The church was cold. Outside was a sub-zero Upstate, New York winter day, and the open space inside the church was drafty. I wore the only black dress I own — my dress for chaperoning formal school dances. I had my coat with me, but even though I was shivering, I was somehow sweating at the same time, so I wore only a light sweater over the dress.
My family was never a big church family. I vaguely remember attending a few sermons when I was little. But nodding off during a service once a year on Christmas for the first handful of years did not leave me with a great understanding of the ways of church-going. I’m aware now that we sometimes attended the Presbyterian church of my mother’s mother and sometimes the Catholic church of my father’s mother, but, quite honestly, back then I had no idea there was a difference.
At any rate, I escaped childhood with relatively little church exposure — something for which I was grateful. Little-kid-me was stoked I didn’t have to get dressed up just to be bored, but as I grew, young-me was happy I didn’t have to attend lessons at the church like so many of my classmates (although there was a time this made me feel secluded). Teenage-me was happy I had the freedom to explore my beliefs on my own, without having something shoved down my throat. Adult-me is still happy for the same reasons, but also because I’ve had some years to question, think and reflect, and I have determined that while I am spiritual, I am not religious.
Yet there I sat. And then stood. And then sat. And then stood again. And then sat again (realizing too late that everyone else was kneeling). I observed from the very back between Flint and his mother, feeling very out of place.
Weddings and funerals. Beginnings and endings. That’s when I find myself in already uncomfortable situations made even worse by my ignorance of the setting. As it is, I am not one of those people who can easily handle these things with grace and refinement. Add to it the fact they often occur in religious institutions and you have a recipe for deep discomfort and extreme awkwardness on my part.
Like the time I played Maid of Honor in a wedding. I say a wedding and not my best friend’s wedding or Penny’s wedding, because the first no longer describes us and the second sounds too familiar — it’s too casual a reference. I was, however, her maid of honor, so there was a time either of those would have been a suitable description.
I had been excited for her — after all, I had helped her fiancé, Marc, get his first date with her spring semester of freshman year. She had been hung up on someone else and I was sitting in Marc’s corner. Marc and I had been friends since the first day of college. Of course, Penny and I had been friends since the fifth grade, so ultimately I was on her side no matter what, but I enjoyed Marc and could see how thoroughly he was captivated by her.
Fast forward five years and there I was, standing by her side while they tied the proverbial knot. At the rehearsal, the priest had told me what my one main responsibility would be during the service; I, along with the best man, was to retrieve “the gifts” from the table at the appropriate time and bring them forward so he could give them to the bride and groom. He told me what he would say right before “the gifts” were required and assured me he would nod to both of us as a cue to turn and grab said “gifts.”
Apparently bitter wine and stale pieces of bread are considered gifts in the Catholic church. Gifts that only the most devout are privy to. I had learned this in middle school when I was away at a soccer tournament. My parents couldn’t get off work, so they sent me with a teammate’s family. The girl’s mother was very religious and forced us to attend a service at a church she had found in whatever suburb we were in. She even made me walk up with them during the “offering of the gifts” but put her hand on my shoulder to signal to the priest that I had not earned the bread or the wine. So I just stood there awkwardly while he blessed me or something instead. While it was then that I learned what were considered gifts, I wasn’t paying them very close attention. I was too confused by the whole thing — and embarrassed in front of everyone — to concentrate on anything other than the moment I’d get to sit back down. For this reason, when I was Maid of Honor in this wedding, I didn’t know what the gifts were going to look like.
At the rehearsal, the bread and wine weren’t out because we were just going through the motions. When my big moment came during the actual ceremony, I turned to carefully walk down the steps to the table. Marc’s brother beat me to it. Bastard didn’t have to navigate stairs in heels. He grabbed the wine, and I thought: Uh oh. Damn him! I thought he was just as confused as I was and just as panicky, so I interpreted his grabbing the wine as him taking the easy way out and getting the hell out of the spotlight while I was left to deliver the uncomfortable news that someone had forgotten to put the bread out with the wine.
In my moment of panic, I decided, I guess I’ll just grab this plate of sand dollars?
It gave me something to do, and then I could turn my back on the crowd and look to the priest for guidance. Maybe he’d motion to one of his people to bring the bread that had been forgotten, or maybe he’d send me to get it. I began to gingerly walk back up the steps, not wanting the sand dollars to fall and break.
I should pause here to explain that, yes, a second look revealed that these were not the same things my family and I had spent an entire day collecting on the coast of Maine on a vacation so many years previously. We were so thrilled that day to discover the beaches covered with sand dollars washed up on the shores. I remember finding only one that my mom said we should throw back into the ocean. When I asked why, she explained that it was still alive; the others were dead. We could keep them and cherish them, but the live ones should be returned to the sea. It struck me as odd then that we had been so excited to find so many dead creatures, but I did as she said; I kept them and cherished them because they reminded me of that day.
No— these were not sand dollars. But what were they? Certainly not bread.
I glanced at Penny with questioning eyes, and somehow she knew what I was thinking — or at least that I was unsure if I should have grabbed what I did. She nodded at me with a smile that I took to mean I had done the right thing. She sort-of half giggled and looked back at the priest, who continued the ceremony none-the-wiser.
That was a good day. Our friendship was filled with lots of good days… Until it wasn’t. Until I recently found myself sitting in my conflicted emotions in the back of a church — the same church of the aforementioned sand dollar confusion — after six years of silence between us.
The life and death of a friendship is a difficult tale to tell. How do you convey what you felt without falling prey to cliches? How do you share the experience of the friendship — tell its story — when it isn’t actually one story, but hundreds of little ones? Friendship is in the little moments. And how do you tell of those — of the things that made you smile— without tainting those memories with the pain and bitterness of the end? It’s the job of a better writer than me. All I can think to do is share what I know to be true: Penny and Michelle were my two closest friends in school. And I have neither of them now.