Even if going to church and religious practices, in general, were forbidden in our country, we still went to church every Sunday. My mother is a very religious person, and I grew up not only taking over her beliefs and practices but strongly believing that they were the absolute unique truth. People who did not go to church were considered evil, and their company was strictly avoided.

There was a family in the neighborhood who became Buddhist. We had no idea what Buddhism was (there was no internet and no books on it), but those people were looked down on and frowned upon for not being like the rest of us and became the subject of gossip and marginalization.

On Sundays, everybody threw on their festive clothes and followed the sound of the bells tolling that were calling people to attend the mass. There were plenty of opportunities to go to mass to make sure that nobody had an excuse for not attending. The first one was early in the morning, at 8:00 a.m. and only a handful of people went. Everybody liked to sleep in on Sundays.

There was one mass in the evening at 7:00 p.m. which was considered to be for the laziest of all people. We never attended unless we had no other choice.

The next mass was at 10:00 a.m. which was already a more human time, however, the most important mass of the day was at 11:30 a.m. My mom loved this more serious one as it was always held by the head of our town church, an older, very pious, and strict priest who, standing in his glory at the altar of our big church, demanded people stick to his rules.

If somebody dared to enter the church and search for a seat two minutes after he started the mass, he simply stopped and waited until the person was finally seated. We all knew what was going to happen the minute we heard the church door open, and victim enter, and we knew that the best a person could do was to stay planted in the back of the church, at least until the opportunity came up to sneak in.

We all frowned in disbelief as the person still walked around trying to find a place to sit. And then, when the person was content in his seat, the words of the priest echoed in the church “those who cannot arrange to be punctual should not even bother to come.” Every head turned to the person in question whose face was visibly turning red in shame, his body trembling in fear of God’s punishment. He made sure to go directly to the confessional box to confess his huge mistake and beg for God’s forgiveness.

I was very afraid of this priest, however seeing that my mom had the biggest admiration for him, I developed a respect for him and believed that going to his mass was a huge privilege.

11:30 a.m. was always tricky for me. Sunday morning was the only time when there were interesting cartoon shows on the television and I liked to crawl into my parents’ bed to watch them while my mom was busy in the kitchen and my father reading the newspaper. The shows always went until 10:30 a.m. which was super annoying as my mom started pulling me out of bed already at 10:00 a.m. to start to dress up, so I had to rush to my room, gather my clothes and run back to get dressed in front of the television so that I did not miss anything.

It was very stressful each Sunday. In order to make it on time for the mass, we had to leave at 10:45 a.m. as the church was in the center of the town, about 4 km from our neighborhood. We always walked because that was the only way we could make sure we would be punctual. Busses were extremely unreliable as there was nothing that remotely reminded of a time schedule. They came and went whenever they pleased. Sometimes you waited half an hour and not one single bus came, only to acknowledge that suddenly all of them came and you did not know which one to choose. We could not take that risk.

I did not understand church at all as a child. There were so many confusing things, mysterious characters, and strange words I usually did not hear in my everyday life. And so many unanswered questions.

Why got God so mad the one time in church when my cousin and I burst out in laughter during the holy sermon? We did not intend to laugh. In fact, we did our best to stay calm. We tried so hard to think about very sad things and to control ourselves, but we felt how the laughter was crawling up from our stomach to our throats. We even tried to camouflage the laughter by coughing, which was worse so finally, the laughter burst out like a volcano. It was not our fault that the lady in front of us had the funniest hat we had ever seen! My mom was so ashamed of us and told us that God was really mad at us and that we had to stop immediately.

There were two situations I remember vividly that I could never understand, which became clear to me many years later.

One of them was a song that we sang during Christmas times. The song was about baby Jesus being born, of course, and people gathering at his crib, which made sense. But why was there a one-eyed-shepherd that was encouraged to come closer to the crib? What had happened to his eye? And why was it so important that we knew he only had one eye? I felt so sorry for the poor guy and at the same time, I was mad at the church for not explaining what went wrong with him.

The mystery was solved later when I was able to read the lyrics of that song, realizing that I had misunderstood the Hungarian word for humble (“egyszerü”) for one-eyed (“egyszemü”).

The second mystery was also very similar, and it was only a mystery because I misunderstood yet another word.

In one of our prayers, we praise Jesus’ death by reminding ourselves that he suffered, died, and descended into the bushes. But why the bushes? What did he do there? Did he want to hide from the world? I could not stop imagining the clean, bearded man with long hair and blue eyes, always dressed in white that I constantly saw on the walls of our church hunkered down behind the bushes.

I found out later that he descended to hell (Hu. “Alászállt a poklokra”), not to the bushes (instead of “Alászállt a bokrokra”). I then realized that knowing how to read can clarify a lot of things.

In memory of my cousin Zoltán