June 10, 2010
I thought Easter in Kentucky with my boyfriend was going to be fun. After all, I was just a passive bystander, an innocent onlooker, a rubber-necker, really; I was curious. And the weekend did have its moments--horse racing, fried food, sundress weather the first week in April. But in retrospect, I should have known what I was getting myself into.
Why I thought I would be in the backseat on this ride through Catholicism in the South, I have no idea. Maybe because I think the South is cool. I love Nashville and Austin, I listen to country music (the new stuff, not the real stuff) and I can't get enough Dairy Queen. Kentucky and meeting my boyfriend's mom for the first time (I'd already met his dad in Baltimore, where we live) was going to be a piece of cake. Parents love me. They kvell. I'm five feet tall and look five years younger than my 28 years--nothing about me says "fling."
But my boyfriend's parents are Catholic, not Jewish. Their language does not include the word "kvell." In his natural habitat, my boyfriend was every bit as at ease as I was not. The morning after our arrival was Easter Sunday and my first visit to the big C. I'd spent so much time sifting through my wardrobe for a dress that was not black ("That's real? The whole pastel thing?" I had said, incredulous) that I forgot to get nervous about the service itself.
I had been prepped for the part of the service when the congregation would go up to receive one of the holy wafers I'd heard so much about. My boyfriend and I would both stay at the pew. But when we got to the sanctuary, and his mom kicked out a long, padded bar near the floor of our pew, I thought, "Hey, a foot rest!" And before I knew it, I was alone on the bench, the rest of the family kneeling and praying.
I thought about getting down there myself, and saying something like, "God, if you're there, please come hang out on this bench with me."
Throughout the service, I continued to be left alone on said bench while the entire congregation got down on their knees--often, and without warning. I started to feel less comfortable not kneeling, and wished I had joined the prayers, too. When the parishioners got to the part in the story where the Jews put Jesus on the cross, I felt that everyone in the room knew my secret. Not only was I not praying, but I was a Jesus-killer. I also thought, this may have been the wrong holiday for me to attend.
Afterwards, at brunch, my boyfriend wondered why I wasn't getting into the conversation with the family friends we'd joined. If I wanted to get to know his parents, why wasn't I trying? "They think I killed Jesus," I mumbled. Really, I was still coming down from the alienation of a service that I naively had been prepared to relate to. There was no way in. Ditto for our conversation at brunch--there was no entry way.
To top it off, it was still Passover, so not only was I not eating bacon or sausage, but I wasn't eating carbs. I couldn't blend in if I tried. Part of me wanted to laugh at the absurdity of the situation, and the other part wanted to cry. "I need your help," I wanted to say. But in his hometown, among his family, I didn't want to tell him how alone I felt; I wanted him to know. I wondered how it was that we were flying back to the same place the next day. Could he handle being with a person like me--someone who makes snarky jokes about everything, including my own religion, and thinks the pro-life billboards we passed covered with Madonnas and fetuses were a joke?
We got out of the house that afternoon for a walk through the quiet, serene streets that smelled like American childhood. Perhaps it was the calm that threw me, because my breakdown came next. I didn't know how to say that I felt unaccepted, like I had been the enemy at church and that I had good intentions, but I felt like maybe we were just too different for any of this to work out. My boyfriend is a sensitive person, which usually means that he's an amazing listener and knows when he walks in the door if I've had a rough day. It can also mean that he internalizes things.
Someone's God was on my side because whatever I blurted out was accepted graciously, without judgment or offense. "I'm feeling uncomfortable. Church was really difficult. I feel like no one wants me here." He said he could see why I would feel that way. Catholicism in the South is different from anywhere else, I was just getting to know his mom, I was a fish out of water.
But I was the one who'd wanted to come. Visiting Kentucky and on this holiday, for that matter was my idea. We'd made the trip so that I could jump into the deep end, see where he came from. Now that I had found out, did I still want to be with him, he wanted to know?
Here was a guy who was on my side and validated my concerns. He didn't try to play it off like I was over-reacting, or like any of this was no big deal. He realized how complicated our relationship was, and he didn't know how were going to get through any of it any more than I did. Our differences were only insurmountable if we didn't want to make it work.
We're back in Baltimore, where we agree on one thing: Our next destination will be someplace warmer. We know we've only begun to face the challenges ahead of us. There will be more holidays, there will be visits home, there are decisions every day that we don't agree on. I'm putting my faith in the fact that we'll find answers as long as we keep searching.