When I was five years old, I was invited to a costume party down the street. The party was hosted by a boy named Jim (Jamie) O’Hara. He and I had much in common, as we were both the youngest of large, Irish Catholic families. Or at least I was the youngest of mine for the first four years of my life–and was just getting used to my status as older brother of twins. TWINS! No more attention for Michael. But I showed them–my family that is. I went out of my way to gain attention. Good or bad, I made damn sure you would notice me. Which leads me back to my costume party. The costume I chose for this occasion was (drum roll) Raggedy Ann. Yes folks, you heard me right. Raggedy-freakin’-Ann! I am so embarrassed to admit it now.
Since this was NOT Halloween season, costumes were hard to come by–not sure why. My costume was prompted by the fact that my mom had a full spool of bright red yarn in her knitting bag, and my sister had a blue dress–no overalls to be found. I’m not sure who thought of the costume, I only know I was fine with it (at the time) cause I knew it would stir up trouble with my older brothers and my dad. I’ll show those manly men! I’ll dress up in drag! Talk about attention!!
I’ll never forget walking down the street with my mom, and all the odd looks that the neighbors gave me. But I had everyone’s attention. And it didn’t stop on the walk there. At the party, which was really just a handful of neighborhood kids I saw regularly, we played in the basement and had some snacks. This was when kids’ parties were relegated to the basement for a few games, some soda and cake–No rented magician or travelling circus, no Bouncetown or Play Gym, no friggin’ goody bags to reward you for coming and having fun! It was basically a chance to play indoors, rather than outside for 12 hours. Anyway, the party was hitting a lull, and Mrs. O’Hara suggested we play charades. We all loved charades.
Maybe it was the dress, maybe it was because my attention-seeking radar was already in full gear, but when I got up there I did not play charades–I performed my debut stand-up routine. First, I gave a very authentic portrayal of my sister, age 8, having one of her tantrums. I screamed, I threw my red wig on the floor, and then I stomped on it, a lot. The crowd roared with laughter. Mrs. O’Hara said, “What else you got?” So I whipped out my impression of my dad getting mad, my mom calling everyone in for dinner a thousand times, my sister having another tantrum, the two little brats who usurped my role as youngest crying their lungs out, my parents yelling at my older brothers. I was in a manic frenzy of impersonations. I do not remember the party ending. I do not remember anything after my “performance”. I just know I went home exhausted.
The next day, my entire family attended the 10 o’clock mass (the mass to be seen at). It was boring, as usual. I couldn’t wait to get home and outside. Then it happened. In the parking lot, as we headed to our car, I heard Mrs. O’Hara’s voice. “Joanne, I just have to tell you…” “Tell me what, Pat?” “Your Michael was the hit of the party!” “Really?” said my mother, fixing her gaze on me. “Oh, yes! He had us in stitches.” “What about?” “Oh, you know, his brothers and sisters, all the craziness that goes on in these houses. He’s a character that one.” “He sure is,” I heard my mom say, although I had already skulked to the car and was hiding in the back seat amid the menagerie of arms and legs that belonged to my siblings, the very same people I abused in my comedy routine just a day prior.
When my mother finally came to the car, she got in very slowly. We drove home in relative silence, the entire three minute trip to our house from the church. When we pulled into the driveway, I made a run for the back door. “Michael!” “Yes, mom?” “Come here.” I came. “Yes?” “What exactly did you do at O’Hara’s?” “I was just messing around.” She looked at me suspiciously. I had to give her something. “I just acted out Erin throwing a tantrum.” She continued to stare at me in anger. I winced under her gaze–my mom never got mad at me–ever! In that exchange of looks, I felt like she could see in my eyes all of the other skits I performed. I knew she felt betrayed, outed by one of her own. “We don’t ever talk about our family like that to others. It’s our business. Do you understand?” “Yes.” “Don’t ever do that again!” “I won’t.”
Fast forward three years. Jamie O’Hara has just announced that he is not coming back to St. John of the Cross. The harsh discipline of our third grade nun is too much for him. I know one of them did throw a desk down the stairwell at a kid–maybe that’s what sent Jamie over the edge. And as a “good Catholic” I was incensed that he would give up, that he would go over to the Dark Side of public school. It wasn’t as if we were best friends. Truth is, we grew apart after his costume party. I think it was the combination of me dressing as Raggedy Ann, behaving like Andy Kaufman‘s understudy, and airing all my family’s bad behavior. Whenever I saw Jamie, I thought of his party, and I always associated his party with my getting in trouble. Hence, I felt awkward around him. But that didn’t stop me from opening my big fat mouth once again. This time, he was the recipient of my bitter tongue.
We were walking to school. The survivors. The one’s who didn’t succumb to public school, but offered up the crazy behavior of “the religious” to all of the suffering souls in purgatory. There were about fifteen kids who would make the trek from our neighborhood–up one hill, and down another. We were talking about the scandal that had fallen on the third grade–the departure of Jamie. I said it without even thinking: “You know he’s going to Hell, don’t ya.” “MICHAEL!” gasped a few of the girls. “Well, he is! There’s no way God won’t punish him for this. Public School!?! They’re all probably going to Hell!” I was proud of myself. Taking a stand for my beliefs. Speaking the good word of the Lord. The rest of the walk was fairly silent, as everyone considered how quickly one’s fate, one’s salvation, could turn–on a dime!
It was a beautiful September night. The sun was beaming into the kitchen as we just finished dinner. I was hoping to get out for another hour of play. There was a knock on the screen door. Someone answered it. My mother and I still lingered at the table. Stupid me for not scarfing down my food like the rest. “Hi, Mrs. O’Hara!” said a brother or sister. My mom shot up from the table. Pat O’Hara was not one to just drop by. I tried to escape. I tried…”Hi, Joanne. Is Michael home?” Oh, shit, I thought (sorry, Jesus).
Mrs. O’Hara sat me down at the kitchen table with my mother. She proceeded to tell me that her son was NOT going to Hell. That God loves all of his children regardless of where they go to school. That we’re all trying to get to the same place, we just have different ways of getting there. She made her case like the loving mother she was. I nodded and kept my mouth shut. In my head, I was thinking how this MAY be true, but catholic school certainly gave me an upper hand in the matter. Mrs. O’Hara took pity on me and my remorseful face. My mom let me be excused from the table where they chatted for a few more minutes–awkward, to be sure.
When I heard the screen door slam, I waited in my room for the call. “MICHAEL, get down here!” There was my mom at the bottom of the steps. I knew that look, but I had only ever seen it once before.
The author, circa his Raggedy Ann Phase.