Kathleen McKitty Harris | Longreads | June 2019 | 10 minutes (2,618 words)
I am in kindergarten and I am kneeling on the seat of my desk chair. So are all of my Catholic school classmates. We are 4 and 5 and 6, and we stare at the crucifix hanging on the wall while our knees burn from the pain of prolonged contact and pressure against the blond, lacquered wood. Our teacher, Miss Judy — who, my father says, is a dead ringer for Jane Russell — knots silk scarves at the hollow of her neck and wears Candie’s sandals that thwack against the soles of her feet while she walks. While we kneel, she talks about the drunk driver who killed her sister many years ago, and says we need to pray for her sister’s departed soul. We don’t pray for the driver. I think, My father smells like whisky when he drives. My father has crashed a car. My father is going to Hell.
Our teacher is gripping Tommy McNulty’s navy polyester necktie and using it like a punching ball string to knock his head into the bulletin board at the back of our classroom — pumpumpum — while asking him quite loudly when he plans on learning to behave. I am in fourth grade and I hear the dull, thudding sound of Tommy’s head keeping time with Miss Judy’s words, the two of them a human rhythm section hastily formed after one of Tommy’s many transgressions. I face the blackboard at the front of the room and keep my hands clasped on my desk. Tommy doesn’t answer her. None of the other students in the room move, or speak. The drumming of his occipital bone against the cork board throbs against our breasts — mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa — and burrows into our still-developing psyches.
Our teacher is gripping Tommy McNulty’s navy polyester necktie and using it like a punching ball string to knock his head into the bulletin board at the back of our classroom.
In sixth grade, we are invited by our teacher, Sister Veronica, to bring our favorite albums into class and play them on a turntable stationed at the front of the classroom. This is not routine Catholic school behavior. This is exciting. I choose not to bring my Beatles albums, especially “The Beatles 1962-1966” and “The Beatles 1967-1970,” because my Great-Aunt Charlotte once said while sipping her martini that “the Beatles brought all the drugs to the ’60s,” and I assume Sister Veronica feels much the same. Jessica Salerno brings Charlie Daniels’ recently popular radio single, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” which curries favor with Sister, and which leaves all of us worried and breathless. Thankfully, Sister Veronica likes the song, because Johnny, the fiddle player, had obviously outsmarted the Devil, and because Jessica brought the “clean” version of the 45, which did not contain the phrase “you son of a bitch.” Kerry Moriarty makes a rookie mistake, bringing Billy Joel’s hit album, “The Stranger,” and asking Sister Veronica to play “Only the Good Die Young” on Side Two. Sister Veronica stands stern-faced at the turntable, her body tensing as she hears “Come out Virginia / Don’t make me wait / You Catholic girls start much too late.” My classmates and I sit with eyes averted, heads in hands, studying the intricate patterns of the faux wood grain on our desktops. Sister lifts the needle mid-lyric and says, “That’s enough for today.”
I am 14, and my parents have just returned home after dinner with another couple. The four of them are old friends who grew up together in the outer boroughs of New York City, and who now live a few miles away from each other in the city’s affluent suburbs. My mother speaks to me in the kitchen while my father recedes into their master bedroom to lie down in dress pants and loafers on his side of the bed, smoke a cigarette, and watch television, as he does on most Friday nights. My mother tells me that the subject of abortion had come up at their meal earlier this evening. They were discussing the theoretical conjecture of their daughters becoming pregnant teenagers, unwed mothers, frightened girls too young to carry babies. All four of them were raised as Catholics, and our shared heritage considers abortion a sin. My mother says my father announced at dinner that he would take me anywhere I needed to go to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. She and their friends were stunned by his statement. Later in the conversation, she says, they spoke about the murder of a local woman by her ex-boyfriend, which has dominated the news. The ex-boyfriend was receiving a reduced jail sentence for his crime. My mother says my father spoke of killing whomever might kill me. He would take a life for mine. He would call this justice. He would willingly serve time for such an act, because his life would have already ended in the brutal conclusion of mine. He never says such things to me. I hear the tinny sound of situation comedy dialogue in the other room, and the canned laughter of a studio audience. My mother and I say nothing else. We both know he would not kill for her.
In the mid-’60s, my father attended a Jesuit high school in the Bronx. Father Reilly was the school’s “Prefect of Discipline,” and had been a Navy boxer during World War II. He regularly chastised boys for lateness, poor grades, infractions, dirty looks, slouched postures. My father says a classmate once dangled from a boys’ bathroom window — two stories up, hanging by fingers and polished-oxford-tipped toes from the granite gargoyle adornments of the school building’s exterior — rather than endure the Prefect’s physical beating for smoking in a bathroom stall. While a freshman, my father contracted appendicitis and required surgery, and was absent from school for several weeks. He returned with a doctor’s note excusing him from gym. Father Reilly was also the school’s gym teacher. He crumpled up the paper and commanded my father to dive into the pool. My father was still medicated, weak and disoriented, and hit his head on the bottom of the pool. He couldn’t tell up from down. He couldn’t surface. His friend jumped into pull him from the water. Father Reilly smirked as my father’s choked for air while grasping the poolside, and yelled at other swimmers to dive into the lanes.
My parents are Irish Catholic New Yorkers transplanted in rocky Connecticut soil. My college boyfriend is of Russian and Polish Jewish ancestry. Our romance starts while we are studying abroad in London, and we have both returned to the States to complete our senior year at Syracuse University. At my parents’ insistence, I bring him home to meet them. I’d rather maintain some distance for now, but I comply. We eat dinner at the dining room table that my father refinished when I was a little girl. The table is carved oak, a purchase made in 1974 from a roadside antiques shop near a stream in Wilton, Connecticut, where my parents take weekend drives to escape the city. My mother and I sit by the sparkling stream and pick buttercups while my father smokes cigarettes with the owner and politely haggles over the price. The shop owner tells him that several wooden leaves — used to expand the table’s surface and accommodate a larger group of diners — are also available, but they were scorched in a house fire. This doesn’t concern my father. He knows how to fix things. He strips the wood and removes the surface damage. For weeks, metal tins of turpentine and wood stain line the cement floor of our Queens basement. My father smokes while he sands down the wood. He calls me downstairs and teaches me how to use a planer. He tells me to follow the woodgrain, to never go against it. He shows me a former owner’s quaint repair embedded in the tabletop: a smear of red sealing wax used to even out a gouge in the wood. He likes the imperfection, the character of it. We now sit at this same table, revived by my father’s efforts. We talk politics and my father hisses that Richard Nixon should have been shot for treason. My boyfriend politely disagrees. After dessert is served, my boyfriend thanks my parents for their kindness, and leaves. My father backs me up against the kitchen counter and tells me that he doesn’t like this boy. And it isn’t because he’s Jewish, he says.
My roommate Lauren is unconscious on the bathroom floor in our apartment on East 22nd Street. Lauren is a mainline Philadelphia girl who works as a kindergarten teacher in the West Village. Sometimes, she gives her students her lunch when they have forgotten theirs. She gets pregnant. She is not ready to be a mother. She and her boyfriend are young. We all are. They take a bus to Pennsylvania and pay a doctor to end the pregnancy, and now she’s bleeding because the doctor must have botched the procedure. Our other roommate, Rachel, is taking Lauren to the hospital. She asks me to meet them there.
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I am staying at my boyfriend’s apartment when I get the call. It is 5:30 in the morning. I don’t have Lauren’s boyfriend’s phone number. I don’t know her mother’s first name. I only learn all of this while I’m on the phone. The cab drops me in front of the medical center. Further down the street, the shining neon words BETH ISRAEL glow from the rooftop of another hospital, hovering in the early-morning darkness. The sight of it brings me sharply into awareness. Jesus Christ, why didn’t Rachel bring her to Beth Israel. Jesus Christ, she’s been admitted to the emergency room of a Catholic hospital. Jesus Christ. The automatic door shushes open. I am met with the gazes of dead priests and nuns and bishops peering and scowling from black-and-white photographs hanging in the lobby. I am 24 years old, but reduced to 7. Father Francis Sister Vincentia Monsignor Mulrooney 1942 1956 1978. Small gold crosses adorn the matted photos at the bottom. I walk to the admittance desk and give my roommate’s name. I lie and say she is my sister, because I know I won’t be allowed to see her if I say otherwise. The small fib shames me, and I blush. The attendant points down a hallway. I open a curtain.
Lauren lies on a gurney in triage. She’s given sanitary pads and water — and nothing else. She is not being admitted to a hospital room, but is left to bleed between curtains. While Rachel and I stand on either side of the gurney trying to help Lauren drink, a nun leads a group of young interns through the ER floor on rounds. She wears wooden rosary beads and a metal stethoscope. The nun looks at her chart, says, “internal bleeding” without addressing the patient, and walks past us. No one will help her.
After several hours, an older doctor enters. “You have to get her out of here,” he says. “They won’t do anything for her here. Take her to my office,” he tells us. East 82nd Street. He hands us his business card. She needs a D&C, or she’ll keep bleeding. There’s still fetal tissue present, and the hospital won’t do the procedure.
“I don’t understand,” Rachel says. “Why won’t they help her here?” I know why they won’t help her here, but I just stare at the floor. The doctor and my roommate continue speaking to each other, but I don’t hear them because I walk out of the hospital, deciding that I am no longer Catholic and that Jesus Christ himself wouldn’t be either.
I tell my Jewish husband I’m absolutely sure my father enacted an emergency sink baptism on our baby girl while we were out at the store buying more diapers. I have no real proof, but I have a feeling in my gut. I have a sense of things.
I am 35. My father calls to tell me he’s looking into getting an annulment after 36 years of marriage to my mother. I think on my baptism and my catechism and know this: if an annulment is granted, my father will trade my soul for his own salvation, and I will be a bastard child in the eyes of the Church and of God, damned for eternity. We say goodbye and he says I love you and I hang up and throw the handset across the empty room while my young daughter is napping upstairs. I step outside into our backyard and breathe, hard and sharp. Hemlocks line the perimeter of the yard, swaying.
Of more than 100 priests credibly accused of sexual misconduct with a minor, three once served in my childhood parish in Queens. One was our pastor.
I am living in New Jersey, and my daughter is 2, sitting in a stroller. I am shopping at a local Irish imports store, buying gifts for my extended family in advance of our annual St. Patrick’s Day gathering. My daughter waves a small tricolor flag and repeatedly asks in a small, sing-song voice, “Can I hahv-a Momma? Can I hahv-a?” I stop at a display rack, noticing communion dresses embroidered with a hem of satin-threaded shamrocks. My eyes fill. I’m not expecting that reaction, because I’ve been so at ease with my defiant anger toward the Catholic Church. We leave the shop with trinkets wrapped in green paper: jewelry hand-formed from Connemara marble, a striped Irish rugby shirt, blocks of soap that smell like Guinness stout, everything Claddagh. Nothing with crucifixes. I am no longer Catholic. I am still Irish, though, I tell myself. I still belong.
I am 45, watching “Spotlight” at the movie theater with my husband on a Saturday night. The film dramatizes the molestation of children for decades by nearly 250 priests, concealed by the Boston Diocese and now being investigated by a team of Boston Globe journalists. I was not abused in this way, but I was damaged by the kiss of peace and by the mysteries of the rosary and maybe even by God. My Catholic upbringing has impaired and disrupted me. I cry in the darkened theater. I bite my lip and wipe my cheek. My husband sits beside me and reaches for my hand in the blackness.
I am on vacation with my family, and receive an alert on my phone from a childhood friend. The Brooklyn Diocese has released a list to the press. It contains the names of more than 100 priests credibly accused of sexual misconduct with a minor. Three named priests once served in my childhood parish in Queens. Two were present during my grammar school years. One was our pastor. He offered my classmates and me the blessing of St. Blaise when we were in second grade, holding lit tapered candles crossed at an “X” to our throats, whispering,
Through the intercession of St. Blaise
may God preserve you from illness and every other evil.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
On Ash Wednesday, I am driving through our small New Jersey town, and I stop at an intersection for three pedestrians. A woman, about 10 years younger than me, has entered the crosswalk bearing an ashen smudge on her forehead. A little girl, wearing a knit hat with an appliquéd shamrock on its front, clings to the woman’s right hand. In the crook of her left arm, the woman cradles a baby girl in a fuzzy pink snowsuit. I cry at the sight of them, surprising myself. She is their world without end.
Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, our life, our sweetness and our hope. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.
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Kathleen McKitty Harris is a writer and fifth-generation native New Yorker, now living in northern New Jersey with her husband and two children.
Editor: Sari Botton