I’ve attended Sunday school here in this 300-year-old building since I was three years old. Now I’m fourteen—the age of confirmation at this Protestant church. In this ceremony I will make my confirmation and become part of the congregation. Before this year I was too young, I guess. I just can’t help but think about how much more I believed in all this a few years ago, before I started asking questions.
I line up with the other girls on the wide slate steps outside the heavy double doors of the white steepled church. I’m the last one in the line of girls dressed in white cotton dresses. The boys line up beside us, bound in by ties over starched white shirts and stuffed into black or navy blue jackets too hot for the end of June. But they wear them, no questions asked. It’s not a day for questions. We are here to confirm our faith, even if we don’t really understand it. The sky is baby blue with the thinnest white clouds fluttering through it—so thin I wouldn’t notice them if the sturdy white church and the mess of white dresses didn’t seem to connect us to them. The breeze is soft, and it warms my skin as it skips over my goose bumps, which must be there from nervousness rather than from cold.
As I share my anxious thoughts with my best friend, Melissa, who stands in front of me in line, I twirl the ends of my long strawberry-blond hair that’s been pulled back into a barrette. I can’t hide my face behind my hair today, as I usually do. I can’t hide from God today. He’ll be watching. More than He does on other days. I believe He is there, even though I never have heard Him respond to my questions or even confirm that He exists. I decided when I was twelve not to worry about that and to believe in anything that might be true. After all, when I was twelve, I got a stepfather and a whole new family. Maybe anything can happen.
As we wait, I start to ask myself questions: Will everyone know I'm not always "good"? Am I a fraud to take part in this ceremony? But my thoughts are interrupted when a car pulls up to the edge of the gray stone stairs in such a rush that our whiteness blows slightly out of place. A small man with strawberry-blond hair and light eyes leans out of the driver’s side and calls my name in his boyish voice. He’s smiling, and so is the wide-eyed woman next to him. They are waving at me, and I realize that this is my father—my biological father—and his new wife. They are here, without an invitation, to see me confirmed.
Suddenly, I’m no longer thinking about God and me. I’m thinking about Dad and me, a phrase that I’ve never said aloud: “Dad and me.” I say it over and over again in my mind. This man is here to see me—finally—to see only me. There can be no other reason for his presence here today. And he will see me at a moment when God is watching. This ceremonial moment will not go unnoticed. This will be a moment made permanent. Everything else about my father has slipped away, come and gone the way he always has. All this time, God hasn’t said anything about it, about what to do, what to feel, how to act, or what to believe about my father, who has never been in my life. I walk into the church behind Melissa, who can’t make sense of my giddiness about the father I’ve hardly mentioned to her. I can’t explain it to her. I don’t understand it myself. After all the preparation for today, I enter God’s house confused.
I have had contact with my father since I was ten. That’s when he showed up at our house and took my mom, my sister, and me to lunch. It was a few weeks after Easter, and he brought my sister and me each a stuffed bunny that stood at least three feet high. He acted strangely, as far as I could tell for a man I’d never met before. He wasn’t the man I’d imagined. He was slower. Sillier. Less interested. He is my father is all I kept thinking. Wasn’t I supposed to feel something, something in particular? Love? Anger? Some kind of connection?
He didn’t come around again after that. He sent cards on my birthday and Christmas. Sometimes there was a little bit of money in them. I never knew what to do with the money. I wanted his handwritten check or the bills he’d touched more than anything the money could buy.
And now, here he is, at my confirmation. Somebody must have told him about it—my aunt, my Nana—somebody. He doesn’t live that far away, after all. If he wants to know something about me, he only needs to pick up the phone or drive twenty-five minutes. The thing is, he never has before.
As the ceremony begins I feel him looking at me, and I know he’s out there at the back of the church where all the latecomers have to sit. I decide to hold myself firmly, proudly, and confidently, even though I am not any of these things. I hold my head straight up and look directly at the minister, and sometimes the cross behind him, as he speaks. I am almost smiling, but not so much as to be disrespectful to the purpose of today. I keep wondering: Is my father impressed? Will he want to call or come around more often? Can we fix what has been broken for so long, just like that?
I take my place in the line of white dresses. The confirmation is almost official. Mom sits in a church pew to the side, without knowing that my father is here. She’s watching me, too, but there’s no heaviness in her gaze. Her eyes won’t turn away from me without an explanation. She always has been here with me, unlike my father, who is just a visitor today. I have to remind myself of that. He will watch me today, but he probably won’t stay with me for long. Bob, who has been my stepfather for the past two years, is more likely to stay than my father. Bob is more willing and has made sacrifices to be with my mother. He’s quiet about it, but I don’t think he minds being my driver and someone I can go to when Mom isn’t home and I need something. I haven’t thought about these things much until now.
During the act of communion, I try not to chew the bread too quickly or too long. I bring the sip of grape juice carefully to my lips, thinking how starkly it would mark the whiteness if I were to spill it. I keep my mouth shut and my eyes open. When we pray, I tilt my head down and look at my knuckles, all white and blotchy. I hear the minister reading from the Bible as he makes his way down the line of kneelers, holding his hand on each of their heads as he reads each one a carefully chosen passage. When he reaches me, I feel his hand on my head; he holds his fingertips there as he reads a biblical passage that he’s chosen just for me. This is important. I have to listen. My father will hear it and he’ll know more about me. I picture him sitting in the last pew with his wife, the woman with the big eyes, and I imagine him thinking about me. I wonder what he could be thinking . . . what he knows. Does he know I play the piano, like him, but not as well as my sister? Does he know I got straight As last year, but not this year? Does he know—
The fingertips are lifted from my head. I am confirmed.
But I missed it! I was thinking about—something else. What did the minister say? What did my father hear about me? Does God know I wasn't listening?
I turn around with the others to face the congregation. They applaud us and welcome us as members. I try to smile. We all smile, standing boy-girl-boy in a line, balancing out the dark and white. We sit down on the soft, dark red cushions that line the church pews to which we’ve been assigned today, listen to the sermon—something about forgiveness and rebirth—and we wait to be dismissed.
The final hymn is played and sung. The church organ’s echo hangs over us for several seconds. I walk directly to my mother, but I’m thinking only about my father. He comes over to us. My mother is surprised, but quickly collects herself and puts on her tolerant face. My father asks to take pictures. His wife takes several photos of me and my father, as well as some of me and my sister with our father. After all, this moment of meeting again has been long awaited, long dreaded, and always upon us. We can’t let it slip past unrecorded. But, once we’ve done everything we can to keep it, standing beside each other and smiling outward at the camera, there is nothing left to do except go home—separately. I want it to be different, but I can’t make the words come. I have so many questions that I want to ask him: Why have you stayed away? Why did you come today? Isn't there anything you see in me that makes you want to stay? But I don’t ask anything. I won’t. I’m afraid of what his answers might be. I’m afraid there will be no answers at all, just as there have been no answers from God.
As my stepfather drives us home, I sit behind my mother’s seat. I see in the right side mirror something different in the way she holds her head—slightly tilted with her chin raised high, as if she’s bracing herself for a disaster that only her pride can keep back. I’m struck with the feeling that I have done something wrong, something not quite good enough. I did all that was expected of me; I smiled, I prayed, I waited. It’s over now. I’m confirmed. But I don’t fully understand what it is that has been confirmed. I realize that I have become a member of something much larger than myself, much larger than my family. I’m part of the congregation, the world, God Himself, according to the minister. But for some reason, I feel more alone than ever.
I look down and open the Bible given to me today, see my full name engraved on its cover, and find the chapter and verse that the minister must have spoken for me today written down in calligraphy on the inside cover. As directed, I turn to Psalms 139: 1-6. It reads:
Lord, you have examined me and you know me.
You know everything I do;
from far away you understand all my thoughts.
You see me, whether I am working or resting;
you know all my actions.
Even before I speak,
you already know what I will say.
You are all around me on every side;
you protect me with your power.
Your knowledge of me is too deep;
it is beyond my understanding.
I catch Mom’s eye in the rearview mirror. She forces a smile, tilts and raises her head a bit more, and turns to her husband, who is driving us home, as always, a reliable man. As we drive out of the church driveway and past the cemetery, I can’t shake the feeling that I have failed some sort of test. I was given a moment, and I was supposed to do something with it. But I missed it somehow, and I wonder if I will ever have the chance to confirm what it is that I didn’t do right and fix it.
I look out the window at the passing cars, take the barrette out of my strawberry-blond hair, letting it fall like a curtain over my face, and wishing it were darker—like my mom’s light-brown hair. I turn my face from the window, but nothing blocks out the light. The wispy strands of gold cannot keep the blinding sun out of my eyes.
Amber Christopher-Buscemi teaches literature and writing at Suffolk County Community College. She lives on Long Island with her husband and two sons.