I was seven years old in 1954. Educated in parochial schools, I should
have realized, even at that tender age, that angels wear white.
That's how they usually appeared on holy cards or on the big flip
chart with scenes from the Bible the nuns used in religion class,
poking with a pointer at the inattentive listener. In those pictures,
I could not tell if the angels were boys or girls. I never listened
very well in second grade, because even then I was off in my dream
world or two pages ahead in the story some boy was struggling to
read aloud. So, of course, when Sister Angeline spoke to the little
girls who were going to be angels for their older brothers in third
grade who were making their first Holy Communion, I filtered the
information through a haze of springtime colors.
"Guess what?" I shouted to my mother as I burst through the kitchen door
after school. "I'm going to be an angel!"
guess that means you need a new dress."
I can wear my blue nylon dress, the one grandma sewed. Sister said
we can wear any pastel-colored dress."
"What's this for?"
"I'm to walk in procession ahead of the communion class. Anyone
in second-grade who has a brother or sister receiving First Holy
Communion gets to be an angel.
"I loved the blue dress with puffy sleeves and lace trim that my
grandmother had sewn for me. The girls who were making their First
Holy Communion would all be wearing white veils, dresses, stockings
and shoes. Lucky me, I would be wearing the blue I adored, like
the mantle of our Blessed Mother, the Lovely Lady Dressed in Blue
to whom I prayed. I was happy, excited, honored and elated to be
part of the procession of girl angels.
The First Communion Sunday I walked into the classroom where all
the angels were gathered before the ceremony. I was about to settle
into a desk to wait for the procession to form, when I noticed Sister
Angeline staring at me, horror registering on her face. Was I in
the wrong room? I looked around the room crowded with demure girls
all dressed in white. Was this where the girls making their first
Holy Communion were to assemble before they marched into the church?
Sister pulled me up by one puffy sleeve. She examined me at arm's
length. Loosening her hold, she reared back, placed a pale palm
under her pointed chin.
"Just what are we to do with you?" Her brows knit, as she scrutinized
the offending dress. After a few moments, her gaze softened, as
she sought the inspiration of God. Behind rimless glasses, her beady
gray eyes scanned the room of schoolgirls. "Judith, you're not in
the procession, are you?
"Judith, fortuitously wearing a pure white dress, stood watching
the proceedings. She had no brother or sister receiving First Holy
Communion that morning, but she did have a perfectly good white
"Come here," Sister ordered. She stood Judith and I back to back.
"Excellent. Judith, you'll wear Olivia's blue dress. Olivia, here,
get out of that dress." Unresisting, I held up my arms while Sister
Angeline lifted the blue dress over my head. As the thin blue material
passed over my red face, I glimpsed the self-satisfaction suffuse
Sister's countenance. The sooner she slipped the white dress over
my scrawny body in a white slip the better. If I could have dropped
into a trap door in the wood flooring of the classroom at that moment,
I would have gladly done so. I was utterly humiliated. My family
would all witness my humiliation when I walked down the aisle. Withered
was all the glory of the day and now I just wanted to survive the
ordeal of the next hour and go home.
After the ceremony, I marched in procession to the back of the church,
where my family was watching.
"Where's your dress?" my mother asked as I reached the church lobby.
Crestfallen, I told her I had to exchange dresses with another girl.
"I have to go back to the classroom and get my dress." My mother
refrained from reproaching my stupidity. Nothing further was said
about the mix-up. I wanted to bury my embarrassment and humiliation
Alone in the big house after Leila's death, meditating on the possibility
of angel presence on the earth plane, the memory of that humiliation,
the permanent feeling of being different that it burned into my
personality, rushed back into my consciousness. Was my mistaken
appearance as an angel at age seven years old the seminal experience
in my development, the road sign pointing the way to all my future
mistakes and consequent sufferings? More likely, was the little
girl I was to bear the blue angel come down to earth to smooth over
that mistake long ago and, perhaps, all the mistakes of my lifetime?
I comforted myself with the thought that an angel was sent to console
me. That blue angel decided to incarnate years later as my daughter.
She was a blue angel who after incarnating never did quite fit into
the world, just as I was a misfit among all the little girl angels
wearing white that spring morning at St. Mary of the Angels Church
in Chicago, Illinois.