My First Communion dress swayed on the closet rod. Snow-white organza just like a bride’s, with sheer sleeves ruched at the wrist. I reached up and touched the puffs of appliquéd flowers on the skirt and imagined walking to the altar in my gauzy veil. Kneeling in perfect purity and holding my new missal next to my heart as the Host melted on my tongue.
My teacher told our class that everyone on earth was a sinner, even children. And that we must be genuinely sorry for our sins. At my first confession, I had to tell the priest exactly what I did wrong and exactly how many times. He would command me to pray and forgive me in the eyes of God. I didn’t want to be a sinner. I wanted to be a good girl, so I paid attention during catechism. Follow the rules. That’s what my teacher said was important.
The next morning, my class filed down to the school basement, our makeshift place of worship while the parish church was being built. I fretted over the Ten Commandments. My tummy swam. Then I remembered. Venial sins. Small sins, like acting mean or telling lies. Or fighting with your little sister and calling her stupid-head or crybaby. Or worse, slapping her on the arm and Mummy shouting: “Don’t be a bad girl! Say you’re sorry and hug your sister.” I was a sinner, but confession would make me good again.
We sat on two rows of spindly chairs near the altar. Father Hébert wasn’t up there swaying or talking Latin in his singsong voice. I pictured him sitting in the wooden booth at the back of the room. Slicked black hair that made him look like a crow. Huge, pointy-toed shoes half-hidden under his long robe. Dark, disapproving eyes whenever you wiggled while kneeling at mass. Father Hébert knew everything. Just like God.
The basement smelled musty, not like smoky incense or perfumed ladies on Sunday. I sat, waiting for my turn, clutching my pearly pink rosary beads, feet dangling from the wooden chair. I looked down the row. Two kids to go before my turn. Sometimes, when my sister grabbed my doll, she made me so mad. I would confess I hit Debbie, just sometimes, and called her mean names. I peeked again. One kid to go. But I had to tell how many times I sinned. The girl beside me stood up. Okay, five or six bad names a day, maybe two small slaps a week. I counted everything up in my head, a whole month’s worth of sins.
When my turn came, I edged down the side aisle to the confessional. The door clicked when I tugged it open. I knelt on the hard low bench inside and faced the crisscrossed wooden screen. When I smelled hair pomade, I knew for sure Father Hébert sat on the other side. “Begin, my child,” he said in a low rumbling voice.
I had practiced what to say, but my words came out squeaky. “Forgive me father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession. These are my sins. I called my sister, Debbie, bad names 145 times and hit her 12 times. I am truly sorry for these sins and any sins I forgot.”
A long, snuffling sound came from behind the screen, then silence. My hands trembled and my eyes prickled with tears. Had I forgotten a bunch of other sins? Father Hébert wasn’t saying anything. Would he forgive me? I wanted to be a good girl. I would be nicer to my sister. What was he waiting for?
Father Hébert cleared his throat. “Say ten Hail Marys and be kind to your sister. I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Go in peace.”
Forgiven! I was forgiven! I scampered back to my chair. While the remaining kids shuffled back and forth, I closed my eyes and fingered my rosary beads, reciting my penance in the tiniest of whispers. “Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women…”
Head bowed, I prayed for goodness. Everything was still possible.