We're eating spaghetti, talking about sin. The father, who is Jewish, grew up in a household where the word was not thrown around casually, so he's absorbing his discomfort with jokes. The mother, who grew up Catholic and knew the s-word as an everyday topic, is trying to have a serious conversation. The daughter, who is in second grade, will soon say her first confession at church, so we're practicing.
Second-grader: "I'll be the priest this time, and Daddy, you be the sinner, okay?"
Father: "Okay, but you absolved me from my sins last night, and I don't think I racked up any new ones yet."
Mother: "This is practice. This does not count!"
The practice is an attempt to demystify the experience and to steer our daughter toward a path of awareness. I could be overcompensating. I had trouble with all of this in my own youth. The main problem was I didn't know what the word "sin" meant. I knew it was a bad thing people did, but . . . what? I went into my first confession knowing that I had some things to get off my chest. I just didn't know they were anything quite as fearsome as "sins." Yeah, I hit my sister. And I lied to my mother. And I stole a piece of candy out of my brother's Christmas stocking. I confessed these wrongdoings, adding, at the end, "Also, I sinned four times." These were sins-to-be-named-later, when I figured out what exactly sins were. Therefore, I was a) covered in case I had already sinned, and b) maybe even ahead of the game for next time. I went on confessing this way for at least a year, Saturday after Saturday, storing up a heck of a lot of credit.
"So I have a question," the father says, at dinner. "After you go to confession, do you get, like, a receipt or something to show you went? Like at the ATM machine?"
I give him the look of scorn he expects. He should not, I tell him, equate the sacrament of penance with a bank balance. Hoo-boy, it's so easy to be righteous when you don't disclose the full contents of your own history of doubt.
"I think it's more something you just walk around knowing you did," the daughter says.
"Exactly," I say. "Like . . . a carwash. You know how good you feel after you come out of the carwash?"
The father looks at me. "That's your theology?" he says. "A carwash?"
"It's a metaphor," I say smugly. "I'm sorry if you don't get it."
"I'm sorry," he says. "Did you hear that?" He looks at the daughter. "Those are the magic words. 'I'm sorry.'"