A Short Story by Beverly Desoto Stevens
For me this Halloween, Goth is dead.
Tattoos, emo makeup, and weird sex?
I used to be emo, but I have changed. I never actually got the tattoos, though I did have my ears pierced in many places. I also didn’t actually go over to the dark side, like some other kids I knew did.
Anyway, this Halloween, I am fascinated with my grandparents’ time. I watch videos on Facebook – Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley rockin’ out. Cab Calloway and his Jumpin’ Jive. And I love the clothes. Cute dresses in sweet patterns cut from flour sacks. Peplum-waisted 1940’s suits that show off my legs in in high-heels. Oh, and veils at weddings.
I saw veils at the wedding of the older sister of my best friend, Whitney. They are Catholics, and for some reason Nicole insisted on a Latin Mass. It was in this old church, full of statues standing before banks of flickering candles. Tall white candles lit by a boy acolyte with a long brass taper. Clouds of incense rising. As the bride came down the aisle, we heard a single voice chanting in Latin from the choir loft. And most of the younger women wore veils.
I’m not sure why this fascinates me, but it really irritates my mother. To be honest, I think she would rather me be emo than to take an interest in this.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not like a lot of people in my generation, who hate their parents. Well, not ‘hate’ exactly – more like ‘contempt’. I know kids whose fathers absconded with younger women and spent their college funds on their new ‘lifestyle’. I know lots of kids whose dads were utter losers – unable or unwilling to support their families, addicted to drugs, alcohol, sex. Whatever.
But it’s not just the dads of my generation. My friend Whitney’s mom divorced her dad because he was boring, and married this really angry guy instead. Whitney thinks that her mom would eventually have left him too but by then she was too old.
Nicole left about a week after Angry Man moved in. Whitney stayed around until she absolutely couldn’t stand it anymore, and then she, too, moved in with their ‘crazy’ Catholic grandmother. Now, Whitney’s mom used to be Catholic, but then she became Christian when she married Angry Guy. They dragged Whitney to this high-end megachurch where all the doctors and lawyers go. Of course, all the kids there are super-popular in high school, and they knew Whitney wasn’t one of them. So every Sunday while her mom and Angry Guy hob-nobbed, Whitney stayed in a corner gazing fixedly at her Iphone.
This is why my mom has nothing to do with religion, I think. She tells me that many Christians are ‘judgmental’ and ‘non-inclusive’ which is why she is a ‘principled atheist.’ As for my dad, well, he’s a teacher and into comic books in a big way – attends all the conventions, knows all the Trekkies or whatever they are. In the rare times when our family conversation has turned to God, he’s pretty flippant on the subject. Sundays at our house are dedicated to sleeping in for my dad. For my mom, Sundays are for running or going to the gym. She deserves ‘her’ Sundays, she says. After all, as a nurse practitioner, she works hard. And she is the major breadwinner.
They were both pretty non-reactive when I went through my emo phase. My mom made some sarcastic remarks; my dad laughed. But they were both such anti-Establishment types when they were young that I guess the Goth thing seems pretty trite to them.
My problem with all this is that my parents aren’t any fun. Their perfectly-ordered, rational life is boring. Why do we live the way we do? Why celebrate holidays? Because that’s what everyone else does.
Our life is so superficial. There is no deep meaning to anything. It’s deadening.
Now, I know I have no reason to complain. I’m not in Whitney’s situation. Which is what brought me to this conversation with her and her salty Catholic grandmother. We were sitting in Grandma’s kitchen watching her make lasagna.
“Well, are ya going back to your old Goth look for Halloween this year?” Grandma wanted to know. One of the things she is not, is politically-correct.
Whitney looked up from her Iphone long enough to feign horror.
“Grandma!” she exclaimed in annoyance, one perfectly-manicured finger continuing to scroll down the screen as she eyed me nervously.
I just laughed.
“Um, no,” I answered Grandma, doing my best to look unruffled.
“Come on,” said Grandma, bestowing an evil grin on me, “I know you got some of that dead-white makeup still in a drawer someplace.”
Whitney rolled her eyes and was about to protest when I stopped her. I was actually having fun.
“It’s Halloween!” Grandma urged in mock seriousness. “Time to let it all hang out! Raise the Cone of Power!”
“Now what do you know about all that?” I countered, evenly.
“Me?” Grandma replied, grinning wickedly as she slid the lasagna into the oven. She straightened up and wiped her hands on her apron. “I know everything. I’m on Facebook. “
We all laughed.
“Grandma,” Whitney suddenly asked. “Why isn’t Mom a Catholic anymore?”
I held my breath. In my family we don’t discuss such things, especially in front of guests.
Whitney’s Grandma, however, didn’t seem in the least concerned. On the contrary, I had the sense that she relished the opportunity. In any case, she planted both fists on her hips and cocked her head cannily at her grand-daughter.
“It’s all about sex,” she declared bluntly. “Your mother wanted to have sex with your dad before they were married. I told her she would go to hell if she did.”
I was speechless, but Whitney pressed ahead.
“My dad?” she giggled incredulously. “You mean the guy she thinks is the most boring guy in the world?”
“Yep,” Grandma said, a tiny smile playing on her lips. “Same guy.”
Whitney and I looked at each other in wordless shock. How could this be? Whitney’s dad worked in a bank. He was the dutiful sort, always turning up for whatever event Whitney had, patiently bearing all things, never saying a word of protest when his wife dismissed him summarily from her life. And from her bedroom, come to think of it.
Grandma lowered her considerable bulk onto a nearby chair and reached for a bottle of Merlot. She poured a measure of the dark red wine into three juice glasses and set them before us.
“Believe it or not,” she said with an ironic smile, “sin exists. That’s a fact.”
You could have heard a pin drop in that warm kitchen. I looked out the window at the autumn sunset and tried to think of what to say.
“Your parents’ generation thinks they invented sex,” she chuckled, and eased back in her chair, arms folded over her ample chest. “They didn’t. And that’s why they’re so miserable today.”
This was beginning to be interesting. I took a gulp of my wine and felt its ruby red warmth spreading through me. Across the table from me, Whitney did the same. Her Iphone lay, forgotten, beside her.
“Listen, girls,” Grandma said. “Ya gotta respect sex. If you don’t, it’ll reach right out and bite you in the ass.”
This was too much. Whitney and I burst into nervous laughter.
“Ah, you guys know everything, right?” Grandma waved one plump hand dismissively at us. “You know all the ins and outs, right?”
In response, Whitney and I dissolved into a fresh bout of hilarity, but Grandma ignored us.
“Whitney, you remind me of your mother at this age,” she pronounced, eyeing her grand-daughter apprehensively.
But Whitney wasn’t taking the bait.
“Yeah? How so, Grandma?” She shrugged indifferently and resumed her scrolling. Nonetheless, Grandma went on, undaunted.
“Your mother wanted an exciting life. She wanted your dad to provide for her and you kids, and her career was going to bring in the big money. For trips to Disneyland and SUVs.”
“Well, so she got all that,” Whitney said, her gaze determinedly focused on her Iphone.
“Yes, but it wasn’t enough, was it?” Grandma said softly, and reached for her glass of wine. “She got what she wanted, but then she wasn’t satisfied. She wanted more. And that’s the problem, right there.”
“What’s the problem?” I piped up despite myself.
“The problem is the lack of respect for sex. The problem is the lack of respect for God. The problem,” Grandma said, ”is that if you bend everything to your will, you find it slipping through your fingers like sand. And that is the Devil at work.”
There was silence as we all contemplated this. Grandma shifted moodily in her chair and gazed out the window.
“You know I didn’t go to church for years? For decades. And you know why?”
We said nothing.
“I’ll tell you why,” she looked back at us. “My Joe – your grandfather, Whitney – he couldn’t stand what they did to our church. No more Latin. Just some priest telling us all ‘I’m okay, you’re okay’ from the pulpit every Sunday. Joe said if he wanted psychology, he’d go to a pro. That’s not what a priest is for.”
I considered this. In my limited experience with Christian ministers, it did seem that they played the role of psychological cheerleaders. Sort of like shrinks with audiences.
“What’s a priest for, then?” Whitney said. She had stopped scrolling and was reaching for her glass.
“A priest,” said Grandma with great seriousness, “is there to be Christ for his people. He is there to give us the sacraments that Christ left for us, so we can live lives full of grace.”
Daunted by this strange vocabulary, I looked at Whitney and Grandma confusedly.
“Look,” she said, not unkindly. “Life is hard, right? You girls have lived long enough to know that.”
Whitney and I both nodded, a trifle warily.
“We all need a little help in life. We need God’s grace, because grace helps us face things. Grace helps us do His will. Grace comes to us through the sacraments. Grace” she finished, looking at us intently “makes life worth living. It gives life that magic feeling, you know?”
I knew. Suddenly, I knew what she meant, but before I could say anything, Grandma changed tacks.
“Tonight is Halloween,” she went on. “And all these kids and nowadays grownups too are getting dressed up like ghosts and spirits, right?”
We nodded again.
“What they all don’t realize is that ‘Halloween’ is really ‘All Hallow’s Eve’ – a Catholic holiday,” she said. “It’s the night before All Saints Day, when Christians celebrate the Communion of Saints. And two nights before All Souls Day. I’ll bet you don’t know what that is.”
“What is it, Grandma?” Whitney grinned slyly at me but I could see she was only half-joking. And she had stopped scrolling.
“We know about the real spirit world,” Grandma responded. “Did you know that those in heaven can actually see us here on earth? We call them Saints – and we ask them for help. We need God’s grace – and we ask them to help us get it.”
Saints. All I could think of was St Patrick, and some old myth about him ridding Ireland of its snakes, which I mentioned to Grandma. She was delighted.
“And that is an example of God’s grace in action!” she pronounced. “How do you think saints make miracles?”
“…er, ‘grace’?” Whitney ventured uncertainly. She shrugged at me, deadpan.
“Um, so what does this all have to do with sex?”
I couldn’t believe I said that. Whitney guffawed, but Grandma regarded me seriously.
“Listen to me. I’m seventy-five years old. You ever see anything worse than somebody my age in what she thinks is a ‘sexy’ Halloween costume?” she asked bluntly.
I had to admit that she was not painting a pretty picture.
“And why is that? I’ll tell you why. It’s because she is not respecting sex. Real sex –that magical feeling – comes from God.”
I thought about that. She went on.
“If we cut ourselves off from God, we feel dead inside. Nothing works. Everything feels dead. Oh, we can try to manufacture that magical feeling with buying stuff. Or committing sin. It all feels good for a short period of time, but it wears off.”
I nodded, looking at Whitney. I knew she was thinking about Angry Man, and her mother. I was thinking about the emo kids I knew who went over to the dark side.
“Sin has victims,” Grandma continued, her face grim. “First, there’s the sinner. Then, there’s the sinner’s family. And it just keeps getting worse, spiraling downwards. That’s how the Devil likes it. Us, cut off from God’s grace, doing whatever comes into our fool heads. We’re easy pickings for him.”
“And that’s why you told Mom that she would go to hell if she had sex with my dad?” Whitney asked suddenly.
“Yes,” Grandma answered, quietly. I was afraid to look at Whitney.
“Well, she’s definitely made our lives a living hell,” Whitney said, stonily.
Grandma nodded, but said nothing.
“You know,” I ventured, “I see what you mean about that dead feeling. I mean, that’s how I feel at my house. There’s none of this around. “
I gestured around her simple, homely kitchen, with its framed Last Supper on the wall. I couldn’t explain why, but I felt alive in there. My ‘normal’ feeling of everyday anxiety was missing.
“And you know why all those young girls at the Latin Mass are wearing veils?” Grandma suddenly asked.
Whitney and I shook our heads, dumbfounded.
“They’re saying – ‘Respect me,’” Grandma pointed to herself. She began to wave her hands around, making short chopping gestures in the air. I took another sip of wine and watched her, fascinated.
“’Not because I’m a hot babe,’” she went on, “’Not because I make a lot of money. Not because I drive a fancy car. Respect me, the woman who God created. Respect me, especially here in God’s house, before His Tabernacle.’”
“I am not like my mom,” I heard Whitney say suddenly. Her eyes were brimming with tears.
Grandma abruptly stopped talking and regarded her grand-daughter calmly.
“She knows what she wants all the time, but then she ends up with a life she hates,” Whitney whispered, as the tears started to overflow.
Grandma sighed, and handed her a Kleenex. “It’s the sin of pride, baby doll,” she said gruffly. “We all do it, in our lives.”
“Did you do it?” Whitney sniffed.
“Ya mean did I have sex with your grandfather before we were married?”
“Yes,” Whitney nodded, solemnly.
I held my breath. Now we were definitely in uncharted waters. But Grandma smiled beatifically, and a faraway look stole over her face.
“You know, I was lucky. I was crazy about Joe, and my mother knew it. That’s why she made sure that somebody in the family was always around us,” she chuckled wryly. “I remember sitting in the parlor with him and she sent my 12 year old cousin in to hang around us. Boy, was I mad!”
We all laughed.
“This was in a time when everyone understood that sex was a big deal,” Grandma continued. “Families safeguarded their girls. And Joe, well he was an honorable man. He wouldn’t have tried to take what wasn’t his. Though I’ll tell you it wasn’t easy, still we managed to stay pure.”
There was a silence as we all thought about this.
“Is this why Nicole and you go to the Latin Mass?” Whitney asked quietly, her tears gone.
Grandma nodded solemnly.
“I go for myself,” she said. “And now that your sister’s married, I go for the future. For our family.”
Whitney nodded, and opened her mouth to speak, but before she could say anything, I jumped in.
“Grandma, do you mind if I come to church with you?” For the second time that afternoon, I couldn’t believe what was coming out of my mouth.
Whitney looked stunned — as did Grandma, to be perfectly honest. Her eyebrows shot up, but she said nothing.
“Really?” Whitney squeaked. “You want to go church with my grandma?”
I nodded, feeling somewhat unreal.
“Why?” Whitney was incredulous.
I sighed. From somewhere inside me, a great longing had arisen, and to be honest I wasn’t at all certain how to handle it. I just knew that I could no longer live without this thing that Grandma was talking about.
I’d had enough of it all – the life everyone I knew lived. The posing. The cruising for hookups. The pointless drama. The sense of desperation – that nobody knew what it was all about, that we were all more-or-less failures anyway, and that ultimately nothing mattered.
I was done with it all. I wanted what Grandma had. I wanted ‘grace’.
I looked at Whitney across the table and nodded, feeling as if a great weight had been lifted off my shoulders. She smiled slowly back at me and then turned to Grandma.
“We both want to go to Mass with you, Grandma,” she announced, her eyes sparkling.
Grandma didn’t miss a beat.
“Good!” she declared. “You’ll come with me for All Saints and for the Requiem Mass for All Souls.”
“Requiem Mass?” Whitney said it before I could. “You mean a Mass for the dead?”
“Yes, it’s important that you girls understand about death. We’ll all wear black and pray for your grandfather’s soul, honey,” came the brisk answer. “I have some veils you both can borrow. They belonged to my mother.”
“T-the same lady who…” I couldn’t actually bring myself to say it.
“Yes,” Grandma smiled and winked. “The same lady who sent in that pesky cousin to save me from the sin I most wanted to commit, a long time ago.”
A Short Story by Beverly De Soto