Updated: Dec 7, 2021
In second grade, I began to make some delightful school friends. We played together and shared all our treats whenever we could, although in those days it was not much. Most children did not have money, but the majority who walked home for lunch, often returned with a cookie or two to break up among their favored ones. It was fun. At morning and afternoon recess, the older boys would close off the neighboring streets with police-barricades and stand guard with their safety belt across their chest and back, watching that no one fell, especially while running across the street to the little candy store on the corner.
That place was full of wonderful things: red and black licorice strips, foot-long cuts of paper with little sweet dots glued to them, peppermints, little hearts, and Mary Janes at two for a penny. The higher shelf held the big chocolate candy bars like Snickers, Mars Bars, Peppermint Patties, Baby Ruths, and Three Musketeers, all for a nickel. Anyone with a penny could lure an entire group of children away from walking with the nuns into the candy shop to drool over the selection, and then when the item was purchased, decide which, if any, friend could get a taste. I knew I was not supposed to have candy, but sometimes the charm of sugar lured me on.
One evening Dad brought home wonderful little banks for us. They were translucent and shaped like train-brakeman’s lanterns, with rubber plugs on the bottom to open them. They were a gift from the Savings and Loan and we each were given our own: red for Judy, blue for me, green for Gary, yellow for Nancy. We were each given a penny to start our savings collection, and the banks were all lined up on the top of my parent’s tall chest of drawers in their bedroom.
When Uncle Bruno and Aunt Mary came to visit, they gave us nickels to clink into our banks; when Grandma and Grandpa came, a whole collection of pennies were dropped in! My bank held the most because my godfather, Uncle Steve, sent me two dollars in a card for my birthday and Dad broke it down into coins for my bank. Over the months the banks started to get very heavy and we were delighted. But for me the temptation was just too great.
It seemed everyone at school was buying candy, except me. I had nothing to share and I just had to do something about it. So, one evening, as everyone was listening to the radio in the living room, I made a trip to the bathroom, nonchalantly stopping off in my parent’s room. I pulled out the bottom drawers carefully, climbed up on them, and opened Judy’s bank. Hers seemed the fullest after mine, and surely she would not miss a few pennies. Quickly everything was put back together, the treasure was wrapped in Kleenex and put in my schoolbag, and all was back to normal. The next day, I called my friends at recess and we all marched into the candy store. What a treat! We bought the largest sets of sweets possible and came out with a little white bag full of goodies. I shared everything as students came running over to see the loot. It was a wonderful feeling.
So that evening, I climbed up and took a few coins from Gary and Nancy’s banks, and the next day had another sweet adventure. This time I saw my brother and called him over to get a good share of the treats, and I brought a small piece home for my little sister, too.
The thievery went on for about a week; a little taken from the red, green, and yellow banks each day. My own bank, the blue one, was never touched. After all, it was important that I save for a piano.
By week’s end, my siblings noticed that their banks looked emptier and started to complain grandly. I stood by comforting them and feeling innocent. I felt sorry for them but was not able to fully realize what I was doing. Everything seemed just right. That evening Dad called me into his room and shut the door.
“Have you been taking coins from the banks?” he asked me.
“No, Daddy” I answered sweetly.
“Then why is your bank full but the others are almost empty?”
“I don’t know. Maybe they didn’t have so much as me,” I answered.
“Ok. You go to sleep now,” he said softly.
I could not sleep. My conscience started to perk up, and everything that I learned in religion class and from my parents started to bubble into a conundrum. I could not think what to do. If I went and told that I took all the money out of the banks, then I would have nothing to share and I would lose my friends. If I tell Dad again that I didn’t take it, then I would go to hell. But did I do a bad thing? I wondered. After all, I shared the candy with Gary and Judy and Nancy too. Wasn’t that the right thing to do? All night I lay awake with worry.
By morning, Dad called me into his room again. This time he was more firm. “Theresa,” he said, “I’m going to ask you one more time. Did you take the money from your brother and sisters banks?”
There it was: the ultimate question upon which my life depended. I stood there shaking, fearful of saying the wrong thing. “No. Yes. No” I answered.
“What is it, Theresa? No or yes?” asked Dad again, voice slightly louder.
I started to cry, dropped my head in agony, and whispered “Yes, I did.”
Then Dad said the worst thing in the world to me. “I’m ashamed of you doing that,” he said softly. “Stealing is very bad, but lying to me is worse.”
My heart broke and I fell on the bed weeping uncontrollably. I must have done a terribly thing. I knew I should not steal; I also knew I should not buy candy. Why did I do all that? Now I really did not know. My mind’s confusion was covered in shame and sorrow. Dad’s words were burning into my heart. I told a lie and I never wanted to tell another. Ever. Ever.
Dad called the children in and told them what I did. They were upset, of course, but afraid to say anything watching me crying so hard. Dad told them that I was punished enough so they should leave me be. But first, he opened my bank and divided all the money inside into the red, green, and yellow ones. My siblings left happily as they had more money in their banks now, but I was devastated, especially when Mom, making breakfast in the kitchen, looked at me and made me cry all over again.
I stopped buying candy, of course, but I also stopped wanting money. It became unimportant after that, because it reminded me of my terrible crime. That was, as far as I knew, my first lie, and I promised God that I would never lie again. I would, my little mind insisted, learn what absolute truth was, and it was going to be mine.
A Peek at Mysticism
When I turned eight, my favorite number, I knew only good things could happen to me. I was in third grade and that year I would receive Holy Communion. Sister Immaculate, our sweet and joyful teacher, had been preparing us for months for this great event, and by the beginning of May we marched down to the Church with the first-grade children to begin practicing the ritual for our big day. Next Sunday there would be a procession with flowers and candles; special prayers read out loud, new music from the choir, and best of all, for the first time in our lives we would at last receive Holy Communion, the body and blood of our Lord, Jesus. We would be led up to the sanctuary railing by the first graders dressed in pink and blue satin gowns and capes "just like angels" Sister assured us and receive the small white host from the hands of Father Pastor.
But first was practice. Our class, much more mature than the little ones, was settled into our new place in the front of the Church and told to pray quietly. I knelt in the first pew, on the aisle, being the shortest in the class as always. I straightened my back and folded my hands, excitement mounting, listening to the whispers of my classmates around me, the nuns with their clipboards planning strategy in the aisles, the sacristan carrying vases and candles from the sacristy into the sanctuary.
Suddenly as I looked at the golden tabernacle in the center of the altar, a kind of cloud fell down around me, wrapping me in softness and quiet, pulling me closer and closer towards the golden door and the divine waiting there, it seemed, for me. A feeling of great joy and perfect safety settled on me, together with the conviction that I was deeply loved. I felt an expansion of my heart, although I thought my chest was "getting fat and hot" while around me hummed the vague sound of something like music. It was different from anything that I had ever heard. I was totally oblivious to the squirming of my classmates, the directions of the nuns, the traffic sounds outside the open windows. I just knelt in the perfect, lovely, white silence, my eyes resting on the shimmering light on the altar, aware of nothing else.
When Sister Immaculate shook my shoulder, I looked up into her worried eyes. "Are you all right dear?" she was asking as she touched my face.
But I could not find my voice; I was not sure where I was, so I just smiled to her. Then I noticed my classmates all sitting down in the pews, staring at me, perhaps wondering if Sister would punish me for not paying attention. But she looked closely at me, stood me up, and said, "Go get Victor Fehir."
Victor had been sent to the back cloakroom earlier as punishment for misbehaving as we all left our classroom for the Church. He was the class bully, bad and loud, and not very smart because he didn't do his homework. Everyone was afraid of him. Especially me.
Without thinking, I stood up and walked down the aisle of the Church to do as Sister instructed. Although I could not see the golden door on the altar anymore, part of its special cloud seemed to come with me as I climbed up the wide marble steps to the second floor of the building where six classrooms were lined up, three on a side. Between two of them, halfway down the hall, was the dark wooden cloakroom, full of hooks for hanging coats, large brooms and mops and buckets for cleanup after classes, and several big, brown, sealed boxes holding we knew not what.
I opened the door and saw no one until, getting used to the darkness, I saw Victor squatting in the farthest corner, tears in his eyes, trying to look defiant and angry. "What do you want?" he demanded.
I said nothing but walked up to him and held out my hand. He wiped his eyes on his arms, stood up, and took my hand. As I looked at him now, I felt part of the beautiful cloud surround him too. He was no longer a bully to be feared, but a sad little boy whom I could befriend. In a flash I seemed to understand all his fear, his need to be recognized and liked, his desire to be part of the other kids, his difficulty with lessons, his embarrassment, his fear of me! "Come on, Victor,” I said softly, "come with me and be happy, OK?"
We walked slowly, hand in hand, out of the cloakroom, down the long hallway, down the flight of stairs, through the Church door, along the seemingly empty aisle, and up to Sister Immaculate. Sister looked stunned. "Thank you, dear," she said to me, separating our hands. She set a very docile Victor next to her and sent me to my place in the front row, cutting off the whispers of my classmates just as they got started.
I don't remember the rest of the practice; I only remember the days of happiness in that week before my first Holy Communion. I remember lying on my top bunk bed talking to Jesus as my mother vacuumed the house and my beautiful, newly-sewn white dress, made by Mom and Aunt Lucy, hung on the door frame next to my white veil. I remember how frightened we were to go to confession the day before, but I remembered to confess my great bank robbery and felt immense relief. I remember all the blessings of the First Communion ceremony, the little pink angel leading me to the altar rail, the way I welcomed Jesus warmly into my life as I received the host, the beautiful music of the choir, my father flying home from his work in Duluth, Minnesota for my big day, the hugs of the nuns, the family party afterward. I also remember that from that practice day until he finally left St. Valentine's school years later, Victor Fehir was my unrequested, but ever faithful, protector and defender.