When I was small, my parents kneeled together at my bedside and taught me how to pray. We were Irish Catholic New Yorkers; such lessons were requisite.
Each night, my mother recited the “Our Father” while my father remained silent beside her. He was a reluctant parishioner since the mid-sixties advent of Vatican II within the Catholic Church. My father had no use for the modern-day retelling of Catholicism, with its 70s-era, rainbow-guitar-strapped folk masses, its kisses of peace offered by pew mates who thought nothing of cutting him off in the church parking lot after the liturgy. He preferred the solemnity of ancient rituals known to him since childhood.
My mother berated my father for sleeping through mass on Sunday mornings, and for the whiskey-and-Schlitz-fueled excess of his Saturday nights. He’d say she was busting his balls—a phrase I didn’t understand at four or five that conjured images of deflated playground dodgeballs, sad and colorful rubber pools at my father’s feet. I’d listen quietly in my room, seated on my bed in a smocked dress and Mary Janes while they argued outside my bedroom door.
I used to watch as they both bowed their heads, side by side but never touching, each of them separate in their own spheres of waning faith and pain. I saw the negative space between them, the distance. It may have been why I always reached for both of their hands when we walked on the street or took photographs together. I wanted to be the conduit that repaired the break in the line.
I lay on my bed, my hands clasped on my chest. I imagined they were praying to me, as if I were something gilded and held high upon the altar, or perhaps, dead and laid out at my own wake. Such thoughts frightened and thrilled me in turns, and I felt giddy with blessings and God.
Their union had been a mistake, although neither of them could admit that for some time. The truth of it ate away at the muscle of their marriage, hollowed its bone. Their vows were simple sutures that held the wound closed, but the edges never healed. They were two parts that never should have joined, bread and wine never to become body and blood.
They stopped praying at my bedside when I was five. Instead, I’d listen to their yelling through the door, swing my scallop-socked feet while staring at the throw rug covering my bedroom floor—and search out repetitive patterns in the weaving.
Kathleen McKitty Harris is a fifth-generation native New Yorker whose work has appeared in Sonora Review, Creative Nonfiction, Full Grown People, McSweeney’s, and The Rumpus, among others. Her essay, “A Timeline of Human Female Development,” appears in the anthology My Body, My Words (Big Table Publishing 2018). She has also performed as a storyteller at The Moth in New York City, and at the “Listen To Your Mother” live-reading series in northern New Jersey, where she lives with her husband, two children, and irredeemable dog.
Edward Lee’s poetry, short stories, non-fiction and photography have been published in magazines in Ireland, England and America, including The Stinging Fly, Skylight 47, Acumen and Smiths Knoll. He is currently working on two photography collections: ‘Lying Down With The Dead’ and ‘There Is A Beauty In Broken Things’. He also makes musical noise under the names Ayahuasca Collective, Lewis Milne, Orson Carroll, Blinded Architect, Lego Figures Fighting, and Pale Blond Boy. His blog/website can be found at edwardmlee.wordpress.com