“Don’t disturb your mother! She’s embroidering your veil.” It’s August, 1951.There is an old sheet spread on the terrace of my grandparents’ farm house, and my mother sits on a low chair in the center, a billow of white tulle on her lap. She is embroidering a wide border of leaves, tendrils, and flowers around the edge of my First Communion veil, which reaches from my head to my feet. I have been told that in the coming years she will embroider the center, and I will wear this same veil at my wedding.
“Somebody wash this child’s neck, and her feet too. The dressmaker is almost here. She can’t see her like this!” The dressmaker is coming for the final fitting of my white organdy First Communion dress: long sleeves, tiny tucks across the bodice, full gathered skirt all the way to the floor. And, underneath, a long white slip to match.
“Let’s review the Commandments,” my aunt Xin says. “You have your test with Mossèn Ignaci this afternoon.” Mossèn Ignaci, the kindly old priest who married my parents, has acceded to let me make my First Communion early. He has been assured by the family that I am an unusually well-behaved, compliant child, and that I already know my prayers and most of the Catechism, so there is no need to wait for my seventh birthday, which is when, according to the Church, I will attain the age of reason.
In the sacristy, Mossèn Ignaci tests me on the Hail Mary and the Our Father, and also on the commandments about honoring my father and mother, skipping the ones about adultery and coveting my neighbor’s wife. And then we practice the communion itself. He takes an unconsecrated host from a box and puts it on my tongue, explaining that I must let it dissolve instead of chewing it. The little wafer tastes sweet, and before I can swallow it he feeds me another one, and another, as if they were candy, so that I have no choice but to chew them a little bit.
The day before the ceremony, my father takes me to make my first confession. I have scoured my brain for sins ahead of time, and have come up with “I have forgotten to say my prayers,” and “I have been distracted at Mass”—sins that will come in handy for something to say during my next fourteen years of weekly confessions.
Mossèn Ignaci is hidden inside the confessional, but I can hear him breathing. After I finish listing my sins he gives me a penance (three Hail Marys), and absolution. But it’s dark in the confessional, and I can’t tell whether the little door behind the grille is now closed, or still open. Should I leave? I wait patiently until my father, wondering what on earth I could be confessing for such a long while, comes to rescue me.
The next morning, standing in my pristine white shoes, socks, and underpants, I hold up my arms as my aunts slide the chilly, silky long slip over my torso, followed by the crisp white dress which fastens down the back in a row of tiny cloth-covered buttons that look like the mushrooms that come up in the fall after a rain. My hair is arranged in untidy corkscrew curls (“Too much hair!” my aunts exclaim before giving up). Then the magnificently embroidered veil is placed over my head (“It almost cost your mother her eyesight!” they remind me) and secured with a crown of white silk flowers.
My mother’s mother comes in, holding the all-important First Communion medal, a bas-relief ivory Madonna set in gold, hanging from a gold chain which she fastens around my neck. My tiny paternal grandmother totters in on her high heels and gives me my First Communion ring (“a bracelet for your finger”).
Somebody puts white gloves on my hands (“Don’t touch anything!”) and hangs my First Communion bag, filled with little cards commemorating the occasion, from my left wrist. I pick up my First Communion missal, which has mother of pearl covers and a gold-colored clasp, and we are ready to go.
It is a brilliant summer morning, the sun not yet hot. I set out from my grandparents’ house with my parents, my mother’s parents, her two sisters and her brother, my maternal great-aunt and -uncle, and, all the way from Barcelona, my father’s mother and father and his two sisters. We walk solemnly down the dusty road, into the village, past the parish church and the fountain with the seven spigots, then out of the village, past vineyards and wheat fields and garden allotments to the hermitage of Our Lady of the Orchard, where Mossèn Ignaci is waiting.
During Mass, I glance up at the statue of Our Lady of the Orchard, enthroned above the altar. It is a reproduction of the Romanesque original (the one supposedly found up in the elm tree by a shepherd), which was burned during the Spanish Civil War. She sits grave and impassive, her robes arranged in weirdly symmetrical folds, one hand on her Baby and, in the other, the sphere of the world.
I have some trouble managing my outfit: my long skirt catches under my shins when I kneel, and my First Communion bag gets tangled with my veil. At one point, I drop my missal with a clatter onto the stone flags. But the communion itself goes smoothly. I remember not to chew the host and, back in my pew, put my head in my hands as I’ve been taught and try to think about God.
Afterwards we march back to the house, the sun hotter now and everybody hungry because of the pre-communion fast. In the afternoon, the village children arrive and I, still in my long dress, distribute sugar-coated almonds in pale shades of pink, yellow, and blue.
Then comes a special treat: my father’s father, who is part owner of a magic shop in Barcelona, puts on a magic show. The other kids are transfixed as he manipulates playing cards, draws peseta coins out of their ears, and does odd things involving handkerchiefs and red cups and yellow balls. But magic tricks always leave me cold. They remind me of fabric flowers, which only look like the real thing. I’m after genuine magic–the mystery for which there are no words.
At the end of the day, after the children go home and I’m back in my short summer dress and espadrilles, the family sits under the apple tree by the well. I am still high on adrenaline and divine grace, racing around and begging the grownups to play with me. My father’s younger sister, Montserrat, plays hide-and-seek for a while, but then it’s bedtime, and as my mother tucks me in I burst into tears. “What’s the matter? Didn’t you have a wonderful First Communion?” she asks.
“Yes, yes, I did,” I answer.
“Then why are you crying?”
“It’s because I’ll never be able to look forward to making my First Communion, ever again,” I sob.
Which proves that it’s never too soon to learn that the happiest times are those we spend awaiting happiness.