These are the things I remember about the city. The crumbly, brown-bricked houses in our neighborhood were stacked so closely together, I used to pretend when I was four, they were the chipped, rotting teeth lining the mouth of an urban ogre, and the people who lived inside were busy little cavities. It was as though we all lived in the same house. If we were bad and sent to bed early, we could easily peek across the street into the Trevis' living room and finish watching the TV show with them, guessing at the dialogue.
Privacy was something only rich people enjoyed.
Our house, in Little Italy, shared a wall with the Rossis' next door, and our clothesline connected with the Pilettis' behind us. My mother used to say that if one of the neighbors' houses was swallowed up by hell, we would all be pulled down with them. When I was little, I didn't understand her jokes, so I would include Mr. Piletti in my prayers, whispering, "Also, God, please make Mr. Piletti stop beating his wife in the face, because Mom says he's gonna go to hell, which means that so will we."
In the city, the four of us kids were always together, not just because our house was small and we had no choice, but because when we were small, we weren't given any. My mother only had one goddamn set of eyes, two hands, for chrissakes, and four bloody kids. So stick together, she'd say, don't you ever, ever let go of my hand. And don't let go of each other's, either, she'd say, or I'll kill you. There was all that traffic and those perverts and the crowds to contend with. And always a lot left for her to do before the day was out.
In the city, the four of us kids were all the same people. We had the same bodies, the same moods, and the same ideas. For ten years, we had the same parents, who did and said the same things to each other and us. It was the only time in our lives when we could pretend to be like everyone else, which I came to believe was the gift of the city. In the city, it's difficult to stand out, unless you were like my mother. But her uniqueness was an accident of birth, and completely unintentional, which was true with us, too, but we just didn't realize it at the time.
I remember being small enough that the first things I saw when my mom entered the room were her dirty pink slippers. I got bigger and it was her knees, scabbed and puckered. Then bigger, and there's me grabbing her macramé belt and my little brother's hand as we'd scramble across a busy street because my mother was the type who never crossed at the lights.
Then, church became my measuring stick. At first I couldn't kneel, as I wouldn't be able to see Father Pete or the pretty hats. Then my chin fit perfectly over the back of the pew in front of me. Soon after, all the prayers and songs were in my head, permanently, despite the fact that I don't remember anyone putting them there on purpose. I don't know how old I was when I realized I could not legally marry Jesus, but one day it, too, became something I knew for a fact.
In the city, buildings got built around us or torn down. Nothing ever seemed finished. And unlike God on the seventh day, no one stood back from the city and said, "There, I'm done." But after our seventh year in the city, our neighborhood began to treat my mother like it was done with her. When that happens, I've learned, there's nothing left to do but leave.
My mother told me that ever since she was little she knew she was going to have four kids. All boys. Other people are born with moles or left-handedness, but my mother said she was born with the knowledge that she would have four boys. For proof, she showed us her high school yearbook. Under her graduation picture, next to "Future Plans," it says, "Mother to the Four Tops (only white)." Someone had written next to it: "Sure, Nan, we'll see about that. [Signed] Johnny Mathis."
My mother's name was Nancy Maria Franco.
Back then, Johnny Mathis and being Catholic were her hobbies. In fact, she came up with the names for her four boys in Sunday school: Matthew, Mark, Luke, then John -- to be called Johnny, because of her favorite singer. It was there, in Sunday school, that she first fell in love with a boy. Also, in Sunday school, she got into deep religious debates with her younger sister, my auntie Linda, about who was a sexier Jesus, Max von Sydow or Jeffrey Hunter. This debate continued well into my own childhood, my mother sometimes opting for the Jesus on my Bible, who looked to be a calmer type of hippie, and not like the long-haired American kids we'd see dancing naked on the TV. My mother would watch them for a second, roll her eyes, and switch the channel. Though she was around the same age as they were, she always said, "Know who has time to be a hippie? Bored, rich people, that's who. And me, I'm neither."
One of the first stories I memorized about my mother was how she met my dad. It was at her church, Most Precious Blood. Grandpa had forced my mother and her sister to attend Italian mass, after the both of them slept through the earlier English one. They had been out late the night before, celebrating Auntie Linda's eighteenth birthday. My mom noticed the back of my dad's head, liked his black curly hair, and the way he swayed during hymns. My auntie Linda noticed that my dad kept turning around to stare at my mother.
After the service, the church was holding the annual Giovanni Caboto Day picnic. Normally they never went, but to spite my grandpa, my mother and my aunt stayed and mingled with the other Italians. Someone whispered to my mom that my dad and his family had come from a particularly war-torn part of Italy. The DiNapolis, they said, arrived with almost nothing except the clothes on their back and nobody spoke very much English, even though they'd been in this country for more than a year. My mom was Italian, too, but in name only. She never learned to speak a word of the language, because what for? This is not the Old Country, my grandpa Franco would say. His own family had left Italy a thousand million years earlier, so my mother's only Italian legacy was a vowel at the end of her name. And as her father continually pointed out, nobody gave them a thing when they moved here. Nothing. Sure, my mother's mother, when she was alive, cooked spaghetti, but she served it with Ragú. She used vegetable oil, never olive oil, as it was too expensive. Same with prosciutto. Baloney was good enough. And she passed these fine family traditions down to her two Italian-in-name-only daughters.
My aunt said when my mother finally spoke to my dad, she knew those two would marry. But she knew it in a bad way. A way that made her nauseous and hot-faced. My mother felt the same and told my aunt that she had to sit down a lot while they were dating. Everyone was nice to my dad when he started to come around, but Auntie Linda was disappointed in my mother. Not that she didn't want her sister to fall in love and have children, but not right now, with this all-wrong man. He was a construction worker, not a businessman. He lived with his parents, and he hadn't learned to drive.
The bank where my aunt and my mother had just started to work was on the bottom floor of the second tallest building in downtown Detroit. But the big plans the two sisters had had about moving into the very tallest one simply began to vanish.
My dad loved my mother right away, too, only in a good, not bad, way. He thought she was beautiful and funny and smart, and even though he didn't much like skinny women, he thought she had the potential for abundance, at least around the hips and bum.
They met during the Detroit riots, so my mother would arrive back in Windsor with exciting stories of black people yelling at white cops. My dad would worry in the depot, holding his plaster-flecked face in his red, callused hands, waiting for his new girlfriend to come bounding off the tunnel bus wearing one of her professional bank outfits. Every day he would pray for her to arrive unbeaten, unshot, and unraped.
Soon, my mother began to latch onto my dad, steering him around the city, happily the one behind the wheel, happily the one paying for hamburgers and records. If you were a sharp girl, with a basic education, and better-looking friends, he was not such a bad catch. He was handsome and handy. He was a dreamy dancer. Plus foreign men were interesting back then. My mom loved the Gigi movie, because of Louis Jourdan. (That's where I got the name for my seventh-birthday present, a Siamese kitten.) And her big favorite was Marcello Mastroianni. I'm sure when she married my dad she pictured herself as a small-time Lucille Ball with a construction worker kind of Ricky Ricardo, who would come home, slap her bum playfully, defusing all marital tension. I'm sure my dad figured their young love would sort out big misunderstandings, due to language barriers, cushioning them when they landed on their blissful wedding bed each night. But, in fact, my mother married my dad because she was three months pregnant, and not yet twenty.
And it came to be that Matthew my older brother did come to be. There is a picture of my mother in the maternity ward, cradling Matt in her right arm, a lit cigarette in her left hand. My dad's next to her with a beer. This was back when smoking was a bad habit, pregnant women only had a few drinks, and hospitals were more like hotels where people like my mother went for rests when their nerves were bad.
After Matthew came me.
She said that when the doctor told her it was a girl, the news stung. She thought her body had performed a kind of trick on her. Plus she delivered me so painlessly and quickly she was sure she had had a bowel movement instead of me, a little baby girl. (Later when I got older on her and she would get madder at me, she sometimes called me a "little shit." I'd say, "But Mom, I can't help it, I was born that way, wasn't I?")
My mother loved me the exact same as Matt, it's just that she didn't have a backup name. I was supposed to be a Mark, not a girl. Her naming scheme and the rest of her biblical intentions kind of tanked. But determined to fulfill at least one yearbook promise, and Mark not being an easily feminized name, she changed religious tracks and called me Faith, and figured Charity would follow Hope. And after Hope was born, all that was left for us to do was pray for a little Charity. But my mother became overly confident carrying the fourth, even teaching me, at two, how to pronounce Charity, and Matt, at three, how to spell it out, her hand cupped around his, both wrapped around a crayon.
At one, the best that Hope could come out with was "Char-yee," so when number four was born an unfortunate boy, "Charlie" became his name.
"Hope can already pronounce it, so we'll give her this one," was my mother's defeated reasoning.
Matthew, Faith, Hope, and Charlie -- the unholy thud of our baby brother's name made us sound more like Mousketeers than disciples.
Our names were her choices, but the fact that most of our H's were completely unpronounceable to my heavily accented dad was nothing but a funny coincidence. My mother was never that mean.
After Charlie was brought home from the hospital there was a period of about six months where my mother said we were all in diapers at the same time. At three, Matt was ready to toilet-train, but was having a hard time with her giving constant birth to diapered rivals. Out of frustration, she made the mistake of trying to train Matt and me at the same time. She figured teaching things to us in twos might be the trick with four kids, each only a year apart. This worked for things like coloring and singing, but not for peeing.
One sorry Saturday, my mom was hit hard with a bad flu, the worst she had ever had, and my dad couldn't, or as she said, wouldn't stay home to help her with us. Matty was not fully trained, and I treated the toilet like a toy. Hope was little. (When he'd argue with my mother about working weekends, my dad's accent sometimes got thicker. "Whose-a gonna pooda food on da tabe. Eh? Jesus Haytch Chryse hisself?" he'd ask.)
My mother didn't know how long she'd be upstairs in the only bathroom, with us out of eye line and earshot.
"Hey, who has to pee? Matt, have to pee? Faith? Pee? Hopey? Come on! Let's all pee. Mommy has to pee real bad."
We were all at an age where we couldn't be left alone because we put a lot of things into our mouths. So we trundled up behind her, me and Matty tugging Hope up each step by her arms. My mom held on to Charlie while she wrestled her pants down around her ankles. She practically fell back on the toilet with instant relief, which set Charlie off bawling hard. This apparently set off me, then Matty, then Hope. We were like a bonfire of babies at her feet. My mother couldn't move from the seat, which set off her own helpless wailing. She alternated between shushing us and patting us on the head, and grabbing herself around her middle.
When my dad came home, he heard the wretched squalling and headed straight upstairs expecting a satanic cult to be butchering his wife and all of his babies. Instead, he found her crying with the four of us collapsed at her feet, drenched in tears.
"I'm sick, Joe, I have no dignity anymore. Look at me! None!" she whimpered from the toilet.
"Nan. Oh, jeez. Why's everybaddy crying?" he moaned.
"Hand me some paper. People get emotional when they can't care for themselves with dignity, Joe, they do," she wept, as he fished out a roll from the top shelf.
He left her there, scooped us up one by one and dropped us, still crying, back down in front of the TV. My mom couldn't move from the toilet for another half hour. My dad was lost downstairs in the sea of afternoon diapers, damp flesh, and snotty noses. None of us had shirts on, we all stank, and we all had the same mess of dark, matted curls. My dad had no idea who was who. Fate? Ope? Matte-ew? Baby? Stop alla dis crying. For Daddy, okay?
He yelled upstairs to her that he would find a teenager, somebody, to help her on weekends. He hollered up a promise to finish the little bathroom on the main floor. He vowed that he would maybe try to work every other Saturday, if he could. Anything to stop her crying, to get her the hell-a downstairs, to help him.
"I give you sam more manny, okay?"
My mom said that we were all so scarred by this, for the next few months Matt refused to learn to pee standing, I would not sit down, and Hope wouldn't keep a diaper on. Little Charlie associated noise with toilets. Until he was approximately five years old, he'd sing songs to himself, out loud, from the bathroom, even when we were in a Chinese restaurant.
Dad never finished the downstairs bathroom.
In general, he was very little help, only because he was hardly ever home. He worked for a man my mom called "The Biggest Asshole in the World" on account of the hours my dad put in fixing that man's messes. Dad's coworkers became simply "those bunch of knuckleheads." She'd leave phone messages for him that read, "Joe: T.B.A. in the W. called. Job in Chatham canceled -- rain. Maybe take kids to my dad's? Need break."
My dad would leave replies like, "Nancy, I do not be able to make the trip becuss I must do a job for time and a haff. We need the munny and you know it. I am sorry and kiss for me the kids." When I started getting A's in spelling, I'd sometimes correct his, which he always thanked me for, saying, Fate, you are so smart. Your dad, not so much, eh?
My dad was in construction. Drywall, mostly. He was responsible for building homes in subdivisions that began to spread out and away from the city and closer and closer to the small towns around it.
"These houses look like something even Charlie could draw! No offense, Charl," my mother once said, looking over some plans my dad brought home. Dad was across from us. Charlie was in her lap. He was only three and already showing signs of being a sucky. He never left her side, he had three "bankies" (stained, crusty baby blankets), and he kept his fingers in his mouth all the time. The third last time my mother ever slapped me hard across the face was when, at ten, I asked her, "Is Charlie a gay like everyone says?"
"He is not a gay, he is a boy with more feelings than normal people and there's nothing wrong with that. You hear me?"
She never slapped Charlie. Charlie was her favorite.
My dad was the opposite of her favorite. My parents made a terrible match right from the beginning. The language barrier wasn't the problem. My mother understood the things he said, she just could not understand the things he did. They fought each other constantly and with the kind of calamity that made the neighbors shy toward us some mornings. They fought late, too, always starting at the breaking-off point between awakeness and sleep before us kids could escape into dreaming. Then we'd hear crash, scream. I would wake up with a vague remembrance of the point of it all. Mom thinks Dad drinks too much. Dad thinks she smokes too much. Mom's sick of still being poor. Dad says the place is a mess. Mom says pick up after your own self, I'm not your slave. Dad feels there's not much to come home to anyways. Mom wonders if maybe having four babies could be a good enough reason to come home. Dad wonders how we'd eat without the money he brought in. Still, Mom says she won't pick him up at the tavern anymore.
Last time we did that, when she had to wake us and bring us with her, we were told not to fall back asleep in the station wagon. Instead, when we pulled up to the tavern, she hoisted sleepy Charlie around her waist, made me grab Hope's hand, and pushed Matty to lead the way to Dad's bar stool.
"Look," she said, "there's Daddy. Go say hi, honey."
Matty ran up to my dad and pulled on his jacket. We were still in pajamas. The bar was dark and glittery. The song that was playing on the jukebox was "Me and Bobby McGee," one of my mother's favorites. Hope had to pee, so my mom asked my dad to please point out the bathroom.
When my dad turned around and saw my mother, then Matty, he jumped off his stool and mumbled, "Oh, jeez, Nan, let's joost go 'ome, okay?"
She replied, "No, Joe, Hopey has to pee. Faith, you take her. We'll wait right here."
My mother never took her eyes off my dad, and the people in the tavern never took their eyes off my mother. She was still in her housecoat and pink slippers. But she didn't seem to mind. She was even nice to my dad's boss, who was hunched over on the stool next to my dad. She asked him about his own wife. How's Maria? Has she had the second baby yet?
I remember the blond ladies in the bathroom were very kind to us. One lifted Hope up in order to reach the faucet. And the lady with the long orange fingernails knelt to dry my little sister's tiny, wet hands. I tried not to stare at the red band sticking out the back of her short white skirt, but I had never seen underwear that color before.
At first I would listen in on their fights, same with Hope, both of us craning for facts that were needed for nothing. We looked like seals, in silhouette, perched on our forearms, alert. But after a while, I started to force myself to concentrate on other things, like TV shows I liked, or song lyrics I knew, and then exactly what I should wear the next day. And then the day after that. And then the day after that.
But this was the way of us, and full sleep, with that natural-born calm, became the gifts of the people around us, kids whose clothes fit, who were picked up at school on time, who were never as anxious as I was to be called on first in class, arm up, begging, "Sir, sir, miss, miss, I know, I know! I know the answer!"
As Catholics I would rank us average. We went to church. We made a big to-do about the Sacraments. We were all baptized, which meant we were going to heaven, unless we really screwed up. Which we did. Some of us, anyway.
But I loved church. I used to imagine living there, because we were told, though it was God's house, it was our house, too. But with no kitchen, bathroom, or bedroom, my idea of living in a church consisted of imagining myself running mad inside and having my friends over, each of us getting our own pew, maybe. We'd put on plays at the altar, or sing Olivia Newton John songs, out loud, from the high balcony. I loved church mostly because it was clean and rich-looking. There were important holy paintings to look at, and fourteen stained-glass depictions of Jesus at various stages of being killed.
And everyone dressed beautifully.
In church, we shook hands with our friends and sang with strangers. Sunday was the only day of the week we seemed normal. We got up early. We got ourselves scrubbed and ready. Even Dad paid extra attention to combing the plaster chunks out of his damp hair. Also, we didn't fight too much, and sometimes, after church, we'd go for hot chocolate and doughnuts, right along with other normal people.
But the biggest deal about being Catholic was First Communion, especially for me, as I was the oldest girl. And my First Communion was the most memorable, not just because I got the most money of everyone, fifty-seven dollars, in cash, but because it marked the time my mother, a proud and talented Catholic, decided that she would never go to church again.
The spring of my First Communion was one of the coldest on record. I remember using a toboggan in April, a week before I was to wear a white dress and walk down the aisle, a miniature bride, minus the groom, champagne, or sex. And I was finally going to find out what the host tasted like. We were told, in Religion, it was the actual body of Christ, only more meringue-y.
We used to practice the Sacrament of the Eucharist on our front porch. We would lay out Wonder Bread slices and use my mother's rolling pin to flatten them out. We'd cut small circles out of the dough and stack them up. The neighborhood kids came over; congregated, if you will. Katrina Trevi from across the street started this great thing by pulling a turtleneck sweater up and over her face. She'd leave the neck part tight around her skull like a headband, letting the rest of the turtleneck fall down her back. It was the best pretend long hair and it substituted as a good way to be a nun, especially if the turtleneck was brown or black.
We took turns being the priest, making a collar out of the cardboard insert from the neck of my dad's one dress shirt.
"This is the body of Christ," I would say to Hope, raising the Wonder Bread host in front of her face, using my holiest voice, surprisingly deep for age eight.
"Amen," she'd say with an equally deep voice, lifting her cupped hands to receive the bread from me. (Hope used to have a yellow turtleneck that pulled her face so tight she looked like a bald bird.) She carefully lifted the bit of "Jesus" out of her palm and placed it tenderly on her tongue. We would do this over and over again, sometimes receiving the host ten, maybe twelve times.
"Lemme do it again. I didn't do it good that time."
"Don't chew, it's Jesus. Let Him melt in your mouth or it's a sin," were my priestly instructions.
"Um na cooing. Is melling in my mow, see?" Hope pleaded, her mouth stuffed with a wad of white bread.
"I saw you chew! Look, Hope's biting the body of Jesus! You're going to go to hell!"
This curse would send her screaming into the house. My mom would poke her head out of the door to a half-dozen half-naked four- to eight-year-olds, cross-legged, hands cupped, T-shirts like veils, surrounded by crusts of bread. She never really liked us playing church -- not because it was a little creepy, but because it was a waste of perfectly good food.
"Faith, stop telling your sister she is going to hell or I will make sure you go with her!" my mother hissed.
Slam. Game over.
Helping me pick out my Communion dress gave my mother a lot of pleasure, because when Matt had made his Communion, the year before, he only added a big white bow to the arm of his dark suit jacket. He removed it after pictures because he thought the bow made him look like a girl. Communion, I believed, was harder for girls, because our outfits were far more complicated and important. Also the girls making First Communion were better to look at than the boys, which is why it seemed like good practice for getting married. All of my female cousins who'd already made their Communion had giant dresses, trains, and veils, and some of them wore gloves to their elbows, exactly like brides I'd seen. My oldest cousin, Anna, had had the most famous dress, not because it was beautiful, but because it was, at the time, the most expensive thing I had ever heard of. It cost $450, enough to feed the world as I knew it, at that age. According to my mother, it was a "gaudy mess" that made Anna look like "one of those tacky white Christmas trees." No, we were going to find me something tasteful, classy, holy, and most important, cheap.
We headed straight to Chico Moda's, a used-clothing store, off the main strip. She had to pull me past Adores, a lushly decorated import children's clothing store, where my rich cousin Anna had bought her dress. Styrofoam doves, gold crucifixes, and dozens of white, frothy Communion dresses were suspended by wires, hanging out of my reach in every possible way. We also passed Carmela's, a religious corner shop where Matt got his bow, and where I could see a wide array of snappy Bibles on top of mountains of candy-covered almonds, arranged just perfectly. Big and little pink and yellow Easter bunnies were piled in the corners, mashing up against the windows like orphans, begging for me to take them home and love them. I waved because how could I not?
"God," I was thinking, "being Catholic is so beautiful."
Then we reached our stupid store. Chico Moda's had a filthy "Big Sale" sign Scotch-taped in its windows. When we entered, I was hit with the stench of mothballs and cigarette smoke. Everything smelled used and poor.
"Mom, how come we have to go here all the time?"
"I told you, these are good enough. Besides you won't wear your Communion dress ever again and I am not spending five hundred dollars just like an idiot."
"I will so wear it again."
She always shopped in a hurry, as though someone had deliberately hidden the one thing she came to buy, and if she could just push everything else out of the way, she'd finally, finally find it.
"Here. Nope. No," my mother said to me, cradling the throwaways. I was suffocating under a pile of stinky satin. "Oh now, Faith, this one's nice. Try this one on."
The dress she had chosen wasn't bad. It had a prairie look to it, ruffled collar and a big band around the waist that tied in back. It was a little long, but I wasn't finished convincing her we should be at Adores or Carmela's before anyone saw us here, where poor people shopped.
So I stalled.
I knew if I tried it on, we were buying it. I can't remember a time when we didn't buy the first thing that fit, while shopping with my mom. Once, when she was resting at the hospital, Dad took us back-to-school shopping. We went to Sentry's, a discount department store, with good parking, which was right next to a licensed Chinese restaurant. My dad said he'd meet us there after we were done. He gave Matty one hundred dollars, cash, and said, You be in charge. Twenty-five for each, okay? Bring-a me change.
Inside Sentry's, I pouted with incredible intensity and refused every corduroy jumper Matty'd lift with the tips of his fingers out of the piles of on-sale girls' clothes.
"How 'bout this, Faith? Ewww," he'd tease, throwing leotards or pink underwear at my face, as if it was diseased.
In the end, Matty bought himself a genuine leather soccer ball. Charlie picked out a Lite-Brite set and a bat. We all agreed on new Lego and the giant-sized box of crayons, to share. We were able to secure, by way of useful outfits, one single sweater for Hope.
I took the twenty dollars left over from my share of clothes money and hid it.
Dad didn't inspect the bags until we came home. Our purchases distressed him so much, he opened another beer and called Grandpa Franco. He asked if Grandpa would do him a favor and take us back-to-school shopping while Mom was away. My dad explained how he had to work. And the next day, when my dad handed Grandpa yet another hundred dollars, I felt as though I had hit a jackpot reward with my hidden twenty. I spent the rest carefully, and lovingly, over the next few months, sometimes on myself, a chocolate bar or ice cream, sometimes treating Hope, Matty, and Charlie, if only just to shut them up.
We wouldn't have gotten away with that if my mom had been there.
At Chico Moda's she pushed me into a dressing room stall, then she shoved the balled-up prairie Communion dress under the door. I put it on slowly and came out to see myself in the mirror. I tried to avoid her face because I knew she'd be showing way too much enthusiasm for it.
"This dress is okaaaayee, but I think it's too loooong for me," I whined into my own reflection.
"I can fix the hem, easy."
So we bought the extra-long prairie Communion dress. Her concession was a small tiara and satin slippers from Carmela's, after I convinced her they could be a part of an excellent princess costume for Halloween.
"I wonder what Jesus would think of that bargain?" she asked the ceiling, while paying for the items.
I cried three times the morning of my Communion. First, when I saw the seven inches of snow that had fallen the night before, which meant I had to wear my ugly blue parka, Matty's hand-me-down, over my dress. Then I cried while I pulled on my winter boots.
"Stop it, Faith. Jesus is not going to see your boots under your dress. You can change into your new slippers at church."
"Don't be like this. I don't feel so good this morning."
She looked awful, too, like she had the flu, but I wasn't feeling tender toward her. Having to wear an ugly boy's parka over my new(ish) dress, not being able to show off my lovely slippers, on a day as important as this, was my first real clothing dilemma. And it became a lifelong trigger. There was little that could bother me more than when something went wrong with an outfit. Planning what I would wear could keep me up all night, with me thinking, "That top matches those leotards, which would pick up the yellow in my mitts nicely." If one of those pieces was missing or dirty, I would fling myself across the nearest couch, bed, or lap and deeply question the state of the entire world and all of its unfairness. How could this be? I can't wear Matty's parka! What had I ever done to God to deserve this? And why did You make it snow? Today? Jesus Christ! It's April! (I wouldn't have considered uttering "Jesus Christ" as blasphemous. Back then, I would often directly address the Man whose body I'd soon be eating, as though He was an upstairs neighbor, wanting to be helpful.)
My mom looked at me in disgust and said, "Stop pouting, Faith. This is supposed to be your holy day, so just try and act a little holy, okay?"
She stomped upstairs to wake up my dad. As usual, he had come home late the night before. I had heard him drive up and was fully expecting a big fight. I was awake, thinking about my Communion outfit. But instead of a fight, he and my mother had talked for a long time, in the kitchen. Their voices were low. At one point it had sounded like my mom was crying. It was odd for them to have been holding what seemed to be a real kind of conversation, especially since my dad had come home so late.
Especially since my mother had waited up for him.
I knew it was exactly two-thirty in the morning when they had finally gone to bed, because my mother let me have the alarm clock in my room. I wanted to wake up before everyone else so I could set my hair in rollers, something I had just learned how to do on my own. I needed extra time in case the complicated hairdo I planned to wind around my tiara didn't turn out right.
After she woke up Dad, my mom came downstairs looking worse than when she left. Her face was pink and flushed and she was wiping at the corners of her mouth. She looked at me, turned, and ran back upstairs again. My dad stumbled around her on his way down and went quietly into the kitchen.
"You look very beautiful, Fate," he said, without looking at me. I was sitting at the kitchen table. My hair was in an "updo," the kind Auntie Linda wore. I used thirty bobby pins, bending my tiara around the sides to keep the coils of my hair in place.
"Is Mom feeling sick today?" I asked, while he was pouring a glass of water.
"Naa, she gonna be fine. Everybaddy's ready?" he asked, still in his own pajama bottoms.
"No, nothing's ready. This is just great! How come she has to be sick on my Communion day?"
"Come on, Fate. You help alla keeds get ready, okay?"
Matt, Hope, and Charlie were watching cartoons, even though cartoons were not that good on Sundays. My dad disappeared upstairs with the water. I started to fake cry, sitting in my tiara, coat, and boots.
"You guys, get ready," I screamed into the living room. "We have to go! Now!"
My mom heard me from the upstairs bathroom.
"Jesus Christ, Faith, you don't have to yell!" she yelled.
A few minutes later, my mom came down dressed in her olive-green pantsuit with the fake alligator belt. She was wearing her only piece of good jewelry, a butterfly pin, which had two authentic diamond chips in it. She kept it in the bottom drawer of our silverware box and I loved it almost as much as she did, checking in on it at least once a week. She was taller and skinnier-looking that morning but she smelled like Moonwind, as always, the only perfume from Avon that she liked. When my mother dressed up, which she hardly ever did, it made my heart skip a beat as if I was a boy who had a crush on her. My heart did that, not just because I thought she was beautiful, but because other people would think she was beautiful, and it felt like we were taking a baby step toward normal. When I was eight, if things seemed normal, they were.
"You look really beautiful today, Faith," she said, the makeup on her face looking as if it was hovering just in front of her skin and not resting on it the way it should be.
My dad, in his only pair of dress pants and wearing his only dressy sweater, went out to warm up the car. He didn't have a good coat, so he didn't wear one to church. Even in winter.
"Hey, let me put a little bit of lipstick on you," my mom said to me, after she finished putting some on herself.
"You feel better now, right, Mom?" I sniffled. My mom never let us wear makeup, not even play makeup.
"Yeah," she said, and I pushed out my lips. She smeared Avon Coral Craze on my mouth.
"Me too, me too," demanded Hope, and she got some, too.
"How come Hope gets lipstick when it's my Communion?" I whined.
"Me too, me too," said Charlie, jumping up and down, and we watched in awe as my mom put a teeny bit on him.
"He's a boy!" said Matt, disgustedly.
"He's a little boy," my mom replied, and we went out the door, the five of us, almost at the same time.
As soon as we settled into the station wagon, and before my dad could back out of the driveway, I noticed Charlie touching my skirt with his dirty snow boots.
"Mom, Charlie's ruining my Communion dress completely."
"Oh Christ, come up here then!"
I smugly exited the back seat and slammed the door, came around to the passenger side of the station wagon, and my mother scooted over to the middle. I shut the door and shot my brothers and sister my best "nyeh nyeh" face.
"Faith -- enough," my mom scolded.
Hope kicked the back of my seat.
I yelled, "Stop it or I'll kill you, Hope. It's my special day, goddammit!"
That came out by accident.
"Fate!" my dad yelled. He must have been in a bad mood because he never yelled at us. This was something I reminded my mother of every time she did.
"That's because he's never around to see how bad yous guys are!" she'd say.
On the way to church, no one said anything, which made me feel depressed. I sighed and put my forehead on the window a little dramatically. But I was thinking that, so far, this day didn't feel different or special for me. In Religion, we were told by Sister Lianne that today was holy. After today, I was told, I would be one of them. I would go up to mass behind Dad and Mom and Matty and be a real member of God's family, and not just a stupid old member of my stupid old family. Yet no one in the station wagon seemed to care. Even Hope and Charlie didn't realize that today, when I went up for the host like everyone else, they'd have to sit all alone. No more "Faith, you're in charge! Kids, listen to Faith!" while Matty went up with my mom and dad. I thought, What's going to happen to Charlie after Hope makes her Communion? Would he have to sit all by himself in the pew? Because of perverts, we were never allowed to leave Charlie alone, even for a minute, even to run into the store for a second. What if there was a pervert nearby him in church and we left him alone in the pew? This was too much to think about on my big day, so I started to concentrate on my outfit. I hoped to be prettier than my classmates. I especially wanted to look prettier than Natalia and Nadine Montebello, who, just because they were twins, got all the attention. They did promise to save a seat for me. And as soon as I got inside the church, I thought, I would give my mother my coat, and then I would change out of my ugly boots and into my new slippers and...my slippers. Oh, Christ! I forgot my slippers!
"Mom, we have to go back home!" I screamed.
"I forgot my slippers!"
"Jesus Christ, Faith! We don't have time! We're almost there!"
"Yes, we do, we have to have time! I can't wear these stupidlyugly boots! I can't or I have to go barefoot!"
"Jesus. Turn around, Joe. Turn."
"Jesus," said my dad, pulling a sharp and unexpected U-turn in the middle of the street, a block before the church parking lot. My mom grabbed my arm hard, I thought, to steady herself during the turn, but it stayed there. Her eyes were still bulged out even after we had swayed and corrected ourselves straight again. She slapped her hand over her mouth.
"Joe, please stop," she said, but it sounded like "joepeesta," one fast word, uttered through her clenched fingers. My dad slammed down on the brakes. My mother's whole body went for the door handle next to me. She still had a tight grip on my arm, so when I went tumbling out, I took her entire front half with me. Still holding my arm, she threw up in the snow, her torso nearly folded under the car to direct her sickness away from me and my dress. She was crying and talking through her retching, "Honey, oh, are you -- bleeeck -- okay? Faith? Oh, God -- bleeeek -- Faith! Joe -- bleeeck -- oh, God! I'm -- bleeeck -- sorry."
My dad had stopped the car and had run around to her side. He grabbed me under my armpits and dragged me away from my mom, dropping me back on my butt, in fresher snow, a few feet away. He kissed the top of my head fast and hard.
"Okayokayokay, Fate, you okay?" he asked, looking over at my mother. I made a noise as a reply.
He kneeled in front of my mom, picked up her head, and moved her hair off her face. A little of her vomit was on the bottom of my dress. I rubbed the stain absently in the snow, never taking my eyes off my mother, bent under the car door. I had tears in my eyes, but they stayed there, helpfully blurring out this unfair sight.
My dad was frantic, yelling Christ! Keeds, gimme some-a-ting to wipe Mumma's mouth.
"Looook, for chry-ssakes!" he screamed, for the second time in his life.
Matty handed him a crumpled-up McDonald's bag. My dad smacked it out of his hand and stood up. He pulled his only good sweater over his head, balled it up, and put it under Mom's chin. She grabbed it and, still holding the sweater to her face, and without even looking at him, she started to make her way out of the car over to where I was sitting, stunned, in a snowbank. Her eyes were little red beads swimming in watery, black mascara. I struggled and started toward her. Meeting halfway in the middle, she wrapped her free arm around my back and cried into the sweater, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry, Faith."
My dress had soaked through to my bum.
"It's okay," I said in a small voice, unsure if I really meant it. My dad put his arms around both of us. My mom put her hand on his bare back. He was naked from the waist up.
"Joe, where's your dress shirt for under this?" my mom asked, holding his balled-up sweater in front of her mouth.
"I couldn't find it."
"Jesus, Joe, I ironed it and put it on the back of the kitchen chair. God, would you look at us," she said, half-laughing, yanking herself out of our hug.
Matty's teacher, Mr. Grillo, pulled over and asked if we were okay.
My dad nodded and waved. "Nan, she's gotta the flu bad. We gonna go home."
"If you want, I can take the kids to church with us," Mr. Grillo offered.
My mother looked at me. My tiara was at a tilt. I had no real hairdo left. I would not go to church without my slippers. Plus there was vomit on my dress. No, no, no, I was saying in my head. Matt was saying the same thing in his own head, I could tell.
"No," said my mom, "but thanks, Mr. Grillo."
She climbed back into the front seat. I got into the back, where Charlie was crying. Hope had him on her lap, holding him tight, as much for her own relief as for his.
"You fell out of the car," said Hope, sniffling. "I saw it all."
"Yeah, me too," whispered Charlie.
"Look what happened to your dress," Hope said. "You prolly gotta get a new one, right?"
"Yeah," added Charlie.
"I know," I murmured. That was one thought to comfort me.
A few seconds later, Matt asked, "Is everyone okay? Jeez!" His voice was shaky and afraid and it sounded like mine would have if I could have let it out of jail. There were feelings in my body and emotions crawling across my face that I was completely unfamiliar with, so I locked them all up.
My mom nodded yes, still holding the sweater to her face. I didn't know where to look, down at my dress, at the back of her head, at my dad's naked shoulders, at the church that was slowly disappearing behind us.
My mom said, "Faith, we'll figure this out when we get home, okay?" She started to cry very softly into my dad's only sweater. He tried to put an arm around her but she moved over to her side of the car and leaned her head up against the window.
That night, after a long nap, my mom told us she would need to go into the hospital just for a couple of days, because of the special kind of flu she had. She got sick again, a few days later, the morning my auntie Linda came in from Detroit, to pick her up. We watched our aunt park her silver-blue LeMans, something we knew she had just bought with her own money. She walked into the kitchen, breezed by my dad, and dropped a dozen fancy doughnuts onto the dining room table and sat down.
Those doughnuts would be our breakfast for the three days Mom was gone.
"Kids, come here and give me an octopus hug," said Auntie Linda, growling, and gathering us up into her strong, tanned arms, us crowding her skinny middle. My aunt was one year younger than my mother was, but she looked like the older one to me. She wore a lot of interesting makeup; white lipstick, which was unsettling, and thick black eyeliner, slanted out to her temples. My mother once said that Auntie Linda's sense of style took a dangerous turn not long after a man on the tunnel bus told her she looked like Elizabeth Taylor.
"I tried to tell her he meant National Velvet, not Cleopatra, but she won't listen to me."
As sisters, they were devoted to each other, though they had very little in common, except for sharing a strict father and suffering a motherless childhood. I was told that Grandma Franco died from the disease of not being able to enjoy the sweeter things in life. Later, when Auntie Linda explained diabetes to me, I thought, I'd die, too, without "Lik-m-aids" or Pop Rocks or Snickers.
While my mom was away, my dad took a few days off from work to take care of us the best he could. Life was a blur of TV and McDonald's.
Grandpa Franco stopped by the morning my dad was to take me to pick out another Communion dress. I was coming downstairs when he offered my dad his credit card in order for me to be able to afford any dress that I wanted, "In the world," Grandpa said. My dad tried to tell him he could afford to buy me the dress himself, but Grandpa just whispered to my dad that he was under the impression there was very little we could afford these days. My dad said that's not true, that "it" (whatever "it" was) had nothing to do with money. My dad said that "it" was all Mom's decision and not his at all. I thought that my mother must have felt really sick, this time, to go into a hospital, since it sounded like an extraordinarily expensive thing to do. She was so stingy with money, rather than pay a dentist, she'd pull out our baby teeth herself, our knees bent over the kitchen counter. The teeth would be as loose as kernels on a cob, so she didn't hurt us so much as scare us half to death with the giant pliers.
Later, in the car, I asked my dad about why he didn't think Mom should go to the hospital to get "it" done? He asked me how did I know about "it." I said, I heard yous talking. Without yelling, he got angry, and said I shouldn't be listening to other people's conversations because it was a sin for a girl to be nosy. He said, Fate, when you getta married, you gonna understand about a lot more tings.
That was the first time I noticed that when my dad dropped my "H," my name had a different meaning. I knew from Religion class that "faith" comes from God, because it originates in your heart and prayers. But "fate" was used by lazy pagans to excuse their ignorant deeds. "What can you do?" those sinners would say. "It was my 'fate' to steal that car, meet my mistress, kill that shop clerk." We were taught, with enough faith, you could triumph over your sins, because hell is no good Catholic's fate.
My dad asked me if I had heard what he said, about a girl like me being nosy. I whined that I couldn't help hearing them. I was just there, after all.
He shut off the engine and looked at me with sad, tired eyes.
"Whadam I gonna do with you, Fate?" he asked.
I felt like saying, what am I going to do with you and Mom? I wanted to tell him that I was losing faith in the fact that they'd tell me what I needed to know. And that if they continued to whisper, in secret, like prayers, in rooms, and in staircases around me, then it was my necessary fate to be listening. And their fault if that was a damn sin.
The day I made my Communion, my mother was still away, so my grandpa brought Hope and me to church, after dropping the boys off at the hockey arena. My dad took the opportunity to work, to make some money, double overtime. The dress I picked out with my dad wasn't expensive. It wasn't even as nice as the first one, really. It was more peasant than prairie-style, but it fit perfectly, and since the snow had melted I would be able to wear my new slippers.
At church, because the story got out about my mother being so sick, with the bad flu, I was treated like I was famous for something. People looked at me, or maybe it was because I was the only one making First Communion that day.
I remember this: when Father Pete placed the host in my hand, I couldn't believe how light it was for being a part of the body of Christ. When I put it in my mouth, it immediately stuck to the roof, like Matty said it would, and I spent the rest of mass using my tongue to mash it into something more swallowable.
I hoped to improve my technique with time.
After Communion I changed into leotards and a jumper and we all went to Ponderosa Steakhouse to celebrate. Then we went to the Spring Fair at the Kmart parking lot and rode on all of the scarier rides. It was nice, and nobody threw up this time.
When my mom came back from the hospital, she seemed completely back to normal. Better than the other times she went for rests. She returned happy, thrilled even, to see us. She cleaned the house, cooked a honey-baked ham, and didn't seem at all surprised when Father Pete rolled up in his black Volkswagen Rabbit, Dad following shyly behind in the station wagon. She invited Father Pete to stay for dinner but he declined the offer. He was really only wondering when would be a good time for her to come see him at the church. He thought perhaps they had some things to discuss, things better left unsaid in front of the children. My mother looked at the four of us gathered around the table, stopped her eyes on me, and said, There's nothing that gets by these kids. Go ahead, she said. Father Pete smiled and made a quiet offer of good counsel for the dilemma she might have found herself in. She said that she wasn't aware of any dilemma. Charlie said, Yeah, Mom was sick, and now she's all better, from going in the hospital. Well then, Father Pete said, We'll see you soon, I hope. My mom said, No, you probably won't, and turned up the radio when she heard "Me and Bobby McGee."
My dad opened a beer and walked Father Pete out to his car.
After supper, my mother adjusted the antenna on the TV, found a movie she loved, Rebecca, and let us stay up an hour longer than usual to watch it with her. The four of us leaned up against her body like kindling on a bonfire.
"You're all cured from the flu, Mom?" Hope asked, climbing gingerly into her lap, being careful not to hurt Mom's "booboo tummy."
"Yup, all cured. No more flu ever!" she said.
My dad lifted himself off the couch and went to kick around chunks of dirt in our garden for the rest of the evening.
My mom did not go to church with us that week, or the next. After a month of Sundays passed, my mom shooing us out the door with Dad, I finally asked her why she stopped going.
"Because I have too much to do around the house," she said. "Plus it's my only time off from yous guys."
Then I asked her if she missed it, and she said, "No, I don't, because now I do all my praying at home, when I'm on my hands and knees, scrubbing the floors."
People at church noticed my mother's absence. At first they asked after her a lot, then a little, then sometimes, then never. I started to miss the olden times, when my dad would wait around after mass to talk to our neighbors, in Italian, poking at his teeth with a toothpick, nodding and laughing at their foreign stories. I missed how my mother would yell from the car, "Let's go, Joe, I want to get the kids home!"
Now we avoided eye contact with people.
Used to be I loved how Father Pete told the stories about Jesus in a funny, modern way, saying, "Well now what in the heck was Jesus going to say to that, I ask you? Jesus probably scratched His head and thought, darn it all, who in the heck are these people asking me to perform miracles like I'm some kinda carnival sideshow? I'm the Son of God, for Pete's sake!"
Ha ha ha. I'd giggle. My mother would roll her eyes at me, and look at her watch.
I missed her doing that.
Now I paid no attention to the parables and the sermons. Now I thought constantly about what my mother was up to at home. Sometimes I pictured her talking on the phone to Auntie Linda, filing her nails, or going back to sleep. Other times I pictured her crying by herself. I used to pray for toys, or for certain boys or people to like me. Now I prayed for my mother or on behalf of my mother. I used to linger after church to watch what other people wore, imagining their outfits for myself. Now we rushed out to the car after the final "Go in peace." I used to love the feeling of being normal, for that one hour a week, the six of us lined up in varying degrees of height, Dad down to little Charlie. Now we pinched each other and pointed at the people standing in front of us, holding our fingers one inch away from their bums, on a dare. My dad would gasp and shush, but now that we never went for hot chocolate or doughnuts after church, what was our incentive to behave? Without Mom watching over us, and God and Dad not showing themselves to be equally scary substitutes, church was a useless chore.
My own mission remained, however. If my mother was a sinner, not going to church so, therefore, hell, I would need to hold the fort here. I would plead her case and save her soul. Making my brothers and my sister laugh was just a harmless way to bust up the monotony of my earnest vigil.
Copyright © 2002 by Lisa Gabriele