She is in their home; she is a guest. It is a Catholic home, very much like her grandmother’s, with images of The Virgin Mary, candles, angel statues, Mexican cooking wafting in the air.
A belated birthday celebration, it is a day of sunshine, laughter, and soap bubbles.
She is feeling hungry again, hours have passed; the sun has begun its descent. She asks if it’s all right to go inside for a bowl of beans. “Yes, of course. You don’t have to ask. Help yourself,” second elder sister says. She goes in by herself, spoons a few helpings of beans into her bowl, sits at the kitchen table in front of the television that has been on a Catholic station all day. Right now a priest is cooking something for his viewers: French toast and an egg scramble. He’s using large pats of butter in every pan. He reads her mind. He justifies the butter by saying, “It may look like a lot of butter, but this is for four servings, so it isn’t as much as it seems.” That’s what she tells herself when she bakes.
First elder sister, who is visiting her sister—second elder sister—, comes inside because she is still hungry too. Both sisters are now in the kitchen, the quiet has broken. The woman continues eating her beans, staring at the television. First elder sister starts to chitchat about anything. “Is that salmon he’s making?” she asks. The young woman replies, “No, it’s French toast.”
“Oh, it doesn’t look very good.” First elder sister often has faraway look in her eyes, the look changing with first greetings or when children are around.
The woman is almost done with her beans. First elder sister turns to the woman and asks, “Are you Catholic?”
The woman has been to this house many times before and thus far no one has asked her directly. Second elder sister knows that this woman’s grandmother worshipped as she does. First elder sister doesn’t know the woman as well; she will ask questions of the woman, which makes her uncomfortable at times. In first elder sister’s presence, she mostly listens, and sometimes what she talks about is depressing.
The woman shoves the last bite of beans in her mouth, chews, and says, “I was raised Catholic.” She trails off, bowl in hand, heading for the sink.
First elder sister says in a nonchalant way, “Oh, so you don’t have a religion.” It wasn’t said so much as a question as it was an unequivocal statement.
“I wouldn’t say that.” Her words trail off. She begins to add more words, but by now first elder sister’s attention has been drawn to something else. The woman finishes mumbling her reply, to herself, in case first elder sister is still listening. She is not.
She would normally wash her dish. Instead, she can’t get out of the kitchen fast enough and sees that first elder sister is still distracted, distracted by her baby grandson.
The woman, a guest in this home, goes back outside to the fading sun to where she hears laughter and lightness. She places her hands in her sweater pockets, looks out to the vast ocean sky, and wonders how often it is that people ask questions that they don’t want the answers to, to ask in such a way that makes the other feel that they are the other.
She thinks a lot about this question—statement by someone who knows nothing about her—“so you don’t have a religion.” It pierces at her. She feels hurt by the words and wonders at the same time if she isn’t making more of the words than is necessary. She ponders the many possibilities of why this statement bites into her so much. There could have been a dozen other responses but first elder sister chose to mark her religion-less. The woman, after pondering the statement until she could ponder it no more, realizes that there is truth in first elder sister’s words by the traditional sense of the word. And she also realizes it’s all right. Nevertheless, she feels slightly cast aside by the words.
Still days go by, weeks even—and the statement sits with her; it stares her in the face and she acknowledges it. She isn’t angry. Annoyed maybe. She is also frustrated that a close ended question was posed without the opportunity to elaborate on her thoughts, yet she’s glad first elder sister became distracted because she didn’t want to justify nor defend herself and she’s not good at that anyway, especially not with certain elders that she does not know well enough.
As the woman continued to digest the question, she finally wrote in her diary: My religion is nature, kindness, compassion, love.