I was half way through my hot fudge sundae at Kip’s Big Boy Diner when my mom starting talking about special kinds of sins, mortal sins, the ones that God would never forgive. I was chasing my cherry around the metal sundae dish, trying to submerge it in hot fudge when I realized I should pay very close attention to what my mom was telling me, my brother and sister. Dad was out of town, which was the occasion for our special dinner out.“What’s a mortal sin?” I asked, taking a mostly-whipped-cream bite of my sundae.“That’s a sin that is so bad that once you do it, you go to hell.” My mom looked tired and serious, but that’s always how she looked when dad was away.
“I thought that if you went to confession, all of your sins were forgiven, so long as you tell the priest about it and do whatever he says you have to do to make it right.” My brother chimed in. He was a year older and quite an expert in the fine print of Catholicism. He was an altar boy. “It’s called penance,” he said giving me that look reserved for brothers trying to show off in front of their younger sisters.
I didn’t know what penance was, but my stomach was starting to turn. It all sounded so scary. Can’t we just eat our ice cream? I wanted to yell at my mom and my brother, the budding apostle.
“If you do penance it will erase most sins, but not the mortal sins. Those sins bring such pain to God that there is no forgiveness.” My mom explained while reaching over to take a quick swipe of my fudge with her coffee spoon.
“So which sins are unforgivable?” I asked. I was tired of the exegesis. I wanted the bottom line so I could memorize the rule and stay out of hell.
“If you murder someone, it’s a mortal sin; and if you have premarital sex, that too is a mortal sin,” my mom answered. She motioned for the waitress to bring her the check.
I could not believe my mom just said the word “sex” in public. I lapped up the last of my ice cream, saving the cherry for my last bite. I couldn’t look at her. I was burning with shame. I didn’t know what premarital sex was, but I was sure I would never ever do it, because it couldn’t be worth going to hell for. Hell was horrible; Sister Margaret told us it was dark and hot, and there was no water, and no one you loved would be there to help you put your pajamas on or give you a popsicle.
I wasn’t going to hell for anything.
My brother must have felt uncomfortable too, because he nudged hard me under the table to get me to scoot out of the booth so he could go pee.
How was I possibly going to be able to remember all the rules I had to obey? I needed a rhyme like “‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c'” to help me memorize all the rules. Every day we learned new ones, and each one seemed so important to all of the adults around me.
I considered asking about grace (the grace that was amazing according to my Baptist Grandma), and whether I could count on that in case I accidentally committed a mortal sin. My mom didn’t seem like she was in the mood for loopholes or gray areas, so kept my mouth shut, but I congratulated myself quietly for honoring my mother in the grand tradition of the 4th Commandment.
Struggling to finish my ice cream, I swallowed around that lump in my throat. That lump showed up whenever I felt doomed to end up in Hell– lost, forgotten, dirty and abandoned.
I took one last bite of my sundae, praying that I would somehow turn out OK. I tried to save the cherry under my tongue, but right as we pulled out of the parking lot, I swallowed it whole.