I wanted to show my much-adored 8th grade teacher, Sister Mary, I wasn’t scared so I skipped the screen and went face-to-face with Bishop Law. I wanted Sister Mary to be proud of me. But then the door closed and I was alone in a closet-sized room with a powerful man in red and gold robes and I was so scared I lost all cognitive thought. “I lied to my mother,” I finally said, though in the moment I could not think of a single lie I’d told. The Bishop raised his hand and blessed me. He wished me peace. But all I could think was that I’d just lied to the Bishop about lying. Sister Mary would be so disappointed.
Last night I was walking in the city with a childhood friend, in town for her birthday. As we inched our way down the steep hill of California Street she said, “Who would have thought two little girls from Cape Girardeau would be celebrating our 50th birthdays in San Francisco?” We laughed. Later I thought about the fact that this is what I tell strangers when they ask, “Where are you from?” and yet it feels like a little white lie. A half-truth. Can I claim to be from a town barely lived in? How to meter out the constant moving in and out of Cape, in and out of its smaller surrounding towns, my unexplainable vagabond childhood?
I used to tell my kids that they might not get into trouble for something they’d done, but that they would always get into trouble for lying about it. “Always tell us the truth,” I would say. “Lying just makes it worse.” And then one Thanksgiving we decided to leave town early to visit family in another state. As all parents know, your children do not get an “excused” absence for this – if they miss a test or assignment, it cannot be made up – so I called the school and said my kids were sick and would not be there. My daughter stood there listening. When I hung up the phone, she rolled her eyes.
At an open house last week, a retired minister said, “If you don’t mind my asking, do you have a practicing faith?” Always uncomfortable when a stranger asks about religion, I said no and tried to change the subject. He told me about his church and pushed further. “Were you raised in a particular faith?” Catholic, I said, and felt instantly more panicked because like the Cape Girardeau answer above, the Catholic answer is a half-truth and fills me with anxiety. How to explain that my mother was excommunicated when my father left her with a one year-old baby (me) and that for years she sought and could never afford an annulment; that my grandfather, who horrifically abused my grandmother in secret, was so publicly respected and devout that the monsignor himself came weekly to our house to give him communion; that I decided on my own at age 12 to become Catholic because I needed a safe place to be, but that no one in my family ever went to church? And this is barely the beginning of the list. The first time I went to the confession was also close to the last time I went to confession.
How to answer the “how were you raised” and “what do you believe” questions to a stranger when I can barely answer them to myself?
In four days, my mother will be dead 13 years. Today is the anniversary of the last lie I told her.
She’d been waiting for days for visitors who never arrived, and on this day the doctor increased her pain medication and explained that the increase could make it difficult, if not impossible, for her to wake up again. She dozed off. I went to the waiting room and called the would-be visitors. No answer. And no answer. And no answer. When she woke some hours later, I cheerfully told her the visitors had come and gone, that they’d arrived shortly after she fell asleep and had stayed for a quite bit but did not want to wake her, that she should get some rest, they would try and come tomorrow. A long string of lies cast like nylon line out onto the surface of still water.
She knew. I knew she knew. And she cried.