Chapter 11 - Good For the Soul
Kathleen went to school, in preparation for her First Holy Communion, shortly after Easter. She had prepared well, attending 8.00 am Mass all through Lent. She stepped out each morning just before the clock struck eight. The cold air caught her breath but she walked briskly across The Square, only stopping to slide across the icy patches where the water had been held and had frozen. After Mass, she returned home to cups of hot tea and fresh warm toast. She thought she was well deserving of it after keeping it up for seven weeks. Her mother's only comment was that she deserved a leather medal.
"What do you mean by that Mammy?"
"Well you're no marble saint Kathleen and that's for sure but then I expect you include all of us in your Masses".
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It was strange kneeling on the wooden bench behind her desk, waiting her turn to do the rehearsal Confession to her teacher. She didn't know how many times she had lost her temper or stole sugar from the pantry, but she was reminded to go one by one over the Ten Commandments. When finally her turn came, the teacher looked tired and jaded. She explained the ritual to her and then Kathleen confessed.
"I was angry with me Mammy twenty-two times, lost me temper fifty times and stole spoonfuls of sugar seventy times. Oh! And I almost forgot, I ate six Oxo cubes and went outside and was very sick, but sure me Mammy knew what I did".
She watched her teacher's eyes come to life and smile and she decided she wouldn't be the laughing stock of the community. The rest she would tell the Priest in private. They all received a small piece of white paper on their tongues as though they were receiving the Host and then they were told they could go home.
Kathleen had a pal named Maggie whose people had a small grocery shop in The Square. Most days Maggie brought an orange or an apple with her to school for Kathleen. When she didn't bring something she was reminded quite forcibly.
"Don't tell me you've forgotten me peace offering? You'd better double up on it tomorrow."
It was sheer blackmail but Maggie was a quiet, timid girl and Kathleen found her easy to manipulate. They shared the same desk and this was close to the big fire surrounded by its high protective fireguard.
On their way to and from school they made a slight diversion so they could go down the road and watch Peter, the Carpenter, at work and give him some "auld chat".
In the school they could hear the sound of the machine droning away through the day, as the carpenter cut up the wood and fashioned his boxes. He appeared to do most of his work outside when the weather was mild so he could have a chat with some of the country folk passing by. He was a cabinetmaker as well as a coffin maker and was kept busy looking after the dead. Peter Grant was a talented man. Apart from producing coffins, chairs, tables and benches, he spent his spare time engraving on glass. Bottles, tumblers and wineglasses became very ornate when Peter had been to work on them. They were works of art with small shamrocks and harp designs etched on the glass.
Kathleen remarked to Maggie,
"Some day Peter will be famous and I don't mean for his coffins".
She had meant him to hear it.
"Ah whisht child and stop your blatherin'".
But she could see the compliment had flushed his cheeks and he was always a modest man. They sauntered home and outside Maggie's house Kathleen stood and waited. Finally her friend emerged with a bag of oranges and apples and then a jubilant Kathleen took to her heels and ran the rest of the way home.
Confession day arrived and she joined the queue of children outside the Confession boxes with the faithful Maggie close behind. The two side aisles in the Church each held two confession boxes. Each consisted of a centre partition for the Priest and a box on each side of him for the penitents.
The Priest turned from side to side to hear the Confessions through the small wire grille and the box was in complete darkness but one could hear the shutters open and shut with great alacrity. That might explain why their queue was the longest in the Church. They were outside Father Donnelly's box. He had the reputation of being "The fastest man in the West" in the Confessional. Some said it was just a case of opening the door and the penitent was out again before he realised what happened to him. Father Donnelly was a tall, angular man and inclined to be eccentric. He came from the West of Ireland and people respected him for his brilliant mind and turn of phrase. He rode his bicycle at great speed but when he got behind the wheel of a car you'd think all the divils in hell were after him. He gave Mrs O'Hara a lift home from Church one day and she said afterwards,
"The wheels didn't touch the ground. He didn't even give me time to draw breath. He drove like the hammers of hell and him a holy man of God".
Kathleen knew Father Donnelly well as her father also came from the West of Ireland and the two had a great deal in common. Most of the discussions were way above her head. But then, didn't he take his tea without milk? He carried his own china tea around with him and whenever he had boiled the kettle and made his own special brew, he would take a lemon from his pocket, cut it up and put half of it in the cup and the other half back in his pocket.
She stood outside the Confessional waiting for her turn and trying not to listen to her cousin's story. She turned to Maggie who was standing, quaking, behind her and whispered loudly.
"She's an old fashioned one. I didn't know she went down McCluskey's Lane with the boys".
Then suddenly the door opened and a red-faced Maeve rushed by. Kathleen entered the dark box closing the door firmly behind her. It was very hard to find the kneeler and suddenly the little window grille above her flashed open and a familiar voice said,
"Is this your first confession child?"
He was rushing her a bit but she got through it alright until she mentioned the apples and oranges she had been getting from Maggie. She found herself with raised voice telling the Priest,
"It wasn't my fault, it was Maggie McKenna".
She was given a quick penance and then the little window slammed shut again. She heaved a great sigh of relief as she closed the door behind her. She looked at the queue but Maggie was gone. Then she saw her standing right back at the end of the queue, shivering with fright and with her head bent.
"What are you doing back there Maggie? Sure you were next to me when I went in."
Maggie's reply was a stammer,
"What were you telling Father about me? Everyone heard you mention my name!"
She was in a state of grace now so lying was out. She figured it was best to be on her way before she got into trouble.
She walked out into the Churchyard, found her grandmother's grave and knelt and said a prayer for her. She never really knew her Grandmother but she must have been wonderful to rear that big family. She had only one memory of a lady lying in bed with Father Donnelly kneeling on one side and her young Nursing Aunt kneeling on the other. They were trying to help her but she died soon afterwards. Here she lay close to the front of the Churchyard with the tall trees protecting her from the winter winds. In the summer she had the soft breezes to sing their lullaby to her permanent sleep. Somehow, she realised that life was a fleeting thing and it was a wholesome thought to pray for the dead, particularly after making her First Confession, while she was still in a state of grace.
Shortly afterwards, Kathleen and Aileen made their First Communion together and it was a glorious day. The sun shone down on the two very nervous young ladies. They were dressed in white and with white veils. Kathleen had a confrontation with her mother some while back as she didn't think the frocks were anything special.
"All the girls are having two or three frills on their frocks. You have us in simple frocks with one mingy frill at the bottom".
Her mother was quick to point out,
"Remember this, young lady, your frock will still look new when all the others are frayed and worn. Not many girls get a chance to wear Silk Courgette".
That satisfied her.
As they left the Church Mary Finnegan said,
"Will you look at them! Just like a pair of wee angels". And her eyes filled with tears.
Kathleen said to Aileen,
"She's the one with the dose of wee angels but I expect she's thinking of the last one she lost".
They sailed through the ceremony very well but then their big cousin Maeve had to faint right in the middle of it. Maeve hit the floor in front of her with a thud followed by a second bump as her head hit the floor. She lay a crumpled figure in her white frock and veil until willing hands lifted her and fresh air revived her.
"Wasn't it a wonder we all didn't faint just watching her", she told her Mammy.
"anyway that'll put a halt to her gallop. I bet she won't be going down McCluskey's Lane now she's made her First Communion!"
Mrs O'Hara looked perplexed but Kathleen would say no more.
"I should be thinking holy thoughts", she told herself, "and not criticising me own first cousin".
That afternoon Mrs O'Hara walked to Mobane to see all the family. They knocked on all doors and were welcomed and given some money to help them celebrate this great day in their lives. It was a custom of which Kathleen heartily approved. Towards the evening she walked over the hill to see her Great Aunt Annie and Uncle Owen. They lived in a whitewashed cottage with the usual thatched roof. The large kitchen smelled of turf smoke and fresh home baked bread, which was sitting on the table ready to be eaten with yellow, home made country butter fresh from the churn.
"Aunt Annie, I think you must know me weakness. I think your butter is about the best around these parts".
"What do you think of me buttermilk? That's what I'd like to know"'
Kathleen stumbled over her words,
"Well, I was never one for the buttermilk but me Mammy loves it. She says it's good for the complexion".
"You wee tinker. You don't know what's good for you".
It was all good banter.
Long after they had eaten she was still sitting there enjoying the crack. She sat on an old wooden settlebed, closed now and used to seat three people. When the milking was done and the animals settled for the night, the whole company spilled out on to the road by the front gate. Here, there was a summer seat fashioned from the rocks and covered with soft green turf. It had a natural bower overhead cut and shaped from the thickly growing hedge. Here the old folk sat, retelling old tales and swapping new ones. Some young men came to listen and some to flirt with the young lassies. If someone broke into a song then the neighbours came from over the hills and across the fields to join in. This evening was no exception.
As the sun went down in the West it cast its long shadows over the green fields surrounded by their little stone walls and the bogs where the flowers and shrubs had burst into bloom. Silence reined over the bogs where the mauves and pinks of the bog flowers mingled with the yellow blossom of the whins. The distant lake reflected the translucent blue-green of the sky. The curlew's sad call rose in the still air welcoming the evening star. In a short time the heavens twinkled and the velvet cloak of night lay over a slumbering Mobane.
That night when she climbed into bed, Kathleen knew this was one day she would always remember. Her First Holy Communion Day.