This is Mary Anne.
I am saying happy birthday to her for several reasons. One, she is old. Ok. Not old. Old-er than me. Two, she is a wonderful person. She is. No, really, she is.
Three. She is one of the main reasons I ever seriously thought about doing standup comedy. And it has has nothing to do with her wearing giant Mickey hands, although I do confess, I did go out and buy a pair out of envy.
Several years ago we were at a dear friend’s family member’s wake. Now this friend, has a tremendously large Italian family and as these things go, we began to gravitate to the back of the room to let the family grieve together. We stood around and talked quietly while our friend we came to support greeted a kazillion people she hadn’t seen in a kazillion years.
While we were standing there in the back, Mary Anne asked me how my son, (who now is 25, but was 6 at the time), was doing studying for his First Holy Communion.
And that, Ladies and Gents, was when my standup comedy routine was born. Sort of.
I had just come from a meeting for the parents of First Communion students and I started launching into a long-winded story about how the priest met with us to discuss confession and penance and the “new way” that things were done for First Communion. He rolled out an overhead projector and then drew a cloud up at the top with a cross and a pitchfork and horns at the bottom of the page.
We all nodded.
Then he smiled and said, “As parents, I bet you think this makes sense when it comes to sins, confession and penance.
Again we nodded. Good and bad. We got this.
Then the priest began drawing arrows up and arrows down. “When you were a child, and you supposedly sinned, you went to confession to tell your sins,” he said drawing an arrow up. “But when you sinned again, you had to go back to confession or else you thought your soul was in danger,” he drew an arrow down.
There was shifting in seats but yes, we got it.
“But back then, you were taught wrong. It wasn’t your fault. We just don’t believe that a child is capable of real sin. What they do is make mistakes. They veer off the path and just need encouragement to head back to the path.”
The priest was met with silence as rows of Catholic parents scratched their heads in confusion. Mistakes?
He tried valiantly again. “You see,” he stated earnestly pointing to the cloud with the cross, “God understands that children don’t mean to lie. They don’t mean to fight with their brothers and sisters. They don’t mean to be disrespectful, they’re just…well….kids. They aren’t grown yet. They make mistakes. So what they do shouldn’t constitute as sin in the way we believe sin to be. What they do is just an error in judgment. So real confession is for real sins. Like murder, like well…real stealing…embezzlement, not taking a chocolate chip cookie. Your children are just making mistakes. So they just need to try harder. You need to encourage them. Understand they are just making mistakes. Got it?”
I remember thinking, I want my son to understand consequences! I want him to realize that when you hurt someone’s feelings or lie to your mother it’s not a mistake–it’s a choice. And a poor choice at that which is why as a Catholic, we go to confession and tell God and we’re forgiven and hopefully the next time the choice comes up we will choose a better path. I wasn’t thinking he should be shoveling coal down in the mines of Hell for telling me he brushed his teeth when he didn’t, but I did think even at his age he could get the concept of confession, penance, and how to set his moral compass. At least that’s what I had learned at his age. Now this priest was turning the world upside down—Red was blue, up was down, in was out– what the heck happened!?
This 12-year-old looking priest who had never had children obviously had no idea what it was to look into the eyes of a 6-year old, who is an only child, standing in ankle deep water in the bathroom while the toliet makes strange gurgling sounds and a Spalding Pinky ball tries to dislodge itself and hear him say, “I don’t know what happened, but I didn’t do it!”
This priest never dealt with a first-grade teacher’s brittle smile as she says, “We need to remind your son that we bite our food, not our friends.”
This man had never asked a child seventeen times if he was dressed and ready to go to school and hear “Yes I am,” only to discover said child laying down naked amongst pants, sock, underwear reading a book, blissfully unaware his mother who is already late for work is about to lose her mind!
Why in the world would I say to my son, “That’s ok, I know you didn’t mean it ya little knucklehead.”
As a Catholic, I felt this was the moment my son would start to understand how actions have reactions and that we all should try our best every day to live honestly and help others. Call me crazy. Call me Pollyanna, but that’s what I thought.
I wanted my son to think that when he chose badly, God would be watching and saying, ‘Hey! That wasn’t the best choice now was it? So how can you fix this for next time?” I wasn’t expecting lightning to be thrown at his head nor did I want my son thinking he was going to be a permenant resident of Pitchforkville for throwing a ball down the toliet, but I also wanted him to understand lying or covering up something wasn’t the right way to fix a bad decision. And from the Catholic point of view, that’s why I always believed there was confession — Helloooooo!
Instead, this priest was trying to tell us that any sins our kids racked up until they started charting the mortal ones were just mistakes….nothing worth confessing about. That these kids should go happily skipping about in life making mistakes but once they started committing the top ten, then, it was confession time. HUH??? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have them understand the process BEFORE they start breaking a commandment or two or five?
So as I am conveying this whole episode of Catholic parenting to the group at the wake, I admit, my voice may have gotten a bit loud, and people started laughing and then things got louder and louder and then our friend, who we were there to support, looked out over the sea of her Italian family members and locked eyes with us, the rowdy bunch of Irish pals in the back of the room, and I stopped talking immediately. I realized that perhaps this wasn’t the best time to share my thoughts on parenting as a Catholic. I began to slink back into a chair but as I started to move Mary Anne turned to me and said, “You really need to be a standup comedian.” I rolled my eyes thinking she was joking and started to turn away, but she grabbed my arm. “No. Really. You need to be a standup comedian. You have a gift.”
Later, I believe I tried to apologize to our friend about causing the ruckus during the wake, but instead she just smiled and said, “Are you kidding? I wanted to be standing back there laughing with all of you!” And that’s when I realized that laughter could indeed be a gift. A gift that comes at the toughest moments in life, as well as some of the happiest, and the ones in between, like when a Pinky ball gets stuck in a toliet. And if laughter was the gift, a single-mom turned comedian could be the vessel.
Now, many years later, I am a standup comedian. That defining moment with Mary Anne at the wake was then I realized that being a comedian might just be achievable. It could happen because someone really believed it could happen. Someone looked me in the eye and said, “This is your gift. This is your calling. This is your talent. Now, go and share it with the world.”
And that’s eventually what I did.
Happy Birthday Mary Anne.
And thank you.