Resembling little angels in our virginal mantillas like halos over Shirley Temple curls, my fair-haired BFF Cindy and I paced in the foyer of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in our spotless white dresses.
“It’s time. Are you scared?” I whispered to Cindy, her blue eyes wide. Then I let go of her hand. I was ready to marry her and live happily ever after, but seven-year-old girls weren’t allowed not even when they grew up.
At least twenty-five Catholic schoolgirls lined up and clicked in white patent-leather shoes over the cool, snow-colored tiles up to the altar. Ahead, penny candles flickered from little crimson jars, the color of the blood that dripped from Jesus’ palms up on the cross.
And there, seated in the pew, was Mama, wearing her Coty red lipstick and sporting a pair of sunglasses (something I’d add to my wardrobe) not because her future was so bright, but to shield eyes that weren’t just brown, but black and blue. In Mama’s lap napped my baby sister, Magdalena.
“There she is!” my younger sisters, Christina and Fatima, shouted as I made my way up the aisle, little white-gloved hands held together in front of my nose in silent supplication.
I prayed Dad wouldn’t be a no-show. Absent for my birth and my baptism, why would this sacrament be any different? Like traces of frankincense that permeated the church, my father el gringo would only be a hint of a memory.
Across the row sat my abuelita, sick with the diabetes, and my tia and tio whose daughter, my cousin, Florita Benitez, was at the front of the procession not just because she was as short as Grandma’s memory, but because we were lined up alphabetically. That’s why Marcia Madison marched before me, Ruthie Marlenée, and Cindy Minarovich trailed behind.
I wasn’t envious of Marcia who lived in a two-story house in La Habra Heights. I lived walking distance to Our Lady of Guadalupe School and Church, so I was the lucky one. I wasn’t even jealous that her father was a doctor, because my father made bouncy Super Balls over at the Kirkhill Rubber Factory. But I was embarrassed that Dad got drunk every Friday night before bringing home the paycheck.
Last Friday night, Mama drove us to the cantina where Dad liked to listen to sad mariachi music on the jukebox and drink.
“Go inside and get his wallet,” Mama told me. Like a mini Joan of Arc, I marched in and was assaulted by the stink. The joint smelled like Dad: unfiltered Camels, burned rubber, piss and Thunderbird. I found him resting his eyes and head on crossed arms at the bar. His wallet was peeking out of his back pocket practically screaming, Take me. I did.
Come Sunday, he was too hung over to think about his wallet, much less come to my First Holy Communion ceremony. Marcia preceded me up the aisle and I caught a whiff of her Tinker Bell cologne. She’d brought me some for my birthday party. She made me feel special that day, the same way she’d make her patients feel in years to come; years after her doctor father would accidentally run over and kill her mother. As drunk as my father got, except for giving us cuts, bruises or black eyes, he never killed any of us, much less Mama.
Cindy, my first love, walked behind me. She lived on the side of town where people had fancy appliances and two bathrooms so that their dad didn’t have to use the gas station up on the corner because the house was filled with too many “bitches.”
At her birthday party, I sat in front of the giant television set mesmerized by Hobo Kelly, the clown who wore huge plastic sunglasses when addressing her young fans. “Way over in La Habra,” Hobo Kelly announced, “I see little Cindy Minarovich who turns seven today. Cindy, there’s a present for you hidden in the washing machine!”
As if a gift had been stolen, I sobbed when Cindy and her clown-loving family got transferred to Ohio at the end of second grade. I hadn’t eaten the morning of my First Holy Communion. By the time it was my row’s turn to stand and make our way to the altar, my stomach growled like Dad with a hangover. The scent of the burning incense was nauseating. I teetered like a bowling pin as I stood, and staggered up to the communion rail where I genuflected, looked up to Father Wilkerson, and stuck out my tongue. The wafer tasted like a tortilla. I was hungry.
“In the name of the Father (touch your forehead), and the Son (touch your heart), and the Holy Spirit (touch each shoulder).” I returned to my pew and bowed my pin-curled head.
I floated out of the church into a brighter world with all of God’s newest little saints-in-the-making. In the span of an hour, I’d transformed into Saint Ruthie, patron saint of drunken fathers. I had a mission and felt an energy so powerful that I knew if I only prayed harder, Dad would stop.
I stood in front of the church and beamed into the camera. I’d have something to show my father when he sobered up. After the ceremony, my family headed over to Farolito’s Mexican Restaurant where a Mariachi band was already in full swing. Had he known there were going to be Mariachi’s, maybe, Dad might have made an effort.
Years later for my first wedding, I hired a Mariachi band. Dad broke his sobriety that night. On the way home, he drove onto the sidewalk and took out a street lamp.
My father died eight years ago.
“I can’t understand how you can do the eulogy,” my sister said.
“He was our father. He had his struggles. I wasn’t his parole officer.”
The day of his funeral, the skies dumped a lifetime’s worth of rain. Outside the church, Mariachis started to play as the pallbearers exited and set down his casket. The sky cleared. Mama and I put on our sunglasses, this time to hide a lifetime’s worth of tears.