Mom was raised a Catholic. She was the only child born to Hilda and Clementine Pfau, coming into the world when my grandmother had already reached her 40th birthday. I don’t know if my grandparents were just really strict in their beliefs and abstained until they were ready to procreate, or if there was some biological problem that had kept their family at bay until mom came along. Most of the photos that still exist of my mom from childhood show her sporting some ceremonial white dress or another, announcing her baptism, first taste of Christ’s blood, or commitment, as much as one can commit when they are just 13, to Catholicism. If she wasn’t posing in her special dresses, then she could be seen in the typical garb that every Catholic school girl was required to wear at that time. The navy blue cardigan sweater, covering the heavily starched white shirt buttoned all the way to the top, and the thick, woolly, plaid skirt with it’s hem hanging just the proper distance from the ground where pointy, two toned saddle shoes let the lacey fold of brightly bleached socks create a sort of table cloth over the top of their leather. Mom attended private, church affiliated schools all the way through her senior year of high school. She would have most likely gone on to the University of Portland, if circumstances would have been different. The death of her father when she was only in grammar school forced Mom to fill all of her spare time with work to help support she and her mother, so higher education just wasn’t an option. One of her biggest regrets was not attending college. For her it wasn’t about the prestige or perception of holding a degree. She was an avid learner. She just loved to know things. I think that thirst for knowledge and openness to new ideas may have been partly what compelled her to stray from the church. Maybe she was ready to strike out on her own path rather than that of her parents. Or maybe she was just sick of spending every Sunday with her ass planted on an uncomfortable, wooden bench. Either way, she didn’t raise us in the church.
Despite all those years spent immersed in religion, Mom rarely even talked about it. But, when she did it was memorable. Like that one time when the Mormons came to our house. After sneaking silently to the front door and checking the peep hole, she immediately went into action so as not to miss the opportunity. She quickly handed me a can of beer and a lit cigarette as she gave me my lines and stuffed a pillow from the couch under my shirt, creating the illusion that I was about to become a mother at 13. “Fucking bible bangers. We’ll give them something to save!” she said through a half crazed laugh. I was “all in” whenever my mom got creative, so I gave my best performance. “We’re not interested” I sneered at the guys dressed like identical twins standing on our porch. I dramatically took a sip of that icy Stroh’s Light, stroked my pillow baby with the hand that held the Pall Mall menthol burning between its fingers and then shut the door in their stunned faces. All the while, Mom hid around the corner in the living room doing her best to keep from bursting out in laughter and spoiling the scene. She never told me why she was so adamant about chasing those boys away. I just assumed she didn’t like strangers showing up uninvited and trying to tell us how to live. That made pefect sense to me.
My only real exposure to religion during my childhood was when I spent a year of Sundays attending the HazelDell Evangelic Free Church with my gradeschool friend and softball teammate Leanne. My mom didn’t object to my going with Leann and her family at first. I had no clue what an Evangelical was, but I did know that I loved singing along to the hymns with Leanne’s parents as they led the choir in their long white robes accented with vibrant kelly green sashes, sipping the grape punch and munching the oyster crackers as I pondered who this Jesus person was and why anyone would want to eat him, and going out to lunch with Leanne’s family after the service. I thought of religion as a way to hang out with my friend, so whenever Leanne invited me to go with her to some church event, I always said yes. That’s how I ended up getting accidentally baptized at one of their evening revival-esque sessions. I remember sitting through a sermon delivered by the guest pastor, a guy that was much younger and better looking than the man who stood at the pulpit on Sundays. He shouted all kinds of things about saving, accepting, forgiving, and surrendering in the room that felt about 15 degrees warmer than normal. The next thing I knew I was whisked off to a small room behind the altar where I was guided into a straight backed chair, sitting knee to knee with the young, loud pastor, but he wasn’t loud any longer. He took my hands and as I looked up at his red, sweaty face he nearly whispered “Are you ready to accept Jesus Christ as your savior?”. I laughed uncomfortably and said yes, not having any clue what in the world he was talking about. He asked again, knowing that I had just given a half-assed affirmation. My followup response, in my memory, wasn’t any more convincing, but the pastor put the rubber stamp on it and sent me off to the kiddy pool to get my head wet, moving onto the next convert as quickly as possible since the line behind me had started to build. I couldn’t wait to get home that night I tell my mom that I had been baptized. I was positive she would think that was neat. The look of shock and anger on her face materialized immediately. “What!?” she screamed. Before I could explain that all baptized meant was that I said yes to the pastor’s question about Jesus and got dunked in the kiddy pool like everyone else, she reminded me, even though I never knew it in the first place, that I had been baptized a Catholic when I was a newborn. I never went to the HazelDell Evangelical Free Church again after that night, but I did join the Catholic Youth Organization basketball league at the church near our house which would push more buttons for my mom.
There wasn’t a big enough population of Catholics in Vancouver, Washington where we lived to support a league, so most of our season was comprised of games that pitted us against talented teams from the many parishes across the Columbia River in Portland. We never talked about religion, never prayed before games or otherwise had to prove our spiritual worthiness to be on the team. We just played really competitive basketball. The league exposed me to all kinds of great athletes who were bound for the preeminent high school for both academics and athletics in our area, St. Mary’s Academy, which also happened to be Mom’s alma mater. The friends I made during the season I played CYO urged me to join them at the all-girls school starting in my upcoming Freshman year. When I approached my Mom with the idea I was sure she would be ecstatic that I wanted to follow in her footsteps, but all she could say initially was “Really?” with an incredulous look on her face. I was able to convince Mom that I was serious, so she and my dad made the arrangements for me to attend St. Mary’s. What came next was Mom’s concession to teaching me at least a little bit about the religion she had abandoned long ago. “I can’t have you looking like an idiot the first time they make you attend mass” was how she introduced a training session on the recitation of both the Hail Mary and Lord’s Prayer. “I’m sure the nuns will tell you this too, but don’t ever go up to the altar when they give the Eucharist. You never had First Communion, so you aren’t allowed to take it” was how she further ensured I would look like less of an asshole as the outsider I was sure to be. Suprisingly, Mom was actually excited to hear all about my first days and weeks at St Mary’s. She became less and less resistant to talking about the rites, rituals and rules of Cathlocism and even appeared to take some pride in being able to shed light and clarity to concepts that were totally new to me. She never did attend church again, and neither did I, with the exception of the mandated masses that were part of the educational experience at St. Marys, but I think my aimless wading into spiritual waters may have helped her find some middle ground between the overwhelming desire to terrorize the door-to-door religion sales people that dared come calling and the years of devotion to the beliefs of her mother.