Biff America: Sins of the innocent
While the rest of my peers have aged with time, Jill Yaskonis is frozen in my mind as a sweet 14-year-old girl with freckles on her nose. She was the first of us to die.
Up to then, in the winter of 1969, my experience with death was confined to elderly relatives. Jill was my age and my friend.
Only a few days before she was rushed to the hospital she and I went to confession.
For the uninitiated, the sacrament of confession for Catholics is like a phone booth to God. I don’t think now it is quite as large a part of the Roman Catholic experience as it was in the ’60s — it was not uncommon to find 30-40 folks waiting in line at the church to confess their sins.
Once a month, or whenever you felt the need, you would go into a tiny room and tell a priest your turpitudes. He would then give you your penance (a list of prayers to say) and you would be absolved. We Catholics believed that the less sins you had on your soul when you died the faster you got into heaven. Going to confession wiped the slate clean so it behooved you to confess often, especially if you were an adolescent boy who had trouble with both impure thoughts and acts.
When I was younger I could actually remember how many times I might have sinned during the prior four weeks. But by my early teens, I had to offer a summation-like Cliff Notes of my transgressions — “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I sometimes lie, cheat and steal and often have impure thoughts. I am sorry for these sins and all the sins of my past life.” There were some sins that I kept to myself because the priest, Father Casey, would sometimes come to our house for dinner and I didn’t want him wondering where my hands had been when I passed him the gravy.
I’m sure that Jill’s sins were tamer than mine. She was smart, so she didn’t have to cheat. I’m guessing her falsehoods were white lies while mine were whoppers and if she had “impure thoughts” I’m sure I wasn’t included.
Jill was one of the popular girls but had developed late and retained her prepubescent innocence and attitude. She was pretty without being petty and well known and liked yet void of snobbery. Her humanity and kindness cut through some of my teenage awkwardness.
I can’t recall how it came about or who suggested that she and I walk over to the Immaculate Conception Church. We were no more religious than any other kids at that place in time. I would imagine that it was just a way to kill time on a winter afternoon. If she hadn’t gotten sick shortly after I would have forgotten all about it. But as it was, I was heartened and a little guilt ridden from that last day.
With the conviction of dogma I was buoyed by the fact that Jill probably had little chance to sin between leaving the confessional and entering the hospital, which guaranteed a quick passage to paradise. She died three weeks later.
Jill and I left the Immaculate Conception and were heading to meet friends at Ing’s Kitchen, a local diner where you could buy a cherry Coke and French fires for less than a buck, and we passed Holy Cross Hall, a building adjacent to the church that contained classrooms and a gymnasium. The hall was closed during the hours of confession because God didn’t want young people having to make the choice between playing basketball and cleansing their souls.
Not long before I had learned that one of the fire exit doors could be opened, even when locked, by a kick followed by a hard tug. As we passed I yanked on the door and said to Jill, “Let’s shoot some hoops”. She was reluctant but I talked her into it. We shot baskets for about 10 minutes before she became nervous and we left. As we walked to meet our friends she joked that it was only 15 minutes after confession and, by trespassing, she had sinned already. I told her that not to worry that next time I would confess for both of us.
Jill’s death, in retrospect, brought my childhood to a close. Life seemed more fleeting and less secure. If death could grip her, was anyone, including me, safe? It also heralded in the end of my spiritual certainty. At that time I was absolutely certain of heaven and equally sure Jill was there. But her death was followed by the passing of other friends, family and lovers, and I grew more conflicted.
With the years and body count I have become less convinced, but still hopeful, of divine recompense. But just as that innocent young girl will never age in my mind, the hope and faith I had for her stays fresh. In a way I envy Jill, she knows for certain what, for the living, is unknowable.
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias Biff America, can be seen on TV-8-Summit and read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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