Acadian (Cajun) migration from Nova Scotia, Canada, and a small Italian presence ensured this Catholic hegemony. Like Back Then, South Louisianians love to party, eat, drink, and be merry, but, beneath the frivolity, religion remains serious business.
(Note: Please see epilogue at very end.)

Visiting neighbors and friends oohed and ahhed over Dan, my new brother; no one mentioned Danva, my father's other child with Mona Rae. Of course, visitors knew. Mona Rae had teased the situation along with dropped hints and sly innuendos that had impacted more like gossip bombs. But people along that twenty-mile stretch of road weren't stupid.

Folks knew Mona Rae's marriage lacked fire, that she probed for a more secure financial future. Her wealthy in-laws, though depressed and out-of-sorts with life, didn't look like they were dyin' anytime soon. My father and his randy ways had come along at just the right time. Despite the Great Depression and the transition from the dairy into cattle farming, our farm showed steady progress. True, the land lacked the oil money Mona Rae's in-laws enjoyed. But, with my father on the edge of becoming an attorney, the slot machine rolled toward a jackpot. Divorce was very, very rare in Catholic Louisiana, but not impossible.

I didn't know it at the time, but Danva's birth had hit my mother like a ton of bricks. Only an intense anger at the dual betrayal by her husband and best friend had trumped the depression that waited. Of course, it's never good to trade one negative emotion for another. Matters need to be sorted out. But my mother had heard the divorce whispers, a stigma beyond belief at that time, and focused energies on a strong defense. She also had financial reason: My mother had signed over a considerable inheritance to my father, the real money that would finance the more complete transition into cattle farming and would accomplish in months what would have required several years.

My mother's grandmother, her mother's mother, had lived in one of the very large brownstones with high ceilings and expansive rooms that fronted St. Charles Street, one of the most exclusive areas in New Orleans (and still is). When my grandfather had taken Sarah and me to Miss Kitty's for dinner, this was because my parents had gone to New Orleans for my great-grandmother's funeral. Long widowed, she had died of old age. My mother, her brother and sister had inherited the house no one wanted to live in. The mansion had quickly sold for a pretty penny.

So, my mother had real reason to be angry. A house she could have lived in was gone. Or, the money she could have spent on another house was gone. And another woman worked to push her out of the farm cottage. But she never showed this anger, acknowledged an insecure position, or talked about the betrayals. Instead, my mother sucked it in and acted as if nothing had happened, as if Danva's birth were just another birth among many in Catholic Louisiana.

She smiled and laughed and still spent a lot of time with Sarah and me. My father and mother continued to attend parties, within their group, just not with Mona Rae, not as often now, what with three kids and my father soon entering his last semester at LSU's Law School. As such, life went on pretty much as usual. Sarah and I played outside a lot and loved the invented games that kept us running, chasing, jumping or just kneeling, trying to coax a doodle bug out of its hole. The usually mild weather in Louisiana in October begged for outdoor activity or patient moments watching a spider spin a web.

It was a bit odd, though, that grandfather spent more time with my father. Actually, they were close and talked a lot. After Dan's birth, their time together seemed to multiply. And I noticed they argued a couple of times, that my grandfather actually lost his temper once, a rare occurrence for him.

These observances aside, the golden fall days happily rolled into one another. The days seemed endless, with only meals and nighttime to mark a day's passage, without worry or fear into another beautiful day. So, when my parents announced they were taking Sarah and Dan to New Orleans to visit my mother's mother, and that I would stay with my grandparents, I didn't mind. In fact, the news made me very happy. Sarah and I had a new puppy, a black mutt we called Sugarbowl. I wanted to play with Sugarbowl; Sarah wanted to see the bright lights on Canal Street. (I think she didn't really remember the lights I talked about and wanted to be grown-up, like me.)

When I stood between my grandparents and everybody waved good-bye as the grey Ford rumbled across the cattle guard, everyone beamed with happiness. Indeed, I was blissfully happy. Sarah was fun, but a two-and-a-half year old sister always tagging along had gotten a bit tiresome. Being older by two years, I thought I could better explore parts of the farm by myself.

With the car out of sight and my grandfather headed toward the pastures, my grandmother led me inside The Big House for milk and cookies.

After I learned grace, the Catholic grace, she announced.

This surprised me because, before, we just ate cookies. And I didn't know a Catholic (or any formal grace) existed. Or that different religions existed. But if my grandmother wanted me to memorize a grace before we ate cookies, okay. I knew that my father always said Ma was 'too pious', didn't know what that really meant, only that pious connected with church.

This is because my father always said Ma was too pious when he talked about my grandmother saying her rosary every afternoon or when she had to go to church in town. So, it came about that I connected grace and the cookies with church. Not that I didn't know what grace was. Sarah and I competed to say our special words to thank God for the food we ate. So, after all this freedom, my young mind didn't really understand what Ma meant when she said God only wanted to hear a special grace, special words, like in church.

But the milk and cookies beckoned, so I learned and said the grace. Afterwards, my grandmother brought out her rosary. She taught me the Hail Mary prayer. I had to get down on my knees and say the Hail Mary prayer, a prayer for each bead. When this got boring (and my knees hurt), we sat on the porch.

My grandmother told me about hell, a place I didn't know existed. And that I would go to hell if I committed sins. Since I didn't know what sins were either, she explained that I always had to be a good girl and not break The Ten Commandments. I thought I was doing pretty good in that category until she got to Adultery. Hadn't a clue about that one. So Ma explained that only married people had babies together. And people who did not were Really, Really Bad and would burn Forever in Hell.

This got my attention. But I didn't know anyone who committed adultry. Since I was still like a kitten, I knew I couldn't have babies and only wanted to go outside and play. But Ma said too much play was a sin, that I could only stay out of Hell if I prayed a lot. So, in order to stay out of Hell, I got back on my knees (now under a dish towel) and prayed the Hail Mary with my grandmother. She remained in her chair, though, because she said the rules said she was older and could do that. Nevermind. We prayed. And Sugarbowl howled while I prayed. Because I couldn't play with him. And I tried not to cry about Sugarbowl. I had to pray. Hell was a bad, scary place. I didn't want to go there. And I wouldn't go there if I stayed away from Adultery.

And, with Christmas coming in two months (about a hundred years from Now), Ma decided I should know more about Jesus. I already knew about Jesus and the Christmas story. Now much. Just enough to know that's why we celebrated Christmas. So, this part about religion got my attention, when Ma talked about Bethelem and Nazareth, where Jesus was born, and how Jesus lived.

As such, prayer commenced each afternoon for a week, the entire week my parents and Lucky Sarah and Crying-Pooping Dan lived it up in New Orleans. The entire week that lasted a million years. True, I'd learned a lot about religion and knew prayers to keep me out of Hell. But I'd also learned to worry that if I didn't pray enough I'd go to Hell. Ma kept saying a person couldn't pray too much. I couldn't get her to tell me how much that was. I prayed and prayed every afternoon to stay out of Hell. I couldn't sleep at night because I worried about going to Hell. I had stopped taking that second cookie in order to sacrifice, a new word I'd learned, to keep me out of Hell.

And Ma had gotten me to promise that I'd keep these prayers a secret from my parents, that she wanted to surprise my Lutheran mother and lapsed-Catholic father when I made my First Communion. I didn't know what that was, was actually afraid to ask, because staying out of Hell had gotten very complicated. And other things, too. When I'd asked Ma where Mary and Joseph had gotten married she'd exploded like a firecracker. That had bothered me. I mean, with adultery being so bad, Mary and Joesph had to have had a big church wedding like the ones we sometimes went to.

By the time the grey Ford rumbled across the cattle guard and back onto the farm, I was some scared.

As soon as my father got out of the car, I ran crying and screaming to him that I'd committed adultery and was going to Hell. Through buffalo tears that wouldn't stop, still clinging to my father, I sobbed, terrified, as everyone turned to look at my grandmother.

A few seconds later all hell broke lose.

(Epilogue: I never got to know Danva, either as a toddler or later, after my parents moved into town. Danva became a doctor and lives in Texas with her family. Mona Rae and her husband eventually moved into The Big House. But that didn't work out for them either. Decades ago they left the area. The two families never connected on a familial level, tried to connect or felt a need to connect. This may not sound pretty, but that's what happened, and, probably, for the best.)

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