My mother was the daughter of Italian immigrants, who died when she was quite young, and she was raised by a cruel, possibly psychopathic, foster mother. She claimed that her foster mother poisoned three of her husbands, and she had to help her mix the poison. Some of my siblings doubt the veracity of that story, but who wants to think their mother was an accomplice to murder? When her foster mother died, Mom went to the priest and offered him $5 to say a Mass. “It will take more than $5 to pray that woman’s soul out of Hell,” the priest said. Mom took her $5 back and said, “Well, then, her soul will just have to stay in Hell.” She told me that story with great relish many times. Although she paid the tuition to send me and my sister Carol to a Catholic school, she was not at all religious. To say she was anti-clerical would be a huge understatement. I remember her going to confession only once, just before Easter, and afterwards she said, “I’ll bet that priest could tell me plenty.”
St. Francis de Sales, the Catholic school my sister Carol and I attended and the church adjacent to it, added a certain fabric and richness to our lives. While the twangs of country and western music, drunkenness, laughter, crying, and violence of the bar where Mom worked filled much of our mundane world, the liturgy of the High Mass and cadences of Latin chanting filled our spiritual world. There was the sweet smell of incense instead of the stench of stale beer and bourbon. The school was staffed almost exclusively by nuns—the Sisters of St Joseph—with a sprinkling of lay teachers. In the upper grades, priests taught us catechism.
It wasn’t long after Eisenhower’s landslide victory in the 1956 presidential election that I started having impure thoughts. I rather welcomed them because I would have something real to confess instead of my normal catalogue of made-up sins like “I disobeyed my mother three times.” The priest asked me what occasioned the impure thoughts. Actually, at that point in my life almost anything could be an occasion for impure thoughts, but I told him it was the dirty magazines at Cliff’s barber shop. My penance was to say ten Hail Mary’s and switch barbers. I said the ten Hail Mary’s, but I never switched barbers. Once, when I was in the barber chair at Cliff’s, I pointed to a Rock Hudson-like face in a hair lotion ad and told Cliff to give me a haircut that would make me look like that. “Look, kid,” Cliff said, “I’m a barber not a miracle worker.” Even that didn’t break my loyalty to Cliff.
In retrospect I have sometimes wondered whether I was an occasion of impure thoughts for the priest. But that’s unfair. As the son of working single mother, I was certainly vulnerable, but in twelve years of Catholic school there was never a hint of sexual molestation. I think I was just lucky.
School had a downside for me. Because my father had died and Mom had to work full time, the school agreed to take me at age five with the understanding that I would have to repeat the first grade. On the first day of my second year in first grade, the nun told the class that they would all have to work very hard if they hoped to see the second grade. “And,” she said, “If you don’t believe me, just ask Alan here. This is his second go round.” That remark seemed to set off a life of being teased at school for me. I was an odd kid and would probably have been teased a lot anyway, but being set up that way didn’t help. Although some of the nuns were a bit unhinged and could be harsh and even cruel, most were fine, dedicated women who were actually pretty good teachers.