Christmas with Poppy


Anyone who knows me would attest to the fact that I’ve never been much of a Hallmark Card person. With few exceptions, I’m the one who often forgets about holidays, birthdays and anniversaries – including those of my own. So it comes as a surprise that I’m writing about God speaking to people during the same time much of the Western world is celebrating Easter. Taking a walk on this beautiful morning, a very old experience came before me to provide inspiration for my latest piece – the subject of God Talking to People. Ever wonder about it? If you do, here’s a tale for you.

In order for me to recount my little story, I’d have to take you back a few decades, back to the 1960s. . . . .

I suppose I was a pretty regular kid growing up in the ‘60s, even if a bit inquisitive (which we’ll touch upon later). I grew up in a half Irish/half Italian family. Our town was comprised of either Irish, Italian or Polish people – were there any others? In this little world, you were either Catholic, very Catholic or extraordinarily Catholic and you’d either attend the Polish Catholic church or the Italian Catholic church. One token Jewish family was part of our larger neighborhood so we could all learn to eat matzos and realize we’d been jipped at Christmas. After all, Jewish kids got presents for 8 days in a row while we got ours only on the 25th of December.

I vividly remember kindergarten and first grade at the Roman Catholic school where we’d have monthly vigils singing Polish songs to the Polish patron saint, his large statue prominently placed in the parochial school’s foyer. I was always excited to get together with classmates one Friday night a month, wearing a ringlet of flowers about my head and a gold cape over my shoulders, parading with friends through the church, the school and the adjacent parking lot. This was the big time for a little kid like me, and I was relishing in the whole experience of being able to stay up beyond my normal 7PM bedtime.

I also vividly recall attending Sunday masses and one in particular. (Now this is where it becomes obvious that, as regular a kid I might have been, I was also very inquisitive.) It was the pre-Vatican II era, the “traditional” church era, when priests did everything with their back facing the congregation and spoke Latin just to be sure you’d never figure out what was really going on up in front of the church.

I’m not sure where the rest of the family was, but on this particular Sunday morning, my mother and I sat somewhere in the church balcony, obligatory hats atop our heads, and caught an aerial view of the service taking place below. My mother introduced me to the small, typewritten document that cited pre-arranged responses for us to repeat as a congregation. The priest would say something, and then we were supposed to retort. It was all very formal, very fixed, and very important that it be recited just right.

Whether it was the aerial view, the fact that I’d been introduced to this typewritten paper or merely my age, I’m not sure. But the opportunity arose for me to ask away. And ask away I did. (I’m not really sure how I got away with my queries, since speaking in church was not allowed – unless the words were written on that white piece of paper.)

“Why did the priest wear a long gown instead of regular pants?” I wanted to know.

“What was that gold cup he was hiding in that small box down there?”

“How does bread turn into Jesus’ body?”

“Does it taste bad?”(Little kids didn’t take the “host” till they had been prepared for their First Communion, one of several rites within the Roman Catholic faith, and I hadn’t yet attained to that age.)

“Why not?”

“Why can’t we touch it?”

“What do these words mean on this page?”

“Why are they in Latin?”

“What IS Latin?”

You get the idea . . .

* * * * * * *

Although I wouldn’t classify my family as particularly religious, I would say that going to church for us was a regular occurrence. (That, plus the fact I was later to find out that missing one of these Sundays could land you straight in Hell if you failed to attend and then died a quick death without getting the chance to confess this offense to a priest.)

That said, my religious life played neither low nor high priority. It just existed as part of a particular fabric of my childhood, taken for granted as being part of Life with a belief that there was a God overhead who watched over all of us below.

Since God was invisible, and known as Our Father, I found myself relating to Him through the one in my own life who most personified what I’d imagined a Good Father to be – namely, my beloved Poppy. Though my time with him was short, it provided sufficient experience and exposure for me to relate to the man. For one, I knew that whenever he’d come to visit, it meant always coming in from playing with friends outdoors (not always my preferred choice since it frequently meant interrupting game time, but one definitely understood that he had expected to see me). Aside from those visits at our first home, the other times with Poppy were just grand!

Many afternoons and overnights with Nana and Poppy included things like sliding along their bare wooden upstairs floors (lots of fun!); pony rides (also fun till I once fell off and decided it wasn’t so great after all!); lots of discussion and preparation of all kinds of food – both standard fare as well as Italian; pistachio ice cream floats served in specially-designed fountain glasses; lots of company coming through the house for chit chat and afternoon coffee; staying up late between Nana and Poppy in their king-sized bed (actually, twin beds put together which frequently got me caught falling in the crack!) and straining to keep my eyes open for the familiar “tick tock” sounds of the late movie on their portable TV set.

More than that, interesting – and fond – memories of Poppy prevailed. Like allowing me to sit in the waiting room of his home office where I could sit beside clients he’d represent as part of his criminal law practice (frequently inquiring if the one I’d be seated beside had a gun, the answer always being a decided ‘no’), sharing cheese sandwiches with his secretary as she’d type away on the familiar standard Royal typewriter that “popped” right out from its wooden cabinet; and watching Poppy’s good friend and book writer perform lots of exciting card tricks!

There were plenty of additional memories, like having to return what I thought were gifts from some of Poppy’s clients – like the big, multi-speed bicycle and $50 bill that was placed in my hand. Despite my 5-year-old pleads and protests, there was no question as to where these “gifts” were going – right back to the sender.

Lots of food – whether prepared lovingly and with detailed discussion, commentary and collaboration by both Nana and Poppy in the kitchen – or trips to local favorite restaurants for Chinese and seafood – also rounded out my memories.

For an older man who led an active professional life and traveled so frequently (I was convinced that with all his trips to Miami he must have been friends with Jackie Gleason who appeared weekly on my TV screen, “LIVE from Miami Beach!”), he always made sure that the two of us spent lots of time together.

On one particular day, while sitting in his familiar chair in the living room where he’d frequently review the evening paper, he asked me up to his lap and sat me on his right thigh. Bringing me closer, he invited my head to his chest and asked me to listen closely to the beating of his heart. Here in this familiar place of comfort, Poppy had something to tell me.

“I’m going to be going away,” he announced. “I’ll be going to live in Heaven.”

My understanding registered. Kindergarten at my Catholic School had taught me to connect Heaven with Death. “Oh, Poppy, you’re not going to die,” I protested.

Poppy didn’t dispute his destination, but he did correct my choice of words. Looking directly at me and pointing his index finger upwards, he repeated and refined his declaration. “I’ll be going to live in heaven with God and with Jesus. But I want you to promise me that you’ll never forget your Poppy.”

Though I don’t recall any tears being shed, there was one further exchange of note. I turned to hug him by the neck with the response, “Oh, Poppy, I would never forget you.”

That was certainly a long time ago. October of 1963, to be exact. Within days of his disclosure, on the Catholic holy day known as All Souls Day, Georgetown University’s Counselor at Law – Poppy to me – was gone.

* * * *

Well, that said, let me invite you back to my preparation for First Holy Communion as I continue to weave a back-and-forth story into some cohesion – for the reflections of Poppy are necessary to the whole context of this childhood story and the subject of God talking to people.

Shortly following Poppy’s “going away to Heaven”, we moved across town to Nana’s house and I started attending the local public school. As a public school child, it was now necessary to enroll in the Church’s Holy Communion classes. At the time, we kids would receive this “sacrament” of First Holy Communion and it was necessary that we memorize certain tenets of our faith.

There were lots of things to remember, and memorize we did! Similar to the Latin mass where the priest would say something and the congregants responded in unison, specific preparation for First Communion involved questions followed by very exact responses. I even remember the first one: Question – Who is God? Answer – God is the Maker of Heaven and of Earth and of all things.

Before receiving this First Communion, however, we experienced another major religious event. It was the sacrament of “Confession”, the time of telling our sins to the priest before being “absolved” or forgiven so we could take the communion bread or “host” as it was called.

There was a lot of anticipation leading up to this experience. Older kids shared their stories of what it was like to kneel on one side of the dark confessional and suddenly see a tiny screen opened by the priest in the adjoining dark closet.

“Don’t worry,” one of the older kids assured, “the priest doesn’t even look at you. He looks down at his lap or straight ahead. But he hears everything you say. Just remember to do the ‘Bless me Father, for I have sinned,’ part before you start telling him everything you did wrong.’”

Other kids offered their suggestions as to which priest to confess to, since some ordered a longer list of “penance” prayers than others. Depending on who you confessed to – and how long and serious your list of sins – you would be assigned a number of ‘Hail Mary’s’, ‘Our Fathers’ and one or two other prayers to recite before leaving the church and knowing your sins were forgiven.

I remember the afternoon our particular class went to confession. It was within days of receiving our First Holy Communion so we kids wouldn’t have too much time to sin between “confessing” and “taking the host.” All lined up against the church wall, we quietly awaited our turn to enter the confessional box, glad someone else was in front of us to go first. Aside from braving the darkness of the unknown closet ahead of us, we were also required to review our comportment against the Ten Commandments, a part of our memorization for this sacrament.

Some of us had written down a list of our sins so we wouldn’t forget what to confess when we got inside the confessional: for example, lied 6 times, talked back to our parents 2 times (or was it 3 or 6?), missed mass 2 times last year, etc. What kid could remember back 7 years? Who knew to keep count? If we didn’t have enough sins to report, then perhaps we were looking too holy. (I know of more than one time when I added a few sins to beef up my own list.)

There were also special sins that were unique to Catholics that we’d also have to consider. For example, Catholics took communion on an empty stomach; you couldn’t eat after midnight on a Saturday night if you were going to take communion the next day. That meant breakfast came AFTER church on Sundays.

Another Catholic sin involved eating meat on Fridays. Friday dinner was famous as pizza or spaghetti (marinara) night, and kids ate peanut butter and jelly or cheese sandwiches on Fridays for lunch. Fish was also okay, provided you liked it, but if you ate steak or hamburger on a Friday, God was definitely not happy with you and you’d need to get to confession on this one.

Sins were also classified by category: they were either “mortal” or “venial”. Some sins were more serious than others, and these were the mortal ones. If you happened to commit one of these mortal sins (like killing someone or not going to mass on Sunday) and got hit by a car and died without first getting back to Confession before the priest, you were in serious trouble. On the other hand, committing a “venial” sin and not making it to confession before you got hit by the same car would land you only in Purgatory, the holding tank between Heaven and Hell. Purgatory was hot and fiery, but at least it had an exit door. Not so with Hell. Hell was a one way ticket to fire and brimstone and nobody wanted to go there – ever.

My first Confession with a priest was probably nothing out of the norm. I entered the tiny cubicle, knelt before the little screen window, dutifully made my sign of the cross (executed perfectly with the Roman way starting with the left shoulder and in perfect sync with the words, ‘Bless me Father for I have sinned, this is my first confession’), then joined my prayerful hands in the upward facing direction toward heaven (nuns carefully instructed that prayerful hands always faced up to God and not down to the Devil). The attending priest was nice enough to listen quietly, maybe ask a question or two, then give me a list of a few prayers of penance on the way out. Whew – it was over. What a relief!

* * * *

So . . . where is all this going, you might wonder about now. Maybe you didn’t grow up in the traditional Roman Catholic church and maybe you’re not Catholic or Christian at all. You might be Moslem, Mormon, Hindu or Jewish. Perhaps you’ve never even stepped inside a church and wonder why you’re reading a four decades old story that has nothing to do with you.

I bring you here because, despite differing religious, cultural and social affiliations, on some level most people have a desire and a need to know God. Is He real? Does He exist? Is there a reason why I’m here? I was just a little kid in the 60s inside an enormous and centuries-old institution, yet my questions led me to a very interesting experience that may shed light on your personal quest.
* * * *
The first time I had a “spiritual crisis”, I was about 8 years old. I don’t know where I got my info from, but it was reported to me from a reputable source that Jesus Christ was not Catholic – but Jewish. Yes, Jewish. Yet I was not Jewish – but Catholic! How could that be? For some reason, this new fact was sufficient to rock my little world. How did we get in the wrong place???

I don’t know where my mother was, but I ran home from school that afternoon and found Nana washing the kitchen floor.

“Nana!” I gasped, nearly out of breath, “I just found out something terrible!”

“What?” she responded, interrupting her cleaning, the wet rag still in her hand.

“I just found out that we’re in the wrong religion!”

“What!” she answered, now incredulous. “What do you mean the wrong religion?” she yelled back, as if picking up an argument. Nan was a feisty woman, full of emotion but also full of fun.

“I just found out that Jesus was Jewish! What are we doing being Catholics? We better find out what the Greenbergs (the only Jewish family I knew) can tell us, because we’re in the wrong religion!” I was clearly upset and ready to correct this most serious spiritual error. How could my family have missed the boat on so important an issue as God?

“Oh, Maura.” Nana flapped her rag in the air in a gesture that seemed to simplify and minimize my concern. Then she laughed. “Yes, Jesus was Jewish. But not all of the Jewish people believed he was God’s son. So his followers became Christians or Catholics.”

Now Nana rarely attended mass, but her answer brought some momentary degree of comfort. This was an explanation I could accept, but only after having her explain a few more questions, like why didn’t Jesus change his religion to become “Catholic”, too.

“He didn’t have to change anything. He was God’s son.”

The responses proved sufficiently logical to be valid. I rested.

By the time 1967 rolled around, big changes were taking place in the Roman Catholic Church. One of the biggest gatherings in centuries brought leaders from around the world to Vatican City in Rome. The council known as Vatican II would change many formerly established rules and update church practices for Catholics around the globe. Among the many changes were: masses no longer said in Latin (yippee for English!), priests facing the congregation (no more guessing what they were doing up there), and lifting the ban on eating meat on Fridays. It was no longer a sin.

You would think that this last change would be met with a positive response from me, but a threatening thought suddenly enveloped my heart. What happened to all those poor people who broke the no-meat-on-Friday rule before it changed, then got hit by a car and died before making it to Confession? (Obviously, this proverbial hit-and-run car accident was a familiar teaching theme back then.)

Would God count these already-dead people’s Friday meat eating as offensive, yet now let the rest of us chow down on Friday meatloaf? What a horrifying thought – to consider that some would be burning in Purgatory while others would not, all because the rules changed.

The rules changed. The rules changed!

THE RULES CHANGED!!!!

What if that were me? What if I were the one in Purgatory because I’d sinned earlier by eating meat on Friday and didn’t get to confession before getting hit by a car, while someone new could eat that same meat on a new Friday and God wouldn’t mind at all. . .

What kind of a God would do that? Why would God do something so unfair to people? The thought chilled me to the bone that a Heavenly Father could be so sneaky to His very own children (I didn’t have a word for calculating back then, but the revised face I suddenly imagined as God was looking very evil and very scary.)

While the rest of the Catholic world either moved on without considering the implications or merely celebrated the new dietary liberty that allowed for a juicy steak after work on Friday, I was rocking in my little 9-year-old world.

What was the nature of this God I’d always trusted? Up until now, I saw God as my spiritual Father, a Majestic but very loving Person in whom I could easily trust. I thought back to Poppy, the man whose character and heart I could rely on – right up to his kindness in foretelling me of his imminent departure and the promise he asked me to keep. I understood he was an earthly father, but could a Heavenly Father be . .. less in character and trustworthiness? Could God not only be less than an earthly model of Love and Strength; could he actually be Evil?

Maybe you’re reading all this and thinking, “Wow, this lady/girl is intense. Who thinks about such things? Who cares?”

Apparently, I did. Very, very much.

I wondered if there would be other changes along the way. Would God actually look to hurt me? Hurt others? For no real reason? These and other questions plagued my thoughts, leaving me in sudden fear and intimidation of the One in whom I would rest.

I made numerous inquiries among those I thought could answer my questions. Experts probably included adult family members and Catholic catechism teachers. Maybe even a priest or two. But nowhere did I receive a satisfactory answer to my innermost questions about the nature of this so-called invisible God in Heaven.

Until one day.

I’m not sure just how long I’d been on this rocky road of faith run amok, but a most unusual response hit me one afternoon.

I was walking through a parking lot after school. It could have been with a friend or two for all I know. Watching out for the cement runners and seeing my black wool knee socks below, something happened.

Was the voice audible, as in external? No.

Was it heard by anyone else within earshot? No.

But despite these facts, I heard a distinct message:

“I AM THE SAME YESTERDAY, TODAY AND FOREVER.”

Oh, my God! Oh, my God!

He didn’t announce His Name or even say Hello. He just entered those words, as if by sudden and powerful infusion . . . into ME. This was my Heavenly Father answering a question nobody else anywhere could answer.

He was THE SAME.

NOTHING ABOUT HIM HAD CHANGED – OR WOULD EVER CHANGE.

I COULD TRUST IN HIM – ALWAYS.

ALL WAYS.

The awareness of the GREAT ONE – my Heavenly Father – coming to answer me in that moment was so powerful, yet so private.

I never spoke a word of it. To the contrary, I kept walking along with whatever friends accompanied me that afternoon. I continued on my way, probably to rest in front of the TV with a few Oreo cookies to dip into a half glass of milk (who could eat Oreos any other way?). Nothing looked any different on the outside, but my insides were laid to rest in the confidence that though religious rules might change, MY FATHER NEVER DID.

So, does God talk to people?

I’ll let you judge for yourself.

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