My children are going to Sunday School this year, a fact that troubles me on multiple levels.
Most notable are my problems with the Catholic Church, the church I was raised in, casually at least (my father often went to “park the car” on our more-than-occasional but not regular trips to mass, and never made it inside to join me, my mom and brother).
There’s the Catholic Church’s unwillingness on the most part to be open to and accepting of the LGBT community; there is its stance on abortion; its insistence that its most prominent leaders be male and its extremely concerning history with sexual abuse, as well as its poor attempts to remedy the problem in a real way, and to make things right with the victims.
There’s all that. And then there’s my reasons for signing my children up for Sunday School in the first place - well, my one reason - and the reason is that Gabe, now in second grade, will receive his first communion this year.
And, I don’t know. It just seems like that’s a thing he should do, for multiple reasons. Maybe these reasons aren’t as compelling as the reasons I have for being concerned with the church, but they are real reasons, and compelling in their own way.
Nora received her first communion before we got lazy, ignoring the existence of religious education entirely before it was Gabe’s turn and we re-enrolled this year. I had her go because it was expected, I guess, the same reason I got her baptized. J and I were both raised in similar fashion when it comes to being Catholic. We went to church sometimes and attended Sunday School (CCD) until we were confirmed. Our families didn’t and still don’t break into prayer at unexpected moments or talk about Jesus out of the blue. Catholics, culturally and by denomination, but they they raised us in a way that allowed and encouraged to think and explore outside the realm of Catholic thought. It was easy that we were both raised this way; it meant that getting married in a Catholic church because that’s just kinda what you do was no big deal.
As for our current feelings on religion? I won’t put words to J’s feelings for him here, but let’s just say he’s a scientist, who is into science explaining everything, end of story. And I think that’s awesome. Me? I don’t know. I like the idea of religion as a means to do good, and still look to the church as a means to help those in need, and to influence politicians to do good in its name, like my dad did. I respect and applaud the nuns and other leaders out there looking out for people, and the renegades trying to force positive change within the church.
I’m staying Catholic because I hope to help promote those good works and force that positive change alongside them, even if I haven’t quite figured out how exactly to do that yet. Also, I like the traditions as a means of connecting me to my own personal history and to my family, and I like the idea of church as community.
I realize I’m going on a bunch of tangents here but what I’m getting to is that part of the reason I got Nora and Gabe and Aidy baptized, and the reason they are enrolled in religious education classes this year, is that I enjoy the cultural history Catholicism provides; I want my kids to know these customs because their parents did, and their parents did, and one day - whatever they choose to be - they’ll have a reference point for this joint history. I also think it’s good to learn religious history, including some of what the Bible says, just as you’d learn any history, even if you don’t believe it factually. I believe in learning about the common denominators in this world, and I’d like it if my kids learned about the other religions and their beliefs and stories, too. I have very enthusiasitically proclaimed that maybe we’ll go to every single kind of religious service there is in 2019! Although I haven’t actually done anything about it yet.
But in terms of actual beliefs? I don’t know. I’ve never known, if I’m being honest. I cannot even believe I’m saying this, because it is the most trite, expected thing to say, but I feel the most spiritual when I’m quiet in nature. I feel it also when I’m quiet in a church, but preferably not when mass is going on or when there are other people around, which, I know, is sort of missing the point. I feel most spiritual, and most in communion with the world and my loved ones, living and dead, when I’m looking at the ocean or the stars, or a tree. I know.
This sort of declaration brings me to another point, and it’s the biggest reason why, despite all the above, I’m really happy my kids are in Sunday School, and I’m looking forward to them continuing: we are having the BEST conversations. Conversations about God, and if God’s real, and about how we feel when we look at the endless ocean and think about the Earth’s beginnings; about comets and explosions and monkeys turning into people. About what daddy believes and why mommy is making them go, even if she’s “not totally sure” about all this. About why it’s important to know things that other people know, even if just to be able to keep up with a conversation at a party. About what other people believe, and how to respect that. About what happens after you die, about why it’s good to sit through boring things sometimes if only to work on self-control and about the idea of miracles.
Nora, who takes after her father, recently wanted to talk about the story of Jesus rising from the dead, and she wanted to talk about it rather aggressively in the skeptical tone she was born with, really, and has honed and perfected as she’s aged. “You mean to say he died, they buried him and then three days later he got up and was fine and just flew into Heaven?”
“Nora. It’s a story from the Bible. And some people believe these stories are true. Others think they’re debatable or that they didn’t really happen but are symbolic,” I told her. “Do you believe this could happen?”
“Well, then, do with it whatever you want.”
These conversations and others like them are a hallmark of this new period of parenting I’m experiencing, marked by real conversations with children who are now able to have them. The fact that I can tell them to trust their own beliefs, but not tread all over someone else’s, is so liberating, and also important, especially if you’re dealing with diehard Catholics. I was reminded of this when Gabe quietly called one day from the back of the minivan after we’d been discussing communion, “Mommy! Is the wafer made of skin?” This was a natural question, I realized, as I quietly freaked out, considering the Church’s doctrine that communion becomes the literal “body and blood” of Christ.
“Oh my god, no!” I shouted back. “No. Not made of skin. But good question, buddy.”
Aidy, of course, is still little. Still asking simpler questions that deserve true but simpler answers. She also goes to Sunday School, and is in the pre-K section, where, she explains each week, they learn about about “Jesus and to be nice to your parents.” She seems to really enjoy the experience. Amazingly - despite the fact that Nora likes to immediately announce upon getting picked up, “Guess what we did today?! READ BIBLE VERSES” and goes on to tell me that they had to take time out of class to thoroughly discuss what the word “chaff” means (as in, “chaff into the fire”) - we get little pushback from them.
Anyway, our normal routine since they began going in October is that I take the kids to Sunday School and pick them up. For awhile I was hanging out in the hallway during class because Aidy was nervous about me leaving, but she’s fine now and I can take off for a bit or head home for awhile - we live just a little over a mile away.
J hasn’t been part of the experience for the most part for logistical reasons. He often has to head to work for an hour or two on the weekends and Sunday morning is a good time, or maybe he’s running a 5K, which he does pretty regularly. Plus, it wasn’t exactly his idea to sign them up. I don’t think this is how parenting should work all the time (ie you only have to take the kids to things you like, and/or believe in) but in this case, I’m fine taking the reins. This is an easy gig.
But a couple weekends ago, J was home and I needed to do some grocery shopping. It would be easiest, I realized, if I took the kids and then went from there to run errands, as long as he could pick them up at 11:15, when Sunday School was over. I explained where each classroom was and who to ask if he couldn’t find one of the kids. So that’s what we did. I dropped them off, chatted with some of the other parents, ran a few quick errands and eventually made my way to Stop and Shop where I peacefully perused the aisles with my sizable shopping list.
I was still there when I got a call from the very kind woman who runs the religious education program around 11:30, explaining that, “We could have sworn we saw your husband leaving with your two older children at dismissal. But Aidy is still here.”
“What?” I asked them, confused, but only momentarily, before it all made sense. J hadn’t forgotten he had a third child. He simply didn’t realize his third child was there. Not just today, but ever. I hadn’t talked to him about this, obviously, but I knew, immediately, that it was what had happened.
Where did he think she was on all those Sunday mornings? Who knows. And what was going on in his mind when I’d told him, over the weeks, about her insistence that I wait in the hallway, or about that time the teacher asked about Jesus’s birthday, and Aidy had promptly responded with a list of the items she’d received for her birthday, or that morning, when I’d explained that her classroom was down the hall to the right? I can’t be sure, but it’s possible that “Back in Black” was playing full volume in his brain. Or that he was thinking about owls. Or about how to make something cool out of driftwood.
I say these things not in an effort to make fun of my husband, but out of love. It is because I love him that I know this is why he never registered the fact that Aidy, also, goes to Sunday School. And it is because I love him that I immediately knew why he hadn’t picked her up.
The people who run the program, though, they don’t know him, so were rightfully confused when he walked out the door without his youngest child, and even more confused when he or anyone else failed to return for her.
More confusing, Nora and Gabe hadn’t said anything. They didn’t say anything when J got them, put them in the car, when they came home to ride their scooters on that mild day. They didn’t say, “Wait a second. Where is our sister?” Later they explained that they simply assumed I’d come to pick her up early, or that she didn’t end up staying in her classroom that day, and instead went with me on my errands. Ok, guys, fine. Fine but not great.
When I got that call, I immediately called J, but after a few futile attempts, left a message explaining that he’d forgotten one of our children and if he got the message to please call me. I then found a kind grocery store staffer and explained that I was sorry but I had to abandon my cart full of groceries because, “It’s a long story, but I have to go pick up one of my kids. Right now.” He said he had kids, too, and understood, and I ran to my car, grateful for the compassion of strangers.
J got in touch when I was on my way, but I was already almost there, as the grocery store, like the church, isn’t far from home. He’d texted what I’d assumed: “I didn’t even know she went to Sunday School.” It seemed too ridiculous to write back: “she does.”
I was nervous. Aidy is the extrovert of the family, even more talkative with strangers than I am, but she’d spent all those weeks scared of my leaving her in that very building, despite her very friendly teacher and all those fun lessons about people’s birthdays and being good. She wouldn’t understand why no one had showed up. She would be crying, at the very least.
But no. I burst into the lobby, sputtering my apologies, and found her sitting with her teacher and the woman who runs the program. Aidy was coloring furiously and had “Jesus is the reason for the season” stickers on the backs of both her hands. She beamed at me and showed me her artwork. I said I was sorry and they said it was no problem, and we all laughed. I didn’t tell them about how my husband’s mind sometimes goes other places when it’s supposed to be absorbing important facts, and how this is a confounding but also humorous quality, one that usually causes me to feel affection rather than annoyance. I didn’t explain that he’s a scientist, and not super into the idea of religious education in general, and how our oldest is just like him, silently refuting every single thing the instructor is telling her, point by point, in her fifth grade class each week. I didn’t tell them that I didn’t know exactly what I was doing there that year, but that, as Gabe had received his first reconciliation a few weeks back - giving me a surefooted nod before he marched up to the front of the church to confess his wrongdoings, whatever he believed them to be, to the waiting priest - I felt comforted by the custom, as I sat awaiting his return in the church pew among the other parents, if only on a secular level.
But I felt like I could have; that I could have explained that, in this case, the quality, the feelings, the questions had lasted, and were lasting, for a couple months worth of Sunday mornings. Yet we still showed up. And forgot one child only once.
It wasn’t all funny. J and I got in a short-lived argument when I got home, because I felt like both he and the children met me with defensiveness instead of regret. “But we thought…!”
I explained that I’d had to abandon a 3/4 full grocery cart, and that while I love grocery shopping - I do, mostly for the peace it affords me, strolling the aisles on my own - I wasn’t super pumped to go do it all again. It would have felt less obnoxious had I received at least a couple “I’m so sorry’s” before they attempted to explain themselves.
Aidy was unfazed however, and as an added bonus now has a memorable, third-child tale to tell: The Time my Dad and Siblings Left me at Sunday School. Like the best stories, it will likely grow with age, certain details emphasized, others left out. There will be refutations and defiance, hopefully shouted among spurts of laughter.
For my part, I’ll likely bring up all those complicated feelings about why I took her and her siblings in the first place. About how Nora was so cynical, but curious, and Gabe, surprisingly compliant. How we ended up having so many fascinating discussions about science, respect and different kinds of faith. How Aidy was young enough to accept it all, unfettered. The stories about Christmas, the promise that I’d wait in the hallway for her and that someone would return at the end of class each week. Even that one time we didn’t.