Good Catholic – Ruby Rae Lupe Ah-Wai Macomber
Forehead, chest, shoulder, shoulder.
Immaculate Heart of Mary Church is my aunt’s suburban refuge. The Avondale building may be mistaken for a tiny, decommissioned museum. Where weathered tapa waits behind perspex. Where the smell of incense stains butter between the Bible and someone startles when you enter. Car parks are marked by weathered river stones. Anything else would be unholy. Forehead, chest, shoulder, shoulder.
The head covering I’ve used for the past few years is lace-hemmed and makes me want to sneeze. But I pin it to wispy hairs covering my temples. Pin, prune, prude—I ignore my cousin’s complaints about covering cleavage from the hallway. The quicker the topic subsides, the better for everyone. We are probably running late again.
We arrive at 10pm on Holy Saturday. A single exterior lamp provides poor illumination, but regardless, we confirm coverage in aunty’s backseat. Feel our necks and knees for skin.
People do not turn around in Immaculate Heart of Mary. Leonardo DiCaprio could be praying in the pew behind them, and they would never know. We watch the bobbing backs of black veils, knowing the hair underneath is maybe light brown, but probably blonde.
The other Rotuman family enters the back pew before us. The mother waves her ili, cooling sticky evening air if only for a moment.
Her young son reaches for the ili, but she keeps it out of reach. Instead stretching his fingers to receive the pages of her hymn book.
‘Figalelei o’honi,’ I hear him whinge to his mama, swinging his legs to kick the pew in front.
‘No son, English. Quiet now,’ she replies. Returning her gaze to Father flashing incense in cassock and cross.
I do not understand Latin. I do not think I ever want to learn. But it’s all Father speaks, and he never speaks to the congregation. But trusts our bodies know how to Pray the Rosary, how to kneel and rise and kneel again. Forehead, chest, shoulder, shoulder. The more Father speaks, the less I need to know what something means to repeat it—
— ‘Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.’
When Catholicism arrived, it took our tongues. Pressed virgin whenua to the saturated European sun until Maui no longer felt at home in our bones.
I whakapapa to Te Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa yet pray to the coloniser’s God. Grasping for the cross at the end of intergenerational cover-ups; an imposter perched in the back pew. Here my words harm and heal simultaneously. Without knowing which is supposed to hurt more—
—E Hata Maria, e te matua wahine o te Atua, inoi koe mo matou, mo te hunga hara aianei, a, a te haroa o to matou matenga.
My aunt rises from her kneeled position to approach the alter for communion. Right knee taps the ground. She rises, accepts without question on the tongue. A body of bread and blood.
Forehead, chest, shoulder, shoulder. One day our atua will not recognise us. Forehead, chest, shoulder, shoulder. Repent and weep whakapapa into awa, watch it flow towards the ocean. Forehead, chest, shoulder, shoulder.
How does one be both Catholic and indigenous in the same breath? Aunty found Immaculate Heart of Mary when my brothers convinced her to breakup with Rotuma for Aotearoa. Boredom drew her closer to the Bible, and to large print pālagi paperbacks. Spoke of navigating grief by ship, not vaka. Coffee began to taste better than kava. Forehead, chest, shoulder, shoulder. She stopped telling her own stories.
Over time, Amene was replaced with Amen. Figalelei and arohamai became excuse me, sorry. I didn’t realise aunty apologised before she spoke until I began to apologise too.
Forehead, chest—Aunty broke her cover when she allowed herself to miss home. Pain refused to cling to empty English. Mourning like a wave of the ocean, go on unceasingly–
—he ngaru moana, e kore e mātaki. My brothers and I listened out for our moana; our histories to break through her throat as Catholicism was distracted, dampened tissues. We heard our tipuna call in-between the tears. If only for a moment and then—shoulder, shoulder.
I have a sweatshirt with Pray written in rainbow lettering. I wore it most in my first year of uni, when I wasn’t living at home but would regularly traverse Karangahape Road with my best friend and his boyfriend. Aunty would call me for church every Sunday until she didn’t. I would tell her I had to study, even when I didn’t. She sees Catholicism in the sweatshirt stitching and smiles; rainbow threads are little more than decorative decisions in her mind. Lupe, good, good Catholic girl!
The road home from Holy Saturday Mass is an empty one. We drop my cousin off in Māngere and it isn’t until we are driving back west, past Onehunga that I ask aunty, ‘Why Catholicism?’ Why this—
—Forehead, chest, shoulder, shoulder, truth?
She shows her teeth to the road before explaining that we all need the Lord to the rear vision mirror, ‘Lupe, I’ve forgotten what it’s like to love without Him’.
Her life has been a lot of hurting and healing, but not necessarily in that order. It’s hard to distinguish oxygen from carbon dioxide when you carry both everywhere. Aunty continues when I don’t respond.
‘Jeremiah has his love, the—,’ clicking her finger for the word in English, ‘—Marijuana.’
She thinks that’s all he does.
‘Nikau,’ she continues, ‘has Sara, pretty, pretty girl. He has love. She is Catholic too, you know that?’ I wait for her to continue but she turns on the radio instead.
A while later she swings into my cul-de-sac. It’s 2am but she still triple-honks goodbye. A bony hand waves through the driver’s window as she departs up the street. Weathered tapa wanders to the water, cross in hand, realises the water is perspex.
The neighbours are screaming at each other again. Distressed sneakers tether to our powerline by their laces. They swing as if on the feet of the kid from church. Kick the pew. Quiet now.
The cross above our front door fell down a few days ago. Nobody bothered to fix the hook. I don’t remember if I took it inside with me.
Jeremiah is boiling water for instant noodles when I enter. He grunts. I remove my head covering. We don’t talk. At least I don’t think so. But I sink into the sofa to watch the end of his Among Us game. Coloured crewmates run rouge in their spaceship, an imposter among them.
My brother wants a smoke, passes me the phone. As the game finishes, the imposter figure floats untethered and exposed. Their grey mask covers any sign of fear. Spaceship no longer in sight. To break perspex, touch tapa and cross simultaneously. To pray with pounamu on skin. What a blessing that would be.