The Church of Grandpa

I hated going to church, and when I hit eleven-years-old, I had enough. I thank my grandfather Santiago for helping me with my spiritual crisis. He’s dead now, but his influence lives within me.

The Catholic Church scene never spoke to my adolescent senses. After birth, I was unwillingly ushered up the alter steps of St. Anthony’s Church in San Gabriel. It was my baptism, and it was done without my consultation. From what I was told, my parents held me down as the priest submerged the back of my head into a bowl of holy water. I’m sure I cried while the Father recited a blessing over my convulsing body. I would cry now if this happened to me, and I’m in my forties.

I stayed away from church as long as I could, attending only one someone got married or died, which, nowadays, seems to be the same thing. Luckily, my parents were casual Catholics themselves, practicing only on the big days like Easter and Christmas and Ash Wednesday.

On weddings and during wakes, we attended church only to find ourselves kneeling, sitting, kneeling, standing, knelling, sitting, standing, kneeling, and finally sitting. It was actually a calorie burner, which is probably why people always go to breakfast after mass.

Just getting dressed to go to church was a pain in the ass. Everything was forced on me: getting out of bed, taking a bath, combing my hair, tucking in my shirt. The good, hand-me-down clothes I received annually from my cousins were worn on church days. It was nice stuff, but it didn’t’ compare to the torn baseball jersey and ripped corduroys I was used to. The discomfort is traumatic because I had to sit for a whole hour or so in clothes that just didn’t feel right, and it was on my mind the whole time. I was supposed to pray at church, and I did! I prayed to God to let me get home and change and never come back.

Of course, the ride to church was always tense and somber. The happy anticipation of going on family outings was completely absent. Instead, I was heading to a place where I knew for certain I didn’t want to be. In looking back, it seemed nobody in my family wanted to go, either. My dad was always cranky, my mom felt rushed, and I fought with my siblings to and from church.

I started to come of age and was finally allowed to watch certain movies like The Omen and The Exorcist. These movies skewed my perception of churches and religion. These movies had scenes of angry priests, tormented souls, and statues of Jesus that cried blood! It was pretty scary, too.

All of a sudden, I found myself sitting in the creaky, wooden pews in St. Anthony’s staring for long periods at the face of the giant Jesus hanging on the cross behind the priest on the alter. I’d look intently into his eyes to see if he was going to blink or if a drop of blood was going to run down his cheek. I watched, certain there would be movement of sorts. He never moved.

Strange things did happen, though. On more than one occasion, and from out of nowhere, From nowhere, my brother and I would fly into a fit of uncontrollable laughter. I’m not talking the giggles. I’m talking about wild bouts of mania, evil sounding laughter, like Vincent Price stuff. It hit us hard, and we could do nothing to stop it. There was nothing to laugh at, too, which is why it was even stranger. We laughed so hard that our stomachs would ache and tears would well up in our eyes. It was as if we were possessed. My mom tried to get us to shut up, but we couldn’t. We’d look at her and just start laughing even more. Then my dad would give us a warning with his eyes and we lowered the volume. If we were told to go outside until we calmed down, we never returned.

I felt guilty about laughing, especially after my mom would say, “Dios te va castigar.” I didn’t want to go to hell for laughing. It wasn’t my fault that I couldn’t stop laughing.

At eleven, I wanted to sever my ties with the church. I was annoyed and angry with my mom for practically dragging me to church every Sunday. I felt I was at the age where I could more or less decide in which direction I wanted my spiritual beliefs to head. I was almost a teenager! There was football on Sundays. I didn’t need to go church.

We were living with my grandparents while I was rebelling against religion. The drive from St. Anthony’s in San Gabriel to my grandma’s house in Rosemead wasn’t very long, but it always seemed to take forever to get there. I was the first one out of the car when we got home.

On this particular day, my father hadn’t gone to church with us. The Raiders were playing, and there were other NFL games on which he had money riding.

In my father’ absence, I was naturally braver and more willing to rebel against my mom. As soon as she parked the car, I burst out, bolted up the porch, opened the door, and walked straight to the downstairs room I shared with my bro. I changed my clothes and climbed back up the steps and headed straight to my grandpa’s room. He was my best friend, and I wanted to see what he was doing. As usual, he was sitting in his brown, leather recliner, reading Siempre, a Spanish political magazine he bought weekly at the Mercado in Boyle Heights.

I was still bothered by our church excursion as I jumped on my grandpa’s bed. I was on my stomach with my hands on my face. I looked at him while he read. Finally, I asked, “Grandpa, how come you never go to church?” I asked him in Spanish. My grandpa didn’t speak English. He may have understood it, but I never spoke to him in English. He had lived in Los Angeles more than half his life, and he never bothered to learn. All he knew was “Take it easy,” and he learned this from the Eagles’ song. “Mijo, take it easy,” he would say to me whenever I left.

He rested the magazine on his lap and looked at me with a sly smile, as if he had been waiting for someone to ask him this very question. “No tengo que ir al iglesia para hablar con dios, mijo. Puedo hablar con el en el bano, en la cocina, en mi cuarto. No tengo que ir al iglesia. Hablo con el aqui.” This was his response my question, and I wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic. He repeated it again, but this time a little differently. I was stunned. I had never heard anything more divine. Never had anything made so much sense to my impressionable ears. It was actually pretty liberating.

I calmly walked out of grandpa’s room to find my mom. She was in the kitchen with my grandma. “Mom,” I proudly yelled. She didn’t look my way because she was mad at the way I had been acting at church. “Que quieres!” my mom snapped back. “Grandpa said that I don’t have to go to church. He said I could talk and pray to God in the bathroom, in the kitchen, or in my room. I’m not going to church anymore. God is here,” and I pointed at my heart. I was stoic. I stood there and waited for her to say something. What could she possibly say in response to my grandpa’s wisdom? “Mira este carbon!” my mom said to my grandma. My grandma was smiling as she continued her work on the stove.   My grandma didn’t go to church either, at least not very often. My mom turned to face me. She had a knife in her hand. “Grandpa ya esta grande. Puede hacer lo que quiere. If I want you to go to church, you’re going,” my mom retorted. She turned back to cutting vegetables.

My mom was the authority figure, and she was right. I had to do what she asked. However, I think my words affected her. I wasn’t forced into going to Sunday mass anymore after this. But my mom made one last effort to get me involved with the church.

At thirteen, she enrolled me in catechism classes at St. Anthony’s. Classes were held behind the church in the classrooms. Every Tuesday, again without my consultation, I attended communion. It was a strict environment, but it was easy to see that the other kids hated it, too. Nevertheless, I made an effort to listen. I still remember the prayers. I remember my first confession, too. I’m sure I lied to the priest and left out the bad stuff. I told small lies to other adults, so would I be honest with a guy I didn’t even know? The most fun thing about catechism was break-dancing in the hallways. The nuns chastised the hell out of me for doing it, but I couldn’t help it. The linoleum floors were ridiculously shiny and smooth. They were perfect for backspins.

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