Starting in fourth grade, I spent a lot of time on the altar of my home church. Not as an altar server--sheesh, that was my Holy Grail back then, to wear that puffy white cotton gown-with-undergown and ring the little golden bell. But in the 1970s, girls were not altar servers. Instead, through a turn of events I can no longer remember, I became a lector.
Fourth grade. The same age as my youngest, who still frequently stammers through a sentence with childlike enthusiasm. Somehow, at age 10, I was instilled with the awesome power of the responsorial psalm and expected to deliver the words calmly and understandably. An entire parish lifted its myriad faces to me, awaiting my instructions as to what they would say in response to the interspersed psalm content I had to read, cold, from a big fat ponderous book. Yes, cold--I was handed the text upon arrival each Sunday.
Did I audition for this role? It's lost to the mists. There must have been some kind of try-outs, although knowing my parochial school, it's just as likely I was drafted because of my grades or my aptitude or the suspicion that I'd had "the calling". (Pause to recall the day that a nun told me that. Pause also to recall that I stammered when I answered Sister Maureen with some bland platitude, dancing around saying what I really meant: "Ohhh, I like boys WAY too much for that.")
Lectoring meant that weekly Mass was a must for me, and I didn't get to choose which Mass I was compelled to attend. I had to dress up, and I often used this as an excuse to borrow my mom's wedge-heeled sandals because "nothing I have matches with this skirt, Ma." How I walked across that massive marble-floored stage without wobbling, I do not know. I was shivery inside, and maybe my voice quavered as I intoned the psalm, but the huge silver mic always covered for me and boomed my words out into the massive church hall. (One of those retro-looking mics, rounded silver square with the horizontal cutouts. Ever cool.)
My nerves calmed as my lectoring career went on. One of the greatest gifts I ever got from my tenure at Most Precious Blood School, in fact, is my ability to speak in front of a crowd without hesitating. And here's an incredible true fact: my mom never came to a single Mass where I lectored. She was completely alienated from her faith at that point, and not inclined to use up Sunday leisure time on accompanying me to a service that would distress her. So, while that might seem cold-hearted and dismissive as you ponder it, what it really meant was this: at a young age, I was handed a major weekly responsibility that was mine alone to fulfill. No mom to comfort me if I made a mistake or got nervous...buck up and do it, young Nessa. Say what you will, my mother molded a fiercely independent spirit. For all I know, I advised her not to bother coming anyway.
Mom did, however, attend Midnight Mass with me and my brother, as my other altar-centered stint was the school choir. Those auditions, I do remember. Being in the choir meant everything to me. I strived for it, and each year I fretted that I might mess up my audition and not get in. The choir's base of operations was the Lower Church of Most Precious Blood, home of the infamous and kid-beloved Folk Mass (acoustic guitars! John Denver songs! feel-good liturgy!) The ceiling was lower down there, indeed; the lighting a fascinating peachy beige that warmed me inside. Sliding into the worn wood of those chestnut pews, feeling their grain under my fingertips...I spent hours upon hours there.
Our leader was a modernistic, charismatic young priest named Fr. Rucando. (So modernistic was he that, on Saturdays, you might see him in the neighborhood wearing beige slacks and a brown collared shirt!) Fr. Rucando was as good a music instructor as anyone I have ever seen. He was exacting yet pleasant, knowledgeable but accessible, and I would have probably leapt off a ledge if he told me that was the way to hit a note accurately. Our choir was about 50 kids strong. We rehearsed after school in the Lower Church, preparing for the big debut (either Christmas Eve or Easter Sunday, depending on the season). That debut performance would relocate us, you guessed it, onto the marble floor of the Upper Church's altar. We would line up by height along the length of the altar, so different from the casual weeks we had spent in pews downstairs. Our voices made a blended sound that stunned us: a lofty, soaring, magical hymnfest. Father selected unusual Christmas fare: "We Three Kings," "There's A Star in the East," "O Come O Come Emanuel." The program was always tinged with melancholy, culminating in our much-rehearsed "Silent Night." Fr. Rucando took "Silent Night" very seriously. He derided the way that popular singers dragged out "heavenly peeeeeeeeeeEEEEEEEACE," asking us instead to leap carefully between the two segments of the word, according some dignity to the moment and the emotion. Singing to his specifications, I felt as spiritually engaged as could ever be possible. As though I were an instrument to convey important messages. A muse for faith.
Walking to Midnight Mass, my stomach felt jumpy and excitable. Surely the knowledge that presents would soon materialize was part of that; also, dinner was long since digested, so my stomach was a little demanding. But even moreso, I was immersed in the night-ness of it all, and that never ceased to thrill me. The streets of Astoria were dipped in an inky midnight blue, punctuated by the occasional orange streetlight's benevolent glow. As we approached the church, a life-size Nativity was posted at the corner, constructed so that you could walk "into" the manger and feel that much closer to the Christmas miracle. And my mother was walking alongside me, which (independent girl must admit) meant the world to me. When your mother's an accomplished musician, your musical endeavors essentially become offertories.
The choir's repertoire would be sung before the Mass. Then, a great thrill: after the singing, we were herded up the stairs into the choir loft--by far, the coolest place in the whole church. From the bird's-eye vantage point, we watched the Mass so far below. The entire church was luminous from that spot, with vivid poinsettias winking all over the room. Also, every time the presiding priest waved the jangling censer, and its musky sweet incense wafted out, the concentrated scent would wreathe the choir loft with especial intensity. I reveled in its festivity; the censer only appeared for certain services.
Our choir was called upon during the Mass once more, to lead the congregation in "Adeste Fideles". That was fun, because we had not been taught this hymn during the course of our rehearsals--instead, we were expected to pick up the hymnals and deliver it cold. Of course we knew the tune, but the Latin danced on my tongue, a fizzly delight, unfamiliar even as I knew what the lyrics really meant.
On the way home, invariably my family would tease me because I was a little too "into it" as I sang. Moving my head around, keeping time. So sue me; I'm the daughter of musicians, I can't stand still when I perform. I knew they had been watching me, and that's all that mattered. It was my thing, my offering, and they were there.
What awaited us at home was usually not a happy holiday. Christmas brought stark conflicts between the adults in our home. Luckily we had usually freed our presents of their wrappings before then, so at least that part was sacrosanct. And no matter what happened on the 25th and beyond, my Christmas always had its shining, holy introductory eve, festooned in music and hope. And here's a nifty coda about Fr. Rucando: I always went to him for Confession, because he knew me so well. In what was then the new, daring, face-to-face Confessional method, I used to sit with him and seek advice and solace about my turbulent home life. That man never failed to help, a balm to my young spirit. Coupled with the instruction and joy of his musical teachings, I was deeply fortunate to know him when I did.