Monday, February 11, 2013

Here, there, and everywhere

We called it potluck out on the Island but up here they call it tricky tray. Same thing. The big supper was always held on Maundy Thursday after service in the parish hall. It was the same for the dozen or so years I went -- chafing dishes of macaroni-and-cheese, bowls of tossed salad, baking trays of biscuits, a variety of bland Swedish meatballs in thin gravy, followed by boatloads of sweets. Pies, cakes, cupcakes, cookies, and jello molds with fruit. The desserts were colorful and occasionally tasty but the food didn't matter much. These days I'll admit that it was a comfort to be stuck in time back then. I guess I knew that it wasn't about the food. I remember those evenings as boisterous affairs with lots of laughter and catching-up conversations, even though Good Friday was around the corner, with its Stations of the Cross and doleful plainsong. The fact that Christ died for our sins didn't matter much to kids with bellyfuls of sugar and a tendency toward horseplay before bedtime.

The evening before we'd celebrate Tenebrae -- a sure sign that Lent was finally coming to an end. The adults may have meditated on dust and ashes, but we were glad to be leaving the season of tuna sandwiches, fish sticks, and no candy. Tenebrae scared the bejesus out of me -- especially when Mr. Treadwell recited that scripture about the valley of the dry bones. Shite! I could hear those bones clicking in the pews all around me. The altar was stripped bare and the sacrament was taken out of the tabernacle. Father Hill and the acolytes worked in silence. All the lights were extinguished except for one candle he kept in the sacristy. The men and the boys would have to keep watch in the emptiness like the apostles. Waiting for something to happen. Nothing did, except boredom and sleep.

So often the families who were struggling the most financially were the ones who brought the most food to those Thursday fĂȘtes. As a child I had the idea that their generosity was a form of neediness, but that was a long time ago, when my grandmother was still alive. Today I've come to see it for what it was -- a way of simply belonging, an act of giving without irony or hidden agenda. It was their fellowship that mattered, not their modest potluck dishes. They were shy but friendly, even warm-hearted once you got to know them -- who cared if they lived in a graveyard? -- and their view of the world was worth hearing about. The theory that germs came out of the ground on warm winter days was irrefutable in my childish eyes. They knew things that we didn't know. Three decades after the fact, that notion seems quaint, even foreign. In 2013, I live in a society given over to base materialism and a dogged belief in the efficacy of Science, and its handmaid Filthy Lucre, to accomplish anything of worth. Even if the really big things -- like "why the hell am I here?" -- are beyond its reach.

A few months ago I went back to the Island. This was before Sandy and the snow. The double lot property was still there on Roosevelt Street, between Harrison and Monroe, with the church building, parish hall, and the modest Cape Cod rectory. All three abandoned, locked up, forlorn and forgotten. The stained glass windows were shattered and weeds stood up in the gutters. The pines and crabapple trees were growing wild, but someone had recently mowed the lawn. I could hear Betty say, "Thank god for small miracles." I'm sure she was dead like the rest of them. I tried to peek into the parish hall through a hole in the plywood used to cover one of the broken windows. I wanted to see if the piano we donated in memory of my mother was still there. It was useless -- I couldn't make out anything in the gloom. The body of Christ has been around for two thousand years but St. James the Just Parish lasted less than sixty.

Lemme tell you poot, sometimes it feels like the whole effin world is one big tricky tray: eat your fill, shake your neighbor's hand, join the grounds committee, buy flowers for the altar, sing till your effin voice is gone. There's so little time left. Jesus is everywhere and nowhere -- take your choice: you can celebrate either condition. You and the rest of your generation.

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