What I Gave Up for Lent...
or Say Three Our Fathers and Three Hail Marys
This is the time of year when I can't help but reflect on my Catholic
upbringing-and my subsequent recovery from the same. If you grew up in
New Orleans, you'll know what I mean because whether you're Catholic or not, the city is.
I was always fascinated by the fact that we could be as bad as we wanted to be (a la Dennis Rodman) at Mardi Gras, only to have to wear the sack cloth and ashes of Lent for 40 days thereafter. It set up in my mind the sort of "sin now, salvation later" mentality that pervades New Orleans even today.
Lent began with the traditional ashes on the forehead ritual -a huge embarrassment to us kids who all tried to feign wiping sweat from our brows at least once before we even returned to our seats in the church. And Lent ended with the eggs of Easter and a chocolate extravaganza. Actually, the ashes-to-eggs theme does have a certain rebirth quality to it.
On Easter Sunday we would all be reborn come hell or high water. And it was that rebirth quality of Easter which convinced me that no bunny rabbit, ever-ready as she might be, could spare me from the evils of that symbol of resurrection: THE EASTER DRESS...a lesbian nightmare, tantamount to the bed of nails, or the walk across hot coals. If memory serves me correctly, and trust me, no one could ever forget this: Easter Sunday was not about angels and empty tombs, or even about lunch at Commander's Palace. Easter Sunday was about pain and humiliation, unbearable itching and pinched toes and, worst of all, it was about bobby pins (small torture devices made of corrugated wire which were used to hold bonnets to one's head even in hurricane winds).
I remember the preparations for Easter. Lent seemed so long-Coca Cola must have really felt the pinch from all those undrunk given-up-for-Lent bottles of Coke. When Good Friday finally rolled around, it was time to visit the local department store for the purchase of the dreaded Easter Outfit.
Mom, with me in tow, would enter the hated den of dresses. An "outfit" came with shoes, purse and hat. Frilly socks were optional. I would stand in front of the three way mirror while some sales lady pulled and poked me, tied the sash too tight, and pinched my cheeks to redden them up. "Now isn't she adorable," she'd coo.
Adorable, my foot. I was miserable. Arms stuck out from my body because the sleeves were too tight. Toes crammed in the patent leather shoes which I would only wear once and for as few hours as possible, but unfortunately not before the blisters would arrive or before my heels were in shreds. But the biggest humiliation was the hat. No respectable pre-dyke would be caught dead in one of those Hedda Hopper headdresses.
Still, Mom was determined to have her little darling match every other little darling in church on Sunday. First one dress, then another. Try these shoes...no, those. Finally the outfit was complete and I was completely miserable. These Good Friday shopping excursions brought me great empathy for the suffering of Christ. While he had his cross to bear, I also had mine.
Easter Sunday would dawn all clear and blue. My dress would be laid out on the bed, along with my shoes and purse. My dad would give me a quarter to drop in the basket at the Offering during Mass and I would tuck it into the small zipper section of the stiff bag, along with my tiny rosary and my Children's Companion to the Holy Bible-a prayer book so small that no one could actually read the miniature type. And of course, there was the holy picture. I had my particular favorite: St. Joan of Arc riding into battle with the flames of the Holy Ghost blazing above her head. No dress for this soldier of Christ!
The church service was always too long and I'd get squirmy. The thrill of dropping the quarter in the collection basket was over too soon. Then it was that long, long kneeling through the consecration, and finally communion...and shortly thereafter, freedom.
The rest of the day was spent in dungarees and sneakers, riding bikes and playing kick ball in the street. Good, young lesbian pastimes. But there were always those photographs snapped by my dad: me and my brother standing in front of the Easter baskets that lived in the attic until that one morning 40 days after Ash Wednesday. Caught forever in time on the emulsion sheets were two kids-one destined to be gay, the other straight-dressed in their Easter finery. My brother was always smiling; I never did.
Just another snapshot of growing up gay in New Orleans where nothing ever seemed to fit quite right and where I spent a lot of time trying NOT to be the Miss America my mother wanted...but also trying to give her just enough hope that one day I would be so that she'd let me do the things I wanted to do.
Ashes to eggs...endings and beginnings...the duality of life never, ever escaped me...even when I was deeply engrossed in a chocolate Easter rabbit.
Life..it keeps going and going and going....