The Saddest Day of the Year

This was posted originally in 2012. Today I could light so many candles!



“What’s the saddest day of the year?” My dad was driving the Ford Country Squire station wagon, and I was sitting in the front, because my sister wasn’t with us. Otherwise, I’d be in the back, staring at his head. We were headed downtown for confession at Saint Francis chapel.

I thought about his question. “The day after Christmas?” That seemed logical.

“No. Think about it.” He took a drag of his Kent cigarette. To a Frenchman, it’s the Eiffel Tower, to a Dutchman, it’s a pretty flower, to an Indian, it’s a mon-u-ment, to a smoker, it’s a Kent!

“The last day of summer?” He shook his head, and looked exasperated. We pulled up next to the curb. Providence was quiet on a Saturday afternoon. He turned off the engine and faced me.

“No, the saddest day of the year is next Saturday. Holy Saturday. And do you know why?” He didn’t wait for me to try to figure it out. “It’s because Jesus is dead. He died on Good Friday, and didn’t rise from the dead until Easter Sunday. So Holy Saturday is the saddest day of the year. Come on, let’s go.” We got out of the car and walked on the sidewalk to the chapel. My dad wasn’t a hand-holder; he just expected you to keep up, so I walked fast to stay with his long strides.

He pushed the door open. The door to the chapel was on the side of the building. You went inside and walked down a flight of stairs to the basement. It smelled like wax and vinegar. I wrinkled my nose. My dad put his hand on my shoulder and marched me to a pew in front. There were four confessionals in Saint Francis, one at each corner. The one in front had a green light shining, which meant there was a priest inside. On either side of the priest’s closet, there was a place to go and confess your sins. The confessionals had the most beautiful velvet curtains: thick and soft and dark. I loved to stroke the velvet and thought it would be nice to have a pillow made of this material. If someone was inside and confessing, there was a red light above, and you couldn’t go in. You really weren’t even supposed to sit too close, because listening to another person’s sins was a sin. One time when my sister was with me, I was sitting in the pew and could hear her whispering, but I couldn’t tell what she was saying. I slid farther away, but really I wanted to move closer, because someone broke the arm off my Barbie and if she did it, I wanted to hear her confess it. Then I’d know. But even if I did, I couldn’t tell her, because then she’d know I was listening, and listening to someone’s confession was a bigger sin than breaking the arm off a Barbie.

While my dad was behind the velvet curtains, I walked up to the candles. I loved the candles. They flickered inside little red glass cups, and if you wanted to light a candle, you had to put money in the box. An offering, my dad said. If I had a dime in my pocket, I would put it in the slot and listen to it clink as it fell to the bottom of the metal box. Then I would take a long wooden stick from a little bucket of sand, and hold it in one of the flames until it had a flame, too. Then I would light my candle. My dad said you were supposed to offer a prayer for someone when you lit a candle, so I would offer a prayer for everybody in my family, because I didn’t know anyone who had died.


13 thoughts on “The Saddest Day of the Year

  1. Martha, I just read this story in the 2016 Lenten Magnificat (I’m a bit behind on my reading). My first response was, “I wish I could write like that.” It was real, descriptive, funny, engaging.
    Two questions: Do you write other things that are religious/Catholic?
    Second, Was your last sentence about not knowing anyone at that time who had died a deliberate reference to the fact that now you know someone (Jesus) who has died for you? If so, it was a great tie-in to the theme of the story about Holy Saturday being the saddest day of the year because Jesus was in the grave.

  2. This was beautiful and touching. For a long time, I considered myself a recovering Catholic. I was dropped off at St. Bernard’s by an Italian father and an Irish mother, directed (I saw it as forced) to attend religiously so I could be confirmed. I didn’t find the beauty in Jesus and His Father until I was well into my 20’s, trying different churches and religions like a teen trying on prom dresses. My family is now more devout than I ever could have imagined. We were married in my husband’s Protestant church (where he was baptized and confirmed) because the Catholic church wouldn’t have us. My husband refused to convert. He is now Chair of the Deacons, I chair the Personnel Committee, and we enjoy a loving, inclusive, relationship with our Church: We read Scripture, Usher often, and I have recently become our church’s newest Historian. But I’ve come to realize that I miss many things about the Catholic church: I still reach for my Rosary Beads when troubled, I still complete the Signs of the Cross after the Lord’s Prayer, I still slightly kneel before entering the pew, I still love the smell of the incense. I like to think that Jesus doesn’t care where I go, just that I go. Thank You for reminding me of the things that make me…well, me.

  3. Beautiful and tender dear Martha!
    Merci Beaucoup!
    Be well and keep telling us stories of Life and Death and of Hope and the Resurrection!

  4. My Dad smoked Pall Malls, red box, but other than that, I relate completely to each element of your lovely story. The moving away from the confessional, the scent of the wax, the velvet curtains, the votive candles. So many memories.
    Happy Easter, Martha!

  5. So beautiful Martha, thank you for re-sharing this. Today I would light a candle for my grandparents, Mary, Mary Ann and Ernie, for Bella, for Rachael, for Delaney and for Dawn. We don’t need to light one for Jesus because he lives! 🙂

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