The early spring of 1945. Highbridge, Bronx, NY. World War II is about to end. Over fifty boys and girls cram together into our second grade classroom. Sister Mary Herbert stands tall at the front of the room in the black robes, black veil and the white headband of a Sister of Mercy. She announces: “Now that you are all seven years old and have reached the age of reason, you will be receiving your first Holy Communion. This will be the happiest day of your life.”
“Sister Mary Herbert is right,” my mother nods at dinner that night, “Holy Communion will be the happiest day of your life.” I look at my father. He continues eating and says nothing.
The next day Sister points to a picture of St. Patrick, a figure well known to us children of Irish immigrants. “St. Patrick holds a shamrock.” Sister explains, “Although it has three leaves, it is just one shamrock. The Holy Trinity contains three persons:
Father, Son and the Holy Ghost. All are one. All are God. During communion you will receive the second person of the Trinity into your body in the form of a wafer called ‘The Host.’ This has been changed into the body and blood of the Son of God, Jesus Christ.”
It sounds to me like the beginning of a fairy tale.
Later, my mother tells me it is all true and not made up. “It is a mystery,” she says.
This is the first time I hear the word “mystery.” In years to come, my young imagination will grapple with other bewildering mysteries and rituals. I will learn to sing hymns in a foreign language called Latin: Tantum Ergo, Salve Regina, Panis Angelicus. I will have black ashes marked on my forehead by the priest on Ash Wednesday reminding me that from dust I come and to dust I shall return.
On St. Blaise’s Feast Day, my throat will be blessed with sacred candles. On Confirmation Day, my head will be anointed with holy oil by the Bishop who will lightly slap my cheek, then announce my new name – Augustine – and declare me a soldier for Christ. I will carry rosary beads and run my fingers through the five decades of beads reciting in unison with others: Hail Marys, Our Fathers and the Glory Be in honor of the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious mysteries. And then, at age 12, on the night of Holy Thursday, I will hold a lighted candle against the darkness of our church and join a procession of choir boys following the priest in his purple robes as he holds a silver crucifix on high.
The fragrance of the incense as it rises in the air, the flickering light of the candles in the blackness, the hushed silence of the congregation broken only by the sound of our slow steps and steady chant of Pange Lingua Gloriosi – “Sing, my tongue, the Savior’s Glory” – all this, on that night, will fire my young heart with a sense of awe, wonder and reverence I had never known before.
But that awaits me in the years ahead. Now I am only 7 years old trying to picture the happiest day of my life.
“Three rules you must remember,” Sister says.“First, no eating or drinking on the morning of Holy Communion. Second, the host must never touch your teeth. Third, you must never, ever chew the Host.”
We boys prepare by trying on our very first suit – navy blue with a white armband shaped like a cross. We look like our fathers going off to church on Sunday. The girls are even more excited with their white lace dresses and veils, looking just like their mothers in photographs taken on their parents’ wedding day.
Days before my First Holy Communion, I watch tiny ants crawling on my window sill and I think with wonderment, “God made even those tiny ants. And He made the big tree across the street. God made the great Yankee Stadium. He made everything and everybody in the whole world. And this great God almighty will be put on my tongue and I will swallow Him into my stomach.”
“A mystery,” my mother says.
My legs shake as the Communion Mass begins. We walk to the altar rail one row at a time as the choir begins to sing, “O, Lord I am not worthy/That Thou shouldst come to me.”
Old Monsignor Humphrey pauses before each kneeling child and, speaking the words, “Corpus domini nostri Jesu Christi,” he places the wafer on each tongue. My stomach hurts and my mouth is dry. “O, Lord I am not worthy… I am not worthy.”
I open my mouth, stick out my tongue, feel the dry wafer and try to swallow it whole. I cannot. My face is burning and I start to cough. “Take him away,” Monsignor orders.
The altar boy, holding a gold plate to catch even the slightest crumb of the sacred Host from falling to the ground, leads me away to the room beside the altar, the sacristy. Father Bond stands tall in his black cassock and, with a slight smile on his face, he pats my back. “C’mon, son, it’s all right, take this water and swallow.” Then, unbelievably, he says to me, “Go ahead, chew it!” I continue to cough as he leads me to the sink, “Here, spit it out!” I cough up the crumbled wafer and watch in horror as God Himself goes splattering into the sink, swirling down the drain like a potato peel I’ve seen in my mother’s kitchen sink. Father Bond shrugs, slaps me lightly on the back, and says, “It’s all right, go back to your seat.”
Later my mother, father and I walk home in silence. Far from being the happiest day of my life this has been the worst. As we are about to climb the stairs to our apartment, my father says, “Come with me, Mick.” He takes my hand. His big hand is hard and rough as we walk down the long hill to the train station. Soon the two of us are sitting on the elevated subway going downtown to Manhattan.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
“To buy strings for my fiddle and resin for my bow,” he smiles at me with a twinkle in his eye.
This is the very first time I ever remember being alone with my father, away from my mother, brother and sister. Is he angry with me about what happened at church? I study him. He himself is a “mystery” in a way. I know he comes from a place called Sligo, Ireland, which is across the Atlantic Ocean. I know he gets up each morning and goes to work on “the railroad” which is what my father and his Irish co-workers called the I.R.T. subway system.
As the train rumbles along, I recall the first time I asked my father about his fiddle. It was a hot summer’s night and he was standing bare-chested by the kitchen window of our fifth floor apartment playing his violin. In those days before air conditioners, neighbors in our Bronx neighborhood often sat by their windows hoping to catch a slight breeze amidst the broiling heat. On this particular evening neighbors found themselves listening to the sweet strains of my father playing Moonlight in Mayo which drifted down from our open window to the courtyard below.
“Daddy, how did you learn to play the violin?” I ask.
In his Irish accent, my father says, “I play by air, Mick, by air.”
Years went by before I realize he didn’t just magically pull music out of the air. He meant, “By ear!”
The train stops at a station underground. My father leads me up the subway stairs toward the hot noisy streets of Manhattan. We come to a tiny store, “Mattie Haskins Irish Products.”
My father greets the man behind the counter and with his hand on my shoulder, says, “This is my son, Mickey, he made his first communion today.” With a big smile and in an accent like my father’s, the man reaches out his big hand and says, “Well congratulations to you, my boy.” Later my father buys me an ice cream cone and says, “I’m proud of you, son. Happy First Holy Communion Day.”
With my hand still in his, we go home – my father less a mystery than before. I have learned something about him.
The shame of that day has long since vanished; but what still lives inside me is the warm feel of my father’s calloused hand, his knowing wink as we rode the train downtown to buy strings for his fiddle and resin for his bow, and the feeling deep inside that he was on my side and always would be.
On that day I came to discover there is more than one kind of Holy Communion in this world, and that Sister Mary Herbert – with her confident prediction – was not so far off when she promised it would be a very special day indeed.
Michael Scanlon, an English lecturer, is the son of Irish emigrants and grew up in the Bronx, New York. He has published a book on his life growing up in Irish America. “Rolling Up the Rug: An American Irish Story” is available on Amazon.
* Originally published in November 2015.