by cheri block
I am not Catholic but during my childhood, most of my friends were.
My father’s dental office in the 1950’s was a small part of a large home which sat directly across from the Holy Ghost Catholic Church, an impressive Spanish style structure. As is typical with Catholic churches, a school and rectory were part of the operation. In those days, especially after being carted back and forth to San Jose– a city 30 miles away– in a crowded Ford Country Squire with my annoying younger siblings, only to be forced to endure three hours of boring Sunday School and music in a strange language at Temple Emanuel, I announced that I wanted to be Catholic.
I want to be Catholic, dad. That way, I only have to go to church for one hour instead of three. I want to have that ash stuff on my forehead in February, but most of all, I want to go to a church that has a ghost and a festival where you can win parakeets.
As you parents can imagine, this pleading was met with a stern warning from my father.
You are Jewish, Cheri. Our history goes back over 5000 years. Theirs goes back only 1960 years. That is why you have to attend Sunday School for three hours–you have more to learn. We have Passover and matzoh ball soup and a Purim Festival where you get to dress up as Queen Esther. Isn’t that enough?
It wasn’t enough. I wanted to see the ghost and win a parakeet. I could compromise though on Queen Esther.
In Centerville in the 1950’s most of the citizens were either Portuguese Catholics or Japanese Buddhists. Since my father was one of the only dentists in town, most of the Holy Ghost’s parishioners, including the now defrocked Father Breen and many kindly nuns, came to him for dentistry. Dr. Block was made an honorary member of the Men’s Portuguese Club.
One night Dad came home from the office, poured his bourbon, sat down with the Fremont News Register, and heaved a long, tired sigh. Two German Shepherds–Dickens and Galaxy–sat at his feet and three children, including me, ran around the room in a circle, screaming. Our mother, Joan, cooking dinner in the other room while carrying the infant Jimmy, told us to be quiet and respect the fact that our father needed to rest from a long day of looking in other people’s mouths.
Ray Costa from Ray’s Menswear came by the office today, Joan, and dropped off 6 tickets to the Holy Ghost Festival on Saturday. Do you want to go? It might be instructive to the kids. They can see the inside of the church and also have a little fun.
Mother agreed. Saturday, the Block family would attend the festival.
I had heard from my friends who were in Rainbow Girls and DeMolay that you could win a parakeet and since my most recent hamster Butch had died of cardiac arrest while running a marathon on his wheel, I was hot for a new pet, other than Dickens and Galaxy, of course.
The day of the festival, I came out of the bedroom I shared with Stevie, dressed in my uniform of jeans and a red plaid shirt, complemented by my belt and boots. Back to my room, I was ordered and then made a second entry dressed in a stiff taffeta dress with a satin sash and complemented by black patent leather shoes. What a dressy outfit to wear to see a ghost and win a bird.
The multi-purpose room at the Holy Ghost Church seemed pretty much like the multi-purpose room at Temple Emanuel. Basketball hoops at each end, bright fluorescent lights, and shiny linoleum floors disappointed me from the moment those patent leather shoes clicked quickly past the cake walk and directly to the corner where at least 100 chirping parakeets were kept in small wire cages. My father and mother had been stopped at the doors, greeted by nuns who smiled broadly, advertising the skilled Dr. Block’s handiwork, and by Father Breen, that charming Irishman who at the time seemed like a kindly uncle.
I was in my element and only missing from the event was the ash I had hoped would be brushed on my forehead, signaling to all that a parakeet had been won by the only little Jewish girl in Centerville.
My parakeet, won in a single throw, I named Jesus. It just seemed like the right thing to do that day.
Jesus and I– now separated from my family which had stopped at the cake walk so that Stevie and Cindy might have some fun–wandered through an open door and into a darkened room so enormous, so different from the sanctuary at Temple Emanuel. People with halos and gold jumped out from the stained glass windows. It was very beautiful to a ten-year-old like me. The pews were wooden and long unlike the individual green velvet seats at Temple Emanuel. Where is the Holy Ghost? I wondered.
Jesus, do you know where the Holy Ghost is? I asked Jesus.
Jesus chirped. Oh, you want me to look up? OK. I looked up and on the wall was a dead man, looking down at me with blood on his hands and his feet nailed together like a the chicken legs I’d seen my mom hook up for a chicken fricassee. I screamed a scream so loud that it echoed around the walls several times.
I wanted my father. Forget the Holy Ghost, wherever it was. Jesus and I ran out of the dark room faster than the time it had taken me to win him.
Back home that night, I told my dad about the dead man on the wall. He explained that the image was Jesus, who my Catholic friends believed was also the Father, the Son, AND the Holy Ghost, all in one.
When dad left the room, I told Stevie, who was still awake in his bed on the other wall, We have our own Jesus now, here in this room.