Growing Up Catholic in a Small Texas Town
First Communion and Hostess Cupcakes
Preparing for our First Communion at St. Mary’s wasn’t as confusing or traumatic as preparing for our First Confession. We didn’t have to feel shame, embarrassment, or remorse. We didn’t have to go inside a closet and tell a priest what worthless six-year-olds we were. Instead, we got to walk right up to him and stick out our tongue. If the First Confession was a horrific ritual, the First Communion was a celebration.
All the girls got to dress up in white, lacy dresses, a white veil crowned with flowers and ribbons, and white patent leather shoes. I’m sure the boys looked just as spiffy in their little dark suits, but boys were not a part of my young life. The truth is, they terrified the hell out of me, except for my Dad, who made up for all the male trauma.
First Communion preparation involved learning a few prayers, practicing walking up to the communion rail, kneeling down, receiving the Host, and returning to our seat in the pew. It was like playing following the leader. Unlike Confession where we received only penance, with First Communion there was the standard-issued rosary blessed by the Pope and our very own missal. Our families gave us a party, and we collected some pretty cool swag from relatives — not the type of gifts you received at Christmas. These were of a spiritual nature. Girls were bestowed with lacy handkerchiefs, a necklace with a cross pendant, or maybe a music box with an angle on top. My parents gave me a Blessed Virgin Mary statue. I still have it. Her nose is chipped off, but otherwise, she’s in great shape. I keep her wrapped in a towel and stowed in my jeans drawer. Sometimes her head peeks out. When that happens, I know she’s telling me that I should give away all the jeans I no longer wear. I’ve learned to ignore those subtle messages. More on Mary and fashion in a later post.
Of course, the nuns who prepared us for receiving whatever sacrament was up next did so with an element of fear. Even though First Communion was a celebratory sacrament, we were warned never, ever, touch the Host with anything but our tongue. Never, ever chew the Host. Close our mouth and swallow the Host quickly. If, heaven forbid, we returned to our seat and had difficulty swallowing and ended up coughing. Because if it flew out of our mouth, we have to immediately cover it with a handkerchief or tissue and let the priest know so he could retrieve it.
Okay, picture this: twenty-five first graders in the front pews of the church, millions of family members and friends crammed into the pews behind us or standing in the aisles. The priest now at the altar with his back to everyone, mumbling some prayers. And through no fault of her own, little Kathleen coughs up the Host, it lands on the floor, and she’s supposed to crawl over all the other kids, walk up to the priest and tug on the back of his vestment in front of the entire congregation. Really? For a shy girl who tried her best not to be noticed, the mere thought of causing such disruption was petrifying. Luckily, I managed to swallow the Host every time, even though it usually stuck to the rough of my mouth.
That First Communion went off without a hitch. And from that day forward, during Mass, we were allowed to receive the body and blood of Christ. We attended Mass every morning before school started. And there were two rules we had to abide by. If we’d sinned, we were not supposed to go to Communion until we confessed our sin. Imagined that. Any person who sat in their seat while others shuffled up to the Communion rail was announcing to the congregation that they had done something bad. There was no way I was going to suffer that humiliation.
We were also required to fast before Communion, so that meant no breakfast before school. I didn’t mind one bit because all of us pious little children were allowed to have breakfast at our desks after church. That was the highlight of my day. Before the carpool arrived, my Dad would drive me to Karlik’s, the neighborhood grocery store. I’d run in, buy a pack of chocolate Hostess Cupcakes and a small carton of chocolate milk to take with me to school. For me, that was a great incentive to be good. And I vowed to go to Communion every day come hell or high water.