I have a whole team of them — four or five back in Connecticut where I grew up and a gang of 10 in Chicago, where I lived for 20 years before high-tailing it to the Left Coast in July. The FG’s adopted me years ago and have a habit of turning up unexpectedly when I need them most, as if out of thin air (and sometimes even with glitter and gossamer wings.)
These women, the Fairy Godmothers, are quite a group. They’re all a decade or two older than me, most of them are Chicago’s particular brand of South Side Irish, a few of them are still mass-going Catholics, at least one of them is a Buddhist, about half of them are cancer survivors, most are mothers, and all are unapologetically free spirits. A cross between the cast of “Hair” and a White House cabinet, they are ribald and wacky, wise and caring, smart and sensitive, fierce and loyal, courageous and faithful. They listen, advise, feed me — and kick my butt as needed.
The Fairy Godmothers are full of faith, in spite of what John Patrick Shanley (my favorite playwright) in the introduction to his Pulitzer- and Tony-award-winning play “Doubt: A parable” calls “the bitter necessities of an interesting life.” Miscarriages, divorces, death, illness, addiction, depression, violence, bigotry, poverty, wealth, love, loss and doubt.
Fergie (aka Catherine “Kathy” Ferguson) is the chief Fairy Godmother
She is a marvel. A wondrous, whimsical broad with the world’s most infectious laugh. She wears her heart on her sleeve and carries a cigarette instead of a wand, but her power and grace is no less magical.
This is her story. It changed me. I hope it changes you, too.
I fiddled with the elastic band that held the little yellow straw hat on my head. It cut into my five year old throat. The hat had an artificial flower perched on the side, and a grosgrain ribbon around the brim that draped down the back. Straw hats were all the rage in 1955.
I was surrounded by tall dark coats, preventing me from seeing the main action on the altar. But every now and then the coats shifted just enough so I could get a glimpse of a man in a really pretty outfit, sort of like a dress, and sparkly. He had his back to the crowd so you couldn’t really see what he was doing up on that table with candles and golden chalices. I saw his elbows moving up and down. When I asked my brother Jerry, he said it was Monsignor Walsh, and he was washing dishes.
When I entered the church, I entered my own personal make believe, magical world. There was order and beauty and most of all, sanctuary. It was my very own castle. A castle where people sang and bowed, marched in processions and rang bells and where they spewed incense, and blessed things like your throat, or your forehead with ashes. It was a place where the stories assured me that if I kept trying really hard to be really good, everything would be OK.
The priest sang a song in Latin, a capella, as if he was calling all angels. Women’s voices entered like angels in flight. And then, the booming baritone of the organ entered, a sound that cut through the congregation like an ocean liner.
The Organ was a massive piece of carved mahogany, with wooden pipes rising up behind it. Each tube had its own little mouth. That’s where the sound came out. It had two keyboards, double decker like a bus, a panel with a series of switches to change the sound, and a group of around five pedals below. To watch the organist play the organ was to watch god’s marionette.
Most mysterious of all, was the confessional. The confessional really was three rooms, each with its own door. The middle one for the priest, the other two for sinners. There was a light above each door, it was either red for occupied, or green for …your turn….
But it wasn’t my turn. I was only 5 and you had to be 7. Seven was the age of reason. That’s what the nuns told us. Up till then you could sin all you wanted, with no black mark on your soul. Now even at 5, I knew that God had me pegged. It was true. I had lived a sinful life, I should go to confession. Besides I wanted to check out what was behind door number One. I knew I’d never make it past the center aisle, I’d get stopped by some adult who just didn’t understand. I had to wait to get a soul cleaning.
My first confession was on a dark Saturday in May of 1957. I had reached the age of 7. There were over 100 kids waiting in the dark church. All of us were making our first communion the next day. I counted my venial sins ( little ones, not so bad), mortal sins (like murder, or, maybe swearing) and of course there was original sin. (Everyone has one of these, you’re born with it, even Abraham Lincoln had it, I asked Sr. Marciana. I was concerned because if you died with this one on your soul, you were screwed eternally, and the only way to get it off was confession. And ABE WASN’T CATHOLIC! I personally baptized Judy Kay Lindmark, so she could go ahead and go to confession. That was called Baptism by Desire. It was too late for Old Abe)
I entered the confessional. Swoosh, the little window slid open revealing an Alfred Hitchcock silhouette. Bless me father for I have sinned.
For the next few years, I spent most of my waking hours hanging around the church or the convent. I read the lives of the saints, I prayed to be appeared to by Mary or anyone who’d have me. I even walked around in a miniature nun costume that Sr. Mary Anthony made for me.
If the church was locked, I would go to the convent. I loved going to the convent. It was clean, it had sitting parlors, and smelled like Pledge furniture polish. They had cut flowers in vases. I could hear them singing in the chapel while I sat in the parlor, waiting for them to tell me how I could “help”. I could stare out the window at the garden.
I went to escape my home. To escape the chaos of 10 children all under 15 years of age, to escape the fights, the punching, the tripping, the ridicule, but most of all to escape the belt. My parents wore belts around their necks like necklaces.
My hands held on to the sides of the wooden dining room table. I could toss the table on him, Or use it to propel myself through the living room and out the front door. I was strong, I was fast, but I was 10. He was my father. He held the belt cocked and folded. The buckle is what scared me. It had cut me before.
The next day I knelt in the pew with the rest of my class reciting the rosary. My white uniform blouse was sticking to my back. The wound created by the buckle was oozing pink liquid. Sr. Marciana was kneeling in the pew behind me. She put her hand on my shoulder gently. She stood me up and walked me to the room next to the sacristy where the priests got dressed and where there was a sink and a medicine chest with a mirror.
Sister pulled my blouse up in the back. She opened the medicine cabinet to find some salve. I saw Monsignor Walsh in the reflection in the mirror. He was staring at my back.
Parallel lines of purple and red with blurrings of yellow crisscrossed my back. The place where the buckle cut my flesh was raw and wet. It stung when sister cleaned it.
I was not ashamed. I treated it like a trophy, like a soldier who is wounded during war time. I compared my bruises and cuts to my brother’s . Mine’s worse, No, mine’s worse.
At the age of 12, I sang 8:00 and 8:30 mass. Mary Madden played the organ. She was a high school girl, renowned throughout the parish for her musical talent. I would watch her fingers glide, She would nod, I would turn the page for her. I could read music, I new where the proper keys were. Ok, I didn’t get the peddles or the switches, but I told Mary, I thought I could do the Kyrie. Yep, if given the chance, I just bet I could do it one day soon. It was sort of a repetitive song, and it was short. Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.
Imagine my shock, my wishing to take the words back, my hysteria, when she grabbed her book bag and left. Left me with all of 8:30 mass. I slid onto the shiny bench lit by the fluorescent light clipped on to the sheet music stand. I was an imposter. I didn’t know how to play the Kyrie, I could barely play chopsticks.
The bell rang, Monsignor Walsh and two altar boys emerged from a side door and on to the altar. My hands were shaking, my mouth went dry, my heart raced. I put my hands in position. Pushed. Nothing. Pushed again, nothing flipped a switch or two, something. Something very weird and shrill came out like when you pinch the sides of a balloon and slowly allow the air out. The sound pierced the air. I tried again, this time single finger Kyrie Elison, then I glanced over the balcony, the priest had stopped mass, he was staring at me. I sang the next line, without accompaniment. Kyrie Elison. And then, the devil got me, Lucifer shined his sinful light upon me. I felt evil delight gurgling up from way down inside, up , up it came…I scrunched my face to stop it, but it began to seep out the sides of my mouth and then… I went into such a belly laugh that I slid off the organ bench and onto the floor by the edge of the balcony. Why didn’t the priest just go on and start babbling some Latin? No, he was waiting. I got up on my knees, and peeked over. It was a standoff. He wasn’t starting. I surrendered. I stood up. Muttered “sorry father” grabbed my stuff, and left, head down, down the stairs, out the door, down the street and into the school where I took my seat at my desk.
“Will the girl who sang 8:30 Mass please come to the principal’s office”? I was peeling the paper off a crayola named violet with my thumbnail when I heard the message over the intercom. I didn’t look up, I knew every kid in the class was staring. I felt a tear in my right eye, I was in trouble. And they would tell my dad. By the time I got to the office, what had been a tear was now a full out, very wet, wail. My entire body trembled. I turned the knob and entered the room.
And there he sat. With his funny hat on It was black rimmed with crimson. It had four peaks, one on each corner, and one in the middle. He was not a good looking man, His face had been damaged by surgery or war, no one really knew, but they whispered about it. The left side hung lower than the right, making his lips fall to one side as if there was a permanent cigar in them. His left eye bulged. He looked at me.
The innocence in his eyes met the innocence in mine. He saw me.
He said, ‘what happened? “and I said. I thought I could do it. And then he said. OK. Let me give you my blessing. You are forgiven. “ And I believed him. How simple that world was. How elegant the word forgive.
Yes, I had been sacrilegious in that church that day, and I lost something when I realized that the organ didn’t play of its own accord. It needed a human to make it sing. Like Oz behind a curtain.
I’ll never know exactly why Monsignor Walsh let me off the hook. But 45 years later, I still see his reflection in that mirror. I still see the beauty of a real person, who saw my innocence without a word being said.