Thursday, April 29, 2010

The religious life

Out in Elmont in the old days things were simple. When Mr. Dalia got laid off from his job as a landscaper at the big Sperry Rand facility in Lake Success, he joined the Republican Party and got a job working for the Nassau County Parks Department as a groundskeeper. I saw him once mowing the fairway at Salisbury Park's White Course. He stayed home when the Kennedy campaign motorcade came crawling down Hempstead Turnpike because he was afraid of being seen there. It would've cost him his job. I sat on my father's shoulders to catch a glimpse of the young candidate standing up in his Lincoln convertible waving to the crowds. Everybody in the neighborhood talked about whether or not a Catholic should be President. Some said that the Pope would run things in America if this guy got in.

Mr. Dalia would take us kids down to Jones Beach on summer mornings and let us stay all day. On the way, he'd stop at the candy store on Franklin Avenue to buy a pack of Lucky Strikes. He'd give one of us some change and send us in to get his cigarettes and a box of candy cigarettes for ourselves. The store was run by a small, pale Jewish couple with thick accents and concentration camp tattoos on their forearms. The man had the thick glasses that magnified his eyes and made him look like a big fish. He said very little but we were told to be nice and respectful to him, even though he looked mean and it was easy to make fun of him. He would come out from behind the counter to keep an eye on us when we browsed the comic book rack, looking for the latest
Sgt. Rock. He may not have liked kids, but his wife was always kind to us, even when we acted like brats. She had reddish hair and a high, sing-song voice and wore a blue apron. On Sundays, we'd go there to pick up the newspaper. Mr. Dalia read the Daily News, we read the New York Times. Somehow this was meant to be a big deal.

Mr. Dalia had three sons. The oldest went to St. Vincent de Paul right through high school, then college, and became an engineer for Grumman. The other two were twins. They went to Catholic school only up to sixth grade, then transferred to Alva T. Stanforth Junior High. They seemed normal enough and even acted like big brothers, protecting me when I got into scrapes with the kids one block over. Things didn't go right with them, though. They got into drugs and petty crime to pay for the drugs. The angrier one joined the Army. I guess his father thought it would straighten him out. After basic training, just before shipping out to Vietnam, he came home on leave, met up with some of his buddies, bought some heroin, went upstairs to his room and overdosed. The next day his mother found him dead. It was quite a scene. I managed to see his stiff blue face before the cops and coroner put him in the plastic bag. His twin brother's life fell apart after that, spiraling out of control, the cops always coming around, until he finally wound up in jail. Mr. Dalia and his wife stayed in that house, but we hardly saw them any more.

Things appeared to be simple. An Italian fishmonger came through the neighborhood on Friday mornings in a small truck with fresh whole flounder, bluefish, crabs, clams, squid, stripers, mussels, and porgies. He'd stop in front of the house across the street and all the ladies would come by and get their fish. We always had fish on Friday, even though we weren't Catholic. We were Episcopalian, which I used to tell my friends was almost the same as being Catholic, except Episcopalians didn't recognize the pope, and everybody in the congregation got wine during communion, not just the priest. Catholicism lite. It all had to do with Henry and his wives. Episcopal priests could marry and have kids.

For the longest time I wanted to be a priest, wearing vestments, standing at the altar with the chalice and wafer in my hands, looking up to heaven, reciting the prayer of consecration.
This is my body which is for you, do this in remembrance of me. I would pretend to conduct mass in my basement. The words were magic. The washing of the hands, the ringing of the bell, one genuflection, the raising of the host, a second genuflection. It was so important to perform the ceremony perfectly. I practiced and practiced. I could see that it was serious business, the Eucharist. It meant life everlasting.


  1. Thank you for the reminder of the old days growing up in western Nassau County. As you might remember, I grew up in Franklin Square. In many regards, Elmont and Franklin Square were similar culturally and ethnically. In some regards, I relate to your experiences. By the way, I remember being at that same parade in 1960.

    So, your blog entry fills me with nonstalgia. Things seemed much easier in those days. I thought I knew where I stood. Ostensibly, it was clearer who liked who. As with you, the local merchants and personalities in the neighborhood left me with indelible memories. Organized religion and my religious heritage seemed to have more purpose.

    Today we seem to live with more ambiguity. In my career, particularly over the past 10 years, I have been increasingly bomarded with ambiguous concepts such as "co-opetition." More and more I hear about "Frenemies." For example, some of the political pundits today call China and the United States "Frenemies." Imagine growing up in Elmont or Franklin Square in the 1960s and describing a classmate as your frenemy.

    I also approach organized religion more ambiguously. Today, I feel more worldly and "educated" about organized religion (along with perceiving many warts and misconceptions) than I did when I was young. As I occasionally sit smugly in a religious service watching the believers chanting their prayers fervently, I suspect I feel more empty than they do. Yet, I also feel that I would have missed out on more in life if I too was a blind believer.

    Feeling this ambiguity, I hedged my bets by insisting that my kids grow up with a background in organized religion but I would understand if they reject it.

    Reading your words about the Eucharist, I can understand how the experience left a deep impression - particularly as I learned more about Catholicism from my wife and her family. When I was growing up, we were taught that if we lived a good life we would earn a spot next to God in the afterlife. This concept left a deep impact on me.

    Now I wonder.....Perhaps at that instant just before death, divine truth is revealed to us. At that moment, in the most profound way, we understand that this life was our only chance, and at the very end the lights just go out ---permanently.

    During the instant of divine truth, our heaven is if we are satisfied with the life we lived. Our hell is if we understand that we blew it big time and there is no going back.