Just about everyone else in my family is Catholic (except for a few crazy uncles we were never allowed to associate with except for at large family gatherings). Many women in my family love angels. My mother is especially fond of them. She remarked on many occasions that it was a bizarre coincidence that I was born a week after my great grandmother died. I apparently resemble her physically and have a lot of the same personality traits. She had a dream one time that her father who had passed away told her that I was not of this world and that there was something different about me. Not long after, I called to her in the night, and when she came to me, I told her that an angel had been there and that she talked to me. I was 3. My mother was quite spooked by this whole event.
I was raised Catholic, and this was a major part of my formative years and really shaped my personality. My family was very devoted and passionate about religion, though not always completely faithful to the dogma. I enjoyed the time that we spent together as a family especially spending time with my grandmother after mass.
My mom, my grandmother, and my aunts were as interested in angels (if not more) as they were any part of their religion, even Jesus. My mom had a near brush with death when a car nearly ran her over the same year her cousin was killed by a drunk driver. I think she was a teenager at the time. She swears that she was pushed out of the way by a pair of hands, that she could feel them, though I always had my doubts. She told me this when we were picking fiddleheads out near our camp one summer.
My mother collected angel statues. They totally freaked me out. I thought all religious artifacts were scary. It might be that they look so severe or are like a set of eyes or a hidden camera watching you. It’s bad enough to be watched in church where you can’t laugh or stand up if you feel like you need to unless everybody else is going to.
I used to have nightmares about angels. I’m sure one time I just told my mom it was real to get her attention (though how can I be absolutely certain — not to feed into a messianic complex). This is the kind of thing 3-year-olds do, after all. But my mother is very superstitious and was taken with the coincidence of the timing of my birth to the death of my great grandmother and spooked by a recent dream that she had where her father told her there was something different about me, something not human. Perhaps she just wanted to think her kid was special. No matter the case, I got her attention.
It was there before I could even begin to understand it. Catholic. A basic fact of me, like my last name or my address. Except I didn’t have to memorize “Catholic” in case of a fire. Because of the family I was born into, it was an integral part of my formative years. They were followers of Christ, though I wouldn’t exactly say they were sheep. Plus, it had its own rewards. Often, I would get the opportunity to be invited to my grandmother’s house after mass where she repeatedly offered me Diet Pepsi (did she not remember she’d asked, or did she want to get rid of it?) and I’d abscond to the bathroom to weigh myself. Scales were verboten at my house as they reminded my mother of THE INADEQUACY. My grandmother would wave her hand at me when I worriedly repeated the priest’s words about the threat of homosexuality to the church’s way of life. “Nothing wrong with people having someone to love.” She believed mostly in the Book of Matthew, the Gospel of Love. My mother was more into the Old Testament, though I suspected that was really just about the lushness of Charlton Heston’s beard. The God-fearing women in my family all had their own persuasions, but one fact was non-negotiable: The existence of angels.
My female relatives were wild about them. Angels were the new Elvis! Every Christmas or birthday without fail, they exchanged angel paraphernalia with flowery notes that smelled like potpourri, ribbons, and pictures of Jesus. It was like the Angel of the Month Club. You might say my mom was the ringleader. She’d been a believer in angels ever since one saved her from being killed by an out-of-control car. It was the same year her cousin was hit by a drunk driver and made quite an impression on her.
When I was growing up, my mother’s cabinets were studded with angel figurines. Seraphim with their lances guarded the mantel. The cherubs on top of the piano had their mouth stretched in wide o’s. Joy or agony? I wasn’t sure. I began to feel like the statues could see into my soul. What did they see? I was afraid to find out. I tried to avoid them, but every morning as I headed downstairs to get my pancakes, I passed the angels (hurrying past and singing under my breath) and tried to avoid eye contact with Jesus. He was even meaner than I was in the morning, his eyes twisted in agony underneath his crown of thorns.
I couldn’t even hide from them in my sleep. I dreamed of their empty faces blank with judgment regarding me. What is this wicked child? they seemed to say. The one who asks so many questions. I grew exhausted and frightened to go to sleep. I took to half-consciousness trying, like my friend had shown me, to actually sleep with one eye open. The light descended upon me, and I wasn’t sure if I were asleep or awake. Words filled my head, braids of words too intertwined to decipher. I floated in the interstice before surfacing. The light vanished, and I bolted from my room as quickly as my tiny legs would carry me.
“Ma,” I said, poking my head into her room.
She roused quickly. “What?”
“An angel came to me,” I said. “I was so afraid.”
“There, there now. There’s no need to be afraid,” she said. Her words were comforting, but I could sense unease in her tone. “I know who you are. Your grandfather told me.”