|"So whatcha gonna tell the priest?" Bobby asked.
"Heck, I don' know," I replied. "Got any ideas?"
"YOU BOYS KEEP QUIET," Sister Sebastian commanded.
She hustled our second grade class down Anacapa Street and into Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church. Spring sunlight poured through towering stained glass windows, illuminating hulking statues of Jesus and the Archangel Gabriel. Us kids slipped into the shadows along an outer wall and lined up outside three closet-like confessionals. It was my great misfortune to get stuck in the queue for Father Sullivan. He was a big-nosed Irish Jesuit and almost deaf.
"You done plenty a sins," Bobby said. "Just tell 'em somethin.'"
"Thought about sayin' I lied to my parents. But tellin' a lie about a lie 'll get me in more trouble."
"What about being unkind to your brothers and sisters?"
"Yeah. I'm always sassin' Becky."
"My brother says ya gotta confess at least three sins or the priest won't believe you're tellin' the whole story."
"Ah cripes," I muttered. "Shut up and lemme think."
The Sisters of Notre Dame had instructed us to examine our consciences to remember our sins; and they'd provided preformatted wording for each sin so they'd be easier to recite. I wondered why they just didn't give us a list to choose from, sort of A Directory of Childhood Evils.
"What about eating meat on Friday?" Bobby asked.
"Nah. My mom cooks fish."
"But didn't cha eat that spider last Friday, ya know, on a dare with Ronnie?"
"Yeah. But are spiders meat?"
"They sure ain't fish!"
Finally it was my turn in the box. I stayed rooted to the spot, not knowing what to confess. Bobby gave me a shove. "Go on, you'll thinka somethin.'"
Stumbling through the felt curtain, I fell onto the padded kneeler and clasped my trembling hands. After a minute, the solid wooden panel in front of my face slid back and I saw Fr. Sullivan through some kind of screen, his head with its blazing white hair resting in one hand.
"Go ahead my child," he intoned in a loud voice that made me jump.
"Bl… bl…bl… bless me Father for I have sinned. This is my first confession. Father I… I…." My mind raced. "I talked back to my mother and father… I ate meat on Friday, and…and…"
"Yes, go on."
"Just spit it out, son."
"and…and I saw my sister naked in the bathroom."
"Say that last one again."
"I saw my sister na…na…naked."
"Speak up. I can hardly hear you."
"I SAW MY SISTER NAKED!"
Outside the confessional, my classmates tittered.
"Did you look upon her body on purpose?" Father Sullivan asked.
"Nuh uhh! I had to go real bad…and she didn't lock the door."
"Well, that's not a sin, unless you took pleasure in it afterward. Did you?"
"Nothing. Nothing." Fr. Sullivan heaved a sigh and adjusted the scarf-like thingy around his neck. He mumbled my absolution in Latin and blessed me with crooked fingers.
"For your penance say three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys. Now make a good Act of Contrition."
I bowed my head and began the closing prayer: "Oh my God I am hardly sorry for having offended thee, and -
"That's 'heartily sorry,'" Fr. Sullivan interrupted, chuckling. "If you're hardly sorry you wouldn't have made a good confession."
"Oh never mind, just continue… and next time, knock on the bathroom door before you go in."
I finished the prayer and burst through the curtain, my face burning. I hurried toward the front of the church and knelt at the communion rail to mumble my penance. Gee, that wasn't so bad. And I can do it any time and wipe out my sins!
But what struck me most about that first confession was the elation I felt afterwards, a giddy feeling of relief and joy. Fear and guilt dissolved into the shadows and I didn't need to feel bad any more … which is probably why I was destined to confess the same sins over and over throughout my elementary school years - all except for that seeing my sister naked thing.