2014 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize - Honorary Mention
"In the Back of St. Bernadette’s"
The first time I felt called to become a nun, I was eight and in the back of St. Bernadette’s in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, one neighborhood over from where Saturday Night Fever was filmed, where stores were named after legends like Joe Torre and Mona Lisa. It was after five o’clock Mass on a Saturday, close to the end of the year, probably November. The ushers were handing out bulletins, and parishioners were shaking Father’s hand and piling out the doors, the smell of candles and perfume in the air. I’d stopped at the literature table near the exit deciding what to take, when a burst of cold air rushed into the vestibule, and I saw The Tablet with Special Vocations Issue in big letters across the front. I knew nuns and priests marry God, and I felt a tug on my heart, which embarrassed me. I made sure no one was looking before I took it then headed for the door, when I felt tapped on the shoulder. When I turned around, the extinguished candles on the altar were sending up wispy circles of smoke toward Saint Bernadette and the Blessed Mother who was nestled into hewn rock high above the altar, the ends of her powder blue sash thrown upwards like there was a strong gush of wind. I thought about ignoring the feeling, but she looked so beautiful in her long white dress and hands pointed in prayer that I walked a few feet down the long aisle to whisper a quick Hail Mary. Kneeling down beside her and looking little like me, Bernadette was gazing up at Mary as if she was asking a favor and Mary was looking up at God as if she were asking Him to grant it. It felt like a giant, invisible circle of love surrounded them, but not one that made me feel left out like I had since my sister Annie was born. I slipped all the way into the pew between the royal blue columns where no one could see me.
I started flipping through The Tablet, which was filled with advertisements of nuns and priests smiling so fully their eyes shone. Some wore plain clothes with a big cross necklace but most wore habits and collars and were shown in classrooms and hospitals or with their heads bowed down in prayer. Next to the pictures were the names of orders with little crosses and emblems and words I couldn’t pronounce or understand like charism, apostolate, and discernment, and cards to fill out your name and cut out to get more information. I loved everything about Church: the songs, the smells, the running spring near Bernadette, the burn of Christ’s blood in my stomach. I went alone when Mommy was too busy to take me. Did this mean I was supposed to become a nun? Did I want to? I pulled The Tablet closer, tried to imagine myself in the black veil and knee length habit the Filippini nuns in my school wore. When I got big, I wanted to wear pretty clothes and lipstick like Mommy, but the nuns, especially the ones in The Tablet, looked so happy, like they knew some big, wonderful secret the rest of us didn’t know. I kept turning the page, intrigued, until I got to the centerfold that said in the middle in big bold letters, GIVE YOUR LIFE TO GOD.
I looked up, startled, as if I’d been spotted, but the ushers were busy emptying the collection baskets in the back of the church, and Father Di’Orio had already disappeared into the rectory behind the altar. Jesus’ Father, the Creator of the Universe, wanted me? At first I felt shimmery inside like the stained glass behind Mary, but the longer I looked at the words, the more I felt suspicious. My life was my breath and heart and soul, my everything. Why would God give me my life and then ask for it back? It sounded scary and hard like dying. I looked up again this time at St. Bernadette’s question and Mary’s response painted at right angles on the high art deco ceiling:
Lady, Would You Be So Kind As To Tell Me Who You Are?
I Am The Immaculate Conception.
We learned in school that Mary was sinless from the moment she was a baby in her mother’s womb. We learned that she gave her life to God by allowing Him to put his Divine Son in her womb and that St. Bernadette did too by obeying God through Mary. But she was a saint, and Mary was the Mother of God. Why would the Creator of the universe ask jealous eight-year-old me to give my life to Him? What did that even mean? Before I could look back down at The Tablet, I knew. Mary was telling me to give my life to God. Nuns give their lives to God. I had to become a nun. Why else all the picture of nuns and priests and no regular people? It didn’t say you can give; it said give your life to God. You had to mean me. It felt like Jesus’ Father was giving me an order like Papa always tried to give Mommy. When she served salad with dinner, he’d say, “Where I come from, that’s what we served the pigs.” Sometimes he’d pound his thick fist against the table, and I’d jump.
I flipped back to the pictures of the nuns, but now all I saw was how plain they were, like those in my school except not as old. They looked nothing like the women on Mommy’s soap opera or in her magazines who had long shining hair and eyelashes and glossy lips and beautiful clothes. The nuns wore their hair really short or pulled back tight under the veil, so all that showed was a band of greying hair. Did they have any choice? Was Jesus the only Man who wanted them? I suddenly felt mortified and transparent as if I had NUN on my forehead, as if the ushers could see me through the columns. I wanted a husband I could see and feel, who would talk to me with a real voice, someone to bat my eyes at like the cartoon egg did at the eager fluffy sperm on the afterschool TV special. I wanted to belong, to feel the way I did when James Gardini touched my hair in school, special and beautiful, not plain and invisible the way I felt during Princess Hour when Mommy and my teenaged sisters, Jianna and Julia, transformed the kitchen table into a pink baby spa and took turns bathing Annie’s chubby, glistening body. When I asked Mommy if I could help, she didn’t look at me the way she did at Annie, like she wanted to eat her up; she just looked tired and put out. It felt like there wasn’t enough love, even though Baby Jesus had promised there would be.
It had happened the previous year at Christmas Eve Mass, two weeks after Mommy had told us she was having a baby. She and I were back in our seats after Holy Communion, where she’d received the Host, and I a blessing. I had my hands folded and my head bowed, my thoughts ricocheting between the dollhouse I asked Santa for and the baby growing inside Mommy. When I raised my head, the person who had been sitting in front of me was gone, and I could see Baby Jesus in the crèche with His arms outstretched, except He was looking directly at me. Then, with my heart, I heard Him whisper, Maria, There’s enough love. Goose bumps erupted from my skin. Everyone at home was so happy about the baby that I’d been afraid to admit I was jealous. We didn’t talk about feelings in our house, except for Papa, but that was usually to complain. When Mommy looked sad or mad, and I asked what was wrong, she’d say “No,” tensely, her small, blue eyes shrinking in her face, like I’d asked something bad, and then I’d wonder for days if I’d done something wrong. I was afraid that if I said how I felt she’d get mad. I couldn’t lose her. She was my everything. Jianna and Julia had each other, and Papa was always working. Jesus was telling me He knew exactly what I was feeling and that He loved me, and everything would be okay. I felt so wonderful and free that after that night. I enjoyed looking at everything Mommy was picking out for the baby and feeling her belly. But then there was the July day when Mommy came home with Annie. In a picture from that day, Annie’s in her arms perfect in a blanket, and I’m in my father’s, because I’ve asked him. I look overgrown and ridiculous, my arm draped heavily around his shoulder, my head tilted toward him like I’m trying to get back at my mother. Princess Hour made everything worse.
Painted on the wall right above the Blessed Mother was a big powerful dove with sixteen rays of golden light around it, eight from the bottom and eight from the top. When the Holy Spirit asked Mary to put Jesus in her womb, she said Yes even though she didn’t understand; she trusted. So did Bernadette when Mary told her to dig for a spring of water, and all she found at first was mud. We learned that sometimes we’re not going to understand or even like God’s plan, but that we’re supposed to trust Him completely like Mary did, like Jesus did in the Garden, on the cross. I fixed my eyes on the long, thin crucifix beneath the Blessed Mother that made Jesus look like a sliver of Himself and then at the Station of the Cross nearest me, the Crucifixion, the mean, angry men driving nails into His wrists. I closed my eyes tightly, squirmed at the thought of His excruciating pain. How could I ever say no to Him? But how could His Father ask me to be alone forever? I looked down at Give Your Life to God and then back at Jesus on the crucifix and felt the way I did when Papa asked me to sit on his lap at night. Knowing that he’d fall fast asleep with his arms across me like a bar, I went anyway, afraid he’d think I didn’t love him.
I heard the ushers bolting the back door, my cue that I had thirty seconds to exit the side. I folded The Tablet in two so the cover didn’t show and tucked it under my arm; when I got home I’d run to my bedroom and stick it in my bottom drawer. How would I ever explain to Mommy that I was certain God was asking me to do something I was sure I didn’t want to? She always prayed with me before bed and said grace before meals, but we never talked about Jesus or God’s will. I didn’t want her to doubt me the way St. Bernadette’s mother had doubted her. I looked at Mary and Bernadette one last time and ducked out the side door where the brisk air startled my face. I stopped at Ciullo’s, holding my armpit in tight as I paid the cashier, and then I walked the two blocks home, Italian bread in one arm, my secret burden tucked in the other.