Who would have thought that I would become best friends with a Polish kid named Eddie Savinski when I enrolled at St. Christopher's, a small Christian liberal arts college in Southern New Hampshire? The only reason I went to the place was to get a rise out of my liberal parents who were Agnostics at best and Atheists at worse. I hadn't been inside a Church in my life and I knew my parents would cringe at the thought of me being schooled by Christians.
My folks divorced when I was young and I grew up bouncing back and forth like a ping pong ball between my father's multi-million dollar mansion in Los Angeles and my mother's penthouse apartment alongside Central Park in New York City. I spent more time with nannies, housekeepers, butlers and chauffeurs than I did with either of my parents when I wasn't being farmed out to various private boarding schools.
My response was to get their attention in other ways. I got in trouble as often as I could, got booted out of more than my fair share of schools, and barely passed even when I managed to stay enrolled. By the time I limped to private school graduation, my parents didn't expect much from me, assuming I'd live off my trust fund inheritance once I turned eighteen. To my amusement, they were surprised and perplexed when I enrolled at St. Christopher's.
St. Christopher's promises intellectual growth by morally engaging students and offering critical thinking skills and an integrity to live ethical and effective lives. The school prides itself on exploring Faith and understanding God's calling by developing and maintaining spiritual, emotional, social, academic and physical grounding. I didn't care about any of that – I just wanted to shock my parents.
I knew my father would accuse the place of trying to brainwash me with the God stuff and my mother would loathe the thought of me being exposed to a religious way of thinking, so it was the right place for me to be! Let them squirm!
The school was located at the foot of the White Mountains in a small quaint town called Gordon's Notch, which was nothing more than a small main street with a few shops, a diner, a pizza house, the town square, a Congregational church, the library, a town hall, a gas station, and a general store. The town was simple and picturesque, straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
The campus was about a mile from downtown, nestled in an open field at the bottom of a large hill with fourteen buildings built in an oval pattern around the center common. In addition to the main administrative building, chapel, gymnasium, swimming pool, auditorium, library, and cafeteria, there were several teaching halls and a student union. Several Victorian homes served as housing for the senior faculty and most of the students lived in varying residential halls with a Student Resident Advisor (RA) and a live-in Resident Director.
The first time I saw the campus was when I arrived in my SUV literally hours before my first class, having driven across the country in less than three days. The stoic and inflexible RA, a by the book guy named Foster, wasn't happy when I dragged my stuff into the hall at midnight, twelve hours after the appointed check in time.
My new roommate Savinski was grumpy when I woke him with noisy racket as I moved into Room 231B of Williams Hall. Each room housed two students and had its own bathroom. The rooms were furnished with two beds, two desks, two dressers, some wall shelving, and two closets. Each floor had a kitchen area and the first floor lobby included a spacious lounge area for group studying and socializing, along with an open terrace suitable for outdoor cookouts.
Savinski was a neat and organized kid who kept his side of the room spotless. All he had from home were a few family photographs, a leathered Bible, a multi-colored quilt for his bed, and a laptop computer. I waltzed in with a desk top computer, a television set, a stereo system, a mini-refrigerator, and plenty of other junk and it was hard not to invade Savinski's space with my clutter.
I dealt with roommates at private school and knew how to live with strangers, but I'd only talked to Savinski once over the phone and I had no idea what his tastes and preferences were until I moved in with him at Williams Hall. He was annoying polite and respectful, well-spoken, well mannered, well behaved and well disciplined. He was usually handsomely dressed and he was constantly well groomed. Even his pajamas were wrinkle free! He was tall and good looking with blond hair, smooth skin, straight white teeth and baby blue eyes. He smiled easily and never raised his voice in anger.
Savinski liked to pray. I'd wake up and find him on his knees at the foot of his bed saying his morning prayers and he'd do the same before going to sleep at night. He liked to turn in early and rise earlier, whereas I liked to stay up late and sleep in for as long as I could. Our styles were different with little in common and that created uneasiness between us during the first few days after my arrival.
I was from LALA Land and the Big Apple, Savinski was from a small New England town. I rarely heard from my splintered, estranged, preoccupied and busy family while Savinski got packages, letters, e-mails and phone calls from his clan nearly every day. I was rude and obnoxious with partying as my high school major, whereas Savinski was quiet and refined. It was going to take work on both our parts to find common ground. We didn't have to become best buds, but we needed to understand each other and give the other guy the benefit of the doubt if we were going to survive together. We tentatively agreed to some basic rules and expectations and then decided what was worth fighting for when conflicts arose.
Residence rules kept things fairly regimented (no opposite sex students in the bedrooms, for example) and the presence of Foster the militaristically tough RA helped, but I was surprised at how well behaved the students were on their own. I had some wild and scandalous experiences in boarding school and I nearly got kicked out of a few over the years, but St. Christopher's was no party school – by choice!
I was the odd man out on campus because I was clueless when it came to the spiritual stuff and I had no idea what people were talking about when they cited gospel passages or Bible quotes. I could be crass, inappropriate or just plain foolish at the wrong moment because I wasn't used to being around positive, mature, happy, spiritual, friendly and grounded people.
I quickly established a pathetic reputation of being a non-conforming, out of touch, coarse, uncouth, insulting, provocative, impertinent, profane, unspiritual, ungodly, and blasphemous outsider who offended just about everybody I met in some fashion or form during my first few weeks on campus, sometimes on purpose, but usually without even realizing I was playing the fool.
St. Christopher's had never seen the likes of me!
*** *** ***
One night early in the semester, Savinski and I were at our dorm desks when his cell phone rang its Amazing Grace ring.
"So the last appeal was turned down?" Savinski asked, sounding as if someone had died.
He paced back and forth across the room talking and I tried not to listen in on his conversation, but I could tell he was upset. He collapsed onto his bed when the call was over and covered his eyes with his arm.
"Bad news?" I asked.
"They closed Saint Stanislaus Kostka for good," he sighed mournfully.
"That some sort of club?"
"It's my hometown Catholic School," he explained with annoyance. "I grew up there."
He sat up and stared at me. "Tough break?" He had a look of disbelief on his face. "Don't you realize how tragic this is?"
"Because a school closed?"
"Not just any school," he insisted, leaping from the bed and putting his hands on his hips. "My school!"
"This is the end of an era." He said it like he was talking about an old girlfriend who had just written him a Dear John letter, but I couldn't understand why he was so upset.
"It's just a school," I reminded him.
"I can still picture every nook and cranny in my mind's eye," he said, closing his eyes. "I can smell it too."
I looked at him like he was nuts.
"I'm walking through the front door. Red. Wood. Squeaky. Principal's Office on the left, Nurse's office and main office to the right. Classrooms either side as you walk down the hall. Boy's room on the right, girls on the left. Ceramic brown tiled walls. Sparkled linoleum floors. Light wood with gold-hued decal names on the doors. Old Green blackboards. The ticking of the wall clocks. The clank of the bell. Hissing radiators. Windows that won't open on hot days. The stubborn water fountain. The suspended tile ceilings. The giant metal florescent banks suspended from poles that looked like ice trays. The ominous gym that doubled as an auditorium. The echoes of yelling kids. The warped wooden floor and dented backboards. Faded painted lines on the basketball court. Mr. Kalonski the janitor who never talked and hid out in his dark and scary office behind the gym. Crucifixes and statutes in every room. Prayers all the time, especially when we did something wrong."
"And exactly why are you going to miss all that?" I wondered.
"Because I got the best possible education imaginable there," he nostalgically answered. "Best teachers ever. Greatest experience I could hope for."
He flopped on his bed like a beached whale and I laughed at his overdramatic overreaction.
"You're in college now, Savinski," I told him. "Let it go."
Although I really didn't understand Savinski, he wasn't a bad guy even though I didn't know what he was talking about half the time and he made it sound like he came from Mayberry when he talked about home.
Savinski was willing to cut me some slack and he displayed extraordinary patience as I struggled to find my place at the school and learned how to act in the Christian setting. He wasn't ashamed to admit he was homesick while I barely gave home a second thought.
My old act wasn't working in my new setting. Acting out for attention, wising off, and intentionally flunking out made me cool at prep school but at St. Christopher's I was seen as a pathetic lost cause that definitely didn't belong on campus. My thoughts of wild parties and crazy dates quickly fell by the wayside, although occasionally some of us would pile into my SUV and head into Gordon's Notch for a pizza and a change of pace, but most of the extra-curricular activity took place on campus.
Students enthusiastically supported the sports offered at St. Christopher's. The Choir was just as popular as any of the sports teams and weekend trips to Boston and New York City for missionary work, religious conventions, social justice volunteerism, and other organized spiritual activities occupied students' time and interest.
I hung out with Savinski during some of his volunteer adventures, usually for a chance to get out of the residence for a few hours. He was a naturally friendly guy and I found myself becoming his friend mostly by default because I was spending most of my time with him. We'd walk to class when our schedules coincided, I'd sit with him in the dining hall if I saw him there, and of course we were together in the dorm room at night.
Savinski came from a large and close Polish American family and he took his religion seriously, which is why I let him take my car to a Catholic church in a nearby town on most Sunday mornings. That gesture is what got him to drop his guard and he began to trust me as a roommate.
I stopped swearing in front of Savinski knowing it offended him and I was becoming aware of how I was perceived by others, usually because Savinski would let me know when I screwed up in my speech, attitude or thoughts. For the first time in my life, I cared about what others thought of me!
The college's curriculum was strict, demanding and challenging and I was studying longer and harder than I ever had in boarding school just to keep up. I was confused about the ethical, moral, spiritual, religious and value-driven expectations that made up the daily routine of St. Christopher's College. I feared that if I farted in public, I'd get expelled! I'd brag to classmates that I didn't believe in God but I wouldn't tell them how lost and miserable I felt adrift with no anchor. After experiencing the St. Christopher mentality for a few weeks, I began to wonder if God had found me.
I was a fish out of water and it didn't take my peers long to realize that I was spiritually, ethically, and morally lost. My attempt to mess with my parents left the joke on me because I was in a new realm of existence, as if I were living in a unfamiliar foreign country.
"Why did you come here?" I asked Savinski one night when we were sitting at our dorm desks studying away.
"I wanted to go to a school that focused on life and not just academics," he answered without looking at me. "I like the focus on the spiritual. I figured I'd get a better education from professors who had a genuine sincerity in their teaching habits."
He looked up from his book and stared at me. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm not really sure," I admitted.
"Well, I know that God will do what is best for me and maybe you will too," Savinski replied. "Remember, the whole point in life is to make a contribution to society."
"What if I screw up?" I asked. "Again," I added.
"Pray and listen to where God leads you," Savinski said. "Give 110% and be thankful."
I came from an extremely liberal family and background. My father worked with plenty of homosexuals. He actively protested government policies and stances and was arrested for civil disobedience. He was involved in a new relationship almost every time I saw him. My mother was a devote feminist who stood tall on woman equality and woman rights issues. She was adamantly pro-choice and she let my girlfriends sleep in my bedroom. She was currently on her third marriage.
The culture shock of finding myself in a conservative environment where most of the classroom discussions on homosexuality, abortion rights, moral stances, promiscuity, and other cultural issues was 180 degrees opposite from what I'd been exposed to and told was a true eye opener. The stances of most of my peers were no less honorable or legitimate than those of my parents and even though I was far removed politically, religiously, spiritually, morally, and ethically from most of the students at St. Christopher's and had little in common with any of them as far as my background and upbringing was concerned I actually found myself enjoying the experience.
I was taking the time to slow down and notice the simple pleasures of the daily routine. I loved walking across the campus among the happy, content, cheerful, and God-aware students. I couldn't help smiling as the bright sunshine warmed my back and the bright blue sky made my eyes squint while crisp autumn breeze blew leaves across the grass. The trees were ablaze in red, gold and orange as students walked to class or played Frisbee in the open areas. I never paid attention to that kind of stuff before.
I was exposed to a whole new viewpoint and I was hanging out with a whole new breed of people. Because I moved around a lot growing up, I never knew lasting friendships and I wasn't close to anybody. I'd find acquaintances who shared my outlook on partying hard, chasing girls, and enjoying a trust fund, living a foot loose and fancy free life while not answering for my sins or taking responsibility for my actions. My parents were rich and famous enough to bail me out of most scrapes and there were rarely consequences for my negative choices and behaviors.
At St. Christopher's, nobody cared how much money I had or who my parents happened to be. They wanted to know what kind of person I was. They wanted to trust my character and rely on my good will. They wanted to get to know me as a person, not as the son of celebrities. I didn't know how to handle that reality.
The female students at St. Christopher's were nothing like the girls of my past. My lame pick up lines, one liners, and come on approaches were dead on arrival here. These girls weren't interested in being treated like sex objects or prey. They were mature, intelligent, confident, self-assured and happy with themselves and they didn't need some shallow, immature, soulless pervert like me hitting on them.
I wasn't used to treating women as my equals and peers. With sex and self-gratification removed from the equation, I found myself talking to girls as people for the first time in my life. Instead of trying to look down their blouse or up their skirt, I was looking them in the eyes and having meaningful conversations that had nothing to do with sex or cheap thrills. What amazed and humbled me was that most of the girls were willing to give me second chances even though I had quickly proven myself to be a chauvinistic pig during my first days on campus.
"Making amends and is what Christianity is all about, Ned," Lily Witt explained when I asked her why she was still talking to me after I earlier made a crass remark about her chest size.
I was becoming a different person because my time at St. Christopher's brought new insights and experiences. I was less jaded, less cynical, less vulgar, less sexist, less perverted, and more refined, more educated, more spiritual, more aware, and more real.
I couldn't believe it!
*** *** ***
The weeks went by surprisingly quick and before I knew it, Thanksgiving had arrived. Savinski was excited about heading home for the big holiday and he was taken aback when he learned I was staying on campus.
"Aren't you going home?" he asked as he packed his suitcase for his getaway.
"California is too far away to bother and my mother is in Europe," I explained with a shrug. "I've got no where to go."
"You can come with me," he replied without missing a beat.
"I'm sure your family doesn't need me around."
"Trust me, one more plate at the table isn't going to create any great hardship," he assured me. "I'll call and let them know you're coming."
I was caught off guard by Savinski's graciousness but I decided not to argue. Enjoying a home cooked Thanksgiving meal and getting away from campus for a few days was a welcomed change of pace.
Savinski was glad he didn't have to take the bus and I let him play his Christian music in my SUV, a sure tell sign that I had mellowed during my first few months at St. Christopher's!
"Turn left here," Savinski instructed two hours into the trip, pointing to a sign that read "Hillsboro" and "Blue County Bridge". When we reached the other side of the bridge, we were driving along Hillsboro's Main Street with its picturesque downtown of church steeples, factory smoke stacks, and the blue water of the aptly named Blue River.
"Drive slow," Savinski urged. "I want to savor every moment."
He explained that the Hilltop neighborhood on the hill above the downtown was built during the town's rapid growth in the late 1800s, illustrating the wealth and prosperity new opportunities offered during the start of the industrial revolution. The Hilltop neighborhood was developed by the upper class – those who owned, managed and flourished from the banks, stores, railroads and factories below. The town emerged as a manufacturing hub and the Hilltop section featured elaborate Victorian houses occupied by industrialists and other upper class residents. The downtown area was where the tenement and apartment buildings were built to house the lower class workers.
Hillsboro prospered as the Blue River brought shipping, logging and railroad business northward and Blue County became a major shipment point for coal, lumber, cement and locally quarried stone while factories and sawmills built along the banks of the river took advantage of the water.
"The original settlers were mostly immigrants," Savinski said. "The French dug the canals. The Irish built the buildings. The Germans and English worked in the mills. And the Polish farmed the land and worked as laborers."
"So the rich people on the hill looked down upon the poor people down here," I remarked.
"Many of the Poles ended up in the Flats section of town which was considered the other side of the tracks, as the saying goes," Savinski said. "Polacks, don't you know. There's St. Patrick's," he said, pointing to a large copper-stoned church on the left side of the main street.
"Where's the moat?" I asked, surprised by the huge size of the church.
Savinski laughed. "Our church could fit in there three times over," he agreed. "St. Patrick's is the Irish Church."
"What's the difference?"
"Back in the late 1800s, parishes were formed by ethnicity," Savinski explained as I stopped the car in front of the large church. "One town could have two or three different Roman Catholic parishes because ethnic groups refused to attend the other. They wanted to worship in their own language and cultures. That's what Polonia was all about."
"Polonia kept Polish nationalism alive back in my great grandparents' time," Savinski explained. "By speaking the Polish language, preserving Polish customs, and attending the local Polish church, American Poles stayed true to their roots. I love the Polish traditions. Of course, the Irish are always going to think they were the more persecuted ones."
"They weren't?" I asked.
"They could speak English," Savinski noted. "Nobody was calling them a dumb Polack. The Poles felt the Irish were unwilling to accept the Polish clergy as members of the hierarchy or permit Polish religious services. The Irish thought the Polish were inflexible in their demands for Polish priests and the retention of their native tongue. Those old wounds lasted a long time."
I put the car in gear and we passed a couple of banks, the supermarket, a hardware store and then the main street began to thin out.
"Turn left, here," Savinski ordered and I swerved onto a steep incline that climbed up a hill, with a few house on either side of the street.
"That's Kostka," He said, gesturing ahead.
The street emptied into a parking lot that featured a brick church and a corresponding brick rectory to its left. Kostka was much smaller and less grand than the magnificent fortress that was St. Patrick's, but it was still impressive with its red brick gothic style and large wooden steeple, spires and military parapets. The brick rectory on the left was the size of a normal house.
"I've been an altar boy here since I was eight," Savinski said, gesturing toward the church.
"Servers who assist the priest on the altar during Mass," he explained. "If the Priest is Christ, then the altar boys represent the disciples. That's why some parishes don't allow female altar servers."
"Isn't that why some people feel the Church is sexist?" I asked.
Savinski rolled his eyes. "People who make those kinds of comments don't know what they're talking about."
"Come on, wouldn't you want to have girls out there with you?" I asked. "Might be an easy way to get a date!"
Savinski threw me a disgusted glance. "It would be a distraction," he said. "Mass is about the Lord and the consecration, not about flirting."
"You liked being an altar boy?"
"I like serving God," Savinski replied.
"How often did you serve?"
"Whenever I could! Weekday Masses. Weddings. Funerals. Three or four Masses on the weekend. Something inside made me want to do it."
"Was everybody as gun-ho as you?"
"There was a cadre of regulars," Savinski said. "I liked hanging around with guys who shared the same interests and devotion. I liked being a good example. I had a desire to serve. It's not like I had to serve. I liked to serve."
"Oh," I said, although I wasn't really sure what he was talking about.
Savinski looked white faced when he glanced over his shoulder and pointed to the large school on the opposite end of the parking lot. "This is just awful," he said as he stared at the school building "I can't believe they closed it."
I drove across the parking lot and pulled to the curb in front of the school. It was a single story brick building with wood framed windows and a giant cross above the front door.
"From the air, it's shaped like a cross," Savinski told me. "I think it was built in the 1940s."
A huge "For Sale" sign was dug into the front lawn and a small camper was parked on the front walk donning a large banner with "Don't Close Our School" written on it.
Two older women emerged from the trailer and Savinski's eyes lit up. He jumped out of the car. "Mrs. Stafursky! Mrs. Galuasza!"
"Edward!" Both women were happy to see him.
"Are you here to help with our protest?" one of the ladies asked hopefully.
"We have a sign up sheet inside," the other said.
"Maybe later," Savinski said. "I just got back."
"This is my roommate from college, Ned Rollins," Savinski informed the ladies when I joined the group. "These are a couple of my former teachers," Savinski let me know.
"I heard you're the best teachers in the heavens," I sarcastically remarked, drawing an evil eye from Savinski.
"Maybe he can help us get the Diocese to come to their senses and let us have our school back," Mrs. Galuasza said.
Savinski thanked the teachers for their dedication and we returned to the SUV with Savinski giving the school building another longing sad stare.
"They're crazy if they think anybody is going to change their minds now," I remarked.
"Probably," Savinski agreed with a defeated sigh. "I can't tell you how much that school meant to me."
"What's the house?" I asked, gesturing to a two story brick home to the right of the school.
"They call it The Convent House," Savinski said. "Some of the nuns who used to teach at the school lived there."
"It's all lay people now," Savinski said. "The nuns left and they usually let the Principal or some faculty members rent the house. I guess they'll sell that now too," he added with a heavy sigh.
He directed me to his home a few blocks from the church campus, a handsome two story yellow painted clapboard house in a handsome neighborhood of similar houses. I parked on the street and Savinski led me to the front door with our bags in hand.
"You can't call me Savinski here. Everybody's Savinski in there."
"Okay, Eddie," I said, calling him by his given name for the first time.
You would have thought the prodigal son had been gone three years instead of three months the way Savinski was welcomed home by his family with cheers, hugs, smiles, kisses, and even a few tears as soon as he opened the front door and called out "Hello!" His mother, grandmother and several siblings swarmed upon him like he was a returning king.
"This is my roommate, Ned Rollins," Eddie said when the homecoming greetings were finished. A girl grabbed me by the arm and tugged me into the living room.
"See our fish?" she asked, pointing to an aquarium in the far corner of the room.
I needed a score card to keep track of everybody. They called Eddie's Dad Iggy. He was a large guy with a receding hairline and a bone crushing hand shake. He ran a local auto wrecking and repair shop and also sold used cars. Eddie's mom was Theresa, a cheerful and attractive woman who welcomed me into her house as though I was one of her own.
Handsome and muscular Ted was the oldest of the six children, a recent graduate of St. Christopher's who was doing post-graduate work at nearby Green College while working part time for his dad. Mary Ellen was Eddie's noticeably beautiful older sister in her second year at the local community college. Equally as pretty but much more serious younger sister Regina was in high school, bubbly and personable Martha who showed me the fish was in junior high and friendly Billy the youngest was a sixth grader. Martha and Billy were now home schooled following the abrupt closing of the Catholic School just days before the September semester began. The children shared similar features of blond hair, round faces and penetrating smiles.
"How many are there of you?" I asked with surprise as more and more Savinski's appeared to greet the returning son.
"As many as God blessed us with," somebody replied.
Also living in the house was Grandma Rose, Mrs. Savinski's stern and opinionated eighty-four year old mom who was a walking history book regarding everything there was to know about the Parish of Saint Stanislaus Kostka and the Polish culture. Her drained and tired face was wrinkled and her body worn, but the gray-haired Granny had as much energy and pip as anybody in the house.
There was a friendly dog named Jasper and an obstinate cat called Simon, plus a chirping parakeet, the fish, and a rabbit named Emily who lived in a cage in the garage. The house was an overwhelming bustle of constant movement, laughter, life, love, and activity and I was treated with the warmest hospitality from the moment I stepped through the door.
Martha and Billy insisted on giving me a tour of the house that featured a large old fashioned kitchen, dining room, living room, family room and half bath on the first floor and four bedrooms and a full bath on the second level. The attic had a make shift bedroom and part of the cellar was partly done over to serve as a playroom, taken up mostly by Billy's huge train set.
What caught my attention were the crucifixes and other religious artifacts in every room and a small altar set up in the living room.
Mrs. Savinski handed Mary Ellen a bundle of blankets, sheets and pillows and told her to show me where I'd be sleeping for the next few nights. Mary Ellen led me down the cellar stairs, past the clothes washer and dryer, a large freezer, a second refrigerator, the water heater and furnace, and Billy's train display to the far corner of the room that had a green colored shag rug, a half paneled wall, a couch, a couple of easy chairs, and a forty year old console television set. There were also a couple of bookshelves jammed with old books and countless games.
"It's not the Ritz, but I hope it will do," Mary Ellen said with a smile. She pulled out the couch that became a bed and began to make it up for me.
"I can do that," I said, but she wouldn't hear of it.
"You're our guest," she explained.
"Yeah, but you're not the maid," I reminded her.
She laughed. "When you live in house with nine people, everybody's the maid!"
She was tall and thin with her long blond hair pulled back in a pony tail. She had a laugh that was like music and her eyes twinkled when she spoke. She wore little make up and she didn't strike me as self-conscience or image prone in her attitude or appearance. She wore an old pair of denim bib overalls over a white turtle neck shirt with old fashion Ked sneakers on her feet. She may have been the most unpretentious girl I'd met.
"Anything I need to know?" I asked.
"Grandma Rose's bark is worse than her bite," Mary Ellen told me.
"I was talking about the cellar!"
"Opps!" Mary Ellen giggled. "Well, Simon the cat takes care of the mice, so I don't think there's anything to worry about down here." She peered at me. "You're not claustrophobic or afraid of the dark or any of that stuff, are you?"
"I'll be fine."
"Should I tell you that Eddie calls you the mystery man in his e-mails?" Mary Ellen asked with a smile.
"I'm just glad he didn't call me a Godless heathen."
"Why would he do that?" She asked with a frown.
"No reason," I lied.
Mary Ellen said supper was at six and she left me to get acquainted with my new surroundings.
Supper was corn chowder and bread, a light meal in preparation for the following day's Thanksgiving Day feast. Iggy offered grace as the family sat around the dining room table with Iggy at one end and Mrs. Savinski at the other and Grandma Rose to her left, along with Billy, Martha and Regina. I sat between Eddie and Mary Ellen on the other side, along with Ted to his Dad's left.
"So, Ned, tell us about yourself," Mrs. Savinski politely suggested in an effort to introduce me to the family.
"Not much to tell, really," I replied.
"Well, where you from?" Iggy asked.
"Here, there, everywhere," I answered. "Mostly California and New York."
"What do you think of St. Christopher's?" the alumni Ted asked.
"It's interesting," I answered.
"What's your domination?" Grandma Rose asked sharply.
"Ned's not really a Christian, Babcia," Eddie revealed.
The entire family paused at the same time and everybody looked at me as though Eddie had said "Ned's Not Human, Babcia."
"What are you doing at St. Christopher's then?" Ted wondered.
"I've been asking him that question all semester!" Eddie remarked with a grin.
"Well, it's none of our business," Mrs. Savinski sternly warned.
"Oh?" a disapproving Grandma Rose replied, giving her daughter a hard stare. "Don't you want to know who we have in our house?"
"We don't interrogate our guests, Rose," Iggy calmly said and I could feel the tension build around the table.
"Did you stop by the church on your way in, Eddie?" Mrs. Savinski asked, letting everybody know that it was time to change the subject.
"Just for a second," he revealed. "We saw Mrs. Stafursky and Mrs. Galuasza manning the protest trailer."
"Damn fools," Grandma Rose remarked.
"My grandfather remembered the day Zeb Mears began digging the cellar hole for the school," Iggy recalled.
"And now here we are watching it close," Grandma Rose grumbled. "I never thought I'd live to see the day they'd throw my poor grandchildren out on the street."
"Thank God for the school builder, huh Rose?" Iggy said with a smile.
"May God have mercy on Father Zapuka's soul," Grandma Rose agreed, blessing herself with the sign of the cross.
"They called Reverend Zapuka the Priest to the Poles because he was the first Polish-speaking priest in Hillsboro," Eddie let me know. "He's a legend because he founded the parish, built the church, and then the school."
"Before that, the Poles had to celebrate their liturgies in the basement of St. Patrick's," Grandma Rose bitterly complained.
"Why there?" I asked. "Why not in the church itself?"
"Because the Poles were not worthy," Grandma Roses stated with raw emotion in her voice. "The Irish didn't want Polish spoken or sung in their church and because Polish Masses had hymns sung and sermons spoken in Polish for the Polish people, the Irish wanted those services held in the basement."
"We were second class citizens," Iggy sighed.
"Thank God for Father Zapuka, that's all I can say," Grandma Rose said. "My parents thought so much of him that we travelled more than ten miles just to go to his church."
"Here's to The Goliath," Iggy agreed, lifting his glass in a toasting gesture.
"The Goliath?" I asked.
"That's what they called Father Zapuka," Ted explained. "They said he was a maverick politician, spiritual leader, and Polish patriot."
"We could use a priest like Father Zapuka today," Grandma Rose said. "He preached about Polish pride and Polish culture and the dangers of losing our Polish heritage."
Father Misiaszek isn't so bad, Babcia," Eddie said defensively.
"If he's so great, how come he let them close the school?" Grandma Rose demanded in an accusatory tone. "Father Zapuka would have made them drag him out by his hair instead of letting that damn Bishop roll over us."
"I'm sure Father Misiaszek did the best he could, Mom," Mrs. Savinski offered, coming to the aid of Eddie who looked crestfallen by his grandmother's harsh words.
"The Priest of the Poles stood up to the Bishop and any who insinuated that the Poles were at the bottom," Grandma Rose said. "He built our new church and opened the school to establish dignity and others marveled at the success of our Polish parish."
"I don't think we can blame Father Misiaszek for what happened to the school," Ted said, agreeing with his brother and mother. "He's been great for our parish too."
"The Goliath built the parish as the religious and social nerve center of the community," Grandma Rose argued. "What has your priest done lately?"
I knew it was my turn to change the table conversation before a brawl broke out.
"If it wasn't for Eddie, I'd be lost at St. Christopher's," I cheerfully announced in a diversionary tactic effort.
"Sounds to me like you're lost anyway," Grandma Rose snapped, bringing a laugh from Mary Ellen.
"Yes, but I'm not homesick like Eddie is," I observed, dodging Rose's verbal swipe while trying to refocus the conversation on anything beside religion and parish history.
"It sure does get lonely in the dorm at night," Eddie admitted, picking up on my attempt to redirect the conversation.
"Are you lonely, Ned?" Mary Ellen teased.
"Don't you have a girlfriend, Ned?" a curious Martha asked.
"Do you want a girlfriend, Ned?" Billy spoke up. "Mary Ellen's looking."
Mary Ellen's face turned red and the rest of the family laughed at her expense.
"Guess it's not so funny now," I teasingly whispered to Mary Ellen.
*** *** ***
Iggy, Eddie, Mary Ellen and I played a game of Scrabble at the dining room table after the supper chores were completed while Ted went out to meet up with friends and Grandma Rose helped Mrs. Savinski start on the meal preps for the next day's holiday gathering. Billy was content on playing with his train set in the cellar and Regina was happy to read her book in her room, while Martha bounced back and forth between helping her mother and grandmother in the kitchen and offering assistance to any of the four Scrabble players looking for triple word scores!
I couldn't recall sitting down with my parents to play a board game. I'd play chess with Paul the chauffer and Alberto the Butler was pretty good at cards, but personal and alone quality time with my folks was rare. I marveled at the banter being tossed back and forth between Eddie, his sister and his father and the trio did a good job of drawing me into the easy going conversation. Before I realized what was happening, I was relaxed, at ease and having a great time.
Iggy had a commanding presence but he adored his children and the kids loved him. Eddie was much less guarded at home than he was at St. Christopher's, where he tended to be a bit too tight and much too serious. Here, he was quick to tease his sisters, rib his dad, and treat his mom like she was his sweetheart.
Mary Ellen had a twinkle in her eye displaying eager anticipation for a good game and her high expectations brought out the best in the rest of us. All three Savinski's were good players, but their main focus was on having fun and enjoying the game. I held my own, but still finished fourth behind winner Mary Ellen, Iggy, and Eddie.
I was amazed to have spent such an innocent and pleasurable evening in such a relaxing family setting.
*** *** ***
I slept well my first night in the Savinski house, even though I was in a musky and dark cellar sleeping on a thirty five year old pull out couch with a mattress that was as flat as a pancake.
I had no idea what time it was when I awoke in the morning and I was surprised to find the house empty when I went upstairs, with the exception of Grandma Rose who was preparing food in the kitchen.
"Where is everybody?" I asked.
"Church, of course," she said, giving me a disapproving glance. "I don't suppose you know much about that."
"How come you didn't go?" I asked, annoyed by her tart if not hypocritical comment.
"You don't worry yourself about me," Grandma Rose snapped.
She handed me two bars of cheddar cheese and told me to cut them into thin slices on a plate. I took a seat at the kitchen table and went to work while she continued what she was doing at the counter.
"Father pleaded for us to stay true to our Polish heritage and ethnicity even as we became entrenched in the mainstream of American life," Rose revealed. "He said we were better off staying true to our own social, political, and religious societies."
"You really admired him, didn't you?"
"He baptized me. He confirmed me. He was the Celebrant at my wedding," Grandma Rose said with a smile. "I liked him and respected what he fought for because he was right. Look what happened. He warned about Americanization and insisted that we stay loyal to our Polish roots. Even when I was a girl, he worried about the future of the Polish community and he begged us to remain immersed in the pride of our heritage. Sadly, people forgot about their roots and the Polish traditions."
The family returned from Mass with smiles and laughter, bursting into the kitchen like a stampede of horses
"You missed a great sermon, Babci," Ted announced to his grandmother as the family rushed in like a herd of elephants.
"It was great being back at St. Stanislaus," Eddie boasted leaning against the refrigerator as if to catch his breath. "Father Misiaszek looks good."
"Let's get ready for the game!" Iggy enthusiastically announced to prevent another rant from his excitable mother-in-law.
"Game?" I asked.
"The big Turkey day rivalry," Mary Ellen explained with glee. "Greenville vs. Hillsboro."
"Go Hilltoppers!" Iggy yelled, raising his arms in the air.
"Giants all the way!" Mrs. Savinski screamed from the other room.
"Mom went to Greenville High," Eddie informed me.
"And Dad is a Hillsboro grad," Ted laughed. "I don't know how the marriage lasted!"
"Love conquers all, even football," Iggy said with a smile.
"I thought it was God who conquers all," Grandma Rose observed with a frown.
It was a cold late November morning in New England and I bundled up to protect myself from the elements. I had never been a big football fan. My father took me to a couple of USC games, but sports weren't a big thing with me and I rarely paid attention to the games at my various prep schools. The rallies and bonfires were excuses to steal booze and have impromptu parties and, if I even bothered to go to a game, it was to try to pick up one of the cheerleaders!
Iggy, Ted, Mary Ellen, Eddie, Billy and I piled into Mrs. Savinski's van and headed for the game being played in Greenville on the other side of the Blue River while Regina and Martha stayed home to help their mom and Grandma Rose with the meal preps.
The bleachers were packed and Iggy insisted on sitting on Hillsboro's side, even though his business was in Greenville. Eddie wanted to wander around the sidelines before the game began and I accompanied him. He bumped into several of his old neighborhood friends and fellow altar boys, and he politely introducing me as his college roommate. I wasn't used to being around other people's friends and it was weird socializing over the noise of the crowd, the cheers of the cheerleaders, and the music of the band.
We returned to our spot in the bleachers, standing with Iggy and Mary Ellen to watch the game and cheer on the Hilltoppers. Ted stood in one of the end zones with a crowd of older guys and Billy was happy to play his own game of football with other kids behind the bleachers. Mary Ellen stood between me and Eddie and she was happy to make various observations and comments as the game progressed.
I escorted her to the snack shack during half time for a hot chocolate and I was envious when a couple of guys from her high school class flattered her with hellos and nice comments. I could barely remember the names of most of the girls I'd been to high school with and here was Mary Ellen being revered by her old classmates.
"I guess you were pretty popular in high school," I observed as we returned to the bleachers.
She laughed and punched me on the arm. "As if that matters now?"
I could barely see her face with her scarf wrapped high around her neck covering her chin and her wool hat pulled far down on her forehead. She was wearing a long brown coat that made her look like a scarecrow and knee high leather boots that made her look like a cowgirl. But she was still the prettiest girl there.
It was a close game and the crowd was in a ruckus as the game waned late into the fourth quarter.
"Some years, it's like 48-6 Greenville by now, so this is pretty exciting," Mary Ellen told me.
The score was 14-8 Greenville with two minutes left when Hillsboro got the ball on a punt.
"It's now or never," Iggy yelled.
"Do or die," Eddie agreed.
"As long as it's a good game, I really don't care who wins," Mary Ellen remarked.
"Bialecki, the quarterback for Hillsboro, was an altar boy with me," Eddie observed.
"And the linebacker - #54 for Greenville – isn't that the Milewska kid who also goes to our parish?" Mary Ellen asked.
"I'll root for both," Eddie decided.
Hillsboro marched down the field and our side of the field went nuts with excitement and anticipation as the prospect of a game tying touchdown unfolded before us.
I was amused by how Mary Ellen knew more about the game than I did. She explained that some questionable play calling and awful clock management now left Hilltop with a fourth and ten with six seconds left in the game.
"Eddie's quarterback friend will have to launch a 'Hail Mary' into the end zone and hope somebody catches it for a score," Mary Ellen said.
Bialecki did just that but unfortunately he threw it right into the stomach of the Greenville linebacker Milewska who intercepted the pass and might have run it back 104 yards the other way for a touchdown if Bialecki hadn't tackled him at the forty yard line to end the game.
I watched as Bialecki grabbed his altar boy mate Milewska by the hand and lifted him from the ground. The two shook hands and slapped each other's backs before Milewska joined his celebrating teammates and Bialecki slowly walked to his downcast mates on the other side of the field.
"Oh well, wait until next year," Iggy said with a shrug of his shoulders. "Let's go eat!"
Ted and Billy caught up with us as we walked across the field watching the laughing and cheering Greenville guys celebrate and the crying Hillsboro cheerleaders trying to console the defeated Hilltopper players.
"Right now, this seems like the most important moment in their lives," a grinning Iggy remarked. "Five years from now, nobody will even remember who won."
Mrs. Savinski's brother Bud and Iggy's Uncle Stosh and his wife Sophie had already arrived when we returned from the game and they were watching the Macy's Day Parade on television. The house was full of laughter and good cheer as the family holiday celebration was officially underway.
Mrs. Savinski greeted Iggy with a hearty kiss and said, "Let's hear it for those Giants!"
Iggy laughed and twirled his wife around the room. "Hillsboro, Proud and True!" He sang what I guessed was the school fight song.
Eddie introduced me to his Aunt and two Uncles and the visiting relatives welcomed me with smiles and hand shakes, treating me as warmly and graciously as the rest of the family.
Stosh was nearly ninety, full of vigor and still with his wits about him. He was happy to see the Savinski kids and gave Billy a five dollar bill "for being a good boy".
Aunt Sophie was noticeably frail with thick glasses and a hearing aid. Her hair was snow white and so thin that I could see her pink scalp through it. She needed assistance as she slowly lowered herself into a chair, but she was smiling and glad to be visiting.
Uncle Bud was in his early fifties, skinny with a pencil mustache, thinning hair, and a perpetual smile pasted on his face.
"Say Uncle Stosh," Eddie asked once all the introductions had been made. "You've been around forever. Who do you like better? Father Zapuka or Father Misiaszek ?" Eddie was obviously still bothered by Grandma Rose's criticism of the previous night.
"Where's your grandmother?" a worried Stosh wanted to know, glancing around the room.
"She's in the kitchen, Gumps," Ted said with a laugh.
"Well, they're different men," Stosh revealed. "The Church Builder was 'verbally authoritative', but I don't think I've ever heard Father M. raise his voice."
"Who do you think did more for the Parish?" Eddie challenged.
"Oh, there would be no parish without The Goliath," Stosh bluntly stated. "But Father M. has been a pretty darn good restorer, hasn't he?"
"Definitely," Eddie declared.
"The Church Builder helped us stay Polish," Uncle Stosh explained. "Even when it got hard. I never forgot the family story about my older sister Helen."
"Dear, sweet Helen," Sophie said with a warm smile.
"As you know, my parents came from Poland on the boat and stayed true to the language and traditions of the homeland even while raising their children in America," Stosh said. "Pop always greeted Mama with the traditional 'Niech bedzie pochowalony Jesus Chrystus!'"
"That means 'Praise Be to Jesus Christ'," Eddie explained for my benefit.
"And Ma always responded with 'Na wiekie wiekow, Amen,'" Stosh said.
"'Forever and ever, Amen'," Eddie translated.
"Pop insisted that his children speak Polish at home because that's what Father wanted and so we did, until the day Helen's elementary school teacher brought her home and admonished Ma for not teaching her English," Stosh recalled. "Pop comes home from work and greets Ma in his usual fashion, but this time she simply replied 'Hallo' and that was the end of the family tradition."
"It was difficult to follow Father Zapuka's wishes of remaining loyal to the Polish heritage while struggling to raise children in the American culture," Aunt Sophie concurred. "I was made fun of in school because I could barely speak English."
"The Goliath was also a pretty good priest," Stosh said. "He was a Man of God."
"And a bit of a bully," Sophie added.
"Yeah, how 'bout your brother Ludwik when Anna got married?" Stosh recalled with a laugh.
"What happened, Gumps?" Ted asked
"Ludwik returned to the parish after a twenty-year absence and was required to attend confession as a member of the wedding party and, after facing Father Zapuka in the confessional, he never missed Mass or confession again!"
"I don't know what the priest said to my brother, but whatever it was worked!" Aunt Sophie agreed with a laugh.
"I liked Father Lapinski," Mrs. Savinski said, entering the room at the tail end of the conversation, still wearing her apron from her kitchen duties.
"He came after The Goliath, right?" Ted asked.
"Saddest day ever was when they transferred Father Zapuka," Aunt Sophie sighed. "They wrote protest letters to the Bishop demanding that he not be moved."
"The man served thirty whatever years at the same parish for heaven sakes," Uncle Stosh said. "It was time to give someone else a chance."
"What was Father Lapinski like, Mom?" Regina asked, sitting on the floor by the feet of Aunt Sophie.
"He liked helping people and was sympathetic," Mrs. Savinski reported, sitting on the arm of Iggy's easy chair. "He was sensitive and never got angry, in contrast to Father Zapuka, I'm told."
"The Goliath had a loud booming voice, so he sounded angry even when he wasn't," Uncle Stosh said. "Father Lapinski never scared people like The Church Builder could."
"Father Lapinski was a compassionate and humble mentor," Uncle Bud offered.
"He'd come into our catechism classes and talk about the saints," Mrs. Savinski recalled.
"The Saints were the subject of a great many of his sermons," Uncle Stosh agreed. "I got the impression he talked about the Saints when he hadn't prepared a formal sermon!"
"He had a great devotion to the Blessed Virgin," Aunt Sophie added. "How he loved Mary."
"And the Infant of Prague," Uncle Bud recalled. "He was always talking about Prague to us altar boys."
"Father Lapinski liked to eat," Aunt Sophie said with a laugh. "Goodness gracious, that priest enjoyed life and all its pleasures. He'd help the ladies prepare food for the various bazaars. And how he loved the children. He'd play St. Nickolas at the children's Christmas parties."
"He'd make the rounds at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter," Uncle Stosh said with a laugh. "He'd accept two or three invitations on the same day!"
"I think we had him for Christmas Eve pierogi one year," Aunt Sophie recalled.
"He sure was big," Uncle Bud said. "He had a hard time getting out of his altar seat when I was a server!"
"I guess his passion for food and his lofty size is what did him in," Aunt Sophie theorized.
"What was that story about him missing Christmas Eve Midnight Mass?" Mrs. Savinski asked her brother.
"He fell asleep in the rectory and was late," Uncle Bud confirmed with a grin. "The rectory was locked and no one could wake him, so we threw stones at his window."
"I think Midnight Mass started at about quarter of one that year!" Iggy remarked. "It was a sad day when Father Lappy retired. All the altar boys got together and bought him a huge silver cup."
"Well, he lasted twenty-five years here," Uncle Stosh said. "That's a pretty good run."
"But he died less than a year after he retired," noted Aunt Sophie. "So sad."
"They say he said the rosary one last time just hours before he died," Iggy remarked.
"And that his last words to those at his bedside were 'See you in heaven,'" added Uncle Bud.
Mary Ellen entered the room on Grandma Rose's behalf and announced that the meal was ready. The family made its way to the dining room with the table decked out in all its glory and the aroma of the turkey and all the fixings seeping in from the kitchen.
The twelve of us barely fit around the table and Izzy mentioned that when he was a kid there were some many relatives that the kids had their own table to make room.
Even with the leaf in the expanded table, it was fun literally rubbing elbows with Mary Ellen on one side of me and Eddie on the other. Iggy sat at far end of the table and his wife was at the other end, closest to the kitchen door to make the necessary runs, with Grandma Rose on her left along with Stosh, Sophie, Regina, Martha and Billy.
Uncle Stosh stood and offered a moving Grace, thanking God for His many gifts and for the love of family. I'd never seen so much food at one setting: roast turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, chestnut stuffing, corn, green beans, squash, bread, and two dishes I had never heard before. Grandma Rose told me that the baked fresh Polish sausage and sauerkraut was called "kielbsa z kapusta" and the meatballs in mushroom gravy was called "klopsiki w sosie grzybowym".
I tried to remember if I had experienced such a wonderful Thanksgiving gathering or meal before. I was usually at boarding school for the holiday, eating some pre-fab meal in the dining hall or, if I was home, it was typically a restaurant meal with a group of adults and I was the only kid at the table.
My mother took me to the Macy's Day Parade one year when she sang in it, but I stood on the back of the float far from my mother with kids I never met before. Riding on the float was neat and I was overwhelmed by the vast numbers of people gathered to watch the historic parade. I ended up eating Thanksgiving Dinner with a group of strangers while my mother went out with some of her celebrity friends who had also performed in the parade.
"Did Father bless the bread, flowers and wine this morning?" Grandma Rose wondered once the food was served and we began to eat.
"Of course, Mom," Mrs. Savinski reported. "Father is staying true to the Polish traditions and customs."
"The Holy Rosary gets prayed before Masses, the Angelus was recited after Mass, and Father still begins each liturgy with the traditional Polish greeting of "Niech Bedzie Pochwalony Jezus Chrystus," Mary Ellen reported.
"Remember the good ole days when the Priest would come to the house to do the blessings?" Aunt Sophie asked.
"What changed all that?" I asked.
"The first-generation children born to Polish immigrants were aging and dying off," Grandma Rose explained. "Our children and grandchildren were becoming increasingly detached, distant, and uninterested in the heritage of their ethnic roots, feeling less committed to the traditions of their immigrant forefathers. The priest became less relevant."
"We were no longer a strictly Polish Church," Uncle Stosh observed. "Parishioners from different ethnic groups started coming."
"If they came at all," Mrs. Savinski remarked. "People weren't attending Church like they had in the past and that's another reason the connection weakened."
"It became harder to maintain the legacy of Polonia while trying to attract parishioners who weren't familiar or particularly interested in our tradition," Grandma Rose complained. "I blame Father Ptak."
"I liked Father Ptak," Uncle Bud said defensively, sounding like Eddie the previous night trying to defend Father Misiaszek. "He was popular and well-liked."
"For all the wrong reasons," Aunt Sophie said.
"He was a progressive and liberal modernist who forgot he was a Priest first," Grandma Rose tartly agreed.
"He sure did like to golf," Iggy laughed.
"And play tennis," Mrs. Savinski added. "He was always at the Y or out on the courts."
"He'd visit parishioners on a Sunday afternoon to watch the football game on TV," Iggy snickered.
"Well, the altar boys liked him," Uncle Bud said. "He joked around with us."
"Father Ptak was pretty laid back," Mrs. Savinski agreed.
"He loved cards and he came to our house a few times to play," Iggy said.
"I liked him because he's the priest who presided at our wedding," Mrs. Savinski said with a warm smile.
"He was a mentor to the altar boys," Uncle Bud said. "We were a close group and we had lots of fun."
"Fun?" Grandma Rose was horrified. "Since when is Church supposed to be fun? See, that's what I mean. Father Ptak wanted to have fun, not lead the flock to God."
"He's the one who started subscribing to all the post-Vatican II nonsense," Aunt Sophie agreed. "He was happy to add the Saturday afternoon Mass and he wasn't offended by any of the other changes. He said the changes in the Church reflected the changes occurring in the world. If you ask me, he sold out when he said the Church must keep up."
"I adamantly complained about the changes in tradition, but Father Ptak said it was necessary and that he was willing to adjust to the new philosophies and liturgy," Grandma Rose complained with disapproval. "I almost stopped going to Mass then and there. That's when all the societies started dying off and all the traditions stopped."
"He didn't seem to care much about all that stuff," Iggy agreed.
"He was a fool," the fearless Grandma Rose stated. "The parish numbers were down and money was tight, and he was spending cash left and right like there was no tomorrow. He wasted all the money and then he blamed us when things got bad," Grandma Rose charged.
"Yeah, that's when he lost me," Uncle Stosh agreed. "When he started making money an issue, I wondered if cash was more important than our spiritual health."
"He drove the parish into the ground," Grandma Rose protested.
"That's why Father Misiaszek was known as the restorer," Uncle Stosh observed, smiling at Eddie and giving him a wink.
"I suppose," Grandma Rose reluctantly admitted.
"See, Babcia, Father Misiaszek has done the best he could," Eddie offered.
"They almost closed the place before he got here, Rose," Aunt Sophie pointed out.
"Okay, fine," Grandma Rose said, waving her hand to let everybody know she had enough of the conversation.
"Well, how 'bout those Giants then!" Mrs. Savinski said with a laugh and the conversation turned to football, the two high schools, and great games of the past as recalled by Stosh, Iggy and Ted from the Hillsboro perspective and Mrs. Savinski and Uncle Bud from the Greenville angle. Grandma Rose and Aunt Sophie insisted that they never bothered wasting their time on such foolishness.
"All we cared about was making sure dinner was on the table when it was time to eat," Grandma Rose said.
"Did you ever imagine yourself listening to this stuff," Mary Ellen asked me with a grin. "Fighting about which priest was the worse and which football team was the best!"
Iggy insisted that Regina, Martha and Billy get equal time at the table having been shutout of most of the conversation. Billy talked about how happy he was to have Eddie home and how great it was to serve with him again. Regina talked about how she enjoyed helping her mother and grandmother prepare the meal, and Martha told us what she saw during the Macy's Day Parade on television. I thought about mentioning that I was in the parade one year, but I didn't want to steal Martha's spotlight or talk about my parents if someone asked me how I got to be in the parade in the first place.
I felt like a Macy Day Parade balloon by the time we were done with the Thanksgiving courses. It had been years since I had enjoyed a home cooked meal and I couldn't recall being so satisfied, mostly because being with the Savinski Family was a whole new experience that brought me unexpected pleasure. For the first time in my life, I felt like I finally belonged somewhere.
Some of us adjourned to the living room to catch up on the televised pro football game and Uncle Stosh was asleep in his easy chair five minutes after he sat down! Martha kept Aunt Sophie entertained in the family room, Billy was downstairs with his trains again, this time with Uncle Bud at his side, and Regina and Mary Ellen helped their mom and Grandma Rose in the kitchen.
Iggy and Ted were interested in the ball game, but Eddie spent most of his time thumbing through a couple of family photo albums. I politely watched the game and offered the occasional comment to Iggy and Ted about a particular play, although I really didn't care, especially since the Detroit Lions were down by thirty in the second half.
We re-adjourned in the dining room after the clean up session was completed for Round Two of pumpkin and pecan pie with whipped cream and coffee. Sitting at the table with this amazing family watching them interact, banter back and forth, smile and laugh made me realize what I had missed over the years. An intact family of strength, love and faith could weather any storm and I understood why the Savinski kids were so confident, self-assured and secure in their outlook on life.
Eddie wasn't a Mama's boy as I suspected when I first met him. He valued, respected and honored his family. They cared about each other, rooted for one another, and they were genuinely interested in each other. Iggy respected his kids and was attentive to their needs and wants and Mrs. Savinski was affectionate and supportive. While the kids teased one another, they also defended their siblings and honored each other.
I thought about my family and how invisible and ignored I felt growing up. My parent's main focus was on themselves, their careers and their big time friends and they rarely had the interest or time to pay attention to me. I was sent off to private boarding schools and passed off to the hired help until I was old enough to fend for myself. I'm sure I wasn't missed by either of them on this Thanksgiving Day.
I didn't say much as I ate my pecan pie and watched the rest of the family sharing their Thanksgiving blessings, but I was glad to be a part of it.
"What are you grinning at?" Mary Ellen wanted to know, but I hadn't been aware that I was smiling.
"It's just nice to be here," I admitted, embarrassed by my vulnerability. Playing it cool and caring about nothing had always been my mode of survival.
*** *** ***
Aunt Sophie and Uncles Stosh and Bud left after desert, hugging and kissing every Savinski several times before finally making it out the door with endless goodbyes, farewells, well wishes and final comments.
Iggy, Ted and I caught a few minutes of the Cowboy game on the tube while the desert dishes were cleaned and put away and then Mary Ellen challenged those interested to a game of Monopoly.
Mrs. Savinski said she was too tuckered out and Ted was going out with friends again, but Iggy, Mary Ellen, Eddie, Martha and Billy were all up for a game. Regina was the banker and I agreed to play too.
"As if you had a choice!" Mary Ellen remarked.
"The banker doesn't play to avoid any chance of collusion, theft, or hanky-panky," Regina explained when I asked why she wasn't rolling the dice.
"That was one of the family rules we came up with a long time ago to avoid fights," Mary Ellen said with a good natured laugh.
"Mom's usually the Banker, so I have big shoes to fill," Regina explained and she proceeded to conduct her banking responsibilities in a professional, courteous, and serious manner.
The game was remarkably civilized. I was used to cut throat tactics in my previous experiences at boarding school but the Savinski's played with good spirit and good cheer, rarely taking offense to a lost property, a charged rent, or even a trip to jail. There was no stealing money when someone was in the bathroom or attempts at fraud or overcharging.
Mary Ellen was perfectly willing to trade down to get a needed Monopoly and Martha spent most of her time giggling and being silly. She was the first to go bankrupt and she laughed when she was gently drummed out of the game.
Billy was by far the most aggressive and capitalistic of the crew and he had the rest of us on the ropes several times, but he became bored and eventually sold off his properties to the highest bidder to spend time with his trains before bed.
Iggy was a smart businessman and played conservatively enough to keep the advantage, but he too eventually bowed out, needing to turn in at the end of a long day having to get up early for work. He divided his properties fairly among the remaining players, leaving Mary Ellen, Eddie and me to duke it out for the Thanksgiving Monopoly Title.
I felt a little guilty when I knocked Eddie out of the game – he landed on my Marvin Gardens with a hotel on it which finally did him in, even though earlier he had three houses a piece on both Boardwalk and Park Place (nobody landed on those properties!).
"First they close Saint Stanislaus Kostka Catholic School now they close Boardwalk!" Eddie exclaimed as he turned in his mortgaged properties to Regina the Banker.
That left the competitive Mary Ellen and me to battle it out for supremacy. Regina finally resigned as Banker six hours into the battle and Mary Ellen and I agreed to quit at Midnight at which time we'd tally up the assets to see who won.
I was glad to be able to spend some quality alone time with Mary Ellen and we bantered back and forth with idle threats and good natured ribbing as we fought to see who the best Capitalist of the evening would be.
"Do you think my family is crazy?" Mary Ellen wanted to know as we continued playing the game in the now still and quiet house.
"In a good way," I assured her with a smile.
"Why are you the mystery man?"
"I'm not, really."
"You've been here more than twenty-four hours and I know about as much about you now as I did when you first walked through the door yesterday."
"Why disappoint you with the truth?"
"Oh brother," Mary Ellen said, rolling her eyes with disbelief. "Fear and Loathing in Hillsboro!"
"It doesn't bother you that I'm not Catholic?"
"You can always convert!"
"You're not worried that I don't even come from a religious background?"
"Religion is learned," Mary Ellen told me. "You don't strike me as a heathen. You're going to a Christian College, aren't you?"
"What if I told you I chose that school just to upset my parents?"
"Sounds to me like going to St. Christopher's might be the best thing that ever happened to you," she replied.
She was right, but I wasn't going to admit to it.
The grandfather clock in the corner of the dining room gonged its midnight warning that ended our game. Mary Ellen turned out to have more cash and property on hand at the bewitching hour and she declared herself the winner when we were done counting up our cash and property at 12:20 a.m.
We were the only ones still awake as we put the game away to conclude one of the most enjoyable evenings of my life. I smiled when I said good night to Mary Ellen.
"Did you have a thankful Thanksgiving?" she asked with a grin.
"I did," I assured her before trotting down the cellar steps.
*** *** ***
Billy he woke me up at 8:30 the next morning when he turned on the cellar lights and started tinkering with his elaborate toy train system that was set up on several long pieces of plywood, complete with buildings, factories, stop signs, cars, and people. The train tracks included bridges, tunnel and crossings and it was obvious that Billy enjoyed putting trains together, collecting cars, and adding to his little train village.
"I usually get a few new pieces on my birthday and for Christmas," he told me as I rubbed sleep from my eyes and tried to wake up following my long day of football and turkey, and my long night of collecting $200 going around Go!
Eddie and Mary Ellen were seated at the kitchen table when I finished freshening up and I greeted them with a hardy good morning.
"I'm going to see Father Misiaszek," Eddie informed me. "I didn't get a chance to talk to him much at Mass yesterday. Do you want to come?"
I was more interested in hanging around the house if Mary Ellen was going to be home, but I didn't want to disappoint Eddie and I agreed to tag along. I knew he admired and idolized the priest and I was interested to see if the guy came close to Eddie's laurels. I grabbed a blueberry muffin and followed Eddie out of the house, waving goodbye to Mary Ellen as we left.
I was beginning to get to know my way around Hillsboro and I had little trouble finding my way to the Polish Church without input from Eddie. We parked in the large lot in front of the church and Eddie rang the rectory's front door bell that chimed with a religious hymn. After a moment, the door opened and a priest in his late sixties stood before us. He was shorter than Eddie with white hair and wire rimmed glasses. He was dressed in black priest garb and familiar white collar and I noticed he had slippers on his feet.
"Eddie!" The Priest exclaimed happily.
"This is my roommate from college, Ned Rollins," Eddie said, gesturing toward me. "I hope you don't mind me bringing him along."
"Any friend of yours is a friend of mine, Eddie," Father Misiaszek said with a smile. "Come in." He stepped back and let us into the rectory that more resembled a museum with all its art work and relics.
The Priest led us into the living room and we took seats in the comfortable chairs.
"Aren't you mad about the school?" Eddie asked. "I know I am."
"Off the record? Of course!" The Priest answered.
'Can't the parish buy it from the diocese?" Eddie wanted to know.
"We don't have the money, Eddie," Father replied. "I gotta raise fifty grand to rehab the basement now that we won't have the school to use as the parish hall."
"You're just going to let them turn it into condos?" Eddie protested.
"I'm here to celebrate Mass and administering the sacraments," Father Misiaszek explained. "That's the most important part of being a priest. Exposing people to the true faith and Jesus' Church, with or without a Catholic school nearby."
"Yeah, but what about the school?" Eddie asked.
Father shrugged. "I'm not in charge, Eddie. If it was up to me, we would be building up, not tearing down. Evangelizing to fill churches and schools instead of closing them down. But, I'm not in charge."
"It's like our roots are being taken away," Eddie protested.
"You're preaching to the choir, Eddie," Father reminded him.
"My grandmother is very upset," Eddie let the priest know.
"Lots of people are upset," Father confirmed, trying not to sound annoyed.
"What about the people protesting in the trailer?" I asked.
Father shook his head sadly. "I feel for them, but it's over. They're fighting a lost cause."
"How did all this happen?' Eddie demanded. "How could this happen?"
"The Goliath built a Polish church for the spiritual and social growth of the Polish people of Blue County," Father replied. "He like so many others saw the need for a church where the Polish people could worship with their own traditions, customs, and language and feel the saving grace of God's mercy and Sacraments. And he built the school to educate the children in their Faith and education. But now, as sad and unfair as we may see it, the independence of each parish no longer has an infinite future and the ethnic boundaries of each parish had been compromised. Catholic schools can no longer compete with the charter and public schools. Everybody loves sports more than they love Jesus."
"My Uncle Stosh says you restored the parish and kept it going," Eddie said. "I wish you could have done the same with the school."
"At least I kept the parish open,' Father said.
"Why?" I asked.
"For Eddie's grandmother," the priest replied with a grin. "When I first arrived and saw how dire things were, I asked the parishioners to offer a nine-day novena to the Holy Infant of Prague for a special and desperate need for the parish. The novena was answered when a large donation was made to the church. That's what saved the parish. Our prayers being answered."
"My mother says it's because of your leadership as a pastor and as a Shepherd of Christ," Eddie offered.
"Well, I don't know about that," Father said, clearly embarrassed by the praise. "But people began to believe in the parish again."
"Because it's a beautiful church and you've kept all the old traditions going," Eddie said. "It's like stepping into a time warp because Saint Stanislaus Kostka remains true to the customs and traditions of the past."
"Visual aids teach the faith and inspire devotion to the sacraments," Father told us. "We maintain the traditions because they foster faith and family life. I'll never stop that."
"What are some of the traditions you're talking about?" I asked.
"Well, there's the annual celebration of the "Odpust" indulgence feast day for one, with an outside Eucharistic procession and special Mass to celebrate the feast day of the church," The Priest said.
"Don't forget the picnic!" Eddie laughed.
"Celebrating All Soul's Day as a funeral Mass. The blessings of foods and wine before major feasts which is a Polish tradition of blending church and family," Father said. "Forty Hours devotions. One last bite of sweets before Lent. Gorzkie Zale. The feast of Corpus Christi Eucharistic procession. Masses of reparation followed by Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, the rosary, Benediction and confessions to celebrate various feast days and other indulgences. The use of flowers and herbs at various Masses. There's no reason to stop any of it, even if we are no longer at St. Stanislaus, because the Polish spirituality enriches us all and the wonder of our Polish heritage binds us as a parish and as families."
"I always thought the traditions, customs, legends, stories and beliefs brought us closer to knowing, loving and Serving God," Eddie said.
"What legends and stories?" I asked.
"Like how young Polish brides make embroidered linen pillows stuffed with sweet scented herbs and flower petals representing gratitude to God," Eddie said. "Or the tradition of making a sampler of life with each stitch depicting flowers, cottages, children, animals or something else that has meaning about an aspect of life, and how each stitch represents a prayer of gratitude to God for a good day. Or the Polish custom of burning candles as a prayer to remember the departed. And Palm Sunday being called Flower Sunday. And First Communion being held on Mother's Day to honor the mothers who gave their children a chance at eternal life."
Father Misiaszek smiled. "I've taught you well, Eddie! But, as beautiful as Saint Stanislaus Kostka is in all its traditional glory, we need to remember that we go to church first and foremost to honor God," Father said. "We find the altar of sacrifice at any and every church. That is where the Mass is offered and we must realize that it's not the particular church building that matters as much as having a place to gather and pray. Any House of God is The Gate of Heaven."
"I'm glad you're doing okay, Father," Eddie said.
"With God, I'll always be okay," The Priest grinned.
The telephone rang, so Savinski excused himself and he walked me down the hallway while the Priest went to answer the phone.
"We'll see you at Mass later, Eddie?" Father Misiaszek asked hopefully as he headed out of the room.
"Of course, Father," Eddie replied. "It's always a pleasure to serve."
We stepped outside and I looked at the Saint Stanislaus Kostka Church building perched on the hill overlooking the southern end of Hillsboro, the "flats" section of town as Eddie described it.
We walked to the church and Eddie pointed to a white cement block snuggled in the corner of the church building. "There's a time capsule in there," he reported. "It contains some artifacts and names of the original parishioners."
We reached the front doorway arched in a carved stone shrine with an inscription in Polish.
"What does that say?" I asked.
"A Gift from Father Zapuka," Eddie translated.
"Did he mean the door or the entire church?" I wondered
"Good question," Eddie replied.
Eddie opened the heavy front doors and we stepped into the dark vestibule. Several book cases and display cases containing artifacts, relics, statues, books, videos and other religious items crowded the narrow hallway. A huge crucifix of a bloody Jesus hung on the wall and there were several paintings hanging too.
He opened the swinging doors to the interior of the church and I noticed countless religious icons, artifacts, statues, crucifixes, and paintings on display throughout the church. Three rainbow arches divided the front of the church into three separate altars and several rows of candles were in the side altars. A large wooden altar graced the center alcove.
"If they needed to film a movie set in the 1940s, this is the place," Eddie noted.
The pews shined in light from the sunlight coming through the brightly drawn stained-glass windows on either side of the building lit the interior. There were more paintings, icons, statutes, doves, reliquaries, relics and fonts in the front of the church and the stations of the cross occupied both side walls.
"I wonder if I can still name all the stained glass windows, Eddie said, glancing up at the pretty glass with vibrant colors and fine drawings. "Father calls them a visual Litany of the Saints glorifying God." Eddie looked at each window and pointed as he went along. "Sacred Heart. Immaculate Heart. Saint Rose of Lima. Saint Ladislaus. Saint Helena. Saint John the Baptist. Our Lady of Lourdes. Saint Thomas Aquinas. John The Evangelist. Saint Monica. Frances of Rome. Our Lady of Consolation. Saint Francis of Assisi. Saint Francis of de Sales. Saint Kazmierz. Saint Cecilia. The Immaculate Conception. The Good Shepherd. Saint Anne. Saint Adalbert. Saint Hedwig. Saint Sophia. Saint Joseph. Saint Peter. Saint Therese of Liseux. The Battle of Our Lady of Czestochowa."
Eddie motioned to the main oak gothic style altar with triptych doors showing different paintings from the monastery of Czestochowa that towered over the center of the church.
"That's been there since day one," he said. "Uncle Bud says the altar carpeting was green when he was a kid, and there were crosses on the floor where genuflections were made. The ceiling and wall over the altar had murals painted on them. There were large crucifixes with the two holy water fonts on either side of the main doors."
Eddie pointed to small clips on the back of the pew in front of them. "These were for the men's hats," he explained. "Uncle Bud said sometimes he couldn't even see what was happening on the altar because of the big hats the women used to wear! The men used to sit on the right side," Eddie explained, gesturing to the opposite of the aisle, "And the women and most of the children sat on this side of the church. Uncle Bud remembers the high heels tapping down the aisles when there was no carpeting back then except on the altar. Oh, that large beautiful altar with all the statues and the chandeliers," he boasted. "That's what I'll remember most about this church. That and the memories of my family being together."
Eddie walked on the front altar and I followed. "That's where we sit when we serve," He explained, gesturing to rows of wooden seats on either side of the altar. "I remember when I was younger, my friend Tommy Bednarz would sit on the other side and make faces at me!"
He stepped through the side door off the altar and into the sacristy which was full of shelves, cupboards and closets.
"So many memories," Eddie sighed, glancing at the invisible ghosts around him. "I literally grew up here."
He led me along the back passage to the other side of the off altar with more empty cupboards and closets.
"It was a rite of passage when you made it over to this side as an altar boy," Eddie said with a laugh. "The big kids dress over here."
We walked down a dark stairwell into the dim undercroft. Two bathrooms were in the far corner, along with storage closets, book shelves, an old piano, and a few folding chairs and tables. The floor was faded linoleum.
"They never fixed this place up because they could use the school," Eddie explained. "We'd come down here to get out of jobs and to hide from Father," he added with a laugh. "Or we'd go up in the steeple above the choir loft with the ropes for the old ringing bell. That was one of the hazing rituals we went through as altar boys. The older guys would tell you there were bats and evil spirits up there and then shove you in there and wouldn't let you out until you rang the bell up top!"
Eddie opened the door to the boiler room and pointed to the far wall that was covered with hundreds of handwritten names from generations of altar boys and other church volunteers. "The Wall of Fame," he said.
"At least you've left your mark," I said, noticing his name among the others.
We walked up the stairs to the front vestibule where we started the tour.
"There's a great organ up in the choir loft," Eddie said. He motioned for me to exit out the front door.
"We had catechism in there." Eddie gestured to the school as we walked across the parking lot toward the closed building on the opposite side. "And all the church bazaars and dinners and meetings and social events and parties and receptions were in there too. It's the hub of the parish. The kitchen is big enough to feed an Army! I remember getting thrown in the coat closet in seventh grade CCD," Eddie grinned. "Despite passing notes, throwing spitballs, and making paper airplanes out of my homework, I still managed to graduate eighth grade and get confirmed! I spent time in the dog house, but the devotion of my teachers left an indelible impression on me. Many of my friends drifted in high school, but this parish and the school gave me an anchor that was huge. We called it The Palace on the Hill."
"What's going to happen to it now?" I wondered as I looked at the empty school building
"I hear the builder Boone Reynolds wants to turn it into Condos," Eddie said. "He's talking about a new Condo on the Hill project. That's the most depressing thing I've ever heard. I think the parish should try to buy the building and turn it into a parish hall or something."
We climbed into the car. "Back to the house?" I guessed as we drove down the hill.
"No, let me show you the flats," Eddie said. "Turn left at the stop sign."
*** *** ***
We drove along the south end of Main Street for a few blocks and Eddie pointed to a neighborhood that unfolded before us. "This is the flats," he said. "Polish immigrants settled in this part of town and called it Polish Town. Others called it Pole Town or Polackville."
"I'm assuming it was meant as a slur," I replied.
"I'm assuming you're right!" Eddie said. "There's Saint Stanislaus Kostka on the hill behind us."
I glanced in the rear view mirror and saw the church sitting on the hill overlooking the flatlands. A cement boardwalk led up the side of the hill to the church campus.
"There used to be an Army Supply Depot if you keep going another few blocks," Eddie explained. "A lot of the Polish flat landers worked there or in the Hillsboro factories Turn right here," he ordered. "Uncle Stosh's house is this way."
We slowly drove along the street that featured small homes with smaller yards intermixed with larger apartment houses and duplexes. Each structure was built next to the other with barely five feet of space between them.
"Stop here." Eddie gestured to a small storybook home on the right, painted pink. It looked like a doll house. "Oh, geez, look at Stosh!" Eddie exclaimed. "Is he trying to kill himself!?"
The old man was dragging a life size manger from a small shed in the back yard to the front porch.
"Stosh!" Eddie yelled, jumping out of the car. "Let us do that!"
"Welcome to Little Poland, Ned," Stosh greeted me as I joined Eddie to prevent the old guy from having a heart attack.
"Stosh says this neighborhood was its own world when he was growing up," Eddie told me as we took the wooden fixture from him.
"You'll notice some of the apartment buildings have old storefronts," Stosh said, pointing to the apartment buildings on the street. "Right over there was Zielinski's Meat Market. They made their own kielbasa from scratch. I remember old man Zielinski had a horse and carriage!"
We accompanied Stosh back and forth from the shed, dragging plastic camels, wise men, Mary and Joseph and of course the Baby Jesus. There was a bail of hay resting against the porch steps that Eddie and I spread inside the manger.
"We had our own grocery stores, bars, and bakeries here," Stosh revealed as we worked. "Never had to go downtown if you didn't want to. We'd have Pączki Day on Fat Tuesday. Folks lined up at Rybicki's Bakery to purchase pączki and chrusciki. I can still smell the donuts. Sometimes, Mr. Rybicki would give us kids a free sample. Gosh, those were the days."
"This is the first Savinski house in America," Eddie said. "It was originally my great-grandfather's."
"I was born in that house and Iggy was raised here too," Stosh reported. "Brudzynski's Market was a block that way," he added. "That was the place to go to hear the gossip or listen to the native tongue. Men who worked at the Army base or over in Greenville would be in there at the crack of dawn to buy sandwiches. Most of them had to walk to work if they couldn't afford the trolley."
"There's an old ball field down there," Eddie said, gesturing to a side street on the left.
"We'd play there or in the streets," Stosh said. "We'd be expected home when the factory whistle blew at 8:30 at night. In the afternoons, you could smell the stuffed cabbage and other Polish delights all over the neighborhood when the mothers would start getting supper ready."
"No TV dinners back then!" Eddie laughed.
"Old Man Luzinski had his Drug Store down that way," Stosh told us, pointing in the opposite direction. "It was a popular hang out for teenagers because of its soda fountain. I loved the marble counter. Mr. Luzinski was popular because he could speak both English and Polish. Folks went there when they needed something translated."
"Can you imagine that?" Eddie asked me.
"Never needed a car around here when I was a kid, not that many people could afford one anyway," Stosh recalled. "It was all about family, work and church. There'd be a Strawberry Festival on the first weekend in May and a Polish Day Parade on Labor Day."
"Polish Day Parade?" I asked.
"A festival with live music, beer, and food tents stretched from here to the church," Stosh explained. "We'd eat pierogies and kielbasa and wash it all down with beer and Coca-cola! Golly, I sure do miss those days."
"Did you know that Poland literally means land of fields?" Eddie asked me. "Farming was the main line of work in Poland and most came here dreaming of working the rich farmlands of America, but that didn't happen for many Polish immigrants."
"Well, earnings were low and most couldn't afford a farm, except to work for others," Stosh explained. "Rose's family was one of the few who owned their own."
"I guess she was pretty lucky," I said.
"Luckier than most," Eddie agreed.
"Many who came to Blue County ended up living here or in the tenements downtown, working in the factories or at the Army depot, or cleaning other peoples houses," Stosh explained as we sat on the porch steps. "They worked years just to be able to afford one of these modest tiny clapboard homes. There were a couple of hundred families living here in Polish Town."
"This is Pulaski Street," Eddie said. "The railroad tracks are just beyond the tree line over there.
"My brother David got killed by one back in the day," Stosh sighed, shuddering with the thought. "I still miss him."
"I know, Stosh," Eddie sympathized.
"See that mailbox over there?" Stosh wanted to know, pointing to a house across the street.
"Williams," I read.
"Used to be Wolkiewicz," Stosh sighed, shaking his head. "The kids complained that they couldn't pronounce or spell it, so the family changed it to Williams. Can you believe that? Happened fifty years ago, and I still can't get over it. What happened to Polish pride?"
"You'll never see me change my name to Smith," Eddie agreed.
"My parents came to America to fulfill a dream," Stosh remarked. "I can't help but wonder with the school closing, is the dream dead?"
"Not as long as we keep it alive," a determined Eddie replied.
Stosh looked at us and grinned. "Thanks for your help, boys," he said, giving the Christmas display a vote of approval with a thumbs up gesture. "The manger looks great."
"You're too old to be doing this stuff by yourself, Stosh," Eddie reprimanded his great uncle.
He brushed Eddie off with a wave of his hand. "Go home, boy," he said. "It's time for my mid-day nap!"
Eddie laughed and motioned for me to head for the car while Stosh made his way into the house.
"I never knew about any of this stuff," I said as we drove out of Little Poland.
The church on the hill appeared in front of us with the closed school in the background. "Maybe somebody can save it," I said, gesturing to the school on the hill.
"Not unless they have more money than Boone Reynolds," Eddie said, shaking his head in defeat. "It would take a miracle to save it now."
*** *** ***
We returned to the other Savinski house in time for left over turkey sandwiches courtesy of Grandma Rose.
I had forgotten that the day after Thanksgiving was the biggest shopping day of the year and I was disappointed to learn that Mary Ellen had headed for the mall with her mother, Martha, and Billy. When Eddie took off to spend some quality brother time with Ted, I was left alone in the house with Grandma Rose and Regina, the serious Monopoly banker!
I occupied myself by playing with Billy's train layout in the cellar. My parents spoiled me with toys when I was a kid to keep me preoccupied, but I never had a neat setup like Billy's train town and I enjoyed watching the trains go back and forth, the lights light up, and even the little band on the make believe town-common playing music!
Regina joined me, having heard the sounds from the cellar. She had curly strawberry blond hair with freckles and was as tall as Mary Ellen, but not as spunky or care free. She was the most serious and studious of the Savinski children, always walking around the house with a book in her hand and I had seen her keeling at the family's living room altar on more than one occasion.
"Hello," she said, joining me on the floor, sitting cross-legged as she watched the trains go around.
"Hello," I said, not quite sure what she was doing hanging out with a sot like me.
"So, what do you think so far?" she wondered.
"Hillsboro. Eddie's family. Thanksgiving with us."
"I'm having a great time," I answered.
"You're not like most of Eddie's friends."
"What do you mean?" I wasn't sure if I was being insulted.
"You just seem different, that's all."
"I guess I am," I admitted.
"Did Eddie tell you I'm going to be a nun?" she asked bluntly.
I wasn't sure if this was some sort of weird pick up line or a silly gag Eddie put her up to.
"Really?" I asked with surprise.
"Really," she confirmed proudly.
A stupid joke I heard years ago came to my mind and I foolishly told it to her. "Did you hear the one about the man who opened a dry-cleaning business next door to the convent? He knocked on the door and asked the Mother Superior if she had any dirty habits!"
Regina looked at me with a straight face and I knew I had messed up yet again.
"Sorry," I said. "Sometimes I can't help myself."
"You should really start trying," she deadpanned.
"A nun, huh?" I was intrigued.
"I've been praying about my vocation for a long time."
"Vacation?" I joked, trying to keep things light between us but bombing yet again.
"Vocation," she corrected me, sounding like a school teacher and I could tell she didn't have much of a sense of humor, or maybe she just didn't get mine. "I've had a feeling for a long time that God is calling me to something more with my life. I've come to believe that I should give the religious life a chance, even if I'm tempted to do a million other things."
"Did you talk to Father Misiaszek about it?"
"Until he was sick of hearing from me!" she admitted. "I've been on several retreats. I've spent time with the Sisters. I'm excited by the thought of apostolic work."
"You sound pretty committed."
"I count my blessings being raised in such an unusually wholesome and traditional community. It's too bad that more parishes don't have the same reverence and respect for the celebration of the Mass that's shown at Saint Stanislaus Kostka."
"I hear there's nothing like the Polish customs!" I said, glancing at her, not quite believing I was actually talking to a future nun. "Why do you want to do this?" I wondered.
"I believe that this is what God wants me to do," she responded with confidence. "I know it takes a lot of faith, but He knows best and if I trust Him I can't go wrong."
"But what about all the stuff you'll miss out on?"
"Is there really anything we can't live without?" she countered. "If God asks a lot of us, He'll give us the strength to do it. He'll give me the strength I need. And He'll give back a lot in return."
"Well, as long as you're happy," I said, wondering if I had ever really been happy in my life.
"I'll be happy because I'll be doing what God wants me to do."
I was entranced by the spiritual glow Regina radiated as she talked about her calling.
"It's all about doing what we ought to do." She looked at me and raised her eyebrows. "Do you know what you ought to be doing, Ned?"
"I don't have a clue," I responded with more honestly than I felt in a long time.
"I'm sure you'll figure it out eventually," she let me know.
"So, you're really serious about this?" I asked, moved by her convictions. "You're really willing to live in a convent?"
"You don't have to say it like it's a dirty word," she said. "Ned, if the whole aim of the religious life is to become saintly, where else should I go?"
"Saintly?" I almost laughed out loud.
"We're all called to be saints in a multitude of ways," Regina responded defensively, picking up on my cynicism. "The religious life is only one way of getting there."
"I'm not making fun of you," I assured her, embarrassed by my insensitivity. "I think it's great that you're this sincere about your future."
"And you have no doubts?"
"Well, there are always temptations," she admitted. "It's difficult to go against the flow and I'm not immune to that kind of temptation."
"You mean boys?"
"Well, I was actually referring to the Seven Deadly Sins, but I guess you can include boys in that category!" She paused briefly. "I take it you're experienced, as a boy?"
"I shouldn't be talking about this sort of stuff with a future nun," I said. "Besides, you're Eddie's sister."
"I'm not asking you out on a date, Ned," she assured me. "And, yes, I am Eddie's sister. So that sort of makes you my brother."
"I don't have any brotherly advice to offer," I sighed sadly.
"Oh, because celibacy is a dirty word, you mean?"
"No, it's a just a word I don't understand," I admitted. "Do you?"
"Professing a vow of celibacy is making a conscious choice of how to be in the world and how to relate to people in the world," she explained happily. "I'll be giving myself to my relationship with God and my religious community and my mission. Being celibate will free me to go where God and my community calls me to go."
"I'm assuming this is something you're praying about," I said, remembering something Eddie had told me early in the school year when he said he prayed about his problems, concerns, and ideas.
She smiled knowingly. "Prayer is wonderful," she said. "I'm always praying for my family. And I pray for all those who don't have someone to pray for them. I started praying for you when you came here the other day."
"Me?" I asked with surprise. "Why would you do that?"
"I sense sadness in you, that's all," she said with a shrug. "I figured you could use some prayers sent your way."
I was stunned that someone would think of me in that way.
"We're supposed to make the whole day a prayer, through rituals and caring for God's creatures and taking care of ourselves and doing our schoolwork and jobs and chores and even sitting around daydreaming," she explained. "All of these things can be opportunities to open ourselves to God and experience His love and to radiate this love to others. This is what I strive to do every day."
She was a remarkable young lady and it was the most open and honest conversation I experienced with a girl.
"Thanks for praying for me, Regina," I said, surprised to find a lump in my throat.
"My pleasure," she said. "I can tell you're confused by all this God stuff. My only question is what are you doing at a school like St. Christopher's?"
"Maybe God sent me there," I replied with a slight grin.
Regina smiled, stood, and trotted up the stairs, leaving me alone with Billy's trains.
"Ned!" It was Grandma Rose's voice calling down the stairs to me. Not exactly the person I expected to be hearing from. Did Regina say something to her?
I skipped up the stairs three steps at a time and found Grandma Rose in the kitchen making preparations for supper.
"Skin and cut the carrots," she ordered, pointing to the kitchen table where a bowl sat with several carrot sticks in them.
I'd never performed a house chore in my life, but I knew better than to second guess or question Eddie's stern grandmother and I followed her command without comment.
"No, no, like this," she bellowed, grabbing a carrot from my hand and showing me how to properly use the shaver. "Then cut them into little pieces, like this." She cut a few slices off the stick with a knife to demonstrate what she wanted. "It's for the salad."
Both of us worked in silence, mostly because I didn't know what to say to the woman. My father's mother was dead and his estranged father was sick and dying when I got to know him. My mother didn't get along with her mom and her father was more like her pal than her parent and he treated me like the kid next door instead of his own grandson, so I didn't have a lot of experience in the grandparent department.
"I guess you're pretty proud to be Polish," I finally said in a lame attempt to start a conversation.
She looked at me with contempt. "Have you always been a damn fool?" she wanted to know.
I'd been slammed by a Babci! It was an awkward confrontation and I didn't know how to respond so I said nothing.
"Sonny," she said after a few quiet moments, more gently this time. "Everybody should be Polish. The world is made up of Polish people and those people who wish they were Polish!"
I smiled at her remark and continued with my chore.
"My mother and father were both born in Poland," Grandma Rose told me. "My mother came over when she was nine and always said she missed the old country. My father stayed in Poland until he was out of the Army and then moved here and met my mother."
"Eddie says you grew up on a farm."
"In South County," she confirmed. "That's about ten miles south of here. I'm a farm girl at heart. Of course, nobody could ever pronounce my last name Mieczkowski correctly, so my nickname was Mouse which I found embarrassing. Children were cruel toward us Polish kids and I was made fun of, but my father told me to be proud of who I was so I tried to ignore the rude things people had to say and be proud of my heritage."
"I didn't realize it was so hard," I confessed.
"Being of Polish descent made me feel like I wasn't the same as everyone else and that I was different because my parents came from Poland and spoke a different language. My cultural background was different than many of my school mates. My parents spoke Polish to me, we ate Polish meals, and there were many cultural norms in my home that my friends were not used to."
"Like what?" I asked.
"Well, when I was at a friend's house and would ask for something to drink, I was told to go ahead and get it myself which was awkward because in the Polish culture when a guest asks for something the host caters to that need."
"Everybody's family is different, Grandma Rose," I pointed out. "It just isn't ethnicity that creates family norms."
"Yes, Yes," she said, waving her hand, apparently uninterested in what I had to say. "My father was fond of saying 'Every step in honor.' He spoke often about his family back in the home country and how they laid out the footsteps for us and how our footsteps would be followed by those who followed us. It made me realize how connected we are and how every step counts. So yes, I am Polish and Proud."
She took the bowl of carrots from me and replaced it with two heads of lettuce. "Tear them up into pieces," she said, taking a seat across from me to dice some tomatoes.
"Have you walked in honor, Mr. Rollins?" she wanted to know.
"Why do you ask?" I wondered nervously.
"You're here on Thanksgiving instead of with your family," she observed.
"I guess maybe my family hasn't always walked in honor," I admitted sadly. "And I suppose either have I."
"My mother taught me to leave in the past what belonged there," Grandma Rose advised. "So whatever happened in your past needs to be healed, Sonny. Thanks Be To God for the present moment because in the present moment you can claim your place."
"What if I don't know where I belong?" I asked my substitute grandmother.
"Take responsibility for your own life and decide what it is that you want, not what others want for you," she said. "Claim your own life so that no one else claims it for you."
*** *** ***
The back door flew open and the mall shoppers rushed into the kitchen, loaded down with bags and boxes. Eddie arrived a few minutes later, but disappeared after a moment with Billy and Regina to attend 5:30 evening Mass. Mary Ellen and Martha helped with the final food preps while Grandma Rose took the turkey casserole out of the oven and Mrs. Savinski set the table.
Iggy finally arrived after a long day of work, grungy and greasy and we waited for him to shower before we ate supper. Ted was out on a date, so the dinner table was a bit thin with Eddie's parents, Grandma Rose, Mary Ellen, Martha and me sharing the meal.
The shoppers dominated most of the conversation with their mall adventures, the people they saw, and the sales they found!
"How many times did you hear 'Happy Holidays'?" a displeased Grandma Rose wanted to know.
"Well, it might still be a little too early for Merry Christmas, Mom," Mrs. Savinski said. "Thanksgiving was just yesterday."
"Doesn't 'Happy Holidays' sort of include all the holidays between say Veteran's Day and maybe Martin Luther King day in January?" I foolishly asked. "There are a lot of different holidays during these months."
"Don't you say 'Merry Christmas' in December?" Mary Ellen challenged me.
"I grew up in a family that was pretty non-specific," I revealed.
"Are you afraid to say 'Merry Christmas?" Mary Ellen wanted to know.
"Well, not if they say it first," I reasoned.
"Then it's safe?" Mary Ellen asked.
"You don't want to offend someone by saying 'Merry Christmas' instead of 'Happy Holidays'?" accused Grandma Rose.
"Well, if it's totally meaningless to them, something they can't relate to, what's the point of saying it?" I asked. "If somebody wished me a Happy Hanukkah, I wouldn't be upset, but it really wouldn't mean much to me because I'm not Jewish."
"Do you think 'Happy Holidays' and 'Merry Christmas' means the same thing?" Iggy asked and I knew I was walking on thin ice considering I was talking to a traditional Polish American Roman Catholic family.
"Well, they don't say let's keep Christ in Christmas for nothing," I observed, knowing that was the answer to give, even though my own parents would roll their eyes at such a comment.
"Christmas is not just any old holiday," Grandma Rose exclaimed, and I knew another rant was coming. "Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ and we celebrate his birth not only to honor Him but to remind ourselves of how we strive to live our lives of faith. It's not a happy holiday. It's a Merry Christmas."
"What about those who aren't Christians, Mom?" I was surprised Mrs. Savinski asked the question.
"Excuse me, but aren't we living in a prominently Christian country?" Rose responded. "Why must we hide our faith to appease a minority? Our country is based on majority rule. Is it not unreasonable to ask the majority to deny their faith because a select few are uncomfortable?"
"God forbid somebody sings a Christmas Carol," Mary Ellen agreed.
"What message does this send to our children?" Grandma Rose wanted to know. "Is there something wrong with expressing faith in Jesus? Our children are damaged by these ridiculous attitudes and I'm sick of the persecution of Christianity. And we ask ourselves how in the world the St. Saint Stanislaus Kostka School closed? Is it any wonder when our society is moving farther away from religion and losing touch with the discipline and moral code our religion offers?"
"We've always believed it is right and just to say Merry Christmas, Ned," Mrs. Savinski gently told me. "We stand proud in our faith and we don't allow ourselves to sell our faith out. We set a place for Christ at our Christmas table and we make sure that our holiday is centered on the teachings of Jesus. We take the time to renew our faith and greet one another, and strangers for that matter, with a boisterous 'Merry Christmas' to remember what we're celebrating in the first place."
"Sounds good to me," I said, but I could feel Grandma Rose's stare burrowing in on me and I figured she saw me as a damn fool anti-Christian commie fanatic out to do in Christ and Christmas for ever!
We got through supper without any more speed bumps. Eddie, Regina and Billy returned from Mass as we cleared the table and Mrs. Savinski prepared round two for the three church goers. Mary Ellen, Martha and I remained at the table eating pumpkin pie and listening to the three talking about Mass.
"Father Misiaszek's homily was about the first American Thanksgiving," Regina reported.
"Yeah, the pilgrims in 1621," Martha said. "Duh."
"That's what we all thought!" Billy laughed.
"The first American Thanksgiving was actually celebrated in St. Augustine, Florida in the mid 1500s," Eddie revealed. "The Native Americans and Spanish settlers held a feast and Holy Mass was offered."
"And a second Thanksgiving celebration occurred around 1600 in Texas, also commemorated by the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass," Regina explained.
"And then came Squanto who mediated between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans and received baptism and became a Catholic," Eddie said. "So it was actually a baptized Catholic Native American who orchestrated what became known as Thanksgiving."
"The Pilgrims were all about religious freedom but the Catholics in England were also persecuted for their faith," Regina said.
"Did you know that Thanksgiving in Greek means Eucharistia?" Eddie asked. "According to Father, the Body and Blood of Christ is the true 'Thanksgiving Meal'!"
"Sounds like you heard a very educational homily!" an impressed Mrs. Savinski said.
"All of Father Misiaszek's sermons are educational, informative, interesting and inspiring," Eddie replied.
Once the supper clean up was completed, most of the family ended up in the living room. Martha tuned the television in to the family channel and a rerun of my father's television series from ten years earlier called The Tornado Kid was on.
'The Tornado Kid' is the only family survivor of a Midwestern tornado and he moves east to live with his grandparents. My father plays the dad of the family across the street who befriends the Tornado Kid.
The series bugged me as a kid because my father played the all American Dad on television even though he was hardly that in real life. My father really is a good actor because he came across as the greatest dad ever on TV, but could barely carry on a meaningful conversation with me, his real life son.
"Oh, I love The Tornado Kid," Martha said happily.
"Didn't he go to rehab a few years ago?" I asked, drawing a frown from Iggy who didn't want Martha confusing the child actor with the character.
"That guy who plays the father looks a little like you, Ned!" Mary Ellen observed with interest.
"I don't think he is quite as handsome as me," I joked.
I avoided watching my parents act on television because it was usually a surreal experience. I didn't understand the craft of acting as a kid and I was confused when I saw my father playing a bad guy in some B-western or my mother sobbing all over the screen on her soap opera. Later on, I resented watching them because it had nothing to do with me but was such a big part of their own lives.
I watched The Tornado Kid with one eye half shut, though it was interesting to see my father ten years younger through the magic of television reruns.
"We now return to The Tornado Kid starring Rod Rollins and Mark Blake," the announcer said as the channel came out of a commercial break.
"Gee, that guy even has your last name, Ned," Eddie laughed, but Mary Ellen wasn't so dismissive and she gave me a long look as the show continued. I grabbed the sports page from Iggy's newspaper and pretended to be interested in the weekend's football instead of The Tornado Kid.
When the show was over, I accepted Martha's invitation to a game of checkers, followed by a game of Chess with Regina. Later, I played a round of hearts with Iggy and Mrs. Savinski, Eddie and Mary Ellen to wrap up the evening.
"So what did you say your parents did for a living?" Mary Ellen wanted to know when the card game was over and people were heading for bed.
"I didn't," I let her know.
"But you've lived in California and New York, you said?"
I nodded affirmatively.
"LA, maybe? Hollywood, even?"
"Southern California," I admitted. "Good night, Mary Ellen."
She gave me a long gaze, nodded okay, and let me head down the cellar stairs for my third night of sleep in the Savinski house. I wondered what the next day would bring as far as family adventure, discovery, and conversation went
*** *** ***
I opened my eyes to find Mary Ellen standing over the pull out couch staring down at me.
"Let's go have breakfast at Johnny C's," she said. "Eddie will meet us there after Mass."
"What time is it?" I mumbled.
"Almost quarter of nine."
"On a Saturday morning!? There ought to be a law!"
"Get up!" She repeated.
"I'm in my underwear," I said from under the covers. "You'll have to leave."
"Oh, sorry," she said with a giggle. "Hurry it up, though."
She trotted up the stairs and waited for me in the kitchen.
Fifteen minutes later, I pulled my SUV into the parking lot of Johnny C's Diner on Hillsboro's Main Street with Mary Ellen Savinski in the passenger's seat. I could smell the food cooking from the parking lot.
"I waitressed here for a couple of summers," Mary Ellen said as we climbed out of the car. "Ted and Eddie both were bus boys here too."
Johnny C's was an old-fashioned diner car with an extension built off the side. Everything inside the place was metal. Historic photographs of the town decorated the walls, along with photos of various high school and little league teams the diner sponsored. There were photos of the diner in the early days, a portrait of the original diner, and of Johnny C himself, although Mary Ellen explained that a guy named Birdy Braft owned the place now. There was also a photograph of some former NBA player from thirty years ago who grew up in Hillsboro and came back to town after his career ended.
The murmur of conversations mixed with the noises from the kitchen and the barking of orders from the waitresses. Laughter mixed with the aroma of eggs, pancakes, coffee, hash, sausage and bacon hanging in the air.
"This is one of the most popular places in town," Mary Ellen said as we stood in line waiting for a booth "This is where everybody catches up on gossip, politics and sports. Everybody knows your name here."
"They won't know mine," I said.
"Hey everybody!" Mary Ellen hollered loudly. "This here is Ned Rollins. He's my brother Eddie's roommate at college. He's spending the weekend at our house!"
"Hey Ned!" several people called out and I shriveled from embarrassment while a tickled Mary Ellen laughed at me.
Several people said hello to Mary Ellen as they passed us by.
"You're very popular," I noted.
"I grew up here, Ned. I worked here! Everybody knows everybody in Hillsboro."
A booth opened and Mary Ellen told Allie the waitress that we'd wait for Eddie before ordering, although we both asked for a cup of coffee.
"I don't think your grandmother likes me much," I said, still stung by her 'damn fool' comment from the previous day.
"Oh, Grandma Rose likes to sound tough, but deep down she's a softy," Mary Ellen assured me with a knowing smile. "Don't let her gruffness fool you."
"Gruffness?" I asked, my voice dripping with sarcasm.
"Let me tell you something, Ned," Mary Ellen said in all seriousness. "Grandma Rose has been a big influence in my life. Her morals and values have influenced me since I was a little girl. She taught me to respect adults and to be courteous to others. She instilled the values of honesty and sincerity. She taught me to value family and friends alike. She's proud of our heritage and of our religion. She taught me to be true to myself and never put on an act. She supports all of us in whatever we do. She never missed even one of my field hockey games in high school."
"How long has she lived with you?" I asked.
"After she got sick about ten years ago," Mary Ellen said. "Grandpa was gone by then. My mother says that Grandma Rose took care of her folks when they got old and of her husband when he got sick. The least we could do was take care of Grandma when she needed our help."
"She doesn't look like she needs help."
"She's a cancer survivor," Mary Ellen revealed. "It's been in remission for several years, but she was down and out for a while. The best thing that happened to our family was her moving in."
"She's a die hard Catholic," Mary Ellen explained. "She told me that I'd always have peace in my life if I had God in my heart. She had amazing faith during her illness and she's my inspiration because she never lost her faith even when she was deathly ill. She wasn't worried because she knew God would take care of her. I really admire her, so don't be too hard on her just because she can be a grouch."
"Did you ever visit the farm?" I asked.
"Oh, that was long gone way before I was born," Mary Ellen told me. "My grandmother spent most of her married live in Greenville. My grandfather worked in a factory."
Eddie showed up out of breath. "Can't stay long," he reported, sliding into the booth next to his sister. "I promised Father Misiaszek I'd go back and help out with the Saturday jobs."
"Hey, Eddie!" A man wearing a yellow Johnny C's tee shirt emerged from the kitchen. "You're home!" He had a neatly trimmed beard, sandy gray short-cropped hair, and a couple of small Navy tattoos on his arms.
"Hello, Mr. Braft," Eddie greeted the guy I figured was the owner.
"Hi, Boss," Mary Ellen joked.
"This is Ned Rollins, my roommate from college," Eddie said, gesturing toward me sitting on the other side of the booth.
"So I heard," Mr. Braft said, tossing an amused grin at Mary Ellen. "It's great to see you, Eddie."
"It's good to be back," Eddie admitted.
"Always remember Eddie, there's no place like home," the owner grinned. "Hillsboro always waits for us."
"Yes, sir," Eddie said.
"I hope you're not mad at me, Eddie," Mr. Braft said.
"Why would I be mad at you, Mr. Braft?" Eddie asked with surprise.
"Well, my wife is the realtor selling the school," Mr. Braft said.
"I'm mad at the Bishop, not your wife, Mr. Braft," Eddie replied. "But you're friends with Boone Reynolds, right?"
"Since kindergarten," Mr. Braft confirmed.
"Tell him to not wreck the school," Eddie pleaded.
Mr. Braft nodded in understanding. "I doubt he'll listen to me, Eddie," he said. "But enjoy your breakfast, folks. Allie, service please!"
"That guy was in the Navy for like thirty years," Eddie said after Mr. Braft left and Allie took our orders.
"You're in college now," Mary Ellen reminded her brother. "You don't have to spend your Saturday working at the church."
"I want too," Eddie said.
"I had a nice chat with Regina yesterday," I said. "What do you guys think of her becoming a nun?"
"I think it's great, of course," Mary Ellen said. "Why wouldn't we?"
"You don't think she's giving up a big part of her life?" I asked.
"She'll be giving a big part of her life to Jesus," Eddie explained. "What's wrong with that?"
"Oh, nothing," I said, even though I was still struggling with the concept.
"I haven't given up on the seminary yet," Eddie revealed.
"The seminary?" I asked with surprise. "You mean, become a priest?"
"And you thought Regina was crazy!" Mary Ellen whispered, leaning over the table for dramatic effect.
"You're going to college, Ed," I said.
"I can enter the seminary any time I want," Eddie replied.
"Unless you meet a girl or something," I muttered.
"Sure," Eddie admitted. "But I've been thinking about the calling for a long time."
"Because of Father Misiaszek?" I guessed.
"He's been a great spiritual and vocational advisor," Eddie agreed.
"And a good example," Mary Ellen added.
"All future priests know something important is missing from their lives and everyone needs guidance to figure out what's going on," Eddie said. "There must be something more for me out there."
"You think we're all crazy, don't you?" an amused Mary Ellen asked me. "I can tell by the way you've reacted to us all weekend."
"No, I don't think you're crazy," I said. "I've just never experienced this stuff before. I never knew religion could be so……..present."
Allie brought our orders – western omelet for me, pancakes for Mary Ellen, eggs over easy for Eddie.
"Are you saying you've never experienced God before, Ned?" Mary Ellen asked once the waitress was gone.
"Well, not like you guys," I admitted.
"Faith has always been a very big part of our life," Eddie explained.
"I've seen it first hand," I noted.
"I've had a good spiritual foundation, but I'm still not sure if that will lead to the priesthood," Eddie confessed. "I'm still trying to figure it all out."
"What do you parents think about you and Regina considering the religious life?" I asked.
"Are you kidding?" Mary Ellen said. "What greater joy could faithful parents wish for their children?"
"Yeah, considering our mother almost married a priest, I don't think she'll mind," Eddie remarked.
"Your mother almost married a priest?" I asked with surprise.
"Well, he wasn't a priest when she knew him," Mary Ellen answered with a laugh. "He was her boyfriend in high school."
Eddie practically inhaled his eggs and was done with his breakfast in two shakes. He tossed a five dollar bill on the table.
"Gotta go," he said, sliding out of the booth. It suddenly occurred to him that he was leaving me in the lurch. "Oh, Ned, I'm sorry. I forgot about you."
"We'll find something to do," Mary Ellen said. "You go ahead, Eddie. I'll take care of Ned today."
"I'm serving at 4:00 Mass too," Eddie explained. "I guess I'll see you guys back at the house after church."
"Okay," Mary Ellen said. "Bye bye."
Eddie vanished from the diner and we watched him through the window as he walked quickly along Main Street.
"Aren't you going to ask me what my vocation is?" Mary Ellen asked once Eddie was gone from sight.
"You have a vocation?"
"Sure do," she said with a smile. "I'm planning on falling in love, getting married, having plenty of kids, and being a great mother," she announced. "That's just as important a calling as anything else."
"And you're planning on doing all this right here in Hillsboro?"
"Well, as Mr. Braft said, there's no place like home," Mary Ellen laughed.
"I thought Dorothy said that in The Wizard of Oz."
"Her too," Mary Ellen agreed. "Hillsboro is my home. My roots are here. My family is here. My future is here."
"Don't you want to see a little bit of the world first?"
"Our class trip in high school was to New York City. My dance class performed at Disneyworld when I was twelve. Uncle Bud took me and Ted to Poland the summer I was sixteen. I've seen enough of the world to suit me fine. Besides, that's what they invented vacations for!"
"Well, I guess you have your life all figured out, don't you?" It came out more cynically than I intended.
I sat back in the booth and sighed. "Hardly."
"How come nobody knows anything about you?" she wondered. "I asked Eddie this morning to tell me something personal about you and he couldn't come up with anything. Don't you find that strange?"
"I don't talk much about myself. And Eddie doesn't ask. That's why we're great roommates!"
"I bet I can tell you something," Mary Ellen said. "Well, about your parents anyway."
"Oh yeah?" I asked nervously.
She pulled a piece of paper from her purse. "The son of famous Hollywood mogul Max Parker, Rod Rollins was born in Malibu Beach and made his professional debut at the age of eleven as Joey Danvenport in the dramatic television drama series The Davenports. His other television series include Nada's House and The Tornado Kid. He currently plays the lead detective Branson on The 22nd Precinct."
"Where'd you find that?" I asked.
"Off the Internet last night," Mary Ellen said. "A character actor with occasional starring roles, Rollins is best known for playing teachers and coaches. And then it lists all his credits."
"Never heard of the guy," I lied.
Mary Ellen rolled her eyes as she flipped the page. "His first marriage to actress Elizabeth Yeagley ended in divorce after six years of marriage and one son." She looked from the paper. "That would be you?"
I said nothing and she flipped to a third page. "Elizabeth Yeagley was born in Bridgeport Connecticut and made her Broadway debut at the age of sixteen. Although she has enjoyed supporting roles in several television shows and feature films, she is best known for her leading role as Victoria Anderson in the popular daytime drama All Our Tomorrows. She is also an accomplished singer. And then its lists all her credits."
"Listen," I sighed, leaning across the table. "Can we keep this just between the two of us?"
Mary Ellen must have seen the desperation on my face because she stopped grinning and quietly folded up the paper and put in back in her purse. "Sure, Ned," she said softly. "I won't tell anybody."
We finished our breakfast in silence, me feeling vulnerable for having my secret exposed.
"I'm sorry," Mary Ellen said as we stood in the diner parking lot having finished eating and paying the bill.
"I shouldn't have invaded your privacy," she said. "I didn't mean to upset you."
"You didn't upset me," I said. "My parents upset me!"
She nodded with understanding and climbed into the passenger's seat of the car.
"What now?" I asked as I slid behind the steering wheel.
"I've got an idea," Mary Ellen announced after a moment's thought. "Head out across the Blue River Bridge."
Twenty minutes later, we were pulling into the parking lot of the South County Nursing Home.
"This used to be the land that was my grandmother's family farm," Mary Ellen explained. She pointed to a farm house on the other side of the street. "That's all that's left."
"That's where Rose grew up?"
"A long time ago, in a different life," Mary Ellen said. "Ironically, both of Rose's parents ended up here at the end of their lives."
"In this nursing home?"
"Yeah," Mary Ellen said. "And when I was seventeen, my great Aunt Valentinya died here. I used to come visit. And then I started volunteering."
"Because it's the right thing to do," Mary Ellen told me. "Because I hope when I'm bedridden, incontinent and being spoon fed, somebody will look after me in my golden year spender!"
She opened the door of the SUV. "Come on," she said. "Let's go."
"Let's go do some volunteer time!"
She saw the look of fear on my face and put her hand on my arm. "Don't worry, we can't do any of the hard stuff. We just talk to folks, walk them down the hall, help them at lunch. It's pretty easy and very fulfilling."
She gave me a moment to think about it, before adding, "It would really mean a lot to me if we did this together."
"Okay," I nervously agreed, climbing out of the car.
I felt comforted when she took me by my hand and led me across the parking lot into the facility.
Mary Ellen already knew most of the staff and plenty of the residents, calling out names and waving hellos through doors as she marched us down the center passageway. For the next several hours, Mary Ellen helped tidy up closets, dresser drawers, and table tops, assisted several ladies with their make up and jewelry, read aloud from newspapers, magazines, and books, kept residents company by watching television with them and discussing their favorite shows, wheeling them down to the activity room to play bingo or listen to music, and sitting with them while they ate lunch.
I assisted her when I could and occasionally did an activity of my own, like playing checkers with Mr. Woolridge in the day room, reading the sports page to Mr. Jablonski, and reading out the cross word clues and writing the answers for Mr. Lancaster who could no longer write or even hold the puzzle book because of his arthritic fingers.
I was sitting in the activity room with several residents later in the day when one of the Certified Nursing Assistants stuck a video into the VCR. It was one of my father's more recent films called Homecoming, spanning fifty years of a man's life. My father spends the last third of the film in age makeup as his dying character is now nearly 80 years old trying to make amends and apologies to his estranged middle aged daughter who is home for the first time in several years.
I was fascinated, not so much by the film, the story, or my father's performance, but by the reaction of the people in the room, especially the men, as they watched the last part of the movie. Several had tears in their eyes as my father's character tries to resolve old wounds and hurts with the daughter and I knew they were thinking about their own relationships. Mary Ellen sat quietly next to me for the last part of film.
It was almost dark when we finally called it a day, but the time had flown and I was amazed by the experience, so much so that I couldn't find the words to express how I was feeling.
"For me, it's all about dignity," Mary Ellen said as we drove back to Hillsboro. "Imagine all the lost pride when someone has to help wipe you when you're done in the bathroom, or clean up your mess when you don't make it to the toilet. It's easy to understand why residents are embarrassed, depressed or feel guilty. Our role as volunteers is to minimize those feelings and to bring some joy and laughter to their day. I'm their friend and I try to treat each resident as if they were my own grandmother or grandfather"
"Most of them are somebody's grandparent," I realized.
"The greatest reward for me is the smile, thank you, and hug I get from residents," Mary Ellen continued. "Making someone happy or hearing thank you is priceless. Nothing is better then knowing I brightened someone's day. Sometimes the elderly are seen as disposable, but it's all about respect and dignity for everyone."
"When I was nine years old, I spent the summer with my father," I revealed. "By then, my grandfather was sick and dying, bedridden, half-blind, miserable and forgotten. Almost every day, I had Paul the Chauffer drive me to see him."
"Max Parker, you mean?"
"Max," I confirmed. "I read to him mostly. The show business newspaper Variety from cover to cover was his favorite. He was thinking about the movies right up to the end. It seemed like such a simple thing for me to do. Keep an old man company and entertained when nobody else could be bothered. I hadn't thought about that until today. Being at the nursing home brought it all back."
"Gee Ned, that's the first thing personal I've heard you say all weekend," an impressed Mary Ellen let me know.
"I try not to think about that sort of stuff," I admitted.
*** *** ***
We returned to the house almost at the same time the others got home from 4:00 Mass. Iggy was lugging three large pizzas which, I was told, was the family's Saturday evening tradition.
"Mom," Mary Ellen said once we were seated eating the pizza and drinking soda. "Tell Ned about your priestly love!"
"Oh brother," Iggy complained. "Not this again."
"Don't be jealous, dear," Mrs. Savinski said with a smile.
"I love hearing it!" Martha squealed.
"His name was Emerson Skworzec," Regina said.
"He was born and raised in Hillsboro and was baptized at Saint Stanislaus Kostka
Parish where he was also an altar boy," Mary Ellen explained.
"That's where I met him," Mrs. Savinski said.
"Never saw a child so eager to attend church," Grandma Rose recalled.
"We were in the same catechism class," Mrs. Savinski said. "Plus I loved to watch him on the altar when he served."
"I served too, you know!" Iggy exclaimed. "And I was in your catechism class."
"Yes, dear," Mrs. Savinski acknowledged. "You just didn't have any presence!"
The kids laughed and their father made a face at his wife.
"She made Uncle Bud bring ole Emerson home all the time," Eddie revealed.
"Talk about an arranged friendship," Iggy complained. "Those two had nothing in common."
"What did I care?" Mrs. Savinski laughed. "I just wanted to see Emerson! I'd go to all the church functions hoping to see him. We swam together at the church picnics at Sunrise Lake. I'd go with him to the Polish days in the flatlands. Everything was great! He was wonderful. Sweet. Giving. Honest. Friendly. Nice."
"I was too!" Iggy insisted.
"Emerson was a member of the science and chess clubs, the National Honor Society, and he managed some of the sports teams at Hillsboro High," Mrs. Savinski recalled. "He served on the student council and wrote for the high school's literary magazine. I knew everything there was to know about him."
"The guy walked on water," Iggy complained.
"Just like Jesus, Dad!" Billy observed.
"Bud said Emerson was the model altar boy who mentored the others," Mrs. Savinski said.
"He was a show off," Iggy clarified.
"Yes, dear, while you were stealing the sacramental wine, giving altar boys wedgies, and making faces at the girls during communion," Mrs. Savinski reminded her husband.
"Emerson was a boy of remarkable faith and spirituality," Grandma Rose revealed. "His family was very active in the parish. I always knew what he was going to do with his life." She looked at her daughter. "You never stood a chance!"
"I ignored all the signs," Mrs. Savinski admitted.
"What sort of signs, Mom?" Mary Ellen teased.
"I won't kiss and tell," Mrs. Savinski laughed.
"Oh brother!" Iggy protested.
"And so what happened?" Eddie asked with a sly grin.
"Well, just as I was getting ready to fall in love and commit the rest of my life to him, he informed me that he was joining the seminary," Mrs. Savinski said with a laugh. "What a young foolish girl I was! Here I was thinking he was in love with me, but he was in love with Jesus!"
"And that's when I came into the picture," Iggy told me with a wink. "I'd been hanging around for years patiently waiting and watching. I made friends with Bud just so I could be closer to his sister!"
"The other man!" Mrs. Savinski laughed.
"And I was there to pick up the pieces when good ole Emerson left poor little Theresa in the pew," Iggy explained.
"You came to the rescue," Mrs. Savinski agreed. "My hero!"
"And he really became a priest?" I asked.
"Call him Father Skworzec," Grandma confirmed.
"I knew he took our faith seriously but I never thought he'd make that choice," Mrs. Savinski admitted. "But I think he did the right thing. He's a thoughtful and kind priest."
"We're proud of him," Iggy acknowledged. "He was a Chaplain in the Air Force. Now he has a parish down on Long Island."
"We get Christmas cards," Grandma Rose said.
"He comes back once in a while," Iggy added.
"He has to," Mrs. Savinski said. "He's a child of the parish who grew up in the arms of Saint Stanislaus Kostka. It's where we were baptized and went to Mass and catechism, made our First Communion, got confirmed, and some of us even married. It's where we baptized our own children. All of us come back to Saint Stanislaus Kostka in the end."
"Father Lapinski, Father Ptak and now Father Misiaszek and the sacraments, the feeling that no matter what I would be forgiven by God and be welcomed back by Jesus," said Grandma Rose. "Saint Stanislaus Kostka will be with me until I die."
There was little to clean up having eaten our pizza on paper plates and drinking our soda out of paper cups. Iggy suggested that the kids go do something together without the grown-ups and Martha called for a night out bowling. Ted had a date, but I joined the five other Savinski kids for a trip to the Greenville Bowling Center.
I hadn't bowled in years, but Martha's silliness and Billy's goofiness reminded me that we were out to have fun and not to try for a perfect game. The Savinki's bowled as a family several times a year and they quickly got into the spirit, knowing their bowling shoe size and opting for their favorite lane at the far end of the building.
Everybody fell into an easy joking mood that put me at ease. Mary Ellen was noticeably competitive and Regina was stoically serious, but Martha and Billy spent most of the night giggling, laughing and not caring about their scores. Eddie kept score and didn't say much when I struggled to stay ahead of Martha and Billy on the scorecard! We joked and teased each other, laughing at how we were bowling and trying to distract Mary Ellen when she was bowling so the rest of us could have a chance!
One of my goals for the night was to get the serious Regina to lighten up, so I spent plenty of time joking with her and eventually she started to smile and have a good time.
There was music and strobe lights and I bought ice cream from the snack bar for everybody near the end of the night and we were still laughing, joking, and fooling around when we made our way out of the place at the end of the night. Mary Ellen was happy to have won, but nobody else seemed to care about the final scores. My first several frames were pretty embarrassing, but by the end of the night I was competing with Eddie and Regina for second and third best strings and I didn't feel quite so pathetic.
I said my good nights to the gang when we got home and headed to my cellar abode for my last night's sleep in Hillsboro. I was surprised when Mary Ellen followed me into the cellar.
"My mother said it was unfair for me to unexpectedly spring the whole nursing home thing on you," Mary Ellen reported. "She said maybe you weren't ready for that."
"This entire visit has been full of unexpected events," I confessed, my head spinning from what I had seen, heard, learned, experienced, done and felt during my stay. "I'm not sure if I was ready for any of this!"
Mary Ellen smiled. "I guess it's a tough challenge becoming an Honorary Savinski."
"Just call me Nedski Rollinski," I joked.
"I still feel bad about this morning," Mary Ellen let me know, sitting on the arm of the pull out couch.
"This morning?" I wasn't sure what she was talking about.
"Finding the stuff on the internet about your family," she said. "That was a violation of your privacy."
"I guess there isn't much privacy when your family can be found on the internet," I said, collapsing to the easy chair on the other side of the couch.
"Do you love your family?" Mary Ellen asked bluntly.
"I don't suppose I know them very well," I admitted. "I don't think they know themselves very well. They're actors. They live in a make believe world most of the time. They're always playing other people. They're always thinking about their next role. I don't think being a mother or a father is very high on their priority list."
"I guess I resent them more than I hate them."
"You're not interested in the business?"
I laughed and shook my head no with emphasis. "My father would drag me on location when he was filming some movie during the summer. I find it boring and pretentious. There are no boundaries or realities. I had some horrible experiences. My mother thought there was nothing wrong with me hanging around backstage at the theatre at a vulnerable age. I was sexualized early and she treated me like an adult when I was ten. Trust me, I ran away from it as fast as I could. I want to do something real with my life."
"Maybe that's why you ended up at St. Christopher's."
"No, I don't think so," I revealed. "That doesn't feel real either."
"What does feel real?"
"This feels real," I told her. "This family. This house. This town."
"Do I seem real?" she boldly asked.
"You're the most real thing of all," I admitted with embarrassment.
She smiled and stood. "Wow, two personal revelations in one day. There's hope for you yet! Good night, Ned."
"Good night, Mary Ellen."
I listened to her footsteps as she clogged her way up the stairs and I smiled happily. Maybe getting personal for once was the way to go with my life.
*** *** ***
The house was strangely quiet when I made my way upstairs the following morning. Only Grandma Rose could be found, sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee and reading the Sunday Morning Paper. Polka music was playing on the radio on the kitchen counter.
"Church," she said before I could even ask where everybody was.
"Didn't most of them go yesterday?"
"It's okay to go to Mass more than once," Grandma curtly informed me, once again giving me the evil eye and making me feel like an alien intruder.
"I saw Little Poland the other day," I offered in an attempt to make conversation, figuring her heritage was a safe topic. I sat at the table across from her.
"Little Poland is long gone, I'm afraid," she sighed, sliding a plate of donuts across the table to me She laid the paper down and looked at me. "Did you know even one thing about any of it before you came?"
"Not really," I confessed.
"There are a few things you need to know if you have intentions of hanging around this family, Sonny," Grandma Rose sternly warned as she stood, went to the refrigerator, and poured me a glass of orange juice She gave me a long look. "Do you plan on hanging around?"
"I'd like too," I said, surprised by my own admission.
"You can't appreciate the Polish people unless you experience our story," Grandma Rose told me as she returned to her seat, sliding the glass of juice across the table.
"Tell me what I need to know," I requested.
"The past will always be a part of us and it will hopefully encourage the next generation to honor those traditions," Grandma Rose said. "Parents want their children to have a better life. Fathers are the head of the family in the Polish culture. Only the church has a greater authority than the father. Children are expected to demonstrate obedience and not to question their parent's authority. Children should be strong, disciplined, and resilient."
"That makes sense," I said.
"Traditional family values and loyalty are strong in our families," Grandma Rose warned me. She leaned across the table and said, "We're loyal to friends and family. Marriage is an institution of respect and harmony. Maintaining the honor of the family, having a good job, and being a good Catholic are important attributes to any marriage."
I nodded in understanding, knowing she was giving me a head's up if I had any thoughts of pursuing Mary Ellen.
"Do you like me, Sonny?" Grandma Rose wanted to know.
I laughed in awkward embarrassment, not wanting to tell the old lady that she intimidated and frightened me.
"Old people like me are respected because we're the ones who carry on the Polish traditions," she explained. "There's a Polish ethic of contributing to the family and promoting Polish customs. Did you happen to notice we place a high value on opening our homes to others? Food, drink and good cheer are important symbols in our culture."
"I've never experienced such hospitality."
"That's good to hear!"
"I think the thing I've learned the most about the Polish people is just how strong your faith is," I said. "There are prayer books, rosary beads, medals, crucifixes, and pictures of The Pope and the Virgin Mary all through the house and I've heard more talk about Catholicism and parish life in the last four days than I have my whole life."
"Devotion is very important," Grandma Rose agreed. "The proudest moment for me as a Polish American was when Pope John Paul the second was elected the first Polish Pope. It was like our family had a baby."
"And Eddie and Regina are both considering the religious life."
"Well, that's the exception rather than the norm these days, sadly," Grandma Rose said. "But we have a strong work ethic and we don't complain much even though we were greatly persecuted. It must never be forgotten that the immigrants who came to the new country in search of a better life suffered from the hateful and ignorant attitudes of others. There were awful stereotypes, intolerances and prejudices that remain today. We need to stand up and speak out when something offends us."
"Are you talking about Polish jokes?"
"That's part of it," she replied. "Is there anything more inappropriate, insulting, demeaning, and insensitive to anybody with Polish ties? Ethnic jokes reflect ignorance. Polish immigrants who came to America were rural people from poverty-stricken regions who could barely even write and read Polish, let alone English."
"Eddie was talking about that the other day," I shared. "How the Irish felt more persecuted."
"And what poppycock that is!" Grandma Rose bellowed angrily. "The language barrier was tremendous for Polish immigrants. They came here in search of a better future and they found discrimination and prejudice. We were easy targets because we didn't understand the American way of life. We were called dumb and stupid because we couldn't speak the same as everybody else."
I knew from the pain in her voice that she was speaking from first hand experience.
"We suffer a great injustice each time a Polish joke is repeated because such hurtful attitudes haunt the memories of those who came before and endured painful second-class citizenship," Grandma Rose informed me.
She leaned across the table and looked me in the eyes. "You'll need to prove yourself, Sonny. You're not even Catholic," she whispered with disapproval.
"Grandma Rose," I replied in all honesty. "Three months ago, I didn't even know what a Catholic was."
"What on earth are you doing at St. Christopher's?" she demanded.
I didn't have an answer for her.
"And what will your family think when they find out what has become of you?"
"They will be…….mystified," I said with a grin.
The Savinski clan barreled into the kitchen like a stampede of rushing cattle, loud and laughing, happy and cheerful. I noticed that Eddie and Billy weren't with the family and Regina explained that they had stayed behind to serve at the next Mass.
"Boy, those guys can't get enough, can they?" I asked.
"No, they certainly can't," Grandma Rose pointedly let me know.
"Let's go for a ride while waiting for Eddie to get back," Mary Ellen suggested.
"Geez Mary Ellen, you're spending more time with Ned then Eddie is!" Martha giggled.
"It's called taking care of our guest, dear," Mrs. Savinski said.
Mary Ellen and I left the house and climbed into the SUV, but we didn't get very far because she asked me to park in the lot of the former Saint Stanislaus Kostka School. The protest trailer was unmanned on this Sunday morning and we had the place to ourselves.
"We all went here," she told me. "That was quite a sacrifice for my parents to send six kids here with tuition when we could have gone to the public schools for free.
But I appreciate the focus on our Faith and I got a quality education too. I can't help but feel nostalgic now that it's gone. What a shame that Martha and Billy are getting cheated out of their last few years here."
"Why did it close?" I asked.
"Declining enrollment makes it tough to keep these schools open," Mary Ellen explained. "More and more Catholic schools are merging or just closing their doors. It's the natural progression as more and more people leave the church."
"Why are the leaving the church?"
"Lack of Faith," she sighed sadly. "I'll never forget the teachers I had here because none of them forgot their Faith. They wanted to share their passions about not only the class material they were teaching but their faith too. What a wonderful gift."
"You're really upset about this, huh?" I was surprised that she was actually teary-eyed as she stared at the closed building.
"The school centered everything around the teachings of Christ," she said. "Everything we do we do because there's something Christ-like in it. That's what I take from my years here. And some great friendships too. I'll miss it."
"I've been to so many schools I've lost count," I said.
"That's too bad," Mary Ellen replied. "My childhood was totally immersed in Catholicism, obviously," Mary Ellen let me know as we sat guard over the closed school building. "The Saints, angels, rosaries, novenas, litanies, rituals, and Masses became the fabric of my spirit. I accepted it, believed what I was taught, and knew only one true faith. Outside the church, there was no salvation."
She peered at me. "I bet you think I'm perfect, don't you?" she asked with a grin. "You've met my family, heard Regina talk about becoming a nun and Eddie thinking about maybe becoming a priest, and you've heard all about my family's faith and our Polish heritage and my mother's priest boyfriend and you probably think I'm something out of a gothic novel."
"It's a little overwhelming," I admitted.
"Would you be surprised if I told you I took a sabbatical?"
"A sabbatical from what?"
"From all this," she said, gesturing to the closed school and the church building behind us. "When I was about fifteen, I had enough. I was tired of listening to Grandma Rose, my parents, the priest and daily Masses, Benediction, the cascade of hymns every Sunday, adoration, silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, confession, rosary, Stations of the Cross, the sprinkling of holy water, the relics, holy pictures, apparitions, prayers, all of it!"
"What? You quit?"
"Yep. I started hanging out with kids who knew nothing about Catholicism and cared even less. I enjoyed the respite."
I looked at her with mock horror although I was surprised by her revelation.
"I was acting up and acting out, rebelling against my parents and my family, searching for my own independence," she let me know. "I got in trouble and scoffed at it all. I got into huge fights with my parents and announced that I didn't believe in Catholicism or God."
"Wow! I bet they freaked over that."
"It got pretty bad," she revealed. "They were horrified. My father couldn't believe I went from one extreme to the other. Grandma Rose was disgusted and wouldn't talk to me. My mother said I was a Catholic whether I liked it or not, so I became openly defiant and went out of my way to annoy and hurt them. I said horrible things. I behaved badly. I did shameful acts."
"You were a sinner," I observed.
"A rebel without a cause. A malcontent without a reason. Hormone imbalanced with plenty of boys at my disposal. My parents opted for tough love. They left me alone. I didn't go to church or confession. I didn't pray with the family. And they let me be. Never before had I felt so lonely and alone."
"Because you missed it?"
"Of course I denied it," she chuckled. "My good friend Patty Szymanski had been battling childhood leukemia for several years and it was around that time that she started going downhill fast."
"So you prayed to Jesus and said you'd change your life and return to the church if he performed a miracle and cured Patty," I guessed. "She got better and you believed again."
"She died, Ned," Mary Ellen said sadly.
"I'm sorry." I felt foolish for being glib at her expense.
"I really felt lost after that. I had alienated my family. I had forsaken Jesus. And now my friend was dead."
"But you found your way back."
"Thanks to the Grace of God," she said. "I had a big argument with my mother one day. She was so upset she left me in the car and went into the store without me. And then I saw Patty's mother. It was maybe three weeks after Patty died. And there's Mrs. Szymanski. Dressed well. Hair done. Smiling. Talking to someone she knew in front of the store. And I thought to myself 'How does she do it? How can she still have Faith after losing her daughter? How can she go on with a smile?' I jumped out of the car and ran up to her and gave her a hug and bawled my eyes out. And I realized that life doesn't happen by accident. It happens for a reason. We're given gifts each and every day and it is what we do with those gifts that matters. I abused my gifts and that wasn't the way I wanted to live. That was not the person I wanted to be. When my mother came back, I asked her to take me to confession right there and then."
"And you found your faith."
"I vowed never to hurt my family again," she said in a serious tone. "I vowed never to quit on my Faith. I vowed to be the person I want to be. That's why I consider marriage and motherhood a vocation in which the soul can be forged as beautifully and splendidly as the religious life. That's the life I want. And I guess I just wanted you to know that too."
"Why?" I wondered, my heart skipping a beat.
"I'm not sure," she confessed.
We sat in silence, staring at the closed ghost school in front of us.
"I really hate watching this wonderful school bite the dust," Mary Ellen said after some quiet reflection.
"If you had the money and resources to do something, what would you do with this property?" I asked.
"I don't know," she sighed. She glanced at the parish hall building behind them. "Whenever we had receptions or bazaars or other functions in there that involved food and the ladies would cook up the polish delicacies that you could smell clear across the parking lot, I always wondered why there aren't any Polish-American restaurants around these parts anymore."
I studied the school for a moment. "Do you think a restaurant could fit in the first floor?"
"Sure," Mary Ellen said with a smile. "There's already a huge kitchen in there."
"What does a Polish-American restaurant serve?"
"Lots of chicken and pork, different kinds of noodles, pierogi, soups, fish, cured meats, root vegetables, fermented cabbage, sauerkraut, boiled potatoes, and of course kielbasa."
"Sounds like people would come to eat that."
"Yeah, but it's all just a dream, isn't it?" she sighed. "There'll probably be a condo sitting here by this time next year."
"You never know," I said.
She glanced at her watch. "Eddie is probably home by now."
"Okay," I said, turning the engine over, though I hated to see our alone time come to an end.
*** *** ***
Mr. and Mrs. Savinski took Eddie and me out to lunch. Eddie was unusually somber and quiet during the ride to the restaurant and he didn't have much to say even when we were seated at the table and placed our orders.
"I'm not going back to St. Christopher's after the Christmas break," Eddie announced once his parents exhausted the polite small talk.
"Oh?" Iggy looked at his son with interest.
"I'm wasting my time there."
"What would you rather do, Eddie?" Mrs. Savinski gently asked.
"I've been talking to Father a lot this weekend," Eddie said. "I'm enrolling at Holy Apostles College and Seminary."
"Oh, Eddie, that's wonderful!" Mrs. Savinski said happily.
"Seminary?" I was stunned.
"It's an accredited co-educational Catholic college in Connecticut for lay students and seminarians," Eddie said. "That's where I belong. Even if I decide not to be ordained, at least I'll have a Catholic education and degree."
"If that's what you want, Eddie," Iggy replied. "We're happy with the idea."
"I just need to figure out if this is the way for me," Eddie explained. "If I'm ready to dedicate my life to Christ and have a religious vocation. I won't find that at St. Christopher's."
"But what am I going to do?" I asked, trying not to panic. "If you don't belong there, I really don't belong there!"
"Ned, I've been asking what you were doing there since the day we met!" Eddie laughed.
"Listen, Ned," Iggy offered. "Recognize the importance of being satisfied. Measure the value of your life. Press on, changing what you can and accepting the rest. Change is inevitable, sometimes good, sometimes bad, and sometimes just different."
I spent the rest of lunch marveling at the amazing Savinski family, listening to Eddie's parents' offer counsel, compassion and love, laughing along with them at the family stories, and strangely feeling like I was a part of the family even though I had only been on the ride for less than five days.
I played a final game of Chess with Regina when we returned to the house and I also hung out at the trains with Billy and Martha, savoring every moment left with the Savinski's. I experienced five remarkable days of thanksgiving, family, custom, lore, friendship, discovery, truth and love, undergoing an unexpected awakening introducing me to faith, God and kindness in a way I had never known before. Five days at the Savinski's had done more for me in the spirituality department than three months at St. Christopher's.
Iggy said we should hit the road before it got dark, so I reluctantly packed my bags while Billy and Martha played with the trains nearby. Mary Ellen came down to strip the couch and I was comforted that we were ending my visit much the same way we started it.
"It was better than the Ritz," I told Mary Ellen with a smile.
"I'm glad," she said, bundling up the bedding and taking the sheets to the washing machine on the other side of the cellar. I grabbed my bags and headed up the stairs with Martha and Billy on my heels.
Grandma Rose was hugging Eddie goodbye in the living room when I entered. She peered at me and said, "So long, Sonny!"
Ted grabbed my bags and Billy and Martha took each of my hands and led me out the front door. The entire family with the exception of Grandma Rose who watched from the front porch escorted us to the SUV. There were endless fond farewells and best wishes with plenty of squeezes, back slaps and handshakes. I was moved when Mrs. Savinski gave me a hug and even more surprised when I went to shake Mary Ellen's hand goodbye and she grabbed me in a warm embrace and kissed me on my cheek.
"I'm not going anywhere," she whispered in my ear.
Billy and Martha made oo-la-la sounds when they saw the affectionate exchange and Mary Ellen good naturedly rubbed the top of Billy's head. I climbed behind the driver's seat and quickly drove the car away from the Savinski homestead without looking in the rear view mirror knowing the vanishing sight would be too much to take. Gordon's Notch was the last place I wanted to be going, so far away from Hillsboro and Mary Ellen, but there was one thing I knew for certain: I wouldn't be returning to St. Christopher's after the Christmas break either!
"Do you think Mary Ellen will miss me?" I blurted out before I realized what I was saying.
"Are you falling in love with my sister, Ned?"
"I've fallen in love with your entire family," I admitted.
Eddie studied me for a long moment. "What have I done?" he joked.
"Tell me about Saint Stanislaus Kostka," I said after we drove a few miles in silence.
"Ned, you saw the church," Eddie sighed. "What more is there to tell?"
"Not the parish," I said. "The guy."
Eddie laughed. "The guy? You mean The Saint?"
"He was born of Polish nobility, the son of a senator," Eddie explained with impressive knowledge. "He went to a Jesuit college when he was fourteen but was mistreated there by his brother. He prayed and studied and was sensitive to vulgarity. He received communication and fasted. He dressed simply."
"Gee Eddie, he sort of sounds like you, except for the bully brother part."
"Stanislaus became gravely sick but wasn't allowed to call a priest so he prayed to Saint Barbara who appeared to him in a vision with two angels and administered Communion," Eddie continued. "He was cured of his disease and become a Jesuit against his family's wishes."
"That sort of sounds like me," I observed. "Going against the family wishes, I mean."
"Stanislaus loved the Eucharist but he got ill again and was told he was dying," Eddie said. "On the morning of the Assumption, he saw the Blessed Virgin and quietly died. When his bully brother learned he was dead, he changed his own life." Eddie glanced at me. "Is that going to be you too, Ned?" Eddie wondered. "Are you going to change your life?"
"I guess we'll see."
"Stanislaus is a patron of Poland and of youth," Eddie concluded. "He's often seen holding the Christ Child to remind those who are pure of heart and body that they will see Jesus too."
"Do you believe in those types of miracles, sightings, appearances, apparitions, revelations, prophecies, and visions?" I asked.
"It's what our faith is all about, Ned," Eddie said.
*** *** ***
I tried to settle into the routine of St. Christopher's and my studies, but my mind kept wandering back to Hillsboro and I found myself pumping Eddie for information about his home town and family stories.
"Geez, Ned, you're beginning to miss my family more than I do!" Eddie observed, amused by my continued pestering.
I paid attention to my studies and related them to the faith of the Savinski family and the Polish American story. I was fascinated during a segment on the concentration camps of World War II when I learned that more than 30,000 documented people held at Dachau died, including more than 860 Polish priests and 1,034 priests of other nationalities. When the camp was liberated in 1945, 31,432 inmates were housed in a camp designed to hold 5,000 people. Pope John Paul II beautified more than 120 Polish priests and other religious members who were martyred during that horrific period. Had Hitler succeeded in exterminating the Jews and Catholics, I may never have met the Savinskis.
The other classroom discussion that caught my interest was the 1978 election of Karol Joseph Wojtyla as the 265th Pope because it made me think of Grandma Rose's pride when she talked about that moment. Our professor said the selection had a great significance for the Church in the areas of anti-communism and the pride of the Polish people. He also said the presence of a Polish Pope helped the self-image of a people whose background was one of persecution and I recalled my many conversations with the Savinski family about that very subject. Now I had some context for my lessons.
I was studying at my desk in the dorm room one night when my computer beeped to let me know an e-mail had arrived. I checked the in box and was pleasantly surprised to see the return address as
"Did you give Mary Ellen my e-mail address?" I asked Eddie.
"You've been moping around ever since we left Hillsboro," he replied from where he sat at his desk. "I figured you could use some cheering up."
Here's a few of our exchanges:
Dear Ned - Are there obvious symptoms for falling in love? Is falling in love with a wide open heart smart? Is striving towards love despite the eternally complicated conundrum of being in love a good thing? Does love torture less than it satisfies? Just wondering! ME
Mary Ellen - Why do I hide myself from those I care about? Your Brother's Roommate.
Dear Ned - Life these days is strange and surreal. I see you everywhere, like shadows lagging after the sun and I realize love is parallel to missing you. ME
Mary Ellen - Quick! Go look out the window. See the moon? It is the same moon I see here. Think of me whenever you look at the moon just as I think of you. Ned
Sweet Ned - One of the great epiphanies of life is that there aren't very many soul mates out there! Good thing too, because how boring would that be? Do you think we were meant as soul mates? Unique to each other and involved in a way no one else can really understand? Obviously, we don't know everything about each other, but I have a feeling that will come. ME
Mary Ellen – Me thinks U R smart and beautiful. I love your smile and the way you laugh. I love knowing where you grew up, your roots and your family. I could see myself living in Hillsboro. Would that be my vocation or my vacation!? Eddie's Roommate.
Lovely Ned - I woke up this morning the same I went to sleep last night: thinking of you! ME
Mary Ellen – There is no mystery when I am with you. The Savinski-want-to-be
My dearest Ned – My four great grandparents came from a distant land in hopes of finding a better life for reasons specific to them. They staked claims in Blue County. They found jobs, raised families, started a parish, and worshipped Jesus Christ as Roman Catholic Polish Americans. They prayed that a priest would be present to baptize their children, offer First Communion and Confirmation, hear confessions, perform the Sacrament of Marriage, anoint the sick, and bury the dead. For generations, they were blessed with a beautiful parish called Saint Stanislaus Kostka. A walk through the parish cemetery drives home the inescapable truth that these first-generation immigrants and those who came after no matter how successful or faithful all left this world behind. Subsequent generations of worshippers strived to live a life that was pleasing to God. With the help and guidance of Jesus Christ, they endeavored to be good spouses, good parents, good friends, good neighbors, good community members, and good Catholics. They loved and laughed and praised God. They worked and played and supported their parish. I want to continue this tradition with someone who wants that destiny too. ME
My sweet Polish Girl – Question #1 - Can I share your destiny without the same roots? Question #2 – Do you believe in Christmas miracles? Mystery Man
Max's Grandson: Yes, to both questions. ME
The weeks between Thanksgiving and the Christmas break flew by and final exams were stress free because I knew I wouldn't be returning to St. Christopher's. I'd been on the phone to Hillsboro many times in the weeks after Thanksgiving, having multiple conversations with Birdy Braft's wife Lizzie Miller the Real Estate agent, Mark Berg the Lawyer, Phil Golinski the Banker, and Boone Reynolds the Builder, all of whom I swore to secrecy regarding my Christmas plans.
I sought "closure" with people on campus I admired during the last days of the semester, including lunch with Lily Witt, the nice girl I made a crass remark about during the foolish early days of my time on the campus which seemed like a lifetime ago.
"You're different, Ned," she said. "Did something happen to you?"
"St. Christopher's," I said.
"No, it's more than that."
"I met someone," I acknowledged.
She smiled happily. "That explains it!"
"I've never had a relationship last more than a few weeks," I confessed, worried that I would blow it with the most amazing Mary Ellen Savinski. "I never had a meaningful or deep relationship. What if I screw this one up?"
"You won't," Lily assured me. "You've come too far. You've learned too much."
I declined my mother's invitation to join her for Christmas in Barbados and my father was spending the holiday in Hawaii, which was just as bad. I asked Eddie if it would be okay for me to spend Christmas in Hillsboro, at least the first few days back in his cellar. Eddie assured me that everybody would love to see me again.
Eddie was surprised when I cleaned out my room and packed the SUV with all my belongings during the last days of the semester.
"I'm not coming back after Christmas either," I announced dramatically.
"What are you going to do?" Eddie wondered.
"You'll see," I grinned.
Eddie and I hung around campus an extra day after finals to watch our last St. Christopher's basketball game and we said farewell to the campus the next morning knowing we wouldn't be back. Much to my own humility, I left with good memories and good experiences, chagrined by my foolish prank that brought me to the school in the first place.
I found Gordon's Notch which led me to St. Christopher's which led me to Eddie which led me to Religion which led me to Hillsboro which led me to Mary Ellen which led me to love. In just four short months, I had gone from a bitter and resentful lost soul from an estranged family to a grounded, spiritual, hopeful person with a welcoming adopted family, while reaching out to God and a second chance.
*** *** ***
We hadn't paid attention to the weather forecast and foolishly headed home in a near blizzard. I let Eddie drive because I had never driven in snow and I marveled at the wintery scenery from the passenger's window. The two hour ride took more than four hours because of the snowy conditions but we arrived home safely thanks to Eddie's experienced New England driving.
The outside of the Savinski house and several trees in the yard were decorated with lights, a manger, and a separate illuminated Virgin Mary Statue and we were greeted with the same warmth we received at Thanksgiving, welcomed home as if we had been gone a year instead of a month.
Mrs. Savinski embraced her son and, when she was done with him, gave me a hug too. Grandma Rose stood in the hallway with her arms folded across her chest.
"Sonny," she said to me after she gave Eddie a hearty hug.
My eyes caught sight of Mary Ellen standing behind Rose with a shy smile on her face. I was about to say hello when the giggling Martha grabbed me by the hand, telling me that she had something to show me as she dragged me into the living room while Billy shoved Mary Ellen after us.
"Look!" Martha laughed, pointing to the ceiling. "Mistletoe! Now you have to kiss my sister!"
"You guys!" Mary Ellen protested, but I took her hand in mine and looked her in the eyes.
"It is tradition, right?" I asked.
"Yes it is," Mary Ellen confirmed with a slight hint of nervousness.
She leaned into me and kissed me softly on the lips. "Merry Christmas, Ned," she said.
I returned the kiss with equal tenderness. "Merry Christmas, Mary Ellen."
The younger kids laughed and clapped.
"Now that the nonsense is over, can we start behaving ourselves?" a disapproving Grandma Rose asked.
The house was drenched in Christmas decorations and flavor. A large Christmas tree adorned the living room and I counted at least three manger sets. Holly, mistletoe, poinsettas, angels, stars, bells, hay, lights and tinsel was displayed throughout the house. Christmas music played softly in the background from the living room stereo.
Bedding in hand, Mary Ellen led me to my cellar abode and I watched as she once again made up the pullout couch for me.
"It's nice to be back at The Ritz," I said.
"It's nice to have you back," she said warmly. "You're in for a real treat. Christmas is the best time of year around here."
"I usually just try to survive Christmas," I told her. "My parents would fight over who would have me, and then I'd end up spending it away. The beaches of Florida. The ski slopes of Colorado. Sailing in the Caribbean. A movie set in Rome I can't remember the last time I had a normal Christmas."
She looked at me with sadness in her eyes and gave me a spontaneous comforting hug. "Maybe this will be your Christmas to remember."
"Maybe it will be your Christmas to remember."
"I hope so," she whispered. "I really do."
The bed was made and she sat at the end of it and studied me hard as I sat in the easy chair across from her.
"Isn't Hillsboro boring compared to all the places you've been and things you've seen?" she asked with worry.
"I've found in Hillsboro one thing I could never find anywhere else."
She studied me intently. "Are you sure about all this?"
"Mary Ellen, a sense of place is the one thing I've learned these last few months."
"Mary Ellen!" It was Grandma Rose calling from the top of the stairs. "I don't think you should be down there alone with a boy you've kissed!"
We both laughed at Rose's old fashioned but honorable morals.
"The disadvantage of living at home when you're twenty is that your grandmother treats you like you're twelve!" Mary Ellen said with a smile.
The snow had stopped and I helped Eddie and Mary Ellen shovel out the driveway, the first time in my life I shoveled snow. Martha and Billy went to work on a snowman in the backyard and we helped with the finishing touches when we were done digging out the driveway and sidewalks. I took part in a snow ball fight with Eddie and Billy, made angels in the snow with Mary Ellen, and pulled Martha around the back yard on a sled.
"Welcome to New England!" Mary Ellen said with a smile.
Eddie and Billy were off to serve at the afternoon Mass and Mary Ellen was taking Regina and Martha to do some last minute Christmas shopping at Donovan's Department Store in Greenville. Naturally, I tagged along.
"You'll have to drive," I told Mary Ellen as we left the house, gesturing to the SUV parked at the curb. "There's no room in my car."
"What's going on?" she asked when she saw my car filled with my stuff.
"Don't ruin the Christmas surprise," I grinned.
She looked at me with an amused smile. "My mystery man."
The long and thin four-story Donovan's was a locally owned family department store from another era with its Victorian-style clapboard walls, tin ceilings and creaky wooden floors. There were three elevators and three separate wrap-around stairwells inside. The squeaky planked floors creaked when people walked, the narrow passageways made for careful navigation, and old fashion lights hung from the ceilings.
It was a quaint and friendly store with cheerful employees and happy customers and I enjoyed browsing through the various departments eyeing the many items on display. I noticed that the Savinski girls said "Merry Christmas," even when clerks and other people said "Happy Holidays".
"Aren't you buying us anything, Ned?" Martha wanted to know when she saw that I hadn't made any purchases after an hour of shopping.
"Oh, all my Christmas presents are set," I told the cute girl as I looped my arm through Mary Ellen's.
We had dinner at Cobb's Dining, a friendly family restaurant a few blocks from the department store with paneled walls that featured framed photographs of the town in earlier days. I enjoyed watching the three Savinski Sisters interact – the motherly and attentive Mary Ellen, the serious Regina, and the bouncy and care free Martha whose new thrill was to tease me and her sister about being "in love".
"You kissed under the mistletoe," she reasoned with glee. "It's official."
"Yep," I agreed, overcome with the Christmas spirit and cheer. "It's official!"
Mary Ellen bloomed with a radiant glow, but Regina wasn't as easily convinced that I was the guy for her sister.
"You're not even Catholic," Regina reminded me. "Or Polish."
"I can always convert to Catholicism and couldn't I become an honorary Pole, if I was serious about all this?" I reasoned.
"It's not how you're born, but how you believe," Mary Ellen theorized on my behalf but I don't think Regina was sold on the idea of my possible conversion.
"Grandma Rose won't accept anybody who is not of the blood," Regina said.
I said hello to Iggy and Ted who were home when we returned and most of us spent the evening in the Savinski living room watching It's A Wonderful Life, the Jimmy Stewart Christmas Classic, although Grandma Rose refused to join us because George Bailey was planning on killing himself before Clarence the Angel intervened. Rose said any man who tries to kill himself doesn't understand the gift of Jesus.
"See, Regina," I said at the end of the film when Clarence gets his wings and George discovers that no man is alone if he has family and friends. "There's hope for everybody."
"Tell it to Grandma Rose," Regina replied.
I said goodnight to Regina and Eddie who were the only ones still awake by the time the video was over. Mary Ellen hug back for a few moments after Eddie and Regina went upstairs.
"I'm a sucker for Christmas movies," Mary Ellen said as we stood in the doorway of the kitchen. "Not just the classics, but the sappy made for television ones that pop up every year. I'll watch them no matter how hokey they are!"
"Then you probably saw one of my father's early ones," I said. "Backstage Christmas Carol where he's a stage manager with a dubious past working on a town production of A Christmas Carol."
"And falls for the actress playing Young Scrooge's girlfriend," Mary Ellen recalled. "I haven't seen that one in a while, though."
"They should make a Christmas movie of your family," I said. "A Savinski Christmas."
"They'd say it was too religious!"
We looked at each other, almost as if we were two teenagers out on our first date trying to find our way out of an awkward goodnight, even though we had already kissed.
"Anyway, it's great that you're back," Mary Ellen finally said.
"I'm glad to be back."
"Good night, Ned," she gave me a quick smooch on the lips and disappeared into the shadows of the darkened house.
*** *** ***
Iggy was surprised to see me sitting at the kitchen table at 6:30 on Christmas Eve morning when he came downstairs to begin his day.
"I didn't know you were an earlier riser," he said as he poured himself a cup of coffee from the automated Mr. Coffee machine.
"I'm not," I admitted. "But what the hey, it's Christmas Eve!"
"So, Martha tells me you and Mary Ellen are about to elope."
I turned red faced. "It's nothing like that, Sir."
"Not even with the mistletoe? Too bad. She's a lovely girl."
Was Iggy giving me his blessings to pursue his daughter?
He grabbed a piece of coffee cake from the bread box, gave me a wink and headed out the back door to start his work day just as Grandma Rose entered the kitchen, obviously having overheard our exchange.
"Mary Ellen is very serious about such things, Sonny," she let me know in her usual gruff manner. "Don't think for one minute I'm going to stand by and let you take advantage of her feelings."
"You don't like me very much, do you Grandma Rose?"
"I don't know you so therefore I don't trust you," Grandma Rose responded in no uncertain terms. "You'll have to show me what you're made of before I'll be willing to give you a chance."
"I understand," I politely replied. "And I don't blame you."
I left the Savinski house wondering if Grandma Rose believed in Christmas miracles.
I explored the area, acclimating myself to the Land of Savinski. I drove to Blue County Community College in Greenville, and through the Green College campus as well. I took a ride to Sun Rise Lake ten miles to the north, over to Mount Griffin to the west, down through the West County until I reached South County, passing the nursing home I visited with Mary Ellen at Thanksgiving, over to Miller City and then to Riverside along the Blue River, back up to Greenville, and finally back to Hillsboro in time for my 11:00 appointment at the bank.
I bet the banker Mr. Golinski, Mr. Berg the lawyer, and Lizzie Miller the realtor never sat in on a business meeting with an eighteen year old kid who had the potential to pull off some Christmas magic. I felt like I was in one of Mary Ellen's cheesy made for television Christmas movies as I sat in the bank's fancy conference room signing contracts, agreements, and money transfers in front of the three adults.
I swore them to professional secrecy when the deal was finalized and walked across the street to have lunch at Johnny C's, sitting at the diner's counter listening to the various small town conversations taking place around me. I was a stranger, but Mr. Braft and the waitresses welcomed me with friendly smiles and warm customer service and I spent nearly two hours in the place drinking in the ambiance and enjoying the people.
I found my way to Boone the Builder's and Mr. Reynolds showed me the blueprints and draft plans I discussed with him over the phone a few weeks earlier. He was a tall guy with a shaved head and strong arms from years working in the construction business. I put the plans back in the canister tube and thanked Mr. Reynolds for his assistance.
"Aren't you a little young to be doing something like this?" he asked as he walked me to my car.
"I grew up fast," I answered.
I walked in on the first real argument I heard under the family's roof when I got back to the Savinski house. Grandma Rose wanted Ted to take her to The Vigil Christmas Mass that afternoon and Mrs. Savinski was upset because she didn't want to ruin the tradition of attending Midnight Mass together as a family.
"We always have our Wigilia together on Christmas Eve and then go to Mass afterward," Mrs. Savinski said. "Can't you just go with us, Rose?"
"I don't want to fall asleep in Church," Grandma confessed.
"Grandma Rose," I said politely from where I stood in the living room doorway. "I'll go to Midnight Mass if you do."
"You'll go to church?" Grandma Rose peered at me with amusement.
"You and I can start a new tradition this year."
"Sonny, if God can get you to go to church, I don't see any reason why I can't go either," Grandma Rose decided with authority.
Rose breezed effortless from the room and Mrs. Savinski thanked me for my intervention.
"I just hope I can stay awake until midnight," I joked.
Eddie and Billy left to serve at the 4:00 Christmas Eve Mass while the ladies worked on the evening's meal in the kitchen. I listened to Martha sing Christmas Carols in the living room and she showed me the various greeting cards the family had received. Eventually, Grandma Rose summoned me to the kitchen in her loud booming voice and I was put to work, mostly washing dishes and taking out the garbage.
Ted and Iggy arrived home from work, but we had to wait for Eddie and Billy to get home from Mass before we could eat.
I noticed that the ladies were donned in pretty dresses, Iggy was wearing a suit coat and tie, and Ted appeared in a festive red sweater and dress pants. The table was decorated with one lone candle.
"To symbolize the imminent arrival of Christ, the Light of the world," Regina said.
"In the old country on Christmas Eve, people wait the first star of the night they call Gwiazdka or little star, in remembrance of the Star of Bethlehem," Grandma Rose told me. "Then they eat the most carefully planned meal of the year."
"Wigilia, or the Christmas supper," Mrs. Savinski explained.
"It means too watch or keep vigil," Mary Ellen said.
Eddie and Billy returned from church excited and happy that the holiday feast had officially begun.
"Did you bring the blessed chalk and incense?" Grandma Rose demanded.
"Sure did, Babci!" Eddie laughed, pulling out a small envelope from his pocket.
Mary Ellen noticed the confused look on my face.
'It's the Feast of the Three Kings," she explained. "The Priest blesses the chalk and incense to represent the gifts the Magi gave to Jesus."
"We inscribe the initials of the Three Kings over the door to welcome peace, kindness, and love," Iggy said as he took the chalk and went to the front door. "The fragrance of the incense is the blessing."
"I bet you don't know the names of the Three Kings," Martha giggled.
"I didn't even know they had names," I admitted.
"Kaspar, Melchior, and Baltazar," Regina revealed as Iggy wrote K + M + B followed by the year above the door frame in chalk.
"And the Oplatek, Edward?" Grandma Rose wanted to know as the family began to gather around the dining room table with the ladies making several trips to and from the kitchen with various dishes.
"Yes, Babci," Eddie confirmed, pulling a flowered envelope from his coat pocket.
Again, Mary Ellen saw the blank look on my face and explained the custom.
"Oplatek is rectangular white or pink unleavened bread made in the same way communion hosts are made," she said. "Religious pictures and emblems are printed on them."
"Everyone takes a small piece of the Oplatek from everybody else and pronounces a blessing prayer of good health, good fortune, peace, happiness, faith, or strength," Regina added. "It's a spiritual gift."
"Like this," Martha showed me as she handed me a piece of the Oplatek. She broke off the end of mine and said "Merry Christmas Ned, and I hope you and Mary Ellen get married this year." She held out her piece and said, "Now you break off mine and offer me a blessing."
I followed her instructions, breaking off a piece from her Oplatek and saying, "Merry Christmas Martha, and I hope you get every Christmas miracle you've been praying for."
"It is best when it is said in Polish," Grandma Rose said. "And the blessings should always be loving."
The rest of the family began breaking off pieces of each others wafers and offering each other blessing, Christmas greetings, hugs and kisses. I overheard wishes for good grades in school, much health, happiness always, bountiful blessings from the Lord, dreams come true, God's blessings, pride and joy, and love of family.
Eddie wished me good luck in my post-St. Christopher plans, Mary Ellen gave me a peck on the cheek and wished me a Holy and fulfilling Christmas, and Grandma Rose told me that she hoped I found the answers at Midnight Mass.
It was hard not to be moved by the tender and touching displays of love, spirituality, and the smiling faces of the family who were genuinely pleased and happy with the beautiful tradition.
I saw Eddie handing Iggy a small clump of hay that Iggy slid underneath the corner of the table cloth and once again Mary Ellen laughed when she saw me doing a double take.
"It's a reminder that Christ was born in a manger," she said.
"Or that someone might die in the coming year," Regina said.
"I don't like thinking about that one," Martha frowned.
"It's why we leave an empty place at the table during Wigilia," Grandma Rose said, gesturing to the chair at the end of the table. "For a dead relative, the baby Jesus, or a wanderer in need."
"Oh, you mean Ned!" Ted joked, not knowing he was making a prophetic statement.
"Let's eat!" Mrs. Savinski announced as she brought the last of the dishes to the table.
"Look at all the food!" I said as we took our usual seats around the table, with the addition of the empty chair.
"In the old country, there'd be twelve dishes on the table as a symbol of the twelve Apostles or an odd number of dishes for good luck," Grandma Rose said. "They'd serve dishes like Poppy seed cake, beet soup, prune dumplings, carp, herring, and noodles."
"No meat," Iggy said. "But we aren't that extreme here." He gestured toward his wife. "Honey, pass me the kielbasa!"
There were several dishes on the table – ham, kielbasa, swordfish, mushroom soup, sauerkraut, cauliflower in cheese sauce, hard-boiled eggs, red cabbage stewed in sour cream, peas, pierogi, cabbage rolls filled with rice, egg noodles, wheat and honey pudding, and honey-spice cake.
"Grandma Rose is coming to the Shepherd's Mass with us tonight," Mrs. Savinski announced happily and the family cheered.
"Ned too," Grandma Rose said and the family welcomed the news with both surprise and warmth, and the rest of the table conversation focused on what I should expect attending my first Mass.
"You picked the best Mass of the year for your first one," Regina assured me.
"Wait until you hear The Gloria in Excelsis Deo!" an excited Mary Ellen exclaimed.
"What's that?" I asked blankly.
"A very ancient and venerable hymn," Grandma Rose let me know. "The Church gathers with the Holy Spirit to glorify God."
"The prayers and hymns vary each day according to the liturgical season and the feast or saint day, but in theory a Mass is the same no matter where or when you are in a Roman Catholic Church," Eddie said. "The Gloria is reserved for special occasions."
I was told about the entrance procession, the greeting, the act of penitence, the Kyrie, the collect, the Liturgy of the Word, the creeds, General Intercessions and Prayers of the Faithful, the Liturgy of the Eucharist and Eucharistic Prayer, the Sanctus, the Consecration, the sign of peace, Communion, purification of the sacred vessels, Prayer after Communion, and the closing rite.
"You'll be tested on all of this tonight," Mary Ellen joked.
Grandma Rose talked about how it was in the old days with Mass said in Latin and the priest facing the altar.
"I miss some of that," Iggy admitted. "But the truth is I never knew what the heck was going on when I was a kid because I didn't understand anything that was being said."
"I like participating and that's what the new Mass brought to the Church," Ted agreed.
Grandma Rose shook her head. "The newer generation isn't tough enough," she complained. "The old Mass was beautiful."
Ted, Eddie and Billy told stories about things that went wrong during various Masses, including the time Charlie Wysk accidently set his cassock on fire lighting the candles, the time a squirrel ran across the altar during Mass, power outages, people fainting or getting sick in the pews, people trying to steal the Eucharist, girls receiving Communion wearing low cut halter tops, the kid who threw a book from the choir loft during Mass, a light fixture crashing down on the altar, readers reading the wrong passages, altar boys passing gas or tripping and falling on the altar, a crazy guy who came into the church during Mass screaming God is dead, and assorted other mishaps, miscues, misadventures, and misfortunes.
"I bet between the three of us, we've served at no less than 8,000 Masses over the years," Ted volunteered. "You're bound to see some unusual stuff from time to time."
"Doesn't matter," Grandma Rose argued. "Every Mass is perfect."
When the unique, special, meaningful and memorable Christmas Eve Wigilia meal was over, there was the usual clean up requirements and responsibilities and, when that was over, the family gathered in front of the Christmas Tree in the living room and gaily sang Christmas carols, laughed telling funny family stories, grew sentimental remembering past Christmases with relatives no longer present, and excitedly looked forward to the rest of the Christmas celebration. In all my travels and all my experiences with other families, I had never met such a spiritual, positive, loving and giving family nor could I remember a more meaningful Christmas than I had already experienced.
"Time for The Pasterka," Grandma Rose announced during a lull in the conversation and before I knew it the family was piling into three different cars and heading to Midnight Mass.
Eddie and Billy served once again, but the rest of us slid into a pew about five rows from the front on the right hand side of the church. The altar was overcrowded with plants, flowers, Christmas trees, mangers, and other Christmas decorations. The choir was already singing traditional carols when we entered the church. I sat in the pew while the rest of the family knelt on the kneelers and said silent prayers for a few moments.
It was standing room only when the Shepherd's Mass began at Midnight, and Regina was right – it was a beautiful first Mass for me to attend. I was struck by the pageantry, the symbolism, the glory and the power of the celebration, including the special ceremonies like the blessing of the hay, the blessing of the statue of the Infant Jesus that was processed around the church and enshrined in the manger. There must have been thirty altar servers assisting Father Misiaszek and two deacons. Eddie seemed particularly serious and solemn as he participated in the rituals of the Mass.
Mary Ellen handed me a booklet to follow the Mass and I was able to read the prayers and creeds and better understand the liturgy as it unfolded. The ringing of the bells and the Gloria in Excelsis Deo were particularly moving. I tried to stand, sit and kneel at the appropriate times and attempted to verbally respond accordingly, but I was so taken by the majesty of the service that I found myself looking around and observing more than I participated.
Mary Ellen sat on my right and Regina sat on my left and I noticed that they were never distracted from what was taking place in front of them and I knew better than to whisper or bother them.
After Father Misiaszek read the gospel but before he began his Christmas Homily, he held up a white envelope from where he stood at the fancy lectern on the altar.
"This was hand delivered to me late this afternoon and I was asked to read it at this service," he said. "I have been informed and am now informing you that an anonymous benefactor has purchased the Saint Stanislaus Kostka School and The Convent House and plans to convert the property into a Polish Heritage, Culture Center museum and restaurant."
There was a murmuring of surprised reaction, mostly relief from what I could tell as the parishioners digested what the priest had said, but Father offered no further comment as he immediately began delivering his homily that was centered on the Baby Jesus as Savior of man, the rebirth of hope and redemption, and the merging of Christmases past into the present as the Holy Name of Jesus celebrated its first Christmas as a parish.
The Eucharistic celebration was fascinating, but I had been warned not to leave the pew when the others went to receive Communion.
"The worse thing a non-Catholic or a Catholic in the state of sin can do is receive the Eucharist," Grandma Rose cautioned me before we left the house. "Catholics believe that the Eucharist is the actual body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and we must be worthy to receive it."
"I guess I am not worthy," I said.
"Not yet," Mary Ellen agreed.
The Savinski family lagged in the pew after the striking and moving Mass was completed. The choir continued to sing as the family knelt and silently prayed as most of the parishioners left the church. I noticed several other people staying behind in quiet prayer and reflection, lighting memorial candles on the altar, or praying in front of the Baby Jesus in the Manger.
The conversation on the stone steps outside the church was mostly about the anonymous benefactor who was described by most as a Christmas Gift, a miracle from God, and the answer to so many prayers.
"Where was this benefactor a year ago when we were trying to save the school?" Grandma Rose complained as we walked through the late cold night to the cars. "That's what I want to know. Isn't it a little late now?"
"Better late than never," Iggy figured. "A Polish Heritage Center and restaurant sounds like a good thing."
Eddie and Billy joined up with us and we headed home at nearly 1:30 on Christmas morning. Nobody bothered looking to the sky for Santa and his sleigh, knowing that the true meaning of Christmas had just taken place inside the church.
Once safely inside the warmth of the Savinski house, Eddie revealed that Father had little to say about the anonymous benefactor or the future of the former school in the Sacristy after Mass.
"I don't think he really knows what to make of it," Eddie said as we gathered in the living room.
"I guess it will take awhile to get accustomed to the idea of no more catholic school here," Mrs. Savinski said.
"Anything is better than condos," Mary Ellen remarked.
The Savinski family was basking in the glow of their religious experience and the aftermath of a spiritually reinvigorating Mass. I had been around plenty of drunk and stoned teenagers and adults in my time, but I had never witnessed people enjoying a natural high like the Savinski's on this night.
One by one, the various family members said their goodnights, wishing one another a Merry Christmas and making their way upstairs for bed.
Eddie, Mary Ellen and I sat around the kitchen table eating a piece of apple pie while Mary Ellen and Eddie tried to come up with candidates that might be the anonymous benefactor, most of whom were dead. I was captivated that my name never crossed either of their minds as a possible miracle worker and it made me realize just how invisible I was in their eyes on the subject of Faith and good works.
Eddie said his goodnights and left me and Mary Ellen alone in the kitchen as the rest of the house had turned in.
"No cookies and milk for Santa?" I joked.
"We know better in this house."
"You don't believe in Santa Claus?"
"Not the jolly red fat man selling Coca-cola," Mary Ellen revealed. "But I believe in the spirit of St. Nick and the meaning of Christmas. I think we saw it play out tonight when Father made that unbelievable announcement."
"I told you Christmas miracles happen," I reminded her.
"You did," she agreed, standing and putting her hands on my shoulders as she stood behind me. "Do you think any more are coming?"
"We'll have to wait and see what Christmas Day brings."
She pecked me on the cheek and disappeared up the back stairway, leaving me behind to wait for Santa Claus.
*** *** ***
The entire house slept in on Christmas morning, but later I could hear sounds of joy and excitement upstairs as the family gathered in the living room to open presents. I stayed in the cellar, not wanting to intrude.
Billy came downstairs with a few new train pieces to add to his collection and Mary Ellen was on his heels.
"What are you doing down here?" she asked with surprise when she saw me sitting in the easy chair like I was waiting for a bus.
"Didn't want to interfere with the quality family time."
"Don't be ridiculous," she laughed. "Come on up!"
I followed her to the living room where the entire family was assembled. Several presents were opened and stacked next to the receivers and it looked like it had been a very good year for the Savinski clan.
I sat on the couch with Regina, Eddie and Grandma Rose. Mary Ellen retrieved a present from under the tree and handed me the small wrapped gift.
"Here," she said. "From all of us."
"No it's not," Martha said. "I watched you buy it for Ned!"
"Shh, Martha," Mrs. Savinski advised.
I took the gift from the smiling Mary Ellen and embarrassingly opened it, finding a handsome watch inside.
"Wow," I said, humbled and moved by the gesture. "This is great."
"I noticed you weren't wearing one," Mary Ellen explained. "I thought you could use it."
"That was very thoughtful of you," I said.
"What'd you get Mary Ellen, Ned?" Martha wanted to know.
"Martha, mind your own business," her mother warned.
"It wouldn't fit under the tree," I said.
Martha rolled her eyes. "That means you didn't get her anything!"
"Martha, don't be rude," Grandma Rose barked.
I stood and motioned for Mary Ellen to take my seat. "Ye of such little faith, Martha!" I joked as I went to the corner of the room and pulled Boone Reynold's canister from its hiding place behind one of the easy chairs.
"By the way, I enrolled at Blue County Community College and will be starting when the semester starts in January," I announced.
"Isn't that where Mary Ellen goes to school?" Billy asked.
"Bingo, Billy!" Iggy laughed and the rest of the family seemed to approve the idea. Mary Ellen looked especially surprised.
"He couldn't face St. Christopher's without me!" Eddie joked.
"I found a place to live, so I'll be moving out in a few days, but I wanted to thank you for your hospitality."
"It's our pleasure," Mrs. Savinski assured me. "We loved having you."
"We'll miss you, Ned," Martha said.
"Yeah, especially Mary Ellen!" Regina teased.
"Where are you going to live?" Billy wanted to know.
"64 Hillside Street."
Eddie frowned. "Very funny, Ned."
"What?" Billy wasn't following.
"That's the address of the school, dear," Mrs. Savinski explained.
"The Convent House, actually," I said, pulling a set of plans from the canister. "So, here are the drawings for the Hillsboro Polish American Heritage Center Museum," I said.
"You're the anonymous benefactor," Mary Ellen whispered.
I nodded affirmatively. "Hope you don't mind," I said. "We can fill the place with information, artifacts, letters, photographs and collections of Polish Americans who came to America and Blue County, plus a history of the old country. We can have concerts, seminars, lectures, educational presentations, and performances there too. And the polish restaurant, of course."
There were dumbfounded stares and opened mouths as the family looked at me in disbelief.
"But how could you possibly……" Mrs. Savinski was just as surprised as everybody else in the room.
I looked at Mary Ellen. "Max's reading money."
My father was convinced that I had somehow suckered, slimed, duped, cheated, tricked, deceived, defrauded, conned, and swindled my grandfather, but I was a nine year old kid who had no idea Max was made of money. I was just a lonely boy that summer spending time with a sick old man when nobody else could be bothered and I guess Max appreciated my presence enough to put me in his will.
My already strained relationship with my parents eroded all the more when they learned I was the top heir in my grandfather's last testament, so much so that my father went to court to contest his father's wishes. He lost and my parents were sure that I wouldn't do anything with my life once I got the money and would spend the rest of my life living off my bank account with no real purpose in my life.
Attending St. Christopher's and meeting the Savinski's made me realize that I could make a difference. Maybe I couldn't save the world, but I could change a small part of it by keeping a little piece of history alive in a small town called Hillsboro.
"I inherited some money when I turned eighteen," I explained to the family as they gawked at me.
"Geez Ned, how much money do you have?" a stunned Eddie asked.
"Enough so I don't have to worry about counting it," I grinned.
"You're really serious about all this, Ned?" a wide eyed Ted wanted to know.
"We can sponsor recognition and appreciation dinners honoring people whose lives and work have made significant contributions to the Polish community and culture. The Culture Center can still double as a parish hall too."
"This is really something, Ned," a grinning Iggy let me know.
"Young man." Grandma Rose spoke for the first time. "What were you thinking?"
"I was thinking how proud you are of your Polish descent, Rose," I said. "I saw how important the Polish influence and the idea of Polonia is to all of you. I wanted to keep that influence alive." I handed her the blueprints. "Do you trust me now, Grandma Rose?"
"What should we name the resturant, Grandma?" Mary Ellen asked, joining me in the center of the room.
Grandma smiled happily. "Zapuka's."
I took Mary Ellen by the hand. "Do you believe in Christmas miracles?" I asked.
"I believe in you," she answered.