Writing about Your Religious Upbringing: Jeanne Fobes Shows How

by Memoir Mentor on June 7, 2011

Many of us grew up in families where an important part of childhood revolved around going to church and living the tenets of a particular religion. You may have memories about attending church, and it’s likely that upbringing has stayed with you to some extent and still influences your spiritual life. Or you may have decided to follow your own path. Whatever your current beliefs and practices, it seems important that your personal history include some of your experiences and feelings about the role religion, church, and other spiritual matters have played in your life, particularly if you grew up in a situation where going to church was a regular family activity.

As it turns out, most of my students seem to have been reared in families that were affiliated with a particular church, and attending that church was an important—often mandatory—weekly event. Maybe it’s their generation. Maybe there’s a relationship between an interest in family history and church affiliation. Whatever the reason, if there is one, my students often write about their religious upbringing and what it meant to them.

I love the following story from Jeanne Fobes, a student new to me this term. She has already written a great deal of her personal history and is a fine writer. In this story, she captures with humor and honesty some of the fears and awkwardness children sometimes experience trying to navigate grown-up expectations about living “true to the faith.”

Growing Up Catholic
by Jeanne Fobes

As important as it was, social justice was not the central focus of our family. Being Catholic was. Dad’s Irish and Mom’s French ancestors were all Catholic as far back as anyone knew. St. Elizabeth’s was our local parish, so that’s where we went to church and to school. Dad helped out by keeping the books for the parish. He soon became one of our pastor’s few close friends.

“Here comes Peter Rabbit,” my irreverent brother Jim whispered to Tom and me whenever we heard the clinking of the chain attached to Father Kennedy’s Boston Bull Terrier. He had re-named Father Peter R. Kennedy “Peter Rabbit,” much to our delight. Mom was active in the Altar Society. Our family went to Mass together every Sunday, on Holy Days, and on many other occasions, especially during Lent.

Lent also required keeping ancient rules of fasting and abstinence from meat. And we were expected to give up something – something that we liked a lot. Agonizing decisions for us kids, who mostly liked desserts and movies. “I’m giving up peas,” Jim teased. “No rutabagas for me,” I chimed in. But we knew better, and I remember that it felt right to us to make a sacrifice. But forty days were a long time. If I gave up ice cream, I had a bowl filled with my favorite flavor – chocolate – ready to dive into at the stroke of noon on Holy Saturday, the official end of Lent. I felt like a saint-in-training.

I couldn’t wait to start school. Jim was a big kid in the second grade when I entered kindergarten. I was four, almost five, years old and was already a good reader. “Jeanne, this week’s Ladies Home Journal is here. Please read to me while I fix dinner,” Mom said. I felt very grown up as I pulled out the step stool, took a seat and flipped through the magazine to that week’s installment of Faith Baldwin’s “Twenty-Four Hours a Day.” Then I’d read an article like “Warning to Wives – The Girl in the Office Speaks Out” while I got hungry smelling the onions frying and hearing the ground beef sizzle as Mom stirred it into the skillet.

I loved kindergarten. The best thing about it was the sand table. A sand table is like a sand box except it’s on legs. This table was at exactly the right height for us kindergartners to stand and play in the fine white sand. There were colorful little wooden houses and trees and cars and a red school and a school bus. I said to myself, as I drove my yellow school bus through the soft sand up to the school, “This is the way to live.”

As I moved on to first grade and beyond, I found even more to like about school. The playground was great fun, especially swinging as high as possible on the swing and jumping rope with the other girls. “Mabel, Mabel, neat and able. Mabel, Mabel, set the table. And don’t forget the Red Hot Peppers!” Then the girl at each end would swing the jump rope faster and faster. I liked the spelling bees and the school plays and just about everything except for lining up on Fridays and walking to the church to go to confession.

What I hated most about confession was I had to think up some sins to tell and then I had to tell them to a grown-up man. And to a grown-up man who was practically a personal friend of my father’s!

And the going to confession was pretty creepy. I stood in line along the side wall of church with my class until it was my turn. Then I had to go in, no matter what!  I pushed aside the maroon-colored drape, entered the dark confessional box and knelt on the wooden kneeler. I could hear the gruff mumble of Fr. Kennedy as he prayed for the penitent who was kneeling in an identical box on the other side of him. I knelt rigidly on my kneeler, terrified that I might forget one of the sins I had to confess. If I did, would I have to get back into line? My stomach lurched as I heard the door over the grate on the other side slide shut. It was my turn! I froze as the small door over the grate in front of me slid open and Fr. Kennedy made a sign of the cross and mumbled something incoherently Latin.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been one week since my last confession. Since then I have argued with my best friend one time, skipped my piano practice one time, and lied to my father.”

“What was the lie?” Father asked, to my horror.

“Instead of going to bed, I hid in my closet and read,” I replied, terrified at what he might say to that. But Father just mumbled, “Your Penance is ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys. Now make the Act of Contrition.” And he gave me Absolution. Whew! I exited the confessional and sank into a pew where I said my Penance, then, after genuflecting toward the altar, walked fast back to my classroom. I was sin-free!

One of the things I feared about confession was that Father Kennedy would know who I was. I covered my face with one hand all the time I was in the confessional and I tried to change my voice. This is because of a story I overheard Mary Alice Emken, Mom’s best friend, tell Mom. One day when Mary Alice was little, after she finished her confession and was about to leave the confessional, the priest said to her, “Oh, Mary Alice, tell your mother I can be there by six for dinner.”

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Note: You’ll find more good examples of how to write about your religious upbringing in the following memoirs:

  • Haven Kimmel’s A Girl Named Zippy and She Got Up Off the Couch (Quaker)
  • Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (Catholic)
  • Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (Catholic)
  • Ed Geary’s Goodbye to Poplarhaven (Mormon)

If anyone has other suggestions, please let me know.