I like to make the sign of the cross with my middle finger atop the nail of my pointer finger. Just in case. You never know. Can’t hurt. My spirituality mixes Catholicism with superstitious tendencies.
Including kindergarten, I attended thirteen – knock on wood- years of Catholic school. After our First Communion, my classmates and I went to mass once a week and confession once a month. Our church was down a covered sidewalk next to the elementary school that was a football field length from the high school and its wooden gym which almost touched the convent where the nuns who taught us lived. Except for our eighth grade teacher Sister Mary Margaret Mary, who focused on English and math all day, everyday, the nuns squeezed in regular religion lessons, especially during Advent (before Christmas) and Lent (before Easter). We said “grace” before our cafeteria lunches where all of us had to clean our trays or the Sister on duty would send us back to finish our peas (or spinach or tuna casserole).
Catholicism was all I knew. My family said the rosary every time we drove farther than thirty miles from home. No meat-eating on Fridays and no breakfast before Sunday masses. My scores of cousins were Catholic, as were my Camp Fire Girls troop and my classmates. I still have a 2X4 inch prayer book with the Order of the Mass, the epistles, and the gospels. I remember wearing a lace chapel veil (or a Kleenex bobby-pinned to my head) and kneeling near the front of the church to follow the priest’s lead. I recited the Act of Contrition from memory while turning my book’s tiny gilded pages.
Devout as I was, I still sometimes lied during my monthly confessions. I strove for specificity over believability because I thought Father got bored hearing all the typical kid sins: “I disobeyed my parents” “fought with my brothers and sisters” or “lied to my teacher.” Wouldn’t he prefer, “I broke Momma’s no-animals-in-the-house-rule when I convinced my sisters to bring Red, our pony, into the kitchen. She seemed so hot! We just wanted to let her drink from the kitchen sink. We were rescuing Red from heat stroke!” Isn’t there a blurry line between truth and almost the truth? Besides, Fr. Forgette always gave us the same penance after each confession: “Say five Hail Marys and go with God.”
I stayed mostly holy until I hit puberty. I smoked my first cigarette at a Catholic Girls Retreat in Grand Coteau when I was fourteen. Later cousin Gina and I stole Grandma’s cigarettes, and I sometimes skipped Sunday masses after my friend Janie started driving. In high school I adored a lovely, hip nun who played all of the Jesus Christ Superstar album during our ninth grade religion class. She made me consider the attraction of a religious life. Then the next year she left the convent to marry our parish’s young and handsome priest. My school friends and I had never heard a more romantic tale of true love, and life as a nun lost all of its appeal.
I thought I had true faith. I knelt by my bed most nights and prayed to the Blessed Virgin Mary. I may have been clueless about my town’s racial prejudices, but Mary seemed like the most accepting and understanding statue in our Catholic church.
To the left of the altar stood a life-sized calm, blue-robed Mary behind tiny candles in red glass cups and a cushioned kneeler next to a small metal receptacle for coins that paid for the candles worshippers lit. I believed my memorized words: “Our Lady, our Queen, and our Mother, in the name of Jesus and for the love of Jesus, take this cause in hand and grant it good success.” I’d pray for help passing a test, to stop fighting with my sisters, for patience, for confidence, or for better hair. I had the faith of a naive thirteen-year-old who had not yet become a “cafeteria Catholic.” (Someone who picks and chooses which church rules to follow)
My junior year of high school tested my belief in the power of prayer and my faith in the Blessed Virgin Mary. At St. Ed’s the juniors helped plan the junior/senior prom. In the spring of 1973 the prom committee had narrowed down the entertainment choices to two Louisiana bands, one from our local parish or a Baton Rouge group called Cocodris (French for alligator). The latter featured two of my first cousins from Donaldsonville: George and his sister Boco! Closer to my age, Boco was my grooviest relative and the coolest person I had ever known. She first performed with The Fifth Autumn, her family band that toured Louisiana and beyond. Boco, her brothers George and Joe, her sister Sue, and a neighbor drummer had made up The Fifth Autumn. Once they even performed at my hometown’s only night club – the Purple Peacock.
Boco’s long straight brown hair, her honest connection with a song, and her smoky voice could hypnotize a room. George was (and still is) a talented guitarist and songwriter. If Cocodris could be our prom band, my quiet girl-who-never-dated wallflower persona might change to groovy-girl status.
I did not know how the prom leaders made their decisions, but I felt my tight connection with the Mother of God could pull some heavenly strings. In the church’s holy silence on weekday afternoons, I knelt in front of my favorite religious figure (after lighting a small candle) and prayed Hail Marys and original prayers that named my rock-and-roll cousins and promised that if they could wow the teens in our decorated gym with their musical talents, I’d hold off begging for anything until I turned eighteen. I had never prayed longer or harder for anything in my life. Here was a doable miracle! Mary could make this happen, and I had the hope and faith of someone who had yet to experience a major life tragedy.
I don’t remember the day I heard the news that Cocodris would preform at our prom. I don’t remember how I asked Victor, the usher at the picture show I worked with who attended public school, to be my prom date. I’ve forgotten most of the songs they sang except “U.S.S.R.,” which George dedicated to me, my parents, and my sister Gayle (who was serving punch). However, I do remember Boco telling me at that year’s LaTour family reunion, “Ginger! You were floating off the gym floor when you walked in! Off the floor!” Dance details are forgotten, but I saved the obligatory prom pic and a 45 of Boco singing “Running the Mardi Gras.” Still, the joy of that night made me believe in the power of prayer. Mary had heard my words and granted my wish!
Does it matter that I cross my fingers when I pray? That one of my favorite lines in literature is from Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory”? It’s a story about a boy’s friendship with an elderly relative and their fruitcake-making Christmas tradition. The woman was so superstitious that when they were counting the money they had saved for cake ingredients and ended up with thirteen dollars, she said, “‘We can’t mess around with thirteen. The cakes will fall…Why I wouldn’t dream of getting out of bed on the thirteenth.’” So to be on the safe side, they subtracted a penny and tossed it out the window. I understood that level of superstition.
Nowadays I avoid getting out of bed at the thirteenth minute of any hour. I close my eyes for a kind of snooze button effect and say a few Hail Marys if the clock reads 6:13. During my thirty-four years of teaching in public schools, when I stayed after the last bell to prepare my room for the next day’s kids, I’d straightened my class sets of To Kill a Mockingbird on the book shelves; I’d rearrange desks and pick up stray notebooks; I’d stack the next day’s handouts on my desk and write tomorrow’s agenda on the blackboard. But I never included the following day’s date. No “tempting fate” by writing a date before it arrived.
Faith can be an unbelievable force, yet it’s no guarantee. Despite innumerable rosaries and novenas, people I loved still died from cancer or car accidents or bad decisions. I handle life’s uncertainties like a daydream I had as a teenager: I’m walking down a narrow, uneven trail through a dense wood where the sun flickers through the branches. The ground is covered in leaves, and up ahead is an unusual patch – a mixture of soft, mud-colored nettles and sand and shallow water. Quick sand or sink hole? Who knows? The path holds danger like gray hurricane clouds. But I make the sign of the cross and keep walking. I take measured steps though the cool squishiness as brown water covers my bare feet, and I keep going because at the end of the trail might be cousins Boco and George performing an acoustic arrangement of Irma Thomas’ “It’s Raining.” Life’s uncertainties may curdle my stomach, but believing in miracles keeps my head full of dragon flies instead of mosquitos