I wasn’t blessed in the family department. A father who couldn’t keep a job and was violent after drinking Lucky Lager Beer (I did the puzzles in the cap) and generic vodka that smelled like rubbing alcohol, a mother who cried looking out the window drinking the same cheap vodka, a violent drug addict brother going back to prison again, and a sister that got away as soon as she could.
I tried to fit in a world I didn’t understand. As a young child I didn’t know that I was the loser of my grade school class. I didn’t have any friends, hung out alone, ate candy, read, played with my dogs and horses. Children are cruel. My first serious memory of cruelty is lunchtime in 5th grade. That Wednesday in November at 11:50am the week before Thanksgiving, changed my life.
As I opened my lunch bag, pulling out my frozen cola wrapped in aluminum foil packed by my mother, a girl says, “Vanessa you can eat with us, but you can’t play with us.” I looked up memorizing her face; the over-plucked eyebrows, the sneer, the long straight black hair with the red barrettes. I heard the laughter from the other five ‘cool’ girls sitting there. I stood up, threw my lunch away, and walked as far away as I could get from this awfulness. There were no tears in my eyes. The teacher on the yard looked the other way, I saw her. I just got quiet, there is no other way to describe my feelings, quiet.
My mother tried. We were poor, fancy clothing was not possible. I went to a Catholic school so wore plaid uniforms most of the time, but Fridays were ‘free dress’ days. Mom made me a shirt out of jean material and she had sown patches on it of flowers and animals. I loved that shirt. Mom made it for me. I wore it over a black t-shirt, I was happy in my outfit.
One of the party of six, the way I now thought of ‘those’ girls, says to me, “Wow, are you trying to look cute with a shirt over a shirt you made yourself, how cute,” as she laughed. I didn’t laugh. I stared. Stared at a meanness that didn’t make sense to me, at a girl that was considered the cute one and I didn’t understand why ‘god’ had done this to me. Why was I the one no one liked? Why was the mean girl the popular girl?
I had a horse, a ½ crazy horse that tried to kill me on a daily basis. Her owner didn’t want her and gave her to me, a throw away like myself. I had gone to work at the age of 10 taking care of horses for people before and after school. I loved animals and this way I could be around horses avoiding humans.
Saturdays were horse shows. As usual, I did horribly with my horse running around like a bucking bull. My drunken father said it was my fault, I didn’t pray enough. Pray. I should do a Novena at the church everyday after school, that would make me win at the next horse show.
Novenas are prayers at the Stations of the Cross in the Catholic Church. Every afternoon there were always these old women in black dresses, boobs hanging to their waists, worn out shoes, black pieces of lace over their heads, praying and hurting themselves by kneeling down in front of pictures of Jesus in agony.
The Monday after Thanksgiving, the end of school bell went off at 3:20pm and I marched over to the church to do my ‘novena.’ I sat down in a pew, stared up at the golden crucifix, looked at the old ladies praying to a god that I didn’t believe existed. If God did exist, he obviously didn’t give a shit about them because they were in physical pain ‘praying’. I started crying. Hiccupping, heaving crying with red hot eyes that I couldn’t see through. The old ladies stared, but not one of them came over to me. The hymnal books were in the little shelf in front of me and I started throwing them at the altar in hate. A woman came over, “Church is for praying and worshipping God, you are causing a disturbance, leave.”
“God, you believe in God? The God that hurts children for no reason, rewards bad behavior and makes you waste your time in a church praying and giving your money so they can have an altar made with marble and gold that cost more then you will make in a lifetime? What has this “God” done for you? I can smell you, you know, you are a drunk just like my father not willing to work for anything in life just hoping some GOD gives it to you.”
And she slapped me, again and again. I took it. I just stood there. I looked right into her eyes as she hit me over and over again with an open hand. I was a poor 10-year-old fat girl and this woman wanted to hurt me. She wanted to take that hurt she was feeling and put it on someone else. I was defiant, I took it.
I have no idea how many times she hit me. I had been physically hit so many times by my family that I knew just standing there and not responding upset the violent more, I refused to respond to her violence. I blacked out for a short time, my escape.
Father Colberg was next to me pulling out a handkerchief from his hidden pocket under his black cassock. Blood was dripping down my nose onto my white uniform shirt, bright red and sticky. The praying women had left the church, we were alone. He didn’t talk for awhile, we just sat there.
“Vanessa, why are you here in church after school upsetting the praying women?”
“I upset everyone Father. The girls in school hate me, the teachers ignore me because I am not popular, my parents just drink, scream and yell, my brother is in jail again, and my sister is gone. I came here to do a Novena, hoping to do better at my next horse show, but honestly Father, I came here to die. I realized that staring at the Crucifix. I want to die. I refuse to spend a life praying to a god that doesn’t care or doesn’t exist hoping for something and instead I am just around mean awful people. It’s all a waste of time.”
So I had said it, I had been considering suicide as a 10-year-old. My fascination was knives and cliffs.
Father did the best thing ever. He laughed. Laughed out loud in the empty church and hugged me. Really hugged me, his arms cradled me as I cried and bled against his black garments.
“Oh Vanessa, I have to tell you the truth too. I don’t know if a God actually exists and this praying, hurting your knees in front of paintings, really?”
“But you were given the gift of Life Vanessa. Life. I don’t ever want to see you wasting your life in this church ‘praying’. Instead, you do the things that are put in front of you to the best of your ability. You really try, Vanessa. Not just give up because things get hard. You run hard in P.E., you study hard in all of your classes, you don’t come to church after school, you work that horse as hard as you can everyday. Then when you succeed or fail, you will know you and YOU alone did it and tried as hard as you could. That is the best prayer to God you could ever do, work hard at the Life he gave you. You don’t need to believe in a God, work hard at life for yourself, not to impress others or make others like you, but so you will like yourself.”
“Father what if I work really hard, and still fail, then what?” I asked.
“Vanessa, you won’t fail, and the rewards you receive won’t be anything you expect.”
“Father, why did you become a priest if you don’t even know if a God exists?”
“Vanessa, at this moment, I think I was put on this earth, to make you realize killing yourself is a bad idea, and if God exists or doesn’t, doesn’t matter. What matters is that you live and like yourself.” He had tears in his eyes. For the first time in my life, I felt the love and caring of another human being. I felt warm and safe.
Father Colberg became my sounding board. He had these two Doberman Pincer dogs that would run around the playground. We never talked about God or Jesus. I remember him saying, “Vanessa, do you like yourself, if not what are you going to change?” He became the mentor in life I so needed.
God may or may not exist, but the kindness of a Catholic priest changed my outlook on life making me want to be a good person that just like Father Colberg, helps others.