The Day I Surprised the Priest
Back in my day, in my neck of the woods, most of us went to Catholic school because that was what was available. It didn’t matter if you were Christian, Jew or whatever, you probably were educated by ladies in black robes and white wimples. My brother and sister went off to those magical, mysterious places every day, one called Fifth Grade and the other Seventh. Although lately Bobby had been sick and stayed home, Sara still left just as the theme for The Arthur Godfrey Show played on our old radio.
I wanted desperately to go to school, too. Of course, that was before I learned that my sister wore that white blouse and blue jumper everyday because she had to, not because it was her favorite. I was less enthusiastic when it became clear that my usual uniform of red boots, jeans and black cowboy hat, with a Gene Autry six-gun and holster, was not considered to be appropriate classroom attire for little girls.
But, I didn’t know that on the day in question. That day, Mother put the old card table with grey steel legs out on the porch and unfolded the matching chairs with their blue seats. My job was to wipe ubiquitous New Mexico dust from the stuccoed tops of the waist-high adobe wall, and put our pet tortoise in a box in the bedroom. Someone important was coming, but no guests could go in the house because my brother was quarantined with Scarlet Fever.
It wasn’t like when the ladies of Alpha Phi came. Then we started a day ahead of time, making little currant cookies flavored with Mother’s precious bottle of quince brandy and polishing all of the silverware to its brightest shine. It was my job on those days to use an old toothbrush to get the Wright’s Silver Cream into every nook and cranny of the carved fork handles so that Mother could rinse away the dark tarnish in water too hot for my hands.
On Alpha Phi days, while we listened to Andy Devine or the Lone Ranger on the massive tube radio in the corner, I sat beneath the mahogany table, polishing the legs with their brass-capped feet. No, it was not like that this time. It was not the ladies of Mother’s sorority coming today. It was a mystery, a secret.
We had already washed my mop of white-blonde hair, the mark that had the neighborhood kids calling me Guerra, local slang for Blondie. Now it was time for me to get dressed for company. Clean jeans and striped tee-shirt were not enough. I protested the dress. It had ruffles around the shoulders, and a bow that tied in the back. I hated it.
“Why does it tie in the back? No one can see it there!” I stomped my foot in four-year-old rage.
“Because it does. Stand still. How did you get this knot in your hair already!”
“Because I did.”
“Don’t talk smart!”
“I want to wear my hat.”
“Little girls do not wear cowboy hats to greet the priest.”
“No, you don’t.”
“What’s a priest?”
“The man from church.”
“We don’t go to church anymore.”
“We don’t go now because your brother has been sick, and we can’t. But that won’t keep you from going to school.”
School! Oh, how I wanted to go to school. Maybe could wear clothes like Bobby wore to school. You know, blue jeans and a white shirt, like normal people. I was a lot younger than Bob, but because he was sick so often, he wasn’t growing much, and we could wear a lot of the same clothes, especially boots.
I thought that was good because clothes cost a lot. We kids looked forward to a Christmas Box from older cousins sending the clothes they had outgrown each year. Mother was embarrassed that she couldn’t buy us new things, but the cousin’s clothes were new to us, weren’t they?
Boots, though, were another matter. Our cousins apparently wore shoes. Useless things we thought. How do you keep from getting shoes filled with sand when you were hunting rabbits in the arroyos? No, we needed boots! So, twice a year, Mother loaded us into the ancient ’32 Packard, and we drove south to Juarez, Mexico, an all-day trip back then. We always needed boots, bed linens, and for my sister, beautiful embroidered blouses with long pleated skirts, because she competed on a square-dance team.
For the kitchen, we got great square boxes of crackers, bags of piloncillo, the Mexican cones of raw sugar, six months worth of flour and lard for tortillas, and Mother’s precious two bottles of Crema de Membrillo, a kind of brandy made from quinces.
We loved the trip along the Rio Grande, a route so perilous in the past that early travelers had named it the Journey of Death, Jornada del Muerto. But we traveled on US 85, speeding along at 50 miles an hour, because the highway was paved, unlike most New Mexico roads. We stayed in the Hotel Sylvia where one wall of the restaurant was made out of blue bottles. It was beautiful, we thought.
Bobby and I wandered the streets under the supervision of big sister Sara, while Mother shopped. Juarez was a safe town back then. There were vendors for elotes, corn on the cob on a stick, which we sprinkled with powdered chile. And, we bought, for a penny or two, little flat cardboard containers of caramel about the size of the palm of my hand.
But I digress. The subject was the visit from this unknown quantity, a priest. I was ready in blue-checked dress with white ruffles, trailing belt tied back in a secure bow, much to my irritation. Red boots with the white-stitched cactus pattern were polished to a high shine. My cowlicks, which normally stood upright like a built-in feathered warbonnet, were wetted down, too.
I expected something dramatic. Instead, here came a dusty black Buick with the chromed airflow holes in the hood. It was just like Mr. Simms Buick that parked three houses down from us. Boring! My bubble of excitement grew flatter when a young man dressed all in black got out of the unexciting car. He looked kind of like the two high school boys who lived down the street. I got all dressed up for him?
Mother opened the blue-painted screen door, hinges squealing in protest as usual, and offered him a cup of tea. I squirmed impatiently, knowing that there would be many minutes of polite chat before any business was done. How was Bobby? What a pretty cat. Was Sara doing well in school.? So sorry that she had broken her fingers playing baseball. Maybe he had an old glove she could use. Did you see that the Baca’s, up the road, had a television? It is amazing. You can see and hear people just like in a movie.
They finished the tea. Then an Our Father, and a Hail Mary, and he turned to me.
“What is your name, young lady?”
What the heck? He didn’t know? “Cornelia,” I answered.
He made a little mark on a piece of paper.
“And where do you live?”
Priests aren’t very smart I thought, but answered politely. “Here.”
“Oh. I mean, what is the address here?”
The house number was written on the outside of the house in big black letters. So, priests are not smart and don’t see well. Okay. “Seventeen twelve Ridgecrest Drive,” I said, patiently.
“And what city is this?”
Sheesh! “Al-bu-ker-ky,” I said, pronouncing it slowly, the way we had to talk to Mr. Colt, who was not right in the head.
“Ah-hah,” said the priest, as though he had never heard the name of our city before, and made another mark on his paper.
“Would you like to play a game with me?” He smiled like this was some big treat. What kind of game could this guy possibly play? I thought about the games we had. Monopoly? No. It takes too long and I hated it anyway. Pirates and Travelers? No. Too complicated for this fellow. Hmmm.
Mother gave me that look. “Okay,” I said. “What do you want to play?”
“I brought one with me. I show you a picture, and you tell me what it is.”
By this time, I was leaning forward, kicking my feet under the card table, impatient to get back in normal clothes and outside doing something─anything. “Okay.”
He opened this little kid’s picture book, the kind that has an apple for A and a balloon for B. We went through the whole thing, F for frog. L for lion. You know what I mean. He was surprised that I knew the names of the letters as well as the objects in the pictures.
He stopped at N. “Are you reading the letters, or have you memorized a book like this?”
“Both, I guess.”
“Can she read?” He asked my mother, not me. I was offended.
“Well, yes. Her brother has nothing much to do during the day, since he has been so sick. They have been reading together.”
“And I know what viz means,” I said. He gave me a curious look. “You know, in Robinson Crusoe?” He still seemed puzzled.
“We don’t have any of the usual readers, so they are reading Robinson Crusoe, and had to look up the meaning of viz.”
“Ah,” he said, hesitating like he didn’t know what to do next. But, he rallied and went on. P for peach. S for sock T for tiger. Then came U. In my alphabet book, there was a picture of a little kid reaching Up. But in this book, there was a picture of a parasol. Uh-oh. Now what? Do I tell him his book is wrong? I hesitated, twisting a lock of my hair, as I always did when stressed.
“What is this?” He asked again, grinning like the neighbor boys did when they were making fun of me. I shrugged in confusion, not knowing how to let him down easy. “It’s an umbrella,” he said, smiling. It was surely meant to be a kind smile, but it looked like gloating to me. “An umbrella is for keeping the rain off.”
That was the last straw! No more humoring this guy. “It’s a parasol, for keeping the sun off the abuelas, the grandmothers, so they don’t get sunburned,” I said. “Parasol starts with a P. And why would you want to keep the rain off? Skin don’t leak!”
Mother was disappointed. I had blown it. So, it was a surprise when a little card came in the mail saying that I had passed the test and would be admitted to First Grade at St. Vincent’s Academy in September, lunch provided, mass at 6:30 a.m., uniforms required. trouble operating because of too few employees.