Since I have not lived in my home town for over 40 years, I have also not been a recent member of my home church, but last week I went back for a few days to visit my family. On Sunday, I sat quietly and looked around, trying to recall what I would have seen in that exact place when I was in school.
They’ve moved the choir downstairs from the choir loft and painted the inside of the church more than a few times, but most of it looks about the same to me. I could almost hear the jangling of the rosaries and crosses that hung from the nuns’ religious habits as they walked up and down the aisles, making sure we behaved ourselves.
Then I looked around at the faces of the folks near me on Sunday, looking for anyone I went to school with, but I couldn’t find any of those children there. The only faces I saw there were of gray haired, tired people I didn’t recognize. On the one hand, they looked familiar, but on the other, I couldn’t say for sure they were anyone I ever knew.
As I sat there on Sunday, I looked for Tom, the boy in Grade 5 who I was sure I wanted to marry. I wanted to see Gary, who kissed me on my front stoop in Grade 7. Or Martin, Teri, Ann, Sandra, Jean, Chris – any of the children I remember now from the few black and white photographs I have that were taken on picture days. But these were children’s faces I was looking for and the children I went to school with are now all grown up and in their 60s.
I’m not sure what happened to all of them after I left town, just four years after 8th Grade graduation. I heard some time ago that Martin joined the Coast Guard, I think Teri married the local track star I used to date in high school, and I knew that Chris had married the mayor’s oldest son who is buried now with his father near my mother’s grave in the church cemetery.
How could I think I could find, in the faces of these sixty-something senior citizens, the children I played with in school, the ones who dressed in red caps and white gowns for Confirmation or puffy white dresses for May pageants? There I was, looking for still black and white images of children in a murky sea of gray, real, grown up life. All of those children are gone now, lost to time. They were replaced by gray haired, tired people whose own children are now grown and I just didn’t know them.
In Grade Two, after we had made our First Communion, the nuns at my school had to devise a way to feed the entire class breakfast inside the classroom after daily Mass because, at that time, Catholics were not allowed to eat anything for three hours before taking the Host. It was later reduced to one hour without eating, which was still not entirely practical when you are trying to get small kids out to school when daily Mass starts at 8:00 a.m. every day.
So, after Mass, as we started each school day, the nuns would have their classrooms filled with blessed, but starving, children. To resolve this, in one of my most pleasant memories, the local doughnut baker would arrive in our classroom every day with freshly made glazed doughnuts on a wheeled cart that held tiny containers of white and chocolate milk. The doughnuts cost a nickel; milk was two or three cents. After eating, we would start our lessons.
You know, I still like glazed doughnuts. And every time I have one, I remember the cart the baker brought, with the white and chocolate milk, and the noise of hungry, clamoring children, lining up for breakfast, fresh from Mass and ready to start the day in Grade Two. They were my friends then.
But now, I am a gray haired, tired person myself. I prefer black coffee with my doughnuts, but I am always open to change.