When the photographer calls it’s my turn, I stop sliding on the waiting-room floor and bend to dust my new, black, patent-leather Confirmation shoes. There’s a face mirroring up. It’s me.
He hides his head beneath the purple cloth and from behind the camera says, “Tern yerself around sideways now and smile for the birdie.”
Facing a dead-looking plant in a brass pot, I try to be still in front of the striped, wallpapered wall.
From beneath the cloth I hear him mumble, “Hold yer head up now…and…don’t…”
He pops out, points his tobacco-stained finger at me and says, “I mane it now, don’t move, be a big gurl.”
I mutter, “Sorry mister.” I am a big girl. I’m nine.
Mrs. Rafferty made my confirmation suit. Blue-and-rust plaid. Terrible altogether. I feel like a holy show. But Mam likes it. The hat’s horrible. My brother Billy says it looks like an upside-down bucket. I’m not supposed to feel like this on my Confirmation day, but I hate the hat. I hate it. And now I have to stand here mortified, having my photo taken holding a patent-leather bag that looks like a black banana
This morning, at high-mass in St. Munchin’s, I made my confirmation. In all his glory, Bishop Murphy sits inside a cloud of incense smearing sticky stuff called chrism, that feels like Vick’s, in the sign of the cross on my forehead. Then he blesses me, “In da name of da Father and of da Son and of da Holy Ghost,” and gives me a blow on my cheek so I won’t forget it.
Now, I stand here like a stone, a Soldier of Christ, waiting for the photographer who has a bit of horse-dung stuck to his dusty boots.
Even though we went over and over the greasy Catechism book in school, I’m still not sure what it means to be a Soldier of Christ. Am I to murder someone for the IRA, like in the Irish Echo, or to die a martyr in a foreign land with my head chopped off, the guts ripped out of me like the martyrs we learned about from Sister Immaculata who won’t answer my questions any more.
When I raise my hand and ask her, “Sister, who did Cain and Abel marry, anyhow?”
She chews her cheek and answers, “’Tis a mystery.”
“Sister, why didn’t God want Adam and Eve to eat that apple from the Tree of Knowledge, anyway?”
“’Tis a mystery.”
“Didn’t he want them to learn anything?”
“’Tis a mystery. Ye have to have faith.”
“Why do we have to learn anything, so?”
Nuala Finnigan snickers.
Her veil swirling in a swoop, Sister Immaculata turns to the blackboard and picks up the ruler, “You’re as bold as brass, you are.”
One day, before Confirmation, Father Cagney arrives to examine us. Like soldiers saluting, we jump up, bless ourselves and say the Our Father.
After we recite the answers to his Confirmation questions from the Catechism book, I pipe up, “Father, what was John the Baptist baptizing people in the River Jordan for if there weren’t even any Catholics around then, anyway?”
The priest, who has a yellow sty in his pink eye, looks over at Sister Immaculata whose smooth red eyebrows go up. You see, I know they don’t know, and they know I know they don’t know.
Together they chime, “’Tis a mystery” and “You must have faith.”
But, I want answers.
Now, under the shaking purple cloth the photographer mumbles and orders me not to move again or, “I’ll have to start the whole bloody thing all over and sure we’ll be here all day.”
In his black gown, and his rounded hat trimmed in scarlet, Bishop Murphy floats into the classroom a short while after Father Cagney’s examination. As we shoot up again, Sister Immaculata jumps to genuflect in front of him and kiss his ring, that’s red. Raising his soft hand, the bishop makes a cross over our bowed heads and leads us in the Our Father before sitting in front of a massive map of Ireland put up behind Sister Immaculata’s desk.
He asks, “What is confirmation?”
Again we recite from the Catechism, “Confirmation is a sacrament in which the Holy Ghost is given to those already baptized in order to make them strong and perfect Christians and soldiers of Jesus Christ.”
He tells us stories about the martyrs–how they were bitten by bears and devoured by lions–all in the name of their faith.
He explains, “Ye were babies before, when ye received Baptism, but now dat yeer older ye must confirm yeer Catholic faith. Do ye hear dat, now?”
“We do, Bishop.”
Then he sits back a bit and asks, “Does anyone here know, who are de Holy Innocents?”
We hear only the rain pattering against the window. No one answers, so of course I raise my hand. He points his finger with the ruby sparkling away on it. I jump and go up to him. Father Cagney and Sister Immaculata, her hands folded under her stiff white nun bib, look at each other, worried. I know they’re thinking, Jaysus that one will disgrace the lot of us.
But, I take a breath, hold my chin firm and answer him seriously, “The Holy Immigrants are the holy people who left Ireland and went to America.”
The room is quiet– you can hear the rain teeming way–before Bishop Murphy rolls his head back and roars out laughing, “Is it jokin’ me you are?”
Wiping his eye, Fr. Cagney laughs, “Ah, begod, dat was good.”
Sister Immaculata covers her teeth and laughs into her chalky, red hand.
The rest of them look open-eyed, like cows, at me, like I’m a right omadhaun altogether, but they’re not laughing. They don’t understand a word I’ve said and, in fairness, neither do I.
But, after the bishop explains, “Not immigrants, child, innocents,” and that the Holy Innocents were the thousands of martyred babies killed by King Herod, the class roars out laughing at me too, especially those two pointing eejits, Mary McDermott and Mary Lynch. I’m nailed, head down, to the wooden floor up in front of them all.
Now the photographer pops out, “Pull yer hat up a bit will ya?” and I’m mortified because my hair’s so springy. But I take my hat off anyway and push it back on the same as before.
Last week Mam made me get a perm at a beauty shop in town near the Franciscan Church. They make a terrible show of me, telling me I’ll be lovely while washing my hair backwards, in a curved pink sink, looking up at the cracked ceiling. Two of them in pink aprons, come over and stand, smoking, one on each side of me. The yellow-haired one, with a brown line down her scalp, flings ashes at a dusty, glass Craven-A ash-tray, and says, “Jaynie mack, will ya look at the head a’ hair on this one.”
The red-head, with the mole near her nose, picks up her lipstick-rimmed cigarette and says, “Sure, Bridie, we’ll be here all day,” and sucks it into her fat mouth. They talk away about this one and that one, ignoring me sitting there between them, while they roll and roll my hair into iron curlers. It keeps springing out so it takes ages.
Red says, “She’s an auld hoor, that one,” and pours a bottle of stuff that smells like the Limerick Tannery all over the curlers. Dribbles run cold down my back.
Yellow, who is fat with dimples, says, “’Tis true for ya, Joan.” When the curlers are ready, she pulls down a massive, metal helmet with hundreds of electrical wires dangling from it.
Between them, they attach it to the iron curlers on my head that’s almost snapping off at the neck from the weight.
Red, who wears half-a-dozen, golden clink, clink, bracelets says, “Ah, sure he’s well-rid of that auld cow.” My hair is singeing.
Yellow says, “And him a fine boyo altogether, sure I wouldn’t mind a go on him meself.”
The two of them hang, skitting laughing over me, and I don’t even know what’s so funny. I must use the toilet.
After another hour or so, Red comes back and pours even fouler-smelling stuff on my head. Freezing rivers run into my ears. Then Yellow comes over and stands next to me opposite Red. I feel her soft belly with my shoulder. Together they unroll, and unroll my hair out of the iron curlers and drop them clang into a bucket. Then, Red’s fat fingers are clink-clinking away, inside my hair, pulling the curls loose. I almost go to the toilet there on the chair.
She says, “Feel now, love.”
My hair feels like wet steel wool.
Yellow beams, “Sure you’re gorgeous altogether.”
My throat is tight. I want to cry but if I do I’ll go to the toilet.
Then Red sits me under another helmet, silver this time. It blows deafening hot air around my ears and scorches the back of my neck.
Why can’t they all just let me alone?
When they try to comb my hair, it’s too stiff. The comb won’t go through.
Yellow says, “Jaysus, I’ve never seen the likes of it. Have you, Joan?”
Red agrees, “Like wire, Bridie.”
Holding back my tears, I tell them, “I must go to the toilet.”
Inside the wardrobe-sized, blue room with the naked bulb, I examine my hair in the smoky-mirror above the rusty sink with the dried-up sliver of soap. Glaring back at me is one of Ballycullen’s sheep–only yellow. While I wee, I wail because it’s better to cry in here than at home in Ballynanty because Mam will kill me if I don’t like it.
Now the photographer is out from under, again, and orders, “Smile for the birdie,” and “for the love a’ God, don’t be movin’ around on me this time.”
Looking up from my lovely Confirmation shoes, I stare straight into the camera where, upside-down, I see myself, mirroring back.
There’s a flash, and a snap, “That’s grand, good girl.”
Now everyone will see me pictured in my bucket hat on my frizzy sheep-head, and they’ll laugh at me forever.