As a child, I had a pretty screwy understanding of religion.
Now, I know how funny that sounds just as it is, but let me explain.
I was baptized Frederick Alexander Manuel Johnson.
I'm going to save the "Manuel" part for another day. This is not the proper time and it would undoubtedly cloud the intent of my story.
My grandmother was the last of the religiously inclined members of my blood family. Born from Polish immigrants, it was a huge part of her life. She made sure I was baptized.
Eugenia Cecilia Machnik Johnson was a beautiful woman. And calling her grandmother, even in print, seems weird. I always called her the Polish equivalent: Babush.
My Babush was a kind, gentle, giant-hearted woman with fiery eyes, well-bred eastern European features, and a smile that could make a bank robber change his ways.
Born in 1912, she was a woman from a time when men would lay their jackets on the ground to protect the fairer sex from stepping in a puddle; from a time when women would wear hats more for pleasure than necessity; from a time when going to church was a responsibility, not an option. And in keeping with her responsibility to Christ, on top of babysitting me while my mother worked, she would take me to church with her.
To me, church seemed like a fun hang. Everyone got dolled up and went down the street to the large but modestly appointed Holy Rosary Church. Once there, one could lose themselves in the beautiful stained glass which dominated the walls and ceiling. The iconography and statuaries piqued my interest as I had designs on becoming a great puppetmaker and performer someday. I had shown quite a talent for this lost art by first grade. Not just sock puppets mind you, large, two-handed, intricate, inventive puppets which lamentably took a backseat, as did all my preoccupations, when the six taut strings of the guitar made their way into my hands at the age of 10.
One thing I was always jealous of on our trips to the big stained glass castle down the street was the taking of Communion.
Being a large child, I ate a lot. Any chance for a quick snack and I would take it. Be it a Fudgsicle (pronounced fu-jik-l) a Hoodsie pop, potato chips, or an uncooked hot dog from Bronhards Meats. Anything was fair game.
So, when it was explained to me that I couldn't go up to the man who was giving out large, white, round chips to waiting tongues wagging from rapturous faces, I was devastated. When I was informed that I had to wait until I completed special schooling and passed a test before I could enjoy a much needed snack like my Babush right next to me, I was inconsolable.
She was forced by her faith to tell me to stay put as she went up with the rest of the rows of well dressed believers.
Now I wasn't just hungry, I was also a public misfit. The one lone leper of a freckle-faced Star Wars freak who had to stay seated while hundreds of parishioners got their snack on.
I don't know if this is the main reason that I started to steal Jesus statues from automobile dashboards, but it certainly was a big one.
Yes, I was a klepto. And Jesus statuettes were my thing.
Back in the 70's everyone had gigantic cars with high doors and flat glass windows. And, it being a largely Catholic and predominantly Portuguese neighborhood, there were many of these cars with gaudy, plastic, magnetic Jesus statues. It's a stereotype, I know, but these things do get started from a kernel of truth.
On my street a lot of people left their cars unlocked.
Hel-lo free toys.
I could almost hear the wah-wah pedal and the suspenseful horn section providing the music for one of my heists. Smartly dressed in overalls, sitcom t-shirt, and Pro Keds, I would ride down Bedford St. on my Huffy 3 speed with the yellow and black banana seat and slowly scan each car. My street sloped down in the middle, and as I made my way to the bottom of the valley I could get quite a glimpse of the dashes with help from the afternoon sun. It lit up the back windows of the Monte Carlo's and Continentals that dotted the curbside and spread the light around to the dash.
The telltale "lit candle" shape of the sacred simulacrum was easy to spot.
My height, which frustrated me at the amusement park, proved to be a great advantage in these capers. A quick glance at the large 70's style inside door locks made it easy to see which of the juicy fortresses were defenseless. At all of 3 feet I could swiftly sit on the curb and lift the latch with the thumbs of my meaty hands. I'd let the heavy iron door swing just far enough open to allow for entry, making sure it didn't swing open all the way and scrape the sidewalk. Cars were built differently back then. Side doors in the 70's were as big as some hoods are nowadays.
Once inside I would make a quick glance around to check the perimeter. My paw would then grab hold of our mini Lord and savior with a thumb to the body and my palm to his back and give a swift tug. Free from the perch of the typical leatherette dash, the captive mini-Jesus would sit awkwardly in the side pocket of my overalls until I could ride the 500 feet home and run in the yard, the front gate clanging shut with as familiar a sound as my mother's voice.
"Fred-er-ick...time for sup-per!"
And I'd run past her and into my room and put him in the bag with the others.
Safety in numbers I suppose.
I never did get caught. And with all the shaking up at the Johnson residence over the last 10 years I can't say I have come across the contraband of which I speak, but that doesn't mean they're not there. Everything I ever owned or was given to me until the time I was 21 is somewhere amongst the boxes of belongings which reside at my aunt's beautiful Mattapoisett beach house.
I'll be going there soon. I'll root around and see what I can see.
At the very least I'll bring some of my puppets home. It's an odd feeling to slip one of them on my hand and watch them come to life after laying dormant for 30 odd years. Like a coat from third grade that still fits.
I never thought I'd have anyone who might be interested in seeing them.
I did happen to write a song about the time I spent "collecting" for God.
Never understood my attraction
except to take attention away
of what they relied on to brighten those cloudy days
Oh, hold me
Carry the weight of the world
Let's sing a song for Father
Let's sing a song together
If I couldn't change my faith yet
I thought I could change everyone else's
And be the King of the stolen Jesus
King of the stolen Jesus
He'll rise from the dashes again.
Rise from the dashes again.
My Babush sadly passed away in 1980 when I was ten. As a result, I was given a choice on the continuation of my Catholic education and, consequently, on the taking of first communion.
In 1984, I accompanied my mother to the first of several parent/teachers night at Bishop Connolly High School (which I attended so as to avoid the horrendous conditions at B.M.C. Durfee H.S. where my mother and aunt were both teachers).
Upon meeting with the principal -the most revered, Fr. O’Brien- privately in his office, my mother decided to ask a question which would negate any and all inevitable haranguing over my lack of Catholic affiliation.
We sat there for a few minutes in uncomfortable silence as the principal fiddled with the papers on his desk, eventually finding my soon to be lengthy school record. As he looked up and locked eyes with one Judith Ann Johnson she asked him quite matter-of-factly:
"...so, Father O’Brien...how is my pagan baby doing?"
Yeah, she was that cool.
Since I started this before midnight on Sunday, March 23 I would like to wish all who read this a happy Easter.
Hope you got your Paas on.
And to one wonderful woman who will undoubtedly read this after her special day has come and gone...
Happy Birthday Bushy.
Much love from me.
And a goodnight to my Babush. I miss you dearly and still wonder what those big white chips taste like.
Eugenia Cecilia Machnik Johnson 1912-1980 R.I.P.