Sunday, December 25, 2016

Growing up in a Philadelphia lace-curtain Irish Catholic family

Jim reflects on the end of the year:

source: The Village Heretic
I was raised in a very strict Philadelphia lace-curtain Irish Catholic family. The matriarch of the family was my father's mother. Her word was the law, and God Help You, You Poor Bastard if you crossed her. When she visited, she would put a white glove on her hand and run it over the tops of the china cabinet and the breakfront, and then go tell my father that my mother wasn't cleaning the house. He would just say, "Oh, Mother".

The gatherings of the clan were crowded into the period between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, and every one of them had a sea of pale white white faces, that white sea mottled with the black cassocks of priests and the equally black habits of nuns in the family,

The group looked like the Baltimore Cathechism's cartoon of a black-mottled milk bottle that represented the soul of a mere baptized mortal (the white milk) who had committed venial sins (the clusters of black). But mortal sins - like masturbation or God Help You actual sex outside of marriage - turned your soul black. "Impure thoughts" - thinking about girls, masturbation, or sex - were venial sins when taken one at a time, but could be trouble if there were a lot - and our parents seemed quite sure that they had raised four monsters and we were all going to Hell -  so the four of us boys were pretty sure our milk-bottle souls were thoroughly mottled with black.

The liquor flowed like the Delaware - this is Philly we're talking about - and sooner or later (actually it came immediately after the initial pleasantries) the topic would shift to the church and religion. What were the nuns saying at Immaculata? Was the pope Catholic enough? Why were Catholics being slighted in the press? Would anyone in the family vote for Kennedy? - he was a Democrat after all. And then what did Monsignor McFuckADuck say? Bishop McFuckface? What about the cardinal? On and on. There was no escape.

Verushka in Blowup. Source: IMDB Blowupt
Ordinary weekends were bad enough. Confession on Friday afternoon (with Mom and Dad taking special note of the penance each one of the four of us boys were assigned), a long Saturday with a dinner table discussion of whatever had appeared in the Catholic Standard And Times, especially movie ratings by the Legion of Decency - these gave rise to a great deal of speculation by the parental units that usually filled us all with dread. What ghastly horror would we be forced to endure again and again? "The Ten Commandments"? "Ben Hur"?

According to Wikipedia, films were rated by the Legion of Decency according to the following schema:

A: Morally unobjectionable
B: Morally objectionable in part
C: Condemned by the Legion of Decency
The A rating was subsequently divided:

A-I: Suitable for all audiences
A-II: Suitable for adults; later — after the introduction of A-III — suitable for adults and adolescents
A-III: Suitable for adults only
A-IV: For adults with reservations

Here are some of the movies that were CONDEMNED (and of course, of great interest to the four of us boys):
Source: IMDB
Some Like It Hot
Never On Sunday
(of course!)
Jules and Jim
Viridiana (it would have been incomprehensible but it was CONDEMNED)
Blowup (Verushka was so tantalizing)
Valley of the Dolls
Barbarella (we had pictures of the scantily clad Jane Fonda hidden in our room - who did not?)
The Producers (Jewish humor was not allowed)
Rosemary’s Baby (because it distorted the Church)
We were condemned ourselves -  condemned to unending misery. A trip to a drive-in movie was just like going to church, were it not for the previews of coming attractions, which the 'rents could not control.

The four of us boy would spend hours discussing the tantalizing bits of flesh we had seen, the hints of human behavior that might involve actual normal adult activities. A few minutes of coming attractions could serve as fodder for our intense speculation for weeks or months, since we might see a film only once or twice a year. That, coupled with the movie advertisements from the Sunday New York Times, could fuel our imaginations forever.

Here were some that we were allowed to see:
101 Dalmations
Darby O'Gill and the Little People (it gave my twin brother Joe nightmares),
Mary Poppins - to me, this was the equivalent of what "North" was to Roger Ebert - I hated, hated, hated, this movie)
That Darn Cat! (by then, my twin and I were in high school and we thought, 'Well fuck that cat.' but we had to go to keep our younger brothers company in the movie theater. We hated our younger brothers for that, since it turned us into unpaid baby-sitters.)

Source: IMDB
In the summer of 1963, the parental units, after much discussion (and prayer of course - and that meant not only the 'rents' prayers but ours as well, only we were praying to be allowed to go, but we also had to pray with them for guidance and that seemed to take a very long time) allowed my twin and me to see "To Kill A Mockingbird" with a classmate and his parents (both good Catholics in the same parish). After that, Joe and I then knew what a good film could be like. And these were characters that each of us yearned to know more about.

 I still find the film and the book of "To Kill a Mockingbird" emotionally overwhelming. And I love the fact that Brock Peters ("Tom Robinson" in the film)  and Mary Badham ("Scout") remained lifelong friends of Gregory Peck ("Atticus Finch", of course). The trivia page at IMDB says:
Mary Badham (Scout) and Gregory Peck (Atticus) became close during filming and kept in contact for the rest of his life. Peck always called her "Scout", her character role.
Brock Peters read the eulogy at Gregory Peck's funeral. I feel like they have been my friends all my life, too.

The whole Legion of Decency discussion could last days - but not weeks, because another issue of the Catholic Standard And Times would be coming out, and the circle of dread would be renewed. There was no escape.

The First Friday of the month was a special treat. Here is an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry.
According to the words of Christ through His apparitions to Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque, there are several promises to those that practice the First Friday Devotions: 
"In the excess of the mercy of my Heart, I promise you that my all powerful love will grant to all those who will receive Communion on the First Fridays, for nine consecutive months, the grace of final repentance: they will not die in my displeasure, nor without receiving the sacraments; and my Heart will be their secure refuge in that last hour." 
"In many Catholic communities the practice of the Holy Hour of meditation during the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament during the First Fridays is encouraged." 
Source: Get Out Of Hell Free
In our family, Holy Hour, usually on Thursday night,  was mandatory, so we could count on having to go to First Friday Mass and Holy Hour as well.

The First Friday deal is one that just about every single Catholic agreed to. Here is how it worked. If you went to First Friday Mass in nine consecutive months, you were guaranteed - and this was a 100% 'no questions asked', rock-solid guarantee - that you would be able to atone for all of your unforgiven sins at your deathbed. It was like a Get Out Of Hell Free card. How could you NOT go for the deal? But it did mean the extra torture of Holy Hour and First Friday Mass. There was no escape.

More about Margaret Mary Alacoque later.

So these were all normal weeks - in Ordinary Time, as the Catholic Church describes it. But there was more. There were Ember Days, Rogation Days, and Feast Days, all with extra prayers and going to mass. On Feast Days, we had to read about how the saint was martyred, usually in gory detail. For a while, we had to do this at the dinner table, before eating. Mom didn't find it appetizing, so that practice was quietly dropped after a few years of torture. We had a Catholic Encyclopedia - who didn't? - to help us flesh out the details.

But there was an up side. Just as on our birthday, on our patron saint's feast day, we got to pick what we wanted for dinner (including dessert!). My twin and I had to share our birthday observation, and we always thought that was unjust. I was James, Junior to my dad's James, Senior, so I never got to choose the dinner for the Feast of St. James.

Source: Wikipedia
The fun really started with Advent or Lent. We spent the week before Advent and Lent saying extra prayers, going to confession twice in one week, working up to the big event. During Advent and Lent, we went to church at least twice a week; we had prayers after dinner every night. And on Friday night, we would say the rosary. Not your every day recitation of the decades of the rosary and off you go. It was Sancta Scala style.

We said the rosary on our knees on the stairs - bare wood with no carpet, cushions, or paddings like those wimps at the Sancta Scala in the Vatican - no this was hard-as-a-baseball-bat wood, on your knees, climbing one step every decade, with an extra one with the final souls in hell business. Every Friday night. There was no escape.

Advent seemed interminable, but Lent seemed to stretch into eternity. We had to not only pray, but to practice "Mortification of the Flesh" - not whipping or self-flagellation but some form of corporal pain, so between Advent and Lent, those fun times added up to about ten weeks a year.

I have asked friends if they had had to endure this. No one had even heard of either the climbing the stairs saying the rosary or the "mortification of the flesh" business, although some had seen TV news clips of those strange hyper-Catholics in the Philippines crucifying themselves. That was too much for Mom and Dad, but each them did say that these people were exceptionally holy. The four of us had pretty much decided that 'pretty holy' was indistinguishable from 'bat-shit crazy'.

None of my friends had seen anything like this. Except for only one: a Math colleague who had grown up in an Irish Catholic family in Worcester, MA. For her, just as it was for us, there was no escape.

Summer vacations seemed to revolve around saints and martyrs.

The Centennial History of Oregon
One summer we went up to Quebec to visit the shrine of Sainte Anne of Beaupré. We had to see the statue of Catherine Tekawitha. On the way back, we stopped in far upstate New York, in Auriesville, to visit the shrine to the martyred saints Isaac Jogues and Jean de Brébeuf. Of course, each day of this pilgrimage meant extra prayers, going to mass every day, and lots of mortification of the flesh. After ten days of this, the four of us boys were pretty much on the side of the Native Americans, just like those involved in the Whitman Massacre.

Kateri Tekawitha
We amused ourselves by making fun of our situation. We wrote a sketch of a musical ("You Can't Tekawitha"), with a few musical numbers. The plot, as I recall, was centered around a group of Native Americans who get pissed off at ardent Catholics taking over their lives, who then talk incessantly to the missionaries about their plan to kidnap the missionaries and remove their skin and pull out their finger and toe nails, and make the children of the Catholics suffer through endless pilgrimages to the shrines erected in their memory. The missionaries died of boredom but were canonized as martyrs anyway. That last part got most of the emphasis.

It never stopped, and there was no escape.

The Abbey at Solemnes
My brother Joe was pursuing a Ph.D. in Musicology under the tutelage of the late David Hughes at Harvard, which he finally received in 1986. He had made arrangements to stay with the Benedictines at Solemnes, studying and cataloguing their manuscripts of medieval chant. So my parents offered to take him with them to France, where they had planned to vacation on their own. He was a penniless graduate student, so that seemed like a pretty good deal. Little did he know.

Our parents took the long way to Solemnes: Orly to Paris for a few days, then to Dijon, then finally, off past Tours to Solemnes, near Le Mans. As they neared Dijon,  Joe saw a sign "Gevrey-Chambertin, 10 km" and he begged Mom and Dad to make a side-trip there. Dad said, "Certainly not! We're going to the shrine of Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque!"

I can't help but noting in the Wikipedia entry this peculiar passage: "Finally, she was admitted to profession on 6 November 1672. It is said that she was assigned to the infirmary and was not very skillful at her tasks". And of course this:
She stated that in her vision she was instructed to spend an hour every Thursday night to meditate on Jesus' Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. The Holy Hour practice later became widespread among Catholics.
So that is how we came to be in Church four days a week. Thursday was Holy Hour, Friday was Confession and First Friday, Saturday was maybe morning mass and the relentless deconstruction of The Catholic Standard and Times, and Sunday was High Mass. And of course, all of the Ember Days, Rogation Days, Feast Days, Days of Fasting, and endless, endless, endless talk of the church. There was no escape.

Catherine Tekawitha
The four of us boys considered the year to be a lucky year if Christmas fell on a Sunday. That was a twofer, because Christmas Day and New Year's Day (The Feast of the Circumcision - we wondered why would any celebrate that?) were each a Holy Day of Obligation - a 'Must Go To Church Again' day. Were it an unlucky year - when Christmas was not on a Sunday - we would have had to go to Mass twice in a week for two weeks back to back. So 2016 is a lucky year under this metric; not so lucky, under others.

The best literary description of a family like mine is in Tom McHale's 1972 novel "Farragan's Retreat". By then I was finishing college and every single dinner conversation devolved (all too quickly) into a fight over the Vietnam war.

My brothers and I calculated that, by the time we had finished high school, we had gone to church about as much as three normal Catholics would have done in an entire lifetime, so we could afford to never go to church again for the next three lifetimes and, with the Get Out Of Hell Free card, get out of Purgatory unscathed.

That pretty much explains our current interest in organized religion.

Our son told us this joke - and it is actually PG so you can tell it to your students or parents without blushing.

An Engineer dies and goes to hell. He's hot and miserable, so he decides to take action. The A/C has been busted for a long time, so he fixes it. Things cool down quickly.

The moving walkway motor jammed, so he unjams it. People can get from place to place more easily.

The TV was grainy and unclear, so he fixes the connection to the Satellite dish and now they get hundreds of high def channels.

One day, God decides to look down on Hell to see how his grand design is working out and notices that everyone is happy and enjoying umbrella drinks. He asks the Devil what's going on?

The Devil replies, "Things are great down here since you sent us that engineer."

"What?? An engineer? I didn't send you one of those, that must have been a mistake. Send him back up right this minute."

The Devil responds, "No way! We are going to keep our engineer. We like this guy."

God demands, "If you don't send him to me immediately, I'll sue!"

The Devil laughs. "Where are YOU going to get a lawyer?"

Thanks, Jim. You can blame Jim for all of this shyte.

1 comment:

David Appell said...

Interesting and well written, thanks.

Sounds very much like the first few chapters of Bruce Springsteen's autobiography, about growing up in an Irish Catholic family (on his mother's side), dominated by all the women in his extended family and their ever present Catholic just around the corner.