By Brian Doyle
Few of us remember our own baptisms, as we were utterly concentrated on other matters at the time, like milk, and trying not to tip over helplessly to gales of laughter when your brothers propped you up on the couch and made bets on how fast you would tip over because you had a head like Russia on a body like Belgium. But I have eyewitnesses to my baptism, eyewitnesses I trust implicitly, and they tell me I was anointed with oil, and splashed by water, and draped in a glowing white gown that sure looked like a tiny wedding dress, or grandmother’s handmade lace doily, which she reserved for special occasions like Robert Emmet’s birthday (March 4) and the day Oliver Cromwell died and descended into Hell (September 3).
My oldest brother, Kevin, was fond of telling me all sorts of stories about my baptism, one of which included a brawl among our cousins, and many of which included me urinating copiously, and one which featured me spitting and kicking in a suspicious manner when the priest made the Sign of the Cross on my forehead, and what a forehead you had then, said my brother. It was like the blessed north face of the Eiger in the Swiss Alps, it went on for weeks, a party of eight explorers and their pack horses could have gotten lost on your forehead never to be found again. It’s a good thing you eventually grew hair. You had the biggest head anyone had ever seen when you were born, you know. Dad used to sell tickets to people who wanted to see your head for themselves, on Saturdays. You wouldn’t believe how many people would line up to see your head.
Sometimes my brother said that so many babies were to be baptized on the same day I was baptized, the priest christened us with numbers instead of names, to speed things up a little and make parish recording easier, and so actually my name is Nine. Other times he said I was mixed up with a girl baby and I was actually christened Maureen, but he then would say he could not tell me anything more about that incident for legal reasons and I should not ask Mom because she will get upset and start cursing in Gaelic again, and Dad says, grandmother cursing in Gaelic every day is plenty of people cursing in Gaelic in this house, in his considered opinion.
Sometimes my brother said he was baptized by Fulton Sheen, who was passing through New York City on his many peregrinations on behalf of Fulton Sheen, and sometimes he says he was baptized by Teilhard de Chardin, who actually was in residence in New York City at that time, arguing with the Church authorities who had banned the promulgation of all his amazing and confusing books, and sometimes he said he was baptized by Mom in an emergency during a snowstorm, which actually is quite possible, as there was a terrific snowstorm in New York City the day he was born, in February 1948, and any person of good intention can indeed baptize a child by saying, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” and pouring water over the head of the child. My other brothers and I have asked our mom if she indeed baptized our oldest brother Kevin in a snowstorm, but the word snowstorm sets her off about not being able to get a taxi when you would think by God a taxi would be available, the whole point of taxis being availability in times of extreme weather, especially when the person hailing a taxi is visibly and egregiously pregnant, but no, there were no taxis to be had, and she and my dad had to walk from Mass to the hospital, 12 whole blocks, in a roaring blizzard, and you bet, the mayor at the time, one William O’Dwyer, heard about this later from herself, and William O’Dwyer from County Mayo to boot, you would think he would be looking out for his own, instead of gallivanting around the city not attending to taxi service, God help us all.
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of the novel Mink River. He writes the weekly Epiphanies column at theamericanscholar.org.
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