In which an agnostic aunt goes First Communion gift shopping

As an aunt, you are invited into some very special children’s lives. Mostly it’s fun and carefree and a matter of handing off when things get too hard (or, literally, shitty), but there are some tricky things to navigate here, too.

An example.

After the birth of one of my now four nephews, I stood in the hallway outside my sister-in-law’s hospital room with the oldest of that group. He was six or seven years old at the time. I love him so much, so genuinely, that there’s no simpler way to say it.

And I love that age. Children aged six or seven are not afraid to ask questions, even though they’re also, at that age, tuned in enough to recognize if it’s a difficult one—or one that has been made difficult by adults.

“How did the baby get out of her body?” my nephew asked.

Without skipping a beat, I responded very naturally, not even bothering to take my eyes off the hospital wall poster I was reading to look at him as I said it: “It came out of her vagina.”

Ah. Yes.

Vagina—I remembered as soon as the word passed through the safe womb of my mind to the canal of my throat out the lips of my mouth into the harsh world where words have many meanings beyond my own and are often suspect—is not a term we use freely around children.

My fear that I had perhaps crossed a line my sister, his mother, would not have wanted crossed (at least not by me, not yet) was confirmed by the way he and his younger sister, who had surreptitiously joined us in the hallway, stopped everything they were doing.

It seemed I’d found the holy grail of getting the undivided attention of a six or seven year old and a four or five year old. Their eyes got bigger. They both took a step toward me.

Oh, no. Oh, no, I thought. I know that look. That’s hunger. They wanted to know more and they know I know it. I’d shown my weakness and alluded to the fact that I would not hide this mysterious thing from them.

I blame my not being around children that often. I don’t see kids or teenagers very much in my daily life. I forget, sometimes, that there are boundaries around them and those boundaries are not to be broken because the child is not mine.

Or I just forget what they look like. A few months ago I bummed a cigarette to a man on the street who asked for one. I didn’t really look up at him until I handed it off. I didn’t really start to feel bad until I saw his lanky boy body join a group of other lanky boy bodies and realize that wasn’t a man I just gave permission for a death wish—it was a teenager.

My nephew was ready to test his luck: “What’s that?”

Where to go from here? My instinct was to be honest and accurate about what happens when a woman gives birth. It’s not like we were talking about how it was made.

But I also knew that stuff like this is personal. And for a parent to decide how the news is, ahem, delivered.

Before I could make a decision, someone called the three of us into the hospital room and the question dissolved into the cleaning-fluid scented air.

That situation happened a couple years ago, and it’s a funny memory, but it’s also a testament to the particular complication of auntdom surrounding knowledge and beliefs and how to be true to oneself but respect the environment in which loved ones want those children to be raised.

Today, two years later, I’m thinking about the Vagina Incident as I flip through a book titled “From Wealth To Faith: A Tear-Stained Journey.”

For a second, I think about getting it for my niece, now eight, before recognizing that title is just way too depressing and, worse, martyr-worshiping for a kid.

I’m shopping for a gift to give her for her First Communion. My family is Catholic. I was raised one. And there’s a bible store within a block of my apartment.

I pass this Christian book store almost every day but I’ve never gone inside. I find most of what’s inside upsetting. There is, for example, a middle grade biography about CS Lewis spun to be about a faithful man who believed “the truest story ever told was the story of Jesus.” What a bastardization and simplification of “truth.” See what I mean about words being suspect?

I’ve been perusing the children’s section for about ten minutes as the man at the counter continues his search. I’ve inquired for books about Joan of Arc.

I don’t know why I still think I can find gifts at these kinds of stores that make me feel comfortable. I guess it comes from a desire to respect my siblings’ choices to be Catholic. I want to show them I love them and, though I believe perhaps the absolute opposite of what they do, I’m here. I will always be here.

But Catholic I am not anymore.

I question everything and always have. My brain has constantly been in a state of “I’m not sure,” except in regards to two things: I’ve never thought homosexuality was wrong or hated by God, and I’ve never believed the church knows what’s better for an individual’s body than the person who inhabits that body. After all, wasn’t the whole point that God decided who was bad or good? So why were humans making these choices?

Oy vey. My Catholicism was doomed from the start.

Throw in this perfect timing: I was in high school as the sex abuse scandal erupted (a term that I hate, by the way… it really should be called the child rape reality and child rapist coverup). Watching the church ignore it, or make excuses for it, was just fuel on my stake-burning fire. No thank you. I did not want to be part of this organization, and as soon as I was old enough to make that choice for myself, I never looked back.

I do not regret not being Catholic as an adult. It’s one of very few decisions of which I’m absolutely certain, no regrets.

But! I have grieved for this family tie. It’s one less connection I have to them.

I guess that’s why I come to these kinds of stores whenever there’s a sacrament to celebrate with a kid I love. Maybe it’s more about their parents whom I love. It’s an expression of my love for them and the childhood we spent together.

This is a momentous occasion for my sibling—their child receiving a sacrament. The gift is more for them than the child. It is a token of my love, an olive branch. I know they do not see the Catholic church the way I do; there’s no ill intent on their part. I trust their love for their own children with every sinew of my twisted black heart.

When my nephew had his First Communion I got him a book in which the Pope answers kids’ questions from around the world. It seemed like the kind of thing I was supposed to buy. I regret it every time I see the book on his shelf! Will my nephew think I think all those answers are correct since I gave it to him?

Moreover, I want him to know there are things there aren’t hard and fast answers to, and most of those questions are ones centered around faith or coping with the brutality or unfairness of our experiences here on earth. Am I complicit in this confusion by just saying, “Here the Pope knows”? Have I given too easy of an answer to the searching?

“Here’s what I’ve found,” the clerk says as I try to shake my disillusionment.

There are no books about dear Joan at the Bible store, but the man tells me he found some interesting information about her in books about the history of Christianity.

“She was burned at the stake,” he says with a note of surprise.

This surprise surprises me. Doesn’t everyone know Joan of Arc’s story? She saved her countrymen as a warrior in battle, in the name of God, only to have them call her a heretic and burn her alive.

Then I remember Catholics can sometimes be looked down upon by other faiths because of how much stock they put in the saints, who were normal flesh-and-blood people who sacrificed their lives for something they believed in, something we now believed in. Why worship saints, other faiths argued, when you should be focused on the Lord? This man’s lack of knowledge about something I learned about so in depth shocks to me.

Then it gives me the answer I’ve been looking for. Perhaps I’m on to something here. This is our middle ground, my family and I! The saints.

I politely tell the man thanks but no thanks and head home to my computer. I search for biographies about Joan. I pick a kid’s chapter book that tells her story as objectively as it can.

Two birds, one Goliath-sized stone. 1) I feel comfortable giving my niece a biography of what I read as a strong woman’s story, one that gives me a deeper understanding of the history of human decision-making, human greatness and human spirit and human destruction, and the sacrifice that comes with speaking your truth. 2) It’s a story of a saint, so it doesn’t feel misplaced as a First Communion gift.

My niece can read it and infer however she wants as to what Joan of Arc’s story means.

I wrap Joan’s story up with another book I’ve been meaning to gift her, a book about great women in sports. I write a little note to always give thanks (to whom I don’t say) for having such a capable, strong body. Taking care of it and loving it is a matter of respect, to herself and to whatever gave it to her.

That’s something I give thanks for every day. Call it a prayer of gratitude, a shoutout, a meditation.

In this case, the word for it doesn’t matter to me.

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