I had the habits of a Catholic girl long before I understood what a Catholic girl was. Thanks to my mother and father, by the time I started the first grade, I was in the habit of going to mass every Sunday, rain or shine, vacation or no vacation, whether I felt like it or not. It went without saying that every Sunday morning would find all seven Maloney’s filling up a pew in Christ King Church for 11:15 mass (12:15 if my parents had enjoyed a particularly festive evening the night before), followed by breakfast. Sunday mass was simply something that we did, like making our beds and writing thank you notes for gifts.
In 1964, I entered the first grade at Christ King School. I was eager to start this next chapter of my life, and on the day after Labor Day, schoolbag packed and ready, I was off on my new adventure. I had been to kindergarten, and I figured first grade would be more of the same—coloring, singalongs, indoor ‘tag’ games, naps and circle time. I was ready.
After our parents dropped us off at the door, Mrs. Wojciechowski marched us into the
classroom, showed us to our proper desks, and ordered us to be seated. I was already ruminating about our first activity; I had a new box of crayons in my schoolbag, and I hoped we would start with coloring. To my considerable surprise, however, Mrs. Wojciechowski clapped hands the moment we were all seated and told us to stand up again. Then she told us to choose a partner and line up at the door. Confused but compliant, I tried to do as I was told. Because I had attended just one year of kindergarten unlike my classmates who had been kindergartners for two years (for more about that, see here), I was five years old and had no clue what “choose a partner” meant. It was not a skill I had learned in kindergarten, where our teacher, Miss Eiseley, had always chosen our partners for us.
Nonetheless, I did my best to do as I was told, and asked the girl at the desk next to me to be my partner. She looked at me, said, “You have fat teeth,” and walked off to partner with another girl, no doubt someone with slimmer, more appropriate teeth. After that, my strategy was to wait until everyone else chose a partner. If we had an odd number of girls that day, my partner was the other girl left over, and if we had an even number of girls, I walked to mass partner-less.
Once we were all assembled in an orderly fashion at the door to our classroom, Mrs. Wojciechowski announced that we would stop at the “Lavatory,” but our ultimate destination was the Church, because we were going to mass. Mass? I thought to myself. But why? I knew that mass happened on days other than Sunday; I had even been to mass during the week every now and then with my mother. Daily mass with my mother was a treat, because I would have her all to myself on our walk to and from church. Not only that, but after mass, she would let me have a cup of tea while she had her coffee, which made me feel very grown up. I had never been to mass without my family, though, and I had no idea it was something I would be expected to do with other people. Furthermore, the choice whether or not to attend daily was always mine, but Mrs. Wojciechowski was not asking us our preferences. This was a command performance, and it would be repeated every morning of every month of every year.
This was, to my mind, an awful lot of mass. In that first year, we first graders did not even have the distraction of lining up to receive holy communion; only after we had made our first confession (for more about that, see here) and our first communion would we be sacramentally fit to receive our Lord and Savior. In those early years, my spiritual life tended toward the thin side; I spent most of my time at mass thinking about what I would eat later for lunch, or wondering why God didn’t shine His divine light on me as I kneeled in the pew, marking me as one of His especially holy followers. Humility was not my spiritual strong suit in the early going.
By the time I arrived in the third grade, daily mass was really beginning to wear on me. I felt confident that my spiritual needs were being met by my attendance on Sunday, and I went to confession once a month. Not only did all this mass-going seem excessive, I still had considerable partner anxiety. I was chubby, I was quiet, and since I never paid attention in class, my grades were terrible. I was never in demand as anyone’s partner.
What with the worry of not having a partner enroute to mass, sitting through mass, then worrying about not having a partner on the way back from mass, the whole experience struck me as unnecessarily stressful. I decided I needed a break.
By the time Mrs. Lane clapped her hands the next morning and told us to partner up and get in line for mass, I had crafted a plan to take some time off from the worship of my Redeemer. I knew that we would stop at the bathroom enroute to the church; when that moment came, I would enter the bathroom with my classmates, but I would not exit. Instead, I would stand on the toilet seat with the door to my cubicle locked. No one would be able to see my feet and they would all march off on their holy way, freeing me up for some peace and quiet during the thirty minutes they were at mass.
When the time came, I executed the plan perfectly, and all the girls left the bathroom, leaving me blissfully alone. After about a half-hour had passed and I heard the clatter of everyone heading back, I discreetly exited and joined my line. Unlike the march to mass, which was quiet and fiercely regimented, the walk back was always chatty and somewhat chaotic. Success! I gloated inwardly. I had figured out how to escape this anxiety-laden chore! Of course, spending a half hour sitting quietly on a toilet with nothing to read and nothing to do had not been a great improvement over sitting in a pew with my classmates and my Lord; nonetheless, I applauded myself for this brilliant strategy.
I had successfully employed Operation: Not Today, Lord for about three days when I decided that I had to share the wealth. It really was pretty dull sitting by myself on a toilet every day. I figured that if I let someone else in on my discovery, I would make a friend and have a companion sitting on the toilet next door to me to chat with. After careful consideration of all the candidates to serve as my partner in crime, I chose Cathy Petrusek, because though she was fairly popular, Cathy was always nice to everyone, even me.
At the end of my mass-free week, I approached Cathy and made my offer. She was intrigued by what she heard, and game to give my plan a try. The following Monday morning when Mrs. Lane clapped her hands for us to line up, Cathy partnered with me. When we stopped at the lavatory, we entered side-by-side cubicles, locked our respective doors, and stood on the toilet seats. Mission: Impossible had nothing on us. I exulted over our success and began to imagine the fun we would have all year long sitting together in the bathroom on our separate toilets seats. I would have a partner enroute to the bathroom and possibly a friend for life.
When I crafted Operation Not Today Lord, however, I failed to account for the fact that two bathroom cubicles being locked and out of commission would draw more notice than one did. Sure enough, Carol Taibl was still in line when everyone had to exit the bathroom and resume the march to mass. Suspicious of her long wait time, Carol peered through the crack between the door and the side of my cubicle and spotted me standing there on the toilet. Carol ratted us out to Mrs. Lane, who swooped into the bathroom after mass and ordered us both out of our cubicles.
I have no memory of what our punishment was; nor do I remember whether Mrs. Lane reported this misbehavior to our parents. What I do remember, however, is the moment when Mrs. Lane turned to Cathy Petrusek and said “I expect this sort of thing from her (gesturing with her chin toward me), but you come from a good family!” I may have been only eight years old, but I knew that my family’s honor had just been besmirched. By me. No other punishment could have hurt more.
For the rest of third grade, I marched dutifully to mass and back; sometimes I had a partner and sometimes I didn’t, but I was never again partners with Cathy Petrusek. She avoided me as the bad influence I surely was, and I didn’t blame her. After that day of reckoning in the girls’ bathroom, I decided to try a new strategy to deal with my partner anxiety: I prayed. I asked God to remove the daily stress of that walk back and forth to mass. And sure enough, on the first day of fourth grade at Christ King School, Sr. Pierre announced that Pope John XXIII had thrown open the windows of the Church with a tool called Vatican II, and daily mass was required no longer.
Ironically, having figured out how to spend a few minutes at daily mass actually talking to God and sharing my problems with Him, I missed it when it disappeared. As an adult, I attend daily mass sometimes to continue those conversations I began in 1967. And God doesn’t seem to have held Operation Not Today Lord against me. He’s good that way.