Sunday morning. Palm Sunday. Hot again. 90 degrees by the 9:00 a.m. Mass. The palm trees have been stripped and everyone is handed a blessed cross made from their leaves as they enter the church. My hat looks like lace pasted on a bowl and sits on my ugly Toni perm. I carry my white parasol purse loaded with my First Communion rosary and change for the offering. My dotted Swiss dress makes me itch under my arms. I swear this is the last time I’m wearing these baby clothes. Daddy is here with us at Mass. He doesn’t go usually, but Momma says he has to do his Easter duty. All us kids form a Berlin Wall between her and Daddy. They’re still not talking.
Momma sets back in the pew after her prayers on the kneeler, raising her pencil thin eyebrows at me when I push on past her to get in line for Confession.
“Where you going, Donna?” she whispers.
“Didn’t you go last weekend?”
“Mo-om. I need…”
The line is short. Inside the box, it is cool. I can see Father Rattigan’s shadow through the screen. I can smell his breath. Colgate and communion wine.
“Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been one week since my last confession.”
“I misbehaved at school. I did this one time.”
“You must be a good gel for the sisters.”
“Yes, Father. I talked back to my mother, five times. I tattled on my sister and a kid at school, many times. I was mean to my little brother, um, twice.”
“Have you finished?”
“Um, well, I touched myself, in an improper place, and …”
“How many times?”
“Well…just once, …”
“You mustn’t ever do that again. It’s nasty. You are a nasty gel.”
“Yes, Father. But, also, the boys, they…”
“No boys for you, gel, you are much too young for that.”
“But, you see, Father, they…”
“Hurry it up now. Mass is about to begin. Remember, no more touching. Pray to Mother Mary to guide you to be a fine gel, a good gel. Have you finished with your sins?”
“Say three Hail Marys and one Our Father. Now, please make your Act of Contrition.”
“Father? Should I…?”
“Oh, my God…” Father Rattigan rumbles, coaching me to start.
“Oh, my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because of Thy just punishments. But most of all because they offend Thee, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasions of sin.”
I cross myself.
Back in our pew, I lean on Momma as I begin my prayers of penance. I feel her hand cool on me, soft, when she passes me a Kleenex from her purse. I smell the little flecks of tobacco as I blow my nose. She puts her arm around my shoulder and gives me a little hug. They better start working. These indulgences. Momma is needing all the help she can get and I’m getting pretty tired of waiting.
We don’t go swimming on Sunday after church. Nobody wants to drive us down to the pool. Daddy drags out the big Parcheesi board he made for us out of plywood and sits right down on the floor with us to play. JR crawls up to it, grabs for the pieces, knocking them over. I just want to smack him but I’d get smacked back if I do, by someone a lot bigger than both of us.
“Will you show a little patience, Donna Lee?” Daddy looks hard at me. Momma jumps in with, “Soon enough he’ll be able to play right. Lolly put up with you, remember?”
“I guess.” I drop my voice to as low as it will go, “Fat chance.”
“Donna. Lee.” Daddy warns.
Momma picks up JR and sings to him. It’s more like a humming, really, “bumpy-bumpy-bumpy bum, bum, bum, ba, bum. Bum, bumpy bumpy bumpy.”
I can tell it settles Momma down as much as JR. Her face droops in a good way, her shoulders finally move down away from her neck, she smiles a little bit. That makes me want to crawl up in her arms and be JR right now. Feel her relax on me. Sometimes I sure miss being Momma’s baby girl.
It’s as hot as summer outside, so after Parcheesi ends and JR goes down for his nap, Lolly and me grab our beach towels to sit under the swamp cooler. Covered with wet towels and eating Big Stick popsicles, we finally cool off.
“Lolly, are Momma and Daddy ever going to talk to each other again?”
“Just mind your own bee’s wax, Donna. And watch you don’t drip.”
“Well, will they?”
“What do you think, silly?”
“I hope and pray so.”
This day lasts a week. Nobody talks to nobody all through dinner. Even JR is quiet for a change. Everybody tucks in early and I fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow.
I wake up to an ambulance screaming, sounding much closer than Hwy.111. It gets closer and closer and closer. God, almighty, they are here, right here at our house.
The men jump out, run across the sand and rush through the door. Daddy yells at them to come on through to the back bedroom and to hurry. The fireman first in line looks right at me, looks me up and down like he’s checking to see if I’m all right. Lolly, standing behind me, comes out to show him the right door. Momma and Daddy’s bedroom. Lolly and me follow the men, but Momma pushes us away and begs Daddy,
“Get them out of here. Don’t let them see this.”
“Girls, come here with me, girls. Come on now. The baby is sick, see. We’ll…”
Pressed against the door, I can only hear little bits of talk between the firemen and Daddy.
“…in his crib.”
“Blue, not breathing …”
“He seemed like he was just sleeping…”
“Oh, God. No. Nonononono.”
This last is from Momma in one long continuous wail. The sound sticks in my head and bounces around in there so as I can’t hear another word. It goes on for what seems forever.
The men finally leave with a little bump covered up on their big rolling bed. They pull away without turning on the siren. Roxie, my momma’s best friend and our next door neighbor, comes over to stay with Lolly and me when Momma and Daddy follow the ambulance down the valley in the pickup. She lets me stand outside in my PJ’s and watch the back lights until I see them turn off and disappear.
The Church is still set up for Lent, purple scarves covering the statues and the big Crucifix behind the altar. Easter lilies stand in tall vases and a horseshoe arrangement with a blue ribbon is propped up by the communion rail. The pews are pretty full, almost as full as they will be on Easter Sunday, three days from now. All the kids from Our Lady of Perpetual Help Elementary are here. Most of their parents. The nuns. All our neighbors. Roxie in the front pew. My Daddy’s boss, Mr. Cavanaugh. And he’s not even a Catholic.
The smell of incense is strong, left over from the Stations of the Cross right before this Mass. That sweet smell makes my stomach turn.
The organist starts playing Morning has Broken while my family and me walk down the center aisle, taking our turn in front of the small white casket that holds my brother. JR rests on a whipped cream white pillow. There’s a baby blue ribbon weaved into the white blanket covering his legs. He looks so sweet. So still. Like a China doll with real hair. Gramma’s pearl rosary is lying in his tiny hands. I never thought Momma would let go of that.
Daddy holds my Momma upright as we move into the front pew. Father Rattigan comes out to the altar wearing his purple vestments. He turns his back on us, genuflects to the Crucifix, and starts the Requiem Mass.
I kneel down, cross myself, try to pray. I can’t do it. I just can’t do it. Not one single prayer comes into my head. I can’t even mouth the Latin responses along with the altar boys like I usually do.
But it really doesn’t matter anymore. See, I know now.
I know that God’ll never do nothing for the likes of me.