Communion


“What you feel first is the simplicity—of sentences, of tone, of description—but then before you know it, complexity has crept in on every level, and by the end of each of these stories you are left marveling at the layers of life history and humanity Curtis Smith has evoked.”

– Robin Black, author of Life Drawing and If I loved you, I would tell you this

Communion, Curtis Smith       Release Date: March 2015

In this collection of twenty-one essays, Curtis Smith explores religion and fear, memory and dreams, and aging and happiness, with the skill bestowed only to masters of their craft. The eloquent pieces collected for Communion address a father’s love for his child and the fleeting moments he knows will be gone all too quickly. Seen through the eye’s of an older father, we are spared the sentimentality and clichés of childrearing, and instead gifted the rare and laconic wisdom of someone who understands, in the present, the gravity of each conversation or hike into the woods with his son. It’s the sincere modesty, coupled with Smith’s precise prose that gives this new collection its charm and heft. Through this world that Smith has wonderfully recaptured, we are invited to follow as his son leaves the insulated world of childhood and to wish him well as though he was our own. Communion is that collection of essays that reiterates what it means to be a father and how we might learn from it.

Curtis Smith’s stories and essays have appeared in over seventy literary journals. His work has been named to The Best American Short Stories Distinguished Stories List, The Best American Mystery Stories Distinguished Stories List, and the Notable Writing list of The Best American Spiritual Writing. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and son.

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Communion
Curtis Smith

I walk my mother to the church. My hand rests lightly upon her elbow. She’s bony, too thin. The worrying component of our relationship has shifted. Fair enough. Beautiful this afternoon. Sunny, early May, the sky deep blue. A little girl runs past, a white dress, her hand anchoring a crown of snowy flowers. A row of cherry trees grows beneath the stained-glass windows. Around their trunks, pink moats. Petals tumble on the breeze.

My mother ascends the stone stairs. My hand hovers near her back. Perhaps worry is love’s painful offshoot, its amount constant, its division dictated by health and years. I’ve spent the morning driving her here, and after dinner, I will drive her back. I can’t imagine the day without her. She grasps the handrail. Stairs trouble her. She’s had a rough couple months—knee surgeries, back problems, a widow’s new challenges. Her hearing is fading. Last week, she was the guilty party in a parking-lot fender-bender. Her life, I fear, is shutting down one avenue at a time.

We enter the church. Today is my son’s First Communion. The pews are filling. He is across the street with his classmates receiving last-minute instructions in the CYO gym. He’s survived First Confession and two years of catechism. On our dining room table, a booklet from his class, We Learn About Mass, simple passages, blank spaces for responses. Praise be to you Lord Jesus Christ he writes. Cartoon figures he’s adorned with mustaches and eye patches. On a recent hike, I brought up the subject of Communion and its Last Supper origins. I broached the subject of symbolism, how bread, given the proper context, can be more than bread. I offered that one’s soul needs to be fed, be it with religion or art or any positive passion. “I know,” my son said, but his attention remained with the ant he struggled to keep in his clenched hands.

My wife waves from the pew she’s claimed. Beside her, my in-laws, a couple as close as blood. Embraces, handshakes, and finally, as I sit, rest after a morning of rushing about. I look around. Flowers everywhere, flowers and beautiful light.

I admire faith. I feel the tug of spirit. I believe in forces beyond my comprehension. But I falter when human hands claim these notions. Our imperfections stain what is beautiful. We fashion crude vessels, but the tools of this world are no match for the task. I’m afraid all that is pure bleeds through the cracks. We are left with doctrine. We are left with pageantry. We inherit prejudices and centuries-old skeletons.

A statue of Mary occupies an alcove just off the altar. Atop her head, a flowered wreath. The church is cavernous, the cool touch of 50’s modernism, sharp angles all around, tile motifs of black and gold reminiscent of Klimt. High above the altar looms a crucified Christ. A sculpture as big as three men. The plaster the gray of bloodless flesh. On the night before his first catechism class, my son confessed his fear of the statue, this on the heels of witnessing a Discovery Channel commercial about the crucifixion and my too-blunt answers to his questions. Fortunately my son’s apprehensions have been soothed by maturity and the kindness of his catechism teachers, women who’ve won his heart and mine.

Heads turn. The organ plays. Here come the children, girl-boy, two-by-two, their praying hands held fast in front of them. Some hurry-step down the aisle. Some giggle; others remain solemn. Near the pack’s end, my son. He wears the suit jacket that won’t fit him come fall; around his neck, the tie he practiced with all week so he could knot it himself this morning. He finds his place in the front’s cordoned-off pews.

Around us, smiles of recognition. A hymn, and I should be following along, my voice lifted with the others, but I choose to study my son. His hands remain clasped, his eyes forward. The windows are opened, the breeze perfumed, and in my skeptic’s heart, a softening. There is grace in this moment. There is beauty. There is history and weight. Here are our children, as we were once children. Here are our mirrors, our echoes. Here is another of their many entries into our world, and how fitting that this ritual takes place at the age of a child’s dawning awareness of self. Adolescence looms, and with it, the years of silences and hurt, and despite the love in my heart, I can’t shield him from the tides
to come. I study his bowed profile. What secrets does he already keep?

Hymns are sung, prayers offered. The priest steps from the altar and, standing close to the children, delivers his homily. The congregation stands, sits, stands again. My hand remains close to my mother’s side.

The chalice and bowl are brought to the altar, a passing from hand to hand, a glint of gold. More prayers, a blessing. Pew by pew, the children line up, the strict girl-boy order maintained. My son takes his place. The catechism teachers wait nearby, orchestrating, pointing, their hands held in prayer, a model for the children.

My son reaches the line’s front. I follow his gaze to the statue that once frightened him so. I don’t believe in God, yet I’m pleased my son is starting his spiritual journey with a God who loves, a God who teaches. A God who suffered as we suffer. I hold my wife’s hand when our son’s turn comes. He opens his mouth, the wafer laid upon his tongue. Whatever worries I possessed at the Mass’s start have faded.
He’s a child, yes, but there is something very basic about him that I trust. What form faith assumes in his life will be his decision. Today, I’m reassured he will take something good from all this.

Through the windows, a stronger breeze, and on it, an offering of cherry petals. The windows tilt in, the pink flecks vibrant on the rising current. Up the petals ride, ten feet, fifteen, before they descend, a twittering less directed, more chaotic. More petals, a tide upon the chuffing wind. A few land on our laps. The younger children around us reach out, their hands snaring, snaring. The communion class marches forward, a three-deep array upon the altar steps, boys in black, girls in white. Our son breaks from the moment’s solemnity and offers a wave. We wave back, happy that he’s found us in the crowd

My wife and I pinch petals from each other’s hair and shoulders. We place a few in our program. Years from now, when our son towers over us, when his deep voice rumbles in the tiny rooms of our house, we will unearth
the program. Inside, we will find these petals. They will be dry, their color faded. We will bring them to our noses and test whether the scent remains.

To read more look for Communion, now available from Dock Street Press.

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