I usually get to church a little bit late on purpose. My goal is to avoid the “passing the word of peace” part of the service because I can no longer tolerate having my right hand shook. This morning being Palm Sunday (and 20 new people joining the church I later discovered), the parking lot was nearly full and I was afraid Brett would be crowded down the pew and lose the spot he was saving for me, so I sucked it up and went in on time.
The choir and two bell choirs were lining up in the narthex in their red robes as I was receiving my bulletin and palm frond. I spotted Krysten in the crowd and waved to her. She motioned me over, enveloped me in a hug and said, “Don’t do anything funny with that palm frond,” or something like that. I can’t remember her exact words, but her meaning was perfectly clear. “Do not traumatize a little old lady and disrupt the service this time.” Leave it to your adult kid to listen to and remember the story of one of your most embarrassing moments ever. Leave it to me to write about it on the internet.
It actually began years before the Palm Sunday incident. When I was a kid back in the 60s, you could visit a friend or relative’s school as a guest. It was actually a lot of fun; you shadowed your friend or relative all day, ate lunch with them and played with them at recess, but you didn’t have to do any of the schoolwork unless you wanted to for some insane reason. School in Denver must have gotten out for the summer earlier than my cousin Lynda’s parochial school in the tiny town of Olpe, Kansas. We were visiting and I was invited to go to school with Lynda. I would have been in 2nd or 3rd grade and Lynda was a year behind me. I already knew all the stuff she was learning and was having a wonderful time until something unexpected happened… something I hadn’t been warned about and had no idea how to handle. The children went to mass in the afternoon. Just to clarify, I wasn’t Catholic and had never been to mass. Lynda just shrugged and said, “Follow me and do what I do.”
So I filed in with the rest of Lynda’s class and when Lynda genuflected, I genuflected. When Lynda crossed herself, I crossed myself. When Lynda knelt on the folding prayer kneeler attached to the old wooden pew in front of us, I knelt. And when Lynda followed her classmates up to receive Communion, I followed Lynda. She stuck her tongue out to receive the wafer, so I stuck my tongue out. She sipped from the chalice, so I sipped from the chalice. The priest and altar boys all gave me puzzled looks, but I brazened it out and Lynda never said a word about it, so I figured I’d done okay.
Fast forward a decade or so and Lynda and I were 18 and 19 respectively, rooming together in our very first apartment in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Lynda had been feeling guilty about not attending mass since she’d moved to Arkansas so we decided to drive up to Kansas and surprise her family on Palm Sunday weekend. I attended mass with the family, but this time I was much smarter and knew better than to do what everyone else was doing. I was determined to sit respectfully, bow my head during the prayers, and not pretend to be Catholic.
When we arrived at the church, we were each handed a palm frond. Not the puny little thing the protestant churches handed out, but a full sized piece of a palm tree. I accepted my frond with grace and dignity, telling myself that if there was some ritual involving the palm fronds, I would sit respectfully and not take part. We sat in a pew at about the middle of the sanctuary and I stood my frond on its stem end, leaning against the pew in front of us. The mass seemed to go on forever. When the congregation stood and spoke, I stood quietly. When they sang, I sang along if I knew the hymn. When they knelt, I sat in the pew and bowed my head. It was all going well until communion. Why oh why is Catholic communion always my downfall?
The congregation went forward one row of pews at a time, received communion and circled around to return to their pews. The folks sitting in the row of pews about four ahead of us were just getting back to their seats and hadn’t sat down yet when somebody folded the kneeling bench up under the pew in front of us, in preparation for our row filing out to go forward. My palm frond, as you recall, was leaning against the back of the pew… inside the kneeler. When the kneeler was folded up, my palm shot forward like a bullet out of a gun with enough velocity to carry it under four pews and up the black dress of a tiny little old German lady. She jumped and squealed and everybody in the back half of the sanctuary burst out laughing. In the middle of communion. The priest shot a stern look to the back of the room and the laughter turned to quiet giggling. I was beet-red with humiliation, thinking I couldn’t possibly, ever in the rest of my life, have a worse moment than that. And that’s when Lynda leaned toward me with tears of suppressed laughter in her eyes and whispered, “That was my Grandma Redeker.”
And that was the last time I went to mass with Lynda.