Writing about Your Religious Upbringing: Part 2

by Memoir Mentor on June 29, 2011

I recently wrote a post about the importance of writing about the religious culture in your home if it was integral to your upbringing. I included a wonderful story from Jeanne Fobes  as an example of one approach to the topic. You can find it here.

I’ve posted below a story written by my student Carolee Lavarini about growing up Catholic. The story was well received when she read it to her classmates at one of our summer writing workshops. Notice how well her use of scene brings this story to life. Had she merely summarized what happened, the event she describes wouldn’t have had as much punch–or humor. But Carolee re-creates the incident, adding dialogue and actions, giving us a “blow-by-blow view” of what happened. Enjoy!

The Mermaid
by Carolee Lavarini

My older sister Linda and her boyfriend Johnny wanted to get married.  It was 1957, and they had just graduated from high school. One night Johnny came to our house to ask Daddy for her hand in marriage. I was standing in the hallway, listening through the heater, and I heard him say, “We want to get married, Sir. I’ll take good care of your daughter.”

It was quiet enough to hear Johnny shuffling his feet back and forth. Finally, Daddy said, “If her mother agrees and Linda wants to marry you, then my answer is yes.”

Soon they were all making plans. I was busy in my senior year at high school, staying as far away as possible. The wedding plans were moving along on schedule, when the evening arrived for the priest to come over and meet the future bride’s family.

Daddy was excited that a priest was coming to our house. Mama had been cleaning house non-stop all week. My little sister, Sammie, and I were to walk in the front door and look over the living room with an eye for anything that didn’t look perfect for the priest to see. We did our job and Mama changed a few things around.

I was just pointing out the plaster mermaid cigarette holder that was on the top of the television set when the doorbell rang. One of my uncles had won it at a carnival and gave it to Daddy as a joke. It was topless with long hair partially covering her breasts. About a dozen cigarettes stood up in holes along the back, like a fence.

It had always been a sore spot between my mom and dad. Mama was embarrassed by it and kept moving it to a less conspicuous place. Daddy liked it and kept putting it back on the TV set. He kept his cigarettes in it, and laughed whenever he took a cigarette off the so-called fence.

When Linda answered the door to let the priest in, I jumped in front of the television set to block the mermaid. She introduced Father Joseph to Mama and Daddy, completely ignoring Sammie and me. After Mama introduced us, everyone sat down but me. I stood guard in front of the mermaid.

I was drifting into my usual daydream mode, when I noticed Daddy jerk up very straight and tall. He jumped up off the sofa, getting so close to Father Joseph that Daddy had to lean back to look up to him. “What did you say?” he yelled at the priest. There was no backing down for my dad. Size meant nothing to him.

Oh noooo, I thought, what happened? We’re all going to go to hell….. I know it, I know it…

Father Joseph said, “You heard me. I’m sorry. These are the rules of God. Not my rules, Mr. Lavarini. If you didn’t get married in the Catholic Church, then you are not legally married in the eyes of God.” He backed up a step as Daddy stepped forward again.

“It can all be taken care of. You just need to get married in the church and then we can go forward with Linda and Johnny’s wedding. However, the entire family has to go to classes to study the rules of the church. Your children will have to be re-baptized, as well as you and your wife.” He looked down at his feet, nervously shifting his weight back and forth, side to side.

Dropping his voice, he leaned in toward my dad, almost whispering, “You must understand sir, your children are bastards in the eyes of God. You and your wife were not married in the Church when the children were conceived. This cannot be ignored. They are born out of sin…..”

Daddy lunged forward, grabbing Father Joseph by the arm, strongly directing him to the front door. “Out! Get the hell out of my house! You can’t come in my home and tell me we aren’t married, that my children are bastards. Who the hell do you think you are? Coming in my house, telling me we’re sinners….” Daddy yelled, while pushing Father Joseph toward the door. They got in the entry way and Daddy tried to pull the door open but it kept hitting the priest’s foot and bouncing back.

Mama hurried to Daddy and put her hand on his arm. “Okay, Sam, just back up and give him room to get out. Just come back in and sit down. Let it go, Sam.” Mama’s face was all red. She wouldn’t look at us kids.

Father Joseph said to Linda and Johnny, “If you don’t marry in the church, your marriage will not be true.” He raised his voice. “You’ll live in sin, just like your parents. It will never be a real marriage,” he yelled.

Daddy slammed the door in his face. Mama paced back and forth, shaking her head. Linda started crying and yelling while Johnny tried to calm her down. I was terrified that God would strike us all down, but refused to leave my post in front of the mermaid, just in case the priest came back. Sammie got the giggles and ran out of the room.

Two months later, Linda and Johnny were married in a chapel. The reception was at our house with a lot of food, presents, relatives and neighbors. Not one word was mentioned about the Catholic Church.

A year later they were separated. Then Linda discovered she was pregnant. They went back together, until after the baby was born and she had time to get pregnant again.

My mother and father were both pulling their hair out.

One afternoon Mama phoned me at work. “They’re getting divorced,” she cried.

Mama kept saying their marriage was doomed from the start and Daddy blamed it all on Father Joseph. Then, they both blamed it on the plaster mermaid, and stuck to their story.

I never saw the mermaid again. No one ever admitted getting rid of it. Linda just sneered if I brought it up. Daddy wouldn’t talk about it without cussing it. Grandma said the mermaid was jinxed and needed to be destroyed if anyone ever found it. If you asked Mama about the mermaid, she’d say, “What mermaid?”