Monday, September 12, 2011

Sarantismόs: Or, the Startle Reflex Explained

It’s called the Startle Reflex.  For some newborns, it's triggered when they hear a loud noise or have the sensation of falling – that makes them toss their head back and throw their arms out.  Elizabeth was a Startle Baby.  Even if I were holding her securely, any sudden movement would induce the reflex.  With her arms thrown out, she looked like a little baby Christ on the cross – it was kind of funny.

I know, I know, that’s sacrilegious, but true all the same.  And I’m not saying I’d feign a fall just to compel the reflex.  What kind of father would that make me?  But maybe, just maybe, it happened more on my watch than on Karen’s because Daddy thought it was funnier than Mommy did.

So the phone rings, causing the Startle Reflex in Elizabeth, and I stand there for a second thinking how darn cute she is before I answer.  It’s my mom.  She's wondering if we’ve set a date yet for the Forty Day Blessing.  In the Greek Church, the sarantismόs is the most important of all the traditions for a new baby and her mom.  It echoes Mary bringing the baby Jesus into the temple forty days after he was born.  And since tradition is everything if you’re Greek, this blessing wasn’t one to trifle with.

In Modesto, the blessing takes place following the regular service on Sunday.  After the congregation has left the Church, the priest comes to the back, takes the baby, and walks her to the altar, followed by Mom and Dad.  No problem, I’m thinking, and it just so happens that the closest Sunday to Elizabeth ’s forty days is Father’s Day.

We’ll be doing the blessing in Oakland, though, not Modesto.  Trying to start our own traditions.  I tell my mom June 20th, and that we’ll meet her in a back pew.  We prefer the right-hand side, the side we gravitate to in movie theaters.

Mom says okay, but she suggests we meet in the Cry Room.  In Modesto, it’s a little room just before the entrance into the nave of the church.  It’s got a big window, double-paned, so that parents and crying kids can see out – but can't be heard.  But I’m not sure if the Oakland Cathedral has a cry room, so I tell Mom, sure, but if we’re not there, just look for us in the back, on the right.

And Mom says, no no, let’s just plan on the Cry Room.  I’m looking at the phone, thinking that’s odd, it’s like she hadn’t heard me or something.  And then the penny drops.  Mom, I say, are you trying to tell me that Baby Elizabeth can’t enter the Church before she’s blessed?

There’s a pause.  Well, my Mom says, some Churches are more loose than other Churches.

But if this was Greece– I say.

Elizabeth wouldn’t be able to go in, Mom says.

So I’m looking at Elizabeth.  She’s distracted by the ficus tree in our front room.  Behind the tree, morning light pours through the window, and Elizabeth’s just into the contrast of the dark leaves against the lit panes of glass.  Then she feels me looking at her, and she jerks her little head my way, and her eyes are so blue, and her skin so fair, her hair soft brown with these ridiculous blond highlights, and she grins and blows spit bubbles and I can’t believe there’s a stricture against letting her enter anywhere, much less a holy place.

Mom, I say.

I know, Niko, I know, she says.  We’ll meet at the church, ok?

Ok, I say.

The Cathedral is in the Oakland hills overlooking the city, the bay, San Francisco.  Like most places of worship for the Greek Orthodox, it’s a dome, and since it’s a Cathedral, it’s bigger than most.  Elizabeth is dressed in white finery, and she’s wiggly.  But when we enter the doors, the warm, sweet smell of honey captures her, the scent rising from the rows of beeswax candles to the left and right of the doors leading into the cathedral.  The number of candles lets us know that there’s a big Father’s Day crowd inside.

Elizabeth is enchanted, both with the sweet smell and the flickers of light.

We enter the nave.  Outside, it was Sunday morning bright, but inside, it’s shadow within shadow.  Walking along the curving wall, Karen holding Elizabeth.  They’re bathed in the soft blue light coming through the walls of glass.  The dome of the church captures the light, makes it disappear.  The dome’s gentle curve is sheathed in panels of copper, and the panels glow faintly from the light of ten chandeliers, each a circle of black iron holding 36 votives.  The gold light of the votives plays on the smoke from incense, curling up, slow, then falling.

Incense mingles with the voice of Father Tom, and Elizabeth is transfixed by it all, especially the voices, the singing.  She likes music, this one, and it’s as if she understands the beauty in the words, Kyrie eléison, and we see my parents and brothers in a back pew, Kyrie eléison, there’s no Cry Room in the Cathedral, Kyrie eléison, this must be one of those loose churches.

Elizabeth doesn’t notice my family yet, she’s still all ears, but they notice Elizabeth.  There’s a lot of quiet cooing going on, and my brothers are making happy, exaggerated faces at her, and she’s happy, too, and we’re happy, everybody's happy and the service continues.  My brother George catches my eye and mouths the words Happy Father’s Day and that’s a first, and I look down at my daughter in white and I cry.

Suddenly, Father Tom is making his way down the center aisle, and he’s making eye contact with us.  He’s smiling and motioning us to meet him, and we finally realize that they do things differently in Oakland, Elizabeth's introduction to the church is going to take place during the service, not after.

After we enter the main aisle, Father Tom mainly talks to Karen – it’s really Karen’s gig, Karen and Elizabeth.  I’m there to carry Father’s hymnal – dark blue and worn – which he gives me before holding his hands out for our daughter.  She’s quiet now, almost asleep – lulled by the chants and the soft light – and her eyes slide open just a bit, but white-haired Father Tom looks safe, so she closes them again, and we walk.

Father Tom pauses in the aisle and intones that the Church welcomes the servant of God Elizabeth.  His voice fills the cathedral and he continues walking to the altar, Karen and I in tow.  I’m very aware that the eyes of the church are on our family, and I’m hoping that Elizabeth doesn’t burst into tears.

Father Tom pauses in the aisle, surrounded on both sides by the hundreds of congregants who have come to the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension in celebration of faith, in celebration of Father’s Day.

Father Tom pauses, and raises our daughter high, Elizabeth all in white, and the light that the dome captures is right there above our heads and Elizabeth is raised into it, raised into that soft light.

It’s called the Startle Reflex.  If a newborn has the sensation of falling, she’ll throw her arms out and toss her head back.  And Elizabeth does just that, throwing herself into her Christ pose, eyes still closed but arms thrown wide, and then Father lowers her and she tucks back into her sleeping self.  A few more strides and Father pauses again, raises her again, and again Elizabeth becomes Christ in the hands of Father Tom.  And again, almost to the marble steps leading to the altar, the altar of earthy colored marble shot through with veins of white, and again she’s raised, and again I see Christ in my daughter, but I’m not thinking it’s funny now.  It’s beautiful now.

And Karen follows Father Tom, and she kisses the image on the iconostasis to the left of the altar, the one of Mary holding her child, and then Karen accepts Elizabeth back from Father Tom, another mother holding her child, her girl-child, and they join me, and we walk down the aisle together.

1 comment:

  1. That is a charming story. And your first Father's Day! My mom once was asked to leave church services because as a babe in arms, my head wasn't covered. Of course that was before Vatican II and Mariachi mass...