It’s 1959. I’m a Southern religious teenage girl raised on the fire and brimstone of the Baptist Church. My boyfriend is a second generation Italian Catholic. My mother, recently divorced from my step-father, transforms from a “Betty Crocker’ housewife into a bird set free from a gilded cage. This turn of events leads to her elopement with one of her many men friends to Elkton, Maryland. Butch and I go along as witnesses. After spending the night in her Buick at the A&P parking lot, waiting for the courthouse to open, we finally walk out of the wide court doors—married—all four of us. Mom and Sal drive off to Florida, I move in with a girlfriend and Butch goes back to his home, as if nothing stupendous happened.
Being the innocents we are, Butch and I remain celibate for four months, until I graduate from High School. Passion overcomes good sense and it happens in his bedroom while his parents are visiting relatives. I become pregnant at once. We realize we have to tell his parents . . . it is all we fear and more.
His mother wails, proclaiming that Butch will be excommunicated from the Catholic Church and doomed to Hell. His father mutters in Italian, rage etched across his face—pacing and muttering until I feel ready to faint. Butch looks scared. I try to pretend I’m not there—and we haven’t told them the good part yet.
“We’re having a baby, Mom,” Butch practically whispers. More wailing, more muttering in Italian . . . and then calm descends upon the kitchen. His parents switch to complete acceptance and begin preparation for a religious “proper Catholic wedding” for my “illegitimate baby”. “Of course,” his mom adds, “You must promise to raise the children Catholic”. I try to speak but I don’t seem to remember how.
Within days, I find myself living with his parents, who have always treated me kindly, even now, as long as I change my entire way of life to fit theirs. I sleep with his two sisters and Butch sleeps in his own room with his brother. Each time the pregnancy brings on the urge to relieve my bladder; his mother is up as well, insuring that we don’t get together in the biblical sense, like the Crusader for God that she is.
They send me for studies in Catholicism as soon as I stop throwing up. Women are even more hormonal when pregnant and the young priest assigned to me ends up in a rest home for frazzled priests. Somehow that made me feel vindicated. Still, his parents win. I have conceded to raise our kids Catholic.
On a hot, sultry day in July, we are wed again (apparently God wasn’t watching the first time) in the rectory of the church because as a non-Catholic, I am not purified to stand before the altar. This time Butch faints, instead of me, as if realizing that this time he is really married. After Butch is revived on the tiled floor of the small stifling room, we return to his home; now filled with a horde of relatives who all look alike to me.
I am hugged and squeezed—not a smart thing to do to a nauseous pregnant girl—but their warmth and love touches my heart. I am also experiencing what “kissing cousins” means. Seemingly from nowhere the twelve-foot-long dining room tabled is laden with Italian dishes of all varieties, most of which I can’t pronounce. If my stomach stops churning I might attempt to taste the alien, albeit delicious-smelling concoctions set before me. I don’t see any southern fried chicken.
After our child is born, she is baptized before six-weeks old, a religious tradition I argue against because I don’t want her outside in the cold February air. “Oh no,” my mother-in-law insists, “If she dies, God forbid, she will be doomed to remain in ‘limbo.’
Years pass. My children go to Catechism and I dutifully take them to Sunday mass, wearing a mantilla on top of my head, listening to a liturgy spoken and sung in Latin. I am not allowed to take communion. Still, I sing them Southern Baptist gospel hymns and teach them the personal aspects of my own faith.
My sister-in-law asks me to become a godmother for her first child. I am thrilled, since Baptists don’t have godparents. But . . . there’s always a ‘but’. . . I have to embrace Catholicism to be worth of this honor. So off I go, pregnant with my fifth child, (birth control would doom me to certain Hell) to take on yet another priest for lessons in Catholicism.
After hour-long sessions debating theology, which I enjoy, Father Christopher begins to harp on the subject of birth control, although he can surely see that is not a problem with me. Butch comes early one afternoon to pick me up, and plays ‘devil’s advocate’, asking the priest, “Could you sleep next to someone who looks like my wife and not touch her?”
The priest turns a deep crimson and stares off at the heavy brocade drapes as he forms his reply. “Then you must sleep in different beds.” “Then you must be crazy,” Butch says.
The night before my Baptism the priest telephones me. “I need to know one more time that you won’t use birth control, before I can baptize you in good faith.”I agree in order to follow the rules of the Church that I am about to embrace, but mention the obvious fact that I am already pregnant. When I point out the hypocrisy of this situation, the Father insists I can’t be held responsible today for what I might do tomorrow. His logic angers me, but I am baptized in order to become a godmother. My other children are awed by this religious event.
Our lives roll forward. We now have six children, probably a hex put upon us by the priest, I like to think. All the kids look like Butch and I’m beginning to feel Italian myself. I hear later that he was sent to a permanent home for priests with nervous breakdowns. I don’t feel sympathy over that. Wonderfully happy years as well as sorrowful times fall upon us. We survive them both but the losses take their toll upon our lives.
As our kids grow up and have children of their own, I realize that I cook Italian food as good or better than Butch’s relatives, and have made my peace with the Church, in that I take from it what I need and ignore the rest.
From a young Southern-born Scottish girl, I’ve become embedded in a culture not my own; and find that I am comfortable with it. I love Butch’s family as my own. I know Butch feels the same about my family. I do hang onto some of my own scruples by still refusing to taste the customary dishes eaten after fasting on Christmas Eve—things like eels, calamari, a nasty codfish soup and anchovies with pasta—there’s a limit to how far I can yield.