When An 80th Birthday Goes Horribly Awry

My mother is a bit of a saint.

There are many reasons, but for the purposes of this story, she is a saint for her desire to give an insane 80 year-old a proper birthday celebration. A saint, but also a bit of an overreaching optimist, as fate would have it.

When her father came to live with us, pleasant yet extremely forgetful, his wife also moved to town, but into a nursing home facility. Granish, as she was named by my older brother, was sort of our grandparent, but not really, as she was technically a step-grandparent. But that is quite a sterile-sounding term, so the cutesy Granish moniker was created.

Granish had never been married before and had no children of her own. She was somewhat emotionally fragile, and not that long after marrying Granddad, she started showing signs of mental illness. Living in our house wasn’t a safe possibility, so she went to live at the nursing home where we all visited from time to time. She was a frightening character, hunched in her wheelchair, her shocking white hair always jutting out in various geometrical shapes, never letting the nurses get close enough to tame it.

There was only one occasion that my mom felt it our obligation to spring Granish from the nursing home: her 80th birthday. As far out there as she tended to be, Granish was fond of reminding us all that she was “crazy, not stupid,” and so well aware it was her birthday. My mom set the dining room table beautifully with the best dishes and even some fresh flowers, and tried to make a nice celebration for Granish.

At the top of the long dining table were my parents’ chairs as well as my Grandmom’s, while Granddad was at the complete other end of the table. Every night, after the standard grace before meals, Grandmom had taken to adding on bits of extra prayers. I’m not sure when this all started, but by this particular dinner, we were in the range of two extra minutes or so. Most of us worked hard to tolerate the extra frills, but Granddad was not accustomed to hiding his disdain and had taken to interrupting her. I don’t know if Grandmom heard or not, but she always managed to press on, determined to add in all the priests, the police, and the names of every dead friend she had, which, at her age, was an impressive list.

As Granddad had no short-term memory to speak of, I assume each evening provided a new frustration for him, but on that night he went with his standard move: yelling AMEN! every three seconds or so. But on this occasion, that of her 80th birthday, our guest of honor chimed in with her favorite mantra.


And so went the rhythmic theme song of Granish’s 80th birthday: “God bless our priests -AMEN! – GODDAMNIT! – and all the firefighters – AMEN! GODDAMNIT! – and all the souls in purgatory – AMEN! -GODDAMNIT!” until Grandmom ran out of her prayers and the rest of us dug our nails into our legs to avoid laughing hysterically at the horror of it all.

We had the good sense to not light 80 candles, at least.
We had the good sense to not light 80 candles, at least.

For Anyone Who Ever Crucified a Monkey

Being raised Catholic means some shared childhood oddities.

If you were raised Catholic, you have probably genuflected before sliding into an aisle at the movie theater.

If you were raised Catholic, you watch Star Wars and inwardly reply to “May the Force Be With You.” (and also with you)

If you were raised Catholic, chances are you “played church” and distributed goldfish cracker communion a time or two.

And if you were raised a Morson Catholic, you crucified a monkey.

Allow me to elaborate.

My little brothers were big fans of monkeys. There were a good number of monkeys in the toy chest, all with their own names and backstories. The most favored pair, however, were these monkey puppets with long, floppy limbs that velcroed around you. Birthday parties were thrown for these monkeys, more elaborate than some actual children’s birthday parties in our house. They went everywhere with my brothers. At one point, the monkeys had their own Military IDs that the kindly MPs would check as we drove on base. The fur on those monkeys clumped together in matted pills from years of love and play, and their red felt tongues were worn off with only tiny nubs remaining.

Like most mothers, mine took her responsibilities as a Catholic parent very seriously. On Good Friday, she cued up the corresponding scenes on the “Jesus of Nazareth” VHS tape for us to watch.

Apparently, we paid attention. We created a new rainy day past time.

First, we set up the Last Supper scene. I am pretty sure we used the toy box lid to create a low table, and Monkey Jesus sat in the middle, surrounded by his stuffed apostles. The apostles were not all monkeys as I remember, I think we followed the Disney’s Robin Hood guide to interspecies relations.

Next up was the scourging at the pillar. The velcro paws on the monkey puppet wrapped around the corner of the top bunk made this an easy scene. In lieu of actual whips and chains, karate belts carried out the scourging of Monkey Jesus.

a banister would have also worked in a pinch.
a banister works, too

I think we skipped over the crowning of thorns.

The crucifixion scene was lacking in historical accuracy, most likely because my parents were smart enough to put hammers and nails out of reach. The karate belts previously used for whipping Monkey Jesus now attached him to the side of the top bunk. We had a sign marked I.N.R.I. above his head and Monkey Jesus wore a loincloth made out of whatever t-shirt was at the top of the laundry pile. There were stuffed animals on hand to play the part of those at the foot of the cross.

We played this out several times before my mom finally requested we move on from it. I’m not certain, but I think the glee with which we whipped Monkey Jesus may have scared her a little, which is fair. The compulsory viewing of Jesus of Nazareth may have backfired on her, and I believe a lesson on reverence may have followed.

I have heard a lot of Catholics talk about how their kids play Mass, but I still don’t know of anyone else who put on a Monkey Passion Play. I’m not sure whether to believe we were that original or if I should realize everyone else has the good sense to keep their trap shut.

My brothers are going to kill me for writing this.