An introvert and loner for my first 26 years, I married into a big, Midwestern, Catholic family. There’s just no preparing yourself for that.
By big, I mean that my wife is the sixth of eight children, which means that springtime is one long, rolling, happy occasion: Baptisms, first Communions, Confirmations, graduations — and armies of children milling about in white dresses or dark suits with brightly colored shirts, taking turns celebrating the important moments in each other’s lives.
Most of my wife’s siblings are now raising growing families of their own. In one weekend next month, my in-laws will fly to Virginia for a first Communion on Saturday afternoon, then board the plane home, sleep a few hours and jump in the car early Sunday morning bound for South Bend, where they’ll attend a second first Communion at noon and a third at 2 p.m.
Confused? Me, too, but I admire their dedication. There aren’t many grandparents who express their love through that level of mobile commitment. It’s scary to think what would have happened if the Virginia baptism had lined up with the others on the same Sunday. I think they might have imploded.
Maybe one day I will implode. We have seven children of our own.
This weekend it was our turn to provide the cause for massive family celebration. Or, rather, co-provide. We baptized our daughter, Cecilia, along with her infant cousin, Luz Maria, a sacramental two-for-one deal celebrated in Notre Dame’s Log Chapel by their devoted uncle, a Holy Cross priest.
You can imagine the scene, even if you’ve never been there. The Log Chapel is the size of a cozy, northwoods cabin. It has 35 seats. We could have used double that number and a structural bumpout, or at least a screened-in porch, for the overflow.
A few weeks earlier, while contemplating crowd control in my own home, I had thought ahead for once and paled at the vision now unfolding in front of me. Grandparents and godparents and immediate family filling up the chairs, older cousins and a few family friends politely standing in back, eyeing the few seats left empty, because who would presume? I practically had to shove people toward them.
Up front on either side of the altar were two small lakes of children sitting on blankets, my wife, the religion teacher, keeping order by leading them in simple, meditative Taizé hymns. There was no point seating them with their parents.
Somehow, harmony reigned and Mass began. The less-parental-control-is-more strategy seemed to be working. I held Cecilia for a few peaceful moments before passing her off to her godmother-to-be. There, in the front row, nine cousins ages 2 to 8 at my feet and only a few of them my own, I felt like a Secret Service agent, my attention drifting from the readings as I scanned the antics slowly roiling before me.
Like most introvert-loners, I suspect, I have an authoritarian streak, and I was anticipating An Incident. By the baptismal rite, I had dubbed them the Nine Stooges. Picture three miniature sets of Larry, Curly and Moe, well-dressed and trying but unable to control themselves. Twice I pulled out a child who had crossed some thin, arbitrary line that in my mind constituted too much grinning, poking and tussling.
Then, seconds before the consecration, It happened. Jack, our 2-year-old, found the bathroom door behind the presider’s chair. I didn’t even know the Log Chapel had a bathroom, and suddenly I was thinking how much I wanted to use the bathroom, and before I could stop him, Jack shut the door, locked it and, not understanding what he’d done, began shrieking in terror when he couldn’t get out.
I waded over through the kids and tried the handle. I turned to my wife and mouthed the words “do you have the key?” I pleaded around the chapel with my eyes and got a few sympathetic looks and lots of averted gazes in return. My brother-in-law continued with the Eucharistic Prayer. So I did the last thing I could think to do. I ducked.
Later I would realize I had just become the Tenth Stooge.
The shrieking lasted 15 seconds before the lock clicked and Jack let himself out. He was teary-eyed but smiling and fine, and so was I. Such moments will be my salvation, the letting-go of my tight notions of the way things need to be.
We returned to my seat, and Jack sat on my lap and stared at his sister two laps over, her hair slick and perfumed with chrism oil, fast asleep, arms relaxed and loose, unaware of anything but the warm light of God’s grace enveloping her and flowing out to all who would receive it.
John Nagy is an associate editor of this magazine.