MIMIVERSE

by Mimi O'Gara

  • Mimi O'Gara

Sign of the Times

Making a slideshow for my 50th birthday party became a cathartic spiritual experience resulting in a victory over systematic abuse and a reconciliation of my faith in God.


Crushed below boxes of Christmas trimmings in the attic is a worn-out cardboard box marked CHILDHOOD. The scented brown magic marker Mom used to label the box many years ago smells like ancient cinnamon. At Mom's request, I agreed to create a “slideshow” to play at my upcoming 50th birthday party.


A cloud of dust tickles my nose as I open the flaps of the box. Overrun copies of wallet-sized school pictures are mixed with a mass of negatives and an empty carousel wheel from an extinct Kodak projector. Mom’s proclivity to hold on to broken things stems from growing up in extreme poverty.


As I sift through the mishegoss of memories in the attic, finding the square photos from the “boat years” sends ripples of serenity through my mind ... the metal halyards clinking on the sailboat masts filling the air with a sweet morning lullaby .. swans nibbling on golden seaweed ... I long for the early morning rows around Harbor Island before any of the adults woke up.


At the bottom of the box is a worn-out plastic bag from Caldors. Inside is a digitized video of my First Communion. Immediately, my stomach begins to sink. I get stuck ruminating on a conversation I had with a lawyer a few months earlier. I was seeking justice for the pervasive culture of abuse at the hand of a longtime figurehead of a Catholic church in my hometown.


“He traumatized the community to the extent that they named a street after him.”


“Mam, I’m so sorry this experience impacted you, but I don’t think your case would go anywhere without substantial proof.”


“Proof? I am the proof. I grew up surrounded by the proof. Generations of women were violated.” I see red cardinal land on the windowsill.


“The justice system just doesn’t work that way.”


“The only recourse for a poor Italian woman from the Flats of Mamaroneck was to stay silent and pretend she didn’t matter enough for anything to be done.”


“Look, I get it. I really do.” I hear her take a heavy breath. “I’m sorry I can’t help you.”


The red cardinal flies off into the sky.


“For me, this is not about money, it's about justice. I just want that stinking street sign taken down.”



Hesitantly, I load the video into an old VCR/TV Mom keeps next to the broken exhaust fan and press play.


I see my beanpole seven-year-old self tangled in a white veil that Mom meticulously bobby-pinned to the crown of my head. The tulle whips in the breeze, catching my face like a butterfly. The mid-May sun is painfully bright. I squinch my face and reveal the gap in my gums from my missing front teeth. Mom is kneeling by my feet, folding the lace trim on my socks the right way. When she is done, she hands me a small bouquet of delicate white flowers. I look like an adorable toothless Virgin Mary.


A car length behind is my father. He pulls out a pack of Winstons and a box of matches from the breast pocket of his boxy suit. At the time, going to church was not his thing – neither was putting on a suit or showing up for his daughter. He locked away his heart when I was three.


None of us know we are being filmed. No posing or saying cheese. It was an honest moment. A looking glass of my lived truth – being born into a vicious cycle of intergenerational poverty and trauma. I contemplate who is the one behind the camera.


White Dresses

I remember being excited to dress up in all white but uncertain whether I’d ever wear white again. Being a wife was something that frightened me. In 1979, my only known alternative to marriage was becoming a nun. While I had a spiritual calling as a child, I preferred being a priest who leads mass. The Sisters at St. Vito’s were disgruntled like the husbands in my family. My elders married angry men – all but my Aunt Edie. She married up. My uncle Archie was an accountant at a paper factory. He also volunteered as an usher at the church and collected the offertory gifts. Aunt Edie was the church organist. Her three sisters sang in the choir. None of them could sing on key.


The Devil’s Ransom

Wedged in a hill in a residential armpit of I-95 South in Mamaroneck New York sits St. Vito’s church. The original plan for the blonde brick building was for it to be a Cathedral, but it was never constructed past the basement.


St. Vito’s was our family’s church, but I have always felt like an outsider. When Mom and Dad met with the clergy, they refused to baptize me.


Good Catholics don’t miss church, says the Deacon. Monsignor Goodwine sits next to the Deacon on his wooden cathedra. His hands are folded on the top of his beach ball belly.


I had a very difficult pregnancy. I got very sick. My husband is working overtime to pay the medical bills. We are trying so hard to ...


The Monsignor interrupts. “How do you expect us to baptize your baby when you can’t pay the offerings for the weeks you have missed?


She left in tears. Mom told me that Dad comforted her but he felt just as powerless as she did. They were bonded by sincere love and unresolved trauma.


The next day, Mom went to the church on the other side of town – where all the rich Catholics worshipped. The parish welcomed her with open arms and gave me my rightful baptism. The following Sunday, we were back in the pews at St. Vito’s. church. We may have kept to our side of the tracks, but I was baptized in God’s grace, goodwill and prosperity.


The Pregnant Priest

Mom’s family would gather for Coffee Time at my Great Grandmother’s home every Sunday after church. She lived in an apartment above the stores on the Boston Post Road in Mamaroneck. The elders sip and gossip over Entenmann’s coffeecake and donuts while the kids play in her bedroom. I’m jumping on the bed when my older cousin Will cannonballs me. Luckily, a slippery throw blanket breaks my fall onto the beige linoleum floor. As I stand up, I drape the off-white blanket over my shoulders and hop on the bed.


“You look like a priest,” blurts Will.


I hold my arms out and the blanket drapes over my arms. “Peace be with you.”


He kneels on the bed. “And also with you.”


I sing, “Let us proclaim the mystery of our faith ...”


Will throws a pillow at me, “Put this under the blanket.”


“Why?”


“So you look like Monsignor Goodwine.”


“He wears a pillow under his robe?”


“No. Monsignor Goodwine is pregnant.”


I pause to think about how this is possible. God made Mary pregnant with baby Jesus ... but Monsignor Goodwine was a bad man.


“Then why can’t women be priests when pregnant men can be Monsignors?”


He shrugs and wipes powdered donut crumbs from his face. I suppose the answer is the same as why he couldn’t marry a man. “It’s a ghost baby,” he says.


At the following Sunday mass, while the Monsignor is kissing the altar, I wonder how the baby got in there and how it will come out. I’m terrified the baby would burst out of his belly like the demon in the Alien movie, run into the pews and bite my feet.


On the way out, I hold Mom’s hands as we join the shuffling procession line to thank the pastors for mass. As we get closer to the Monsignor, I’m uneasy, but I hope to get an up-close look for any signs of a baby. As my mom leans toward the Monsignor to hug him, I see his fat, bloated hand come out from under his robe and stroke the underside of her bosom. Mom freezes up. He cups the side of her breast and feels his way around. Mom wobbles backward into the procession and moves on. Her jittery giggle made it clear that what just happened was wrong.


On the car ride home, I see Mom’s face in the rearview mirror. Usually, we sing church songs on the car ride up the hill. But today, she is silent. Her eyes were a million miles away.


Italian women of her generation were conditioned for centuries to keep to the kitchen and keep their mouths shut. Monsignor Goodwine had the upper hand. He knew everyone’s sins –who was lying and cheating, stealing and dealing ... he probably knew who killed the man found by the train tracks. He also knew every woman or child who he could cop a feel and get away with it.


When it was time for my first Penance, I had to be alone in a room with him. We didn’t use the confessional booths you see in the movies. Confession happened in the room behind the wooden door next to the altar that looked like a candy bar. I had only ever seen altar boys go behind that door. –/–


Proof

I’m so lost in my recollection that I have to rewind the video to the shot of me walking down the aisle holding the wine just before the jumpcut to the post-communion frenzy outside the church. Families take turns posing for photos with the clergy as children buzz around.


And, there is Monsignor Goodwine ... standing over me as we pose for a picture.


My stomach hurts so much; I can feel the pain in my back. I think about the generations of women who Monsignor Goodwine hurt. Mom was conditioned to be ashamed. I’m confused about whether I should wish for the damnation of his soul or if I should pray for his redemption and practice forgiveness. I struggle with the latter, especially when justice lacks a tangible sacrament. Wretched is a person who interferes with the sacred grace of God and another.


And that’s when I realized the proof I was looking for was before my eyes.


We are standing on the steps in front of the church, waiting for mom to take the picture. I am looking down. I remember the sunlight burning my eyes. The Monsignor puts his fat finger under my chin and lifts my head. After my mom snaps the photo, I walk away. The smug look on the Monsignor's face tells of his character.

Forgiveness is not based on a sliding scale of ethics or morality. Whether you think the touch is inappropriate, forceful or friendly is not the point. For me, it is unwanted. Watching this interaction on the screen is like witnessing it through God’s eyes. Fifty years of fear and hurt are overcome by a divine comfort – I know I wasn’t alone. We are never alone.


I know my truth – and so does God.


Happy 50th birthday to me.


Now — can we finally take that stinking street sign down?




 

A few notes:

I have nothing but love for the Catholic faith and St. Vito's Church. This experience has brought me closer to God and my faith.


This article is based on my personal experience. I understand the topic is sensitive for some people. I wrote it so anyone who experienced ANY type of abuse can heal. You are not alone.


If there are any incorrect facts, please let me know.



Mimi O'Gara writes about diversity, women in the workplace, PR, healing from trauma, and the poverty that grew up sitting right next to you. Dear Boss Lady and The Word Shepherd are recurring columns in development. Be forewarned – she am not a fan of the Oxford comma.

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Mimi O'Gara writes about diversity, women in the workplace, PR, healing from trauma, and the poverty that grew up sitting right next to you. Dear Boss Lady and The Word Shepherd are her recurring columns in development. Be forewarned – She is not a fan of the Oxford comma.