Twelfth Day

December 22, 1991|By NAN MULQUEEN

MY WOOLEN TIGHTS NEEDED HITCHING EVERY five minutes. Starting at the knee and working my way up to the waist, I twisted, kneaded, and yanked the yarn into position. So ++ engrossed was I in this laborious process that Papa had to come fetch me when I failed to answer his call.

I still remember Papa's face crumbling in laughter as he spied me sprawled across my bed -- plaid skirts hitched to my waist -- engaged in a tug-o-war that nearly had me in tears. Making a conscious effort to be disagreeable, I ignored his mirth and immersed myself once more in this most frustrating endeavor. But Papa merely resigned himself to my less than congenial mood and asked me downstairs at my earliest convenience.

My petulance stemmed from what I considered a low tolerance for the annual holiday blitz of Catholic hypocrisy. We hadn't been to church in nearly a year, so I couldn't see the point in attending that Christmas morning. I knew Papa agreed with me, too, because I had a habit of listening to Mama and Papa when they had their "daily discussions." That particular morning I distinctly remember Papa calling Mama a hypocrite, among other even less appealing appellations. Mama then responded calmly that she would not be talked about by other members of the parish for not attending Mass on the holiest day of the year. I thought this point was arguable -- the "holiest day" thing, I mean. However, while I was pondering this ecclesiastical issue, I missed the next few barbs that were delivered and fielded.

Apparently my mother prevailed in this contest of wills, for there I was fighting for my sanity with an expensive pair of constricting cream-colored tights.

When I reluctantly emerged from my bedroom and made my way downstairs, I was greeted by Mama, Papa, and Timothy, my younger brother, already clad in coats, scarves, and hats. Timothy was making repeated, dubious attempts at inserting both hands into his mittens, which were still clipped to the lapels of his jacket. I noted the look of awe and admiration in Timothy's eyes when I increased his chances of success by detaching his mittens for him. I kissed his cherubic face and deliberated whether this expedition would be as bad as I had first expected. But, as if reading my thoughts and jubilantly erasing all hope of redemption, Mama commented coolly that we might, indeed, be ready for the Reader's Digest America that awaited us outside the door.

I hadn't set foot in St. Bartholomew Cathedral since the funeral of my sister, Lydia. Lydia was the most beautiful person I had ever known, and since her death, I was ashamed of the fact that I resented her beauty. She used to tell me that we looked alike. "If you were just a little taller, we could pass for identical twins," she would say to me, and even though I knew that there was no truth in this statement, I would smile and blush in appreciation. Eventually, I resigned myself to the fact that I seemed to inherit the worst features of both my parents. Still, I secretly fantasized that one fine morning I would awaken and find that I had, indeed, been transformed into a clone of Lydia by a benign God.

Lydia killed herself on January 19 of last year. She overdosed on sleeping pills and never woke up again. From that day forward, not even an aspirin was to be found in our household. I wasn't supposed to know the circumstances of her death, but, being 10 years old, I had a pretty good grasp of reality. Contrary to my mother's beliefs, even a 10 year old weighs the probability of a sudden, fatal illness in a girl formerly the picture of health. My parents soon realized that they had seriously jeopardized my faith in them, but I can only assume that they felt morally obligated to hold fast to their original claim. So, it was a tacit agreement among the three of us that I feign ignorance of Lydia's suicide to outsiders and never verbalize my suspicions inside the house.

As soon as the heavy red doors of the cathedral swung open, I remembered what I had always loved about Catholicism. It transported me to another time. The baroque marble statues towered over me and surveyed my progress down the center aisle. The chords emanating from the pipe organ swelled with a Bach fugue, and the aroma of incense wafted through my nostrils, making breathing a chore. But I didn't mind -- it was all part of the papist pomp and circumstances that I thought intrinsic to the Catholic ceremony. Timothy was considerably less impressed with his gothic surroundings. He spent the better part of the opening hymn extracting a forgotten Tootsie Roll from his pocket and freeing it from the paper wrapping that had become part of the melted chocolate.

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