Mamma Mia! Emergency Baptism at 30,000 Feet

Mamma Mia! Emergency Baptism at 30,000 Feet May 27, 2016


You may have noticed, reader, that I haven’t blogged much lately. There’s a reason for that: I’ve been turning my hand to fiction. My chief talent, such as it is, is for storytelling. Blogging, when it attempts to rise above simple news aggregation, tends to become opinion writing. At least it does if it means to earn page views and money for the blogger.

In such an enterprise, storytelling is of limited use. As everyone knows, the plural of anecdote is not data. Narrative can be adapted for polemical purposes, but the adaptation usually ends up cheapening the narrative and muddying the waters of the debate. Everybody loses.

Fortunately, the Patheos whozits are very generous to part-timers. To date, I have been received no warnings to publish or perish. Should this indulgence prove inexhaustible, I’ll happily keep this blog open as a speedbag, supplying a few monthly reflections or anecdotes in the hope that any thousand-word piece appearing here might, over time, sustain enough stretching and adaptation to take its place in some literary journal.

Anyway, my story for today concerns traveling with my mother. Just yesterday, she and Bob took off for Korea. When she told me this would be their last big overseas jaunt, I flashed back immediately to their first, a ten-day dash through France, Switzerland, and Italy on which I joined them. At 14, I was trailing a long string of As in history, and had spent more time in the Metropolitan Museum’s European paintings gallery than I had on my therapist’s couch. Be that as it may, the sight of Napoleon’s massive quartzite sarcophagus, and even the Mona Lisa, moved me less than the discovery that my mother and Bob did more in their room late at night than play Clue.

At the time, my understanding of the world of the flesh was brand-new, scattershot, and lurid. My father had recently started dating heavily. Either by way of self-justification, or to include me, somehow, in the fun, he took to leaving a 50-page photo essay featuring a nude, linelessly tanned Bo Derek in places where he knew I’d find it, along with the VHS tape of a movie titled Young Lady Chatterly. On the facing page of the Derek pictorial, one of my grown cousins had inscribed this terrifying caveat: “Dear Uncle ____: If you don’t use it, you’re gonna lose it!”

To pass the down time on the trip, I’d brought a copy of Robert Creamer’s Babe: The Legend Comes to Life. The subject was not of course Bill Paley’s wife, but Babe Ruth, Sultan of Swat, the man credited with building Yankee Stadium. Regarding his subject’s spectacular sex life, Creamer did not short-change his readers. He quoted a former teammate who testified, with undisguised awe, how one morning he’d counted seven cigar butts in an ashtray outside the Bambino’s hotel room – one for each time over the previous evening the star had entertained a very fortunate baseball groupie. Another old Yankee included Ruth’s prodigious abilities in all things physical, as well as his appetites, in the summary “The son of a bitch wasn’t human. He fell out of a tree.”

Anyway, Theology of the Body it wasn’t. Though I might have been prepared, intellectually, to concede that my mother shared Babe Ruth’s animal nature and (more or less) Bo Derek’s equipment, having my nosed rubbed in the fact cast me down a pit of apprehension. With the Noble Lie of her ethereality exploded and no appearances left to keep up, would my mother and Bob take to strolling about in the nude? Swinging? These were the thoughts that gathered and swarmed in my head as the three of us boarded the Alitalia flight that would carry us from Fiumicino back to JFK and the rest of our lives.

The sun was still up and shimmering on the surface of the Mediterranean, visible through the skimpy cloud banks, when the plane began dropping. From among the passengers rose a murmur, which sharpened into a gasp and finally swelled into a scream. How long our descent lasted I don’t know – how much time does a crowd need to give birth to hysteria? – but the plane did, eventually, level off, and the captain lost no time in reassuring us through the intercom that we’d just hit an air pocket, nothing more, and begging us not to be alarmed.

For a few seconds, the cabin rang with a general chuckling, as passengers savored the luxury of poking fun at their own nerves. Then we started falling again. This time there was no need for a build-up – the communal scream slid straightaway from all throats.

I am not, God forbid, suggesting that Italians are less phlegmatic than other people. In the spring of 1986, there were very real geopolitical factors nudging air travelers toward panic. Between the PLO’s hijacking of the Achille Lauro the previous summer and Abu Nidal’s attacks on Fiumicino and Schwechat airports over the Christmas season, terrorists were, at least by the standards of that innocent age, enjoying a banner year. We had been able to afford our own trip only because Europe’s airlines and hotels had slashed their prices in despair following Reagan’s air strikes on Tripoli, formerly an Italian colony. Under those circumstances, any pilot-in-command aiming to persuade his charges that the weather and nothing else was causing their aircraft to plummet toward the wine-dark sea, had a hard sell ahead of him.

As we began our second plunge, my mother turned to face me, held up her thumb, and asked, “Do you want me to baptize you?”

Even in that hectic moment, I got her meaning. Earlier – maybe years earlier – when I was prodding her for information on the faith of her childhood, she informed me that any Catholic could, in an emergency, baptize a non-Catholic, thereby saving his soul. “All you have to do is wet your thumb, draw a cross on the person’s forehead, and say, ‘I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.’”

She said all of this with a snicker – to her mind, it was one more piece of evidence that the Catholic Church was fit only for superstitious ninnies. That was the lesson she meant to impart. But now I saw nothing in her eyes but concern. One word from me, and she’d really have dusted off her membership card to administer the sacrament.

I shook my head told her no. Fourteen years seemed too advanced an age for a boy to confess to mortal fear, especially to his mother. There may also have been a touch of Donatism involved: the late proof of my mother’s carnality could have precluded my believing in the sacramental power of her thumb. A few seconds later, we leveled off again, this time for good.

The day before, as Bob and I shuffled, slack-jawed, through St. Peter’s, my mother clicked her tongue and rolled her eyes. “How overdone,” she hissed when she saw Bernini’s baldecchino. “How tacky.” Setting aside her principles, not to mention her taste, in the hope of offering comfort to her son, was an act whose generosity has floored me ever since. At the time, it went a long way toward persuading me that she and Bob could refrain, somehow, from sliding down the slippery slope into unbridled depravity.

My mother denies everything. In her version of the story, I was the one who asked her to baptize me. I maintain such a request would have been out of character, not only for the reasons I named, but because in moments of crisis, I tend to freeze up, detach, and take mental notes – a useful SOP, you’ll have to admit, for someone in my line of work. But the persistence of the controversy seems like one more reason to scrap memoir for fiction, where I can have everything my own damn way.

Browse Our Archives