Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Rocking Chair


Today while sorting though some boxes, I found a beautiful crochet tablecloth made by my grandmother. Instantly I was transported back in time, back to the idyllic days of my childhood and special visits with my Nanny, as we children referred to my mother’s adoptive mother.

As a young woman, Nanny emigrated from Germany and arrived in the States in the late 1800’s. She and her sisters originally settled in Wisconsin; later they moved to a small town in eastern Nebraska where she met and married my grandfather, William, in 1903.

          William was the love of her life. He died when my mother was only eight years old, but through Nanny’s stories I felt as though I knew him. In the first several years of their marriage they had given life to eight precious souls – eight “little angels,” as Nanny referred to her children. But life on the plains in the early 1900’s was hard, and illness claimed all but one of their children before they reached adulthood. How my Nanny mourned the loss of her babies! But she and William had big hearts, which embraced a little orphan girl who arrived on an orphan train one summer day in 1923. That little orphan was my mother, Margaret.

Mom was just two weeks old when her birth mother placed her in the Foundling Hospital in New York City. Twenty-two months later, Mom was placed on a train full of orphans and sent out across the United States to be placed with adoptive parents. Nanny and William were in their late forties and had one grown son, so by today’s standards they might seem like an unlikely couple to adopt. But in the days before adoption agencies and child services, it was a common practice.

The orphanages in the East were overflowing with abandoned children, and the Foundling Home, run by the Sisters of Charity, together with the Children’s Aid Society, had set up an adoption program through their respective churches. They would send out fliers to the churches announcing the date and time that the trains would be passing through. Anyone wanting a child was to come to the station on the appointed day.

          When the day arrived for the orphan train, Nanny and William were there to receive their baby girl. They didn’t know anything more about my mother, but Grandma said that when the train pulled into the station, and the children were placed on the platform, my mother reached out for them. It was love at first sight – and I think it was also the beginning of my Nanny’s love for train travel.

Nanny entertained me for hours with stories about her travels across Europe as a young girl, and the places she had visited in her lifetime. She would sit in her rocking chair, and I would stand on rockers holding onto the back of the chair. This was our own private “train” from which we would travel all over the world. With a child’s enthusiasm and imagination, she made the sounds of a train whistling and wheels clacking along the railroad tracks.

Just like a professional conductor, she would announce each stop and then we would go on an imaginary journey to visit the sights of Germany, France, London and all points in between. Nanny would often point out of the window beside her rocker, and describe the scenery of these exotic places to me. We picnicked on the banks of the Danube, shopped in Paris, visited London’s famous bridge, and hiked through the Alps of Switzerland and the Black Forests of Germany.

          I vividly remember the last time I stayed with Nanny. We had played our train travel game for hours on end as she made that lovely tablecloth I found in the box today. Just before bedtime, Nanny got very serious and said: “Come with me, I want to show you a special dress I have saved for my funeral. It’s my wedding dress, which I wore when I married my beloved Will.”

Opening the trunk in her bedroom, she lovingly took out the most exquisite bronze silk gown I have ever seen. Her eyes grew dreamy and she described the day she wore it when she married Grandpa William. Her face glowed with anticipation and joy at the thought of seeing him once again.

          At first, I could only understand that my grandma would be leaving, and I would never see her again. As I sobbed and begged her to stay, Nanny lovingly held me close and told me that whatever I should do at her funeral, I was to watch how the candles would wave as they flickered in the breeze. Nanny said that would be my sign that she was still watching over me, and that I should be happy and not sad.

          Shortly after that visit, Nanny died. I was adamant that Nanny said she was to be buried in her wedding dress. All the adults of course said the dress didn’t exist … no one in the family had ever seen it. They looked in the trunk at my six-year old insistence, but it was not there. All that was in the trunk was a thick braid of Nanny’s hair, which she had clipped off and saved from her younger days. Her beautiful locks had once upon a time crowned her head and reached to her knees.

Inside the trunk, Nanny’s braid was fashioned lovingly with beautiful tortoise-shell combs, a candle, and a photograph of her and William on their wedding day. The picture was of the very dress Nanny had showed to me.

          Now, stroking Nanny’s beautiful tablecloth once again, I smile as I remember how Nanny taught me to see sights and sounds and smells that others were not able to see. She was totally blind, but she could paint vivid memories that transported a child through space and time. As to whatever happened to Nanny’s wedding dress … that has always remained a mystery. Perhaps Nanny’s description allowed my six-year-old eyes to “see” a memory that was so powerful, it seemed physically present at the time. My Nanny could see beyond the ordinary things in this world as she prepared for her journey home to Our Lord and to her beloved Will. She created adventure and memories in her heart, and Nanny’s rocking chair traveled farther than most trains ever could in one small child’s lifetime.

 

 

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Last Mass


Lost and Found
Back in the 1980’s I found myself very frustrated with God and church in general. Nothing seemed to be going right. What’s the use, I asked myself, in believing in a God who never answers prayers. Is he really out there at all?

After much soul searching I had decided to forget the whole religious idea and just get on with life. Work and family were the important ingredients for life I had decided. Things continued to go wrong but at least I wasn’t depending on an unseen God to direct my future. I was in charge and would plow on alone in my quest for my ideals.

By 1986 I had muddled along on my own just fine and was sure I had made the right decision. But one day as Christmas approached I felt a sudden nostalgia to attend one last Midnight Mass. The feeling lingered all week long and gradually became an obsession, so on Christmas Eve I decided to go to confession and attend the Midnight Mass at the local parish. I knew I had to confess my sins to participate and so off I went that Saturday to make my first and what I thought would be my last confession.

When I arrived at the parish at the appointed time which was listed on the sign outside the church, there was no one around but a lone workman. He asked me if he could help me and I told him I was there for confession. He gave me a very strange look, and said we don’t have confessions on Holy Days. We did general confessions last Wednesday. 

I was very embarrassed as I knew he must know I had been gone from church a long time as I had no idea the rubric’s had changed and I was truly a duck out of water as my father used to say. Quickly sputtering that I was sorry to have disturbed his work, I turned to leave as fast as I could. Suddenly I found myself running out the door and straight into another workman. I almost fell over from the collision. The man steadied me on my feet and asked if he could help me. By this time I was so embarrassed I just wanted out of there. I told him I had mistakenly come thinking there would be confessions and to that he replied: “No problem, I’m Father Mike and I can hear your confession.” Then he whipped out the ole Roman collar from the back of his overalls. Egad! I thought, now I am well and truly stuck, I’ll have to go through with it, so I followed him to the confessional and began my first confession in over twenty years. It wasn’t easy as I forgot how to go through most of the prayers so I began with “Bless me Father for I have sinned, it has been twenty years since my last confession and I don’t remember how to confess. You’ll have to help me. To which he replied: “No problem and lead me through the process. It all went smoothly until I told him I had just come to attend one last Mass before I left the church for good. Suddenly he let out a chuckle and said; “Well we are glad you came for one last Mass and we hope you’ll decide to stay. I told him that wasn’t very likely but thanks anyway.”

 

With that ordeal over with, I proceeded on my way. When time for Mass came I got dressed up in my finest Christmas attire and off to Mass I went. I was supremely confident in my decision and all was well with the world. At church the old childhood memories flooded in. The sights, the smell, the magic of it all seemed to return as it had in days of my childhood. I chuckled to myself remembering how I fell out of the pew fast asleep when I was five years old at Midnight Mass. I remembered how we used to have a Chili supper after Mass and then open our gifts. It all came flooding back to me as I sat in the pew listening to the music and readings of the Mass. As time came for communion to begin I panicked a bit as things had changed drastically since I had last received communion. Gone were the altar rails and kneelers. Now everyone just formed a line and went up to receive. I kept trying to peek around to the front of the line to see what they were doing. As I got closer I could tell they cupped their hands and said: “Amen” as they received the host in their hands. OK! I thought to myself, I can do that. When my turn came I confidently stuck out my cupped hands to receive and said “Amen! And the instant the host hit my hands it felt like it weighed one hundred and fifty pounds. I hit the floor on my knees so embarrassed I wanted to crawl under a pew. As I got back up with help from Father Mike…he was grinning ear to ear. Good Lord, I thought to myself…”What was that about?” I quickly went back to my pew and sat down utterly befuddled. Then all of a sudden I heard Christ’s voice speak to me. “It was I, I am truly present in the Eucharist and I am here for you. Welcome Home!”

 

Needless to say I came home to my faith. Christ set me back on the road to belief and love for Him. It is a decision I have never regretted and even though I have not heard Him speak to me since that day, I know He is real and loves us all. I was lost and He came to find me, just as the bible says.