“If there is such a thing, I’d like to come back as my daughter’s dog.”

— Leonard Cohen

Reincarnation is back. It’s the new black. It’s being chatted about on social media. Imagine, something so spiritual and intangible being bandied about on YouTube and Facebook.

A system of floating around the universe from generation to generation, century to century, shape shifting into new wardrobes, makeup, degrees of facial hair and morals. Imagine.

No one ever claims they are reincarnated from a hat check girl or a 19th century trash collector in Akron, Ohio. It’s always someone grand and swell, famous and beautiful, like a movie star or famous director.

Isn’t it funny that no one ever claims they were reincarnated from the wardrobe lady or the cook in the MGM commissary?

So why am I, on this lovely, muggy morning, suddenly interested in coming back after my expiration date?

Because it has perks that allows us to escape the severity of being Catholic. Yes, it’s a Catholic thing, and it started in Sister Mary Magdala’s class, when a visiting priest came and talked about Heaven and Hell, Purgatory and someplace called Limbo.

I remember him because he had gray hair coming out of his ears, and had what I learned later in life was a “comb-over,” a thick slab of gray hair that lay across his head like a slice of Fontana cheese atop a bialy. To this day, every time I see a really bad comb-over, I think of him, and I have to repress a giggle.

He had this big multi-layered chart that he propped up on what looked like an artist’s easel that would be flipped back, each page over and over revealing colorful scenes of the Catholic afterlife.

He started with Heaven, and it was pretty bland. There were a lot of people in white robes just sort of milling about, and blonde angels with big wings flying around overhead. There were buildings behind them with Roman columns and staircases leading up to a hole in the clouds. A penthouse for the uber devout?

I remember there was Jesus, the same one with blue eyes and brown hair whom we recognized from the Jesus on Sister’s wall. He was shaking hands with everyone, and Billy Hagany whispered that they must all be new arrivals. The priest heard that and smiled.

The next showed Hell, and it was, as intended, pretty scary. Everyone gasped and leaned forward to take in the details, writhing naked bodies with interesting parts hidden falling into flames, where, father promised, “We would be tormented by devils with sharp sticks.”

One cold winter’s day years later, I saw that painting in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It was revealed to be Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.” So I guess the good comb-over father cribbed it. That’s OK. The intellectual property law had expired.

Then there was Purgatory with a lot of people just sitting around in a room with no windows. I was way ahead of the other kids on this, because my brother Jug, employed at the time by the St. Louis Police Department, had explained it all to me long before. “Purgatory is kind of a holding cell,” he said, “where dead people with bad records do medium hard time before being paroled into Heaven.” True story. At his wedding I asked him to repeat it. He did, word for word. I loved Jug.

Limbo is where, according to father comb-over, unbaptized babies go because they had the bad luck not to be Catholic. I remember going home and asking my mother if I had been baptized. “Of course,” she said, “or you would have gone to Limbo.” Mama clearly went to an all girls’ Catholic school.

So as a young actor, I embraced the theory of reincarnation, which in theatrical terms made perfect sense to me. It clearly means you keep coming back over and over, and if you’re good in all of the roles you play, the parts keep getting better and better. What could go wrong?

I tried to explain this to Mary O’Hara, whom I dated before she entered the convent and became sister somebody or other. Right there in the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria, she smiled, hugged me, and with that sweet smile sighed, “Jerry, Jerry,” and walked away into cloistered foreverness.

It was a wonderful last summer kid. See you in the next life, sister.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.


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