I hurried to Ash Wednesday Mass across the slushy mess of the church parking lot, carrying 18-month-old Jamilet. Repositioning the diaper bag on my shoulder, I mentally checked off the things I had packed that I hoped would buy me 20 minutes of quiet time from my toddler. Twenty minutes — that’s all I really needed — enough time to get through the readings, the homily and the ashes. The rest of Mass, I knew from experience, I could kind of absorb while chasing after Jamilet in the back of church, but if I missed the readings and the homily, I had nothing. Readings, homily and ashes — those were my goals for the Mass. I wanted to start Lent off right.
Lately, I had been feeling like my spirituality was withering a bit. The winter cold and mounds of snow were providing an excellent excuse to skip my daily run, which often was my best time to pray. I had a huge overdue fine on my library card (Tarzan had been lost for over a month) and rather than pay it I was spending my usual reading time at night watching TV, and I knew my brain was turning to mush. In addition, my husband Bill and I were struggling to find time for uninterrupted conversations about anything deeper than whether or not to paint the back hallway. So here I was, on Ash Wednesday, putting my hopes for spiritual rejuvenation in a baggie of graham crackers, four board books, a doll with a working zipper on her dress, goldfish crackers, and the big prize — a Tootsie Roll sucker. I prayed it would be enough to keep Jamilet still.
I slunk into a pew next to my good friend, a mom attending Mass child-free because her youngest was in third grade. She shared her songbook with me as I concentrated on immediately giving Jamilet a graham cracker so she would be busy right off the bat. I glanced at my friend, and thought I glimpsed serenity in her eyes. Having your youngest old enough to put on her own shoes could lead to serenity.
I don’t know if it was my friend’s air of calm rubbing off, or if I finally happened upon the right combination of food and interesting books to keep Jamilet occupied, but whatever the reason, my normally super-active little girl stayed settled and content on my lap. The readings were strong, the homily was inspiring, and it felt like a new beginning. The priest compared us to batteries, and said that Lent provides an opportunity for the positive and the negative to come together — the positive being the good we try to do during Lent, and the negative, the bad habits we try to curtail. A car needs both to run properly, and so do we.
As the homily ended, Jamilet started to get restless, and I brought her to the vestibule, where four or five other mothers were standing in a cluster, watching their toddlers run. Perfect, I thought. I’d let Jamilet burn some energy while the congregation went up to get their ashes, then I’d jump in line at the end. Readings, homily, ashes. I was almost home free.
Except I missed the ashes.
I’m still not sure how it happened. I chatted quietly for a few minutes (wasn’t it just a few?) with another mom of a toddler. I put everything back in the lost-and-found box after Jamilet emptied it. I distracted her with the Tootsie Roll sucker when she tried to bang on the glass door leading to the school. But then, when I peeked back into the church, to check where the line was for receiving ashes, I was appalled to see the final two people receiving their ashes from the second grade teacher. How did I not notice the other mothers, one by one, leaving the vestibule to get in line? I briefly considered running for it, a mad dash for ashes with Jamilet on my hip, but this seemed to lack a certain solemnity, so I decided against it.
The rest of Mass was a bit of a blur. I went back to my pew, where Jamilet remained relatively quiet. Going up to Communion, I couldn’t help but note the black mark on every person’s forehead. Everyone managed to get themselves to the front of church for their ashes. Everyone but me. What did that say about me? Yes, I had listened to the readings, the Gospel, even the homily. But I had missed the ashes. I had missed the main event. I was annoyed at myself, annoyed at Jamilet, and slightly bewildered about my strong feelings about a small black mark that I knew was just a symbol.
After Mass, my dad came up to me. We had arranged to meet at Mass, so he could take Jamilet home and baby-sit while I went to work. He was putting on his baseball cap and making a silly face at Jamilet as he walked over to join us.
“I missed the ashes,” I said.
“You did?” He looked at Jamilet, laughed and poked her in the tummy with his index finger. Then, he took his thumb, rubbed it on his own ashes, and traced a cross on my forehead.
“Have some of mine,” he said.
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