Almost Happy, 1972
by Patricia Bjorklund
followed by Q&A
After the assassinations of Kennedy and King, I wouldn’t dare to guess where or when the next incident of mayhem might occur, but my father always made it clear when the world had gone too far. “Saint Catherine, Saint Ann, Saint Jude! Where the Hell are they?” he said, as our car slowly rolled out of the parking lot of Our Lady of the Assumption. “What’s happened to all the saints?” He turned and looked at me and my brothers in the backseat. “You think they were just called up to Heaven?”
My little brothers didn’t attempt to answer and I didn’t know what to think except that it was true. All kinds of relics seemed to have disappeared overnight as Assumption got caught up in the streamlining trend: floor-standing candelabra, marble baptismal fonts, and incalculable feet of wrought iron altar railing were missing. The place looked looted. I watched our church get smaller in the side-view mirror. In this case, the trouble was Vatican Council II and their latest hedonistic changes, a loosening of restrictions that suddenly allowed churches to engage in interior decorating.
My mother smoothed her linen skirt and sighed. “How can they turn a place as rich and inspirational as a church into something as pedestrian as a vacant room? Maybe the emptiness is supposed to make us yearn and reflect on inner things.”
Johnny-Boy cleared his throat. “Maybe they’re just cleaning the statues,” he said.
"That’s a cute idea, kiddo,” my father said. “But where have all the kneelers gone?” He slapped the steering wheel. “How in God’s name are you supposed to worship if you can’t get on your knees?”
“You can still worship, John,” my mother said. She took off her lace veil and folded it.
“Really?” my father said. “They’re throwing away saints, Jane. Which Dumpster do we go to when we wanna pray to Saint Ann?”
“Well, it's still our church,” my mother said.
“It's not my church. Pandering to the masses,” my father said. “That’s what this is. After one thousand, nine hundred and seventy-two years, the Roman Catholic Church has chosen to tamper with divine traditions. I don't believe for one minute that this is what God wants!”
We pulled up to the Wood Avenue Bakery, our usual stop. My mother lowered the visor and refreshed her flip in the mirror. She sprung out of the Impala. When she returned, my father reached across to open her door and my mother angled into the car with a tower of boxes which were bound together like a present tied with a bow of striped bakery string. She balanced them on her lap, assorted-sized boxes with more than enough pastry for two families of five.
The Meehans were that other family.
At home, Jim and Olive Meehan, my parents’ best friends, came over from across the street with their three kids and all of us lingered in our church clothes. We huddled around the counter in our kitchen, grabbed napkins and plunged our hands into cake boxes of donuts: jelly, custard, glazed, and crullers. My mother sliced a fresh log of apple strudel and poured orange juice into glasses with avocado-colored tear drops paint on them.
Mr. Meehan cuffed up his white shirt sleeves and told us that the situation wasn’t any rosier at the other local parish. “There’s a carnival brewing in the parking lot outside the gates of St. Peter’s,” he said, “and inside, the crucifix of Jesus has been replaced by a bare wooden cross!”
“That’s for effect,” my father said, “if you can believe those collared-punks with their mop-tops!”
“Hippy-priests!” Mr. Meehan said. “Literally turning their backs on God so they can tune-in to the congregation.” He flashed the A-OK-sign, which really meant over-and-out.
“Maybe they have good intentions,” my mother said. She centered four Earthenware cups on their saucers. “But the real issue here is in the translation. How do we know if the words of the sacraments can be converted from Latin to English?”
“As if God ever needed to explain himself to us!” my father said.
Mrs. Meehan unplugged the Farberware percolator and poured coffee. “I’m not sure the Eucharist is the Eucharist anymore?” she said.
My father tore open a packet of Sweet-n-Low, poured it into his cup and twisted the paper until it resembled a toothpick. “The whole mass, it didn’t even clock-in at a full hour. Holy Communion has gone from a sacrament to something like a trip for fast food.”
“Good-God help us,” Mrs. Meehan said, and she pulled a stool up to the island and set her elbows on the pumpkin-colored counter.
The Meehan kids, Andrea, Char, and Paul drifted out to our backyard. My three little brothers scampered outside too, powdered sugar on their lips and each of them double-fisted with doughnuts. I lingered at the kitchen counter peeling the skin off my strudel.
My father grabbed a box of donuts, held it in front of me and shook it a little. “And what do you think?” he asked.
I looked at the mess of powdered sugar and sprinkles. “I don’t want a doughnut,” I said.
“I said what do you think?”
“I think they’re singing more than they used to.”
“Yeah—but not the time-honored hymns,” my father said. “I’d better not catch you singing any of that Kumbaya-crap.” He pushed his cup and saucer away. “You call that a church? There’s too little flesh and blood—and too much guitar.”
“It’s such a shame too,” Mrs. Meehan said. “You kids don’t get to hear those gorgeous hymns, how beautiful Latin truly is—Latin, the language of God.”
My father turned toward me and leaned back in his chair. “So, just what’s going on in that school of yours?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” I said, stalling.
“You know what I mean.”
I had to offer up something and I was never exactly sure of what to leave in or what to leave out to avoid one of his lectures. “Let’s see… Sister gave us the Good News Bible. It’s not really ours—I mean we have to leave it at school. But it’s a good looking book!” I looked at my mother. “It’s cute—a pure white cover, with 18 karat gold letters—it opens and closes with a zipper and a tassel!”
“There is no good news in the bible,” my father said. “And saving your soul is the antithesis of fashion!”
My mother adjusted the pearls around her neck, and I went back to picking raisins out of my strudel.
“You realize that the new Vatican is particularly targeting the women,” Mr. Meehan said, and he slid his tie from his collar.
“Yeah,” my father said. “The grannies are turning church basements into Bingo halls, and they’ve got the teeny-boppers pitching banners for the peace movement.”
My mother stood in front of the sink, looking off to something further than any point in our kitchen. “I’m not worried about the kids becoming hippies or gamblers,” she said.
“Well, you ought to be,” my father interrupted. “Speaking of the bible—it says it is better to tie a millstone around a child’s neck and toss him into the ocean, than to let him—or her” he said as he pointed to me, “lose his eternal soul.”
“That’s not what ‘suffer the little children unto me’ means,” my mother said.
“The bible means exactly what it says, Jane,” my father said.
I slipped out of the room and out to the back porch as my parents went on bickering, but I knew what it was they were worried about. The Catholic Church did seem to be giving up the mysterious rituals that made it the one true church. The mass—which had remained the same for centuries—was changing.
Deep down, I knew some of my parents’ worries real. Sister June Marie’s hem was way up since Jesus Christ Superstar. Her habit was half of what it used to be, and felt banners for peace and love draped concrete-block walls all over my school.
On the first Wednesday of each month, we marched from homeroom to church for mass. Father Ryan preached Peanuts sermons just for us. Comic-strip characters faced moral dilemmas, i.e., is it right for Snoopy to lie about his heritage, disguise himself as a full-bred instead of a mutt to have an edge in the Top Dog Competition? Charlie Brown caught Snoopy in a bald-faced lie—he understood; he forgave; he didn’t even punish.
We no longer had to wear our plaid hats, those itchy wool envelopes that made me think of the Foreign Legion, to that first Wednesday mass. The passé headwear stayed in our desks to hold pencils, sharpeners, and rubber erasers that could pass for chunks of cheese. I didn’t tell my parents that my head was exposed. I was keeping it to myself.
Just that very Wednesday, I had been sitting in church for one of those Good News masses—squished in the front pew between Martha Cassady and Carol Stonkas. Father Ryan stepped down from the altar to shake our hands. “Peace be with you,” he said and his face was only inches from mine. His hair was clean cut, parted on the side, but long enough on top to graze his forehead in the breeze of the tuba-sized church fan. His eyes were a deep ocean shade, like gems so brilliant they looked fake. If I could forget that the world was about to blow up, if it was possible to meet and fall in love with the guy next door, if I could buy any of that happy-ending with Mr. Wonderful-type stuff, Father Ryan was the face of that fairytale.
I could picture Father Ryan without a collar. I could imagine him singing a Bobby Sherman song, a tune like crystal cool water, miraculously pouring out of the pocket-transistor radio I’d been sneaking around with: HEY little wo-man, please make up your mind. You’ve GOT-to come into my world and leave your world behind.
It would be so easy to follow him. At that moment, the way of the cross didn’t seem so lonely and out of the way. When our school packed the pews for those Wednesday masses, we all knew that Sister Beatrice was just winging it on the bongos. I had a real sense of rhythm. I’d be a virtuoso with any form of drum and I could legitimize the tambourine. I could help Father Ryan bear the weight of virtue and fame. Communists and Satan worshipers, they could brand me with my social security number or put me through weeks of Chinese water torture, but I wouldn’t forsake Jesus or my country and I was expanding my allegiance to include Father Ryan’s face—and Bobby Sherman’s voice—and I started to entertain the idea that I might actually fall for a boy who could say words like hey little woman and really mean what he was saying.
On the other hand, joy was a shackle to Hell. I wrestled with the chains of happiness. I suffered spastic excitement as it sometimes churned in my stomach—clear indication of what my parents called sensitivity training—the most insidious type of brainwashing. Just being a student at Assumption had its price; I wasn’t as uncomfortable as I should have been. I’d been seeing way too much of Sister June Marie’s ankles and shins. I didn’t tell my parents when she stopped trudging around in black oxfords because I liked the way she sprung around our classroom in airy-beige sling-backs with cork soles. Her shortened habit was as secular as a hankie: wisps of pale hair to hang out, carefree. In the shine of her diamond-shaped face, I saw happiness. Happiness, real to me, a force fizzing in the gut. Happiness was undeniable, almost irresistible, and dangerous for just those reasons.
But I thought if I kept the numbers down, if I monitored my occasions of joy, I would never get addicted to happiness, which was a fool’s game in the valley of tears anyway. I reasoned that my experience with the seductive desire to be happy was my best defense against becoming a communist or a liberal myself. So, I allowed myself to be obsessed with one priest: Father Ryan; one song: “Hey, Little Woman,” and one nun: Sister June Marie. And I was dying to know where she shopped for her sort of normal, but still nun-ish wardrobe. Her colors were brown, beige, gray, and navy. Sister wore neutral cardigans and skirts and simply classic white blouses. She leaned on sturdy wools and reliable cottons. Sister’s look was humble, yet distinctly hopeful—she had clothes that were almost happy.
A couple of Sundays later, we went to mass at Assumption again. I had no idea what my parents were thinking. I didn’t expect to find that the saints had come marching back in. But because we were there, I had to hope: I hoped that Father Ryan would make a revelation. I wanted him to bless us, and then grace us with words of wisdom, point out a grand design that my parents couldn’t conceive of. I wanted Father to preach about some earthly paradise, say something about music being a gift from Heaven, sanctioned by the Pope. Then, I wanted him to explain about all those statues—the bisque beauty and glazed blood that had disappeared. Where had all the saints gone and what about those kneelers?
It didn’t happen though. Father Ryan made no attempt to explain the disappearances. He offered up a generic sermon about Lazarus. He never even mentioned Snoopy and maybe it was for the best. After mass we retreated to the Chevy in dirt-staring silence.
My mother shook her head and turned on the radio. Stevie Wonder was singing… My cherie amour, lovely as a summer’s day… I was no stranger to the words. My father hated the radio, especially in the car, but it seemed he had so much on his mind that he didn’t hear it. Stevie Wonder was filling up the car with sound that had the power to move me like a weeping willow… My cherie amour, distant as the Milky Way…
Along both sides of Stratfield Road, the estate homes with their historic maple trees seemed to be waving to us, pushing us along. La-la-laa-laa-laa-laa… We passed the Brooklawn Country Club, the duck pond near the 7th hole. We passed the quaint strip of store fronts: the striped awning at El Dorado Pharmacy, and the barber shop spinning its ribbon like a million connected smiles. We were cruising along with the radio on—like other people and in a normal world. I basked in the perfection of the universe in motion from my fixed location in the backseat: my brothers weren’t fidgeting or taking up too much space. I adored the gorgeous waves of my mother’s hair; I loved the contrast between my father’s tan neck and his jiffy-white collar. The air was sprinkled with the sweetness of Stevie Wonder’s voice—candy canes of La..la…la. Music paved the way for our procession back to Bridgeport. I had the urge to blow kisses to people on the sidewalks, the travelers, the onlookers... How I wish that you were mine… A thin, grassy knoll charmed the middle of the street. The words and music marked the time as we passed—sort of like Kennedy’s motorcade before the shot. We rolled peacefully, away from the corrupting wealth of Fairfield, Connecticut. We passed the sign, the town line, and we floated back to our city of Bridgeport, our city of cars without circular driveways, cars that crammed the streets and flooded the curbs, each car with its own radio. I poked my head between my parents and looked at it, our thankless Delco, the precise black lines between the numbers on the AM dial reminding me of a thermometer. At that moment, we were around 98.6, set on the perfect human temperature. I praised the Lord for sometimes making life so clear to me: every car had a radio built in, pressed into the heart of each dashboard like a soul. I thanked him for the radio and for the revelation: at some point, whether we were listening or not, the same song pulsed through us all.
Patricia Bjorklund has a B.A. and M.S. from Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven and an M.F.A. in creative writing from UNC Wilmington. “Almost Happy, 1972” is a chapter from her memoir, U.S. and Them: A Re-enchantment of an American Childhood, which she is currently shopping around. The title-chapter appears in the spring 2011 issue of the Missouri Review and another chapter can be found in the latest Palooka. Her work has also appeared in the Connecticut Review, Post Road, American Writing, Folio, Wilma, to name a few. She is full-time faculty at Southeastern Community College in Whiteville, N.C., and also teaches a writing workshop in Wilmington where she lives.
Q: Can you tell us about the motivation behind this piece?
A: Radios inside cars, right there in the dashboard. I still can’t get over the potential happiness, the magic. I remember being a girl and hearing a song and watching the world go by, and even though the world seemed to be hanging by a thread, happiness was real to me and anything was possible for a moment at least.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: Soak in a bathtub. It’s the best suggestion ever. I’m giving a guarantee right now. As soon as you get suds on your hands, all will be revealed. You won’t be able to find paper, pen and a towel fast enough.
Q: How do you organize your home library? Tall to small? Alphabetically? Or, have you converted totally to e-reader?
A: I used to group together shelves for various genres, and within each genre, I put my favorites on the “nicest” and most convenient shelves (given that I’m 5’1”) so the ripple effect defines my inner and outer circles. I’m in the midst of moving for the first time in a while, so I’m rethinking my hierarchal nature and my shelving situation.