Sunday, December 25, 2005

Mass appeal

Hey! Kate's back!

On this Christmas Eve, I'd like to rock it old school and give you an account of last Christmas, when my family signed my grandmom out of the nursing home for the night and went to church. Watch the magic unfold...

My mother has always struggled with parking lots. She can be walking across an otherwise smoothly paved, perfectly dry surface and trip over an errant piece of gravel. Taking into consideration her record v. parking lots in the best of conditions, my dad thought it best to escort her into church over the slippery ice.

He parked grandma with us in the church lobby to double back for Mom. Being that Grandmom couldn’t look up too well, she commented on our shoes. My brother and I mocked the pictures of the lumpy and misshapen youths who constitute the youth group. Everything was out of proportion – bulbous noses, flat hair and the odd 15-year-old with jowls.

We paraded in to the dimly lit church and, although surveying uncharted terrain, realized we needed to figure out where to sit – too far in the front and we’d block the other congregants, too far in the back and we’d miss out on the choicest communion wafers.

It was a tough call, one made tougher by me being weighed down with a family’s worth of coats. We huddled under the fifth station of the cross, and I caught Jesus’ eye. We surveyed each other’s loads, and maybe it was just the pain of Grandma’s wheelchair
that had rolled on my toe, but I swear He gave me a “Good work little buddy” and a wink.

We decided on the back of the church, and filed in, with grandma as the bookend. The church is a cathedral style, with large white pillars so that a good 10 percent of the faithful have their view blocked — a blank canvas to better contemplate our Savior. The choir began to warm up in the 150-year-old loft condemned by the fire department for all days of the year but this. On this holy occasion, the fire department looks the other way, and 10 or so smiling singers and musicians make their way up the thickly carpeted stairs like the crew of the Challenger.

Dad and I know our role, and it’s not in the choir loft. Over the years my musical contribution has dwindled from singing to mouthing words to humming to staring beatifically and tapping my fingers.

Generally out of rhythm.

The night’s song sheet settled a debate about the choir leader’s last name. Unbeknownst to him, Tom Georgio had caused a family fight earlier in the evening about whether his last name was Georgio or Di Georgio. Dad wasn’t going to admit defeat that easily, though, and summoned a pencil to add “Di”
to his sheet to show Mom.

Tom Georgio – just Georgio, thanks – began to over-sing a duet with one of his possibly 11 daughters. Grandma whipped her head around as though someone had hurled a spitball at her. Many of the members – probably most of the non-Georgios – hadn’t been to that week’s practice.

Grandma noticed.

What she did not notice was when they would stop the song. They finished and the church reflected in the holy silence.

“Well they tried,” the small woman next to me in the wheelchair said.

Mass began.

All went well during the processional, at which point the lack of practice caught up with the choir, as some plowed straight into verse two, while others diverted into verse three. Grandma let that pass without comment. She was either adjusting her earrings or plugging her ears. I know which I choose.

Father’s mic sounded alarmingly bullhorn-like, as though at any moments he would yell “Who do we want?” at which point we’d shout “Jesus!”

A family slipped in to the row ahead of us. The older daughter rocked a star-spangled look, while her younger sister was decked out in her poofiest purple meringue dress. The father muttered, “Can’t see a damn thing” and with that they were settled.

Ahead of them was a group of mentally challenged adults. One sported a Santa hat. Many probably had fun at the church’s annual – and tragically named – Mentally Retarded Fun Night, a name that never fails to win a suppressed snort from my brother.

The faithful were packed shoulder to shoulder, but I realized we’d found a loophole. Not wanting to run the Grandma obstacle course, people had left us a full third of a pew. We had made her into a human shield.

The little girl in front of us started to tip taffeta over velveteen and I put my hand out “Stop in the name of love” style, as though I was going to pull her back magnetically. Her father got to her first, and smiled a thanks. It probably looked more like I pushed her than tried to help.

The choir crechendoed to a trilling “aammmmEEENNNN!!” and the rusty Catholics and heathen Protestants begin to rise prematurely, while pious eyes darted around, playing Holy Whack-a-mole as their heads popped up.

An elfin-height squatty woman tried to peer around one of the poles – to no avail.

Just like the choir, the collection-basket passer was a volunteer position, a point made painfully obvious when one hit the little girl in front of us.

Apologies were issued. In the Christmas spirit, lawsuits were dropped.

The woman issuing the communion wine sported a “Merry fitness!” complete with a reindeer doing a stomach crunch. I nearly spit it in her face.

The choir laughed in the face of death again this year, descending from their condemned perch. Although if Di Georgio – wait, no, just Georgio – doesn’t lay off the sugar plums, this year may be their last.

P.S. There was talk among some in the choir that my mom had replaced the word “heart” with “fart,” in a moment of distraction. She denies the allegation.