When we got to church this morning, we found the entire middle section of pews cordoned off for first graders and their families. I thought that once I left the Catholic Church and became an Episcopalian, I would no longer be subjected to the fluffy white dresses and veils worn when receiving one’s “first” eucharist. But, it seemed that over the years Episcopalians embraced this rite of passage more and more including the white dresses, but, in lieu of veils, there were mostly fancy white bows atop the tow headed little girls.
When I found an empty pew and realized that this was the day for first communion I felt this churning in my stomach and wondered why. As I watched each family walk up the aisle to the altar with their child, I remembered why I ached still after all these many years.
When I received my first communion in St. Gabriel’s RC Church in Brooklyn, the wearing of a veil, the buying of new white Mary Jane’s, the carrying a bouquet of white carnations and the receiving of a white plastic rosary were as much the focus as the memorization of the catechism. My mostly Jewish friends were in complete awe of the idea of me being a midget bride. Shopping for the perfect white dress was also an event. In those days, department stores like A&S and Macy’s geared up for the event and had entire sections of “white communion dresses” to choose from. Crinolines and hoop skirts were the fashion rage for girls, but my mother of course, chose a higher road or at the very least, the opposite road from everyone else. So, the dress I got was white dotted Swiss nylon and had a saggy, gathered skirt without so much as even a petticoat underneath. It was actually a rather sad looking dress when I stood next to the huge skirts of the other girls who resembled victims of “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.”
A new church was being built to replace the old one on Linwood Street and in the interim, mass was held in the auditorium of the school, full of metal folding chairs. I could hardly sleep the night before that warm day in May and was filled with a mixture of excitement, nervousness and fear of making one wrong move that a nun might punish me for. St. Joseph’s nuns in their long, restrictive black habits of the sixties were anything but forgiving.
Every child was to walk up the aisle with their parents. Except for the few who had lost a parent, every single kid had two parents walk with them altar and kneel on either side of them. It was my turn to go up for communion and I was shaking nervously. I got up from my seat and fighting back tears, I walked with my head down on my chest, white gloved hands folded in prayer, clutching my bouquet and my rosary and headed up the aisle. I could think of only two things. The first was, “How can I be all alone with everyone staring at me?” The second was “Remember not to bite Jesus.”
My atheist mother hated church so much that when she would come to church with us, she would spend much of her time feigning gagging to show her disdain. It was disconcerting and completely humiliating. So, needless to say, she was not about to escort me up the aisle to have a host placed on my tongue, all in the name of Jesus! My father on the other hand, would probably have taken huge pride in escorting me, but, alas, he had been excommunicated by the ever so kind, loving and tolerant Catholic church in the sixties. Thus, he could not come to the altar. So, there I was and it was completely dreadful in every way.
Watching all those families today and all those children, so loved and respected by their parents who proudly walked them to the altar to receive the symbolic ritual of the body of Christ was heartwarming but it made me cry and made me feel so very heartbroken for the sweet little girl still inside of me, wondering why I had to go alone. As I have so many times in my life, I realize that there are events and traumas that remain and never get filled up by other better things. I love my life and I love how much I love my family and feel loved back. But, that does not take away the longing I will take to my dying day of what was missed and the feelings that stayed with me for these years. The gifts of God for the people of God. The immeasurable grace that fills my soul each time I partake and healing continues over a lifetime.
By the way, these are stock photos, none of me. When I find some, I will replace with authentic images!