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Forgiveness
Kathy Jo Yates Burton

 

My father was the foreman of the construction crew that built St. Mary’s Catholic Church in 1956, so I always felt that the church was partly mine.  When we would drive by or walk across the street in front of it, I felt proud to cross myself in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  I thought of my father as all of those.  Who needed God when you had my daddy around to keep you straight?

As a child, I loved the Virgin Mary, and when I played house with my sister and brother, they would get mad because I wanted to be the Holy Mother.  My sister would hit me, and my brother Jerry would throw me on the ground and fart on my head.  He said that was all virgins were good for anyway.  Years later he married a skinny girl with very straight teeth and hair who couldn’t screw until she went to the doctor and had her innocence surgically removed.

I kept a picture of the Virgin Mary in my pocketbook when I was in grade school, and I talked to her and counted on her to keep me safe.  One afternoon when I was walking home from school, a gang of boys from Mesa Junior High School followed me and kept lifting my dress with sticks and teasing me.  I scrounged around in my purse, searching frantically for the picture of the Blessed Virgin dressed in a blue velvet dress splattered with bright yellow stars.  Somehow I understood that a picture wouldn’t make them leave me alone, so with my hands buried deep in my purse, my dress shoved above my head, and the boys laughing and teasing me, I screamed as loudly as I could that I had a knife that belonged to my crazy-ass brother, and I started turning in quick, tight circles and swinging my rat-tailed comb menacingly above my head.  The boys cursed me in Spanish and ran off laughing at the wild girl with a switchblade.  I went home, gave the picture to my younger sister and stole my brother’s scout knife.  I was a new woman, mad with power.

After I turned twelve, I decided to become a nun.  Part of the decision was based on the fact that I shared a room and a bed with three sisters, ate at a table with nine siblings but only six chairs, and listened early in the evening to my parents fight and later, when my father returned home drunk singing Hank Williams songs, I listened to Daddy beg for forgiveness.  I had heard that nuns got a room of their very own in the basement, and they got to sleep all by themselves.  Besides, I loved to go to confession.

When puberty descended upon me with a blinding fury, I really did love confession.  I would get up early on Saturday mornings, dress in my best dress, cover my head with a black lace scarf, put on stockings and high-heel patent leather shoes.  That was before pantyhose were invented.  Then, I would walk from my house all alone down Calle Dos to Alameda to Main Street and finally, into St. Mary’s.  Entering the Church was like entering heaven.  It was cool, dark, and it smelled just like my favorite priest, Father Michael Burns.  The flickering of the candles reminded me how fragile life could be and how easy it would be to be snuffed out and sent to hell.  I would enter the confessional barely breathing, whisper to the Father and make my confession.  Sometimes, I made up bad things to confess just so I could stay inside the confessional a few minutes longer and listen to the Father whisper instructions to me.  I would leave the confessional so excited I would have to sit in the church and calm down before starting my journey home as a newly cleansed soul.  Forgiveness is heady stuff.

Later in the evening, I would go with my older brothers and sisters to the dance in the community center and talk dirty and dance with the boys and sometimes drink a little beer.  I learned to kiss real good.  I figured I was making a good case for the next week’s confession.

When I got older, I married a serious Baptist man, and he would get real mad when I would come home from confession horny and hungry to make love.  He thought I was as crazy as the rest of my family.  So, I stayed home and had babies, learned to can vegetables from the garden, and I stopped going to church altogether.

My husband drove the church bus every Sunday and taught a Sunday School class for half-deaf old ladies with strangely unnatural red hair.

When the church elders came to our house and asked him to be a deacon, they told him that it would help if his wife would go to church with him and support him.  One night shortly after the visit, my husband whisked me off to bed and whispered in my ear that it was important to our family for me to join him in the church.  So, I switched over and became a Baptist.

In the Baptist church, there are no confessionals.  There are no candles flickering in the back of the church, and there is no Father Burns.  There is only a thin, pale, somber man in a regular Sears suit who raises his voice to a fever pitch to make you understand that God is love.  You don’t get to whisper to anyone, and no one tells you what to do to be forgiven.  The Baptist church takes the fun out of sinning.  They don’t drink; they don’t seem to sweat much, and if my Baptist husband is any example, they don’t do a whole lot of kissing.  They don’t even dance on Saturday nights at the community center.

Early one morning when my husband was out with the men of the church doing door-to-door visitation, I dressed the kids in Church clothes, and I put on my best dress, a little perfume, and new pantyhose.  I covered my hair with a black crocheted doily removed from the back of the toilet in the bathroom the kids used.  I drove quickly to Saint Mary’s, and entered a place with sights and smells both familiar and foreign.  I left the kids in the sanctuary eating miniature Reese’s Cups straight from the bag, and I entered the booth, sat straight-backed and stiff-kneed on the edge of the seat, bowed my head and  began my whispered confession, “Forgive me, Father, for I have married a Baptist. . . .”   


Kathy Jo Yates Burton was born in Embudo, New Mexico and now lives in Tennessee.