September 10, 2006
I asked the professors who teach the meaning of life to tell me what is happiness.
And I went to famous executives who boss the work of thousands of men.
They all shook their heads and gave me a smile
as though I was trying to fool with them.
And then one Sunday afternoon I wandered out along the Deplaines river
And I saw a crowd of Hungarians under the trees with their women and children
and a keg of beer and an accordian.
Carl Sandburg, 1878-1967
American poet, from Chicago Poems, 1916
The Catholic parish I grew up in, Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament, is celebrating its centennial this year. I was a member of the parish from September of 1954, when we moved to our new house and I started second grade at the parish school, to July of 1963, when we moved to a different neighborhood the summer before I started eleventh grade. I made my First Communion in that parish (1955) and was confirmed there (1958). I graduated from the eight-grade elementary school in 1961 and went on with most of my classmates to Bishop McDevitt High School, where I maintained old friendships while forming new ones.
Today I arrived for the parish reunion picnic at 10:15. I soon fell in with a group of old friends and classmates, people I’ve never been completely out of touch with. Mass began at about 10:45. By 11:30 I had a plate of hot dogs and baked beans and a big piece of apple pie. And then I started making the rounds of various groups, bumping into one long-ago acquaintance on my way to see another. I was called by name by people I had no idea remembered me, including one woman who was actually my younger sister’s friend and whom I had not seen since 1963, when she was 13. (Nor had she seen my sister since those days. They went to different high schools and lost contact after seventh grade.)
At one point I walked by a knot of people and saw a faint look of recognition pass across one man’s face. I certainly knew who he was. He was Bobby P., an eighth-grader in the spring of 1957. At the school talent show he sang “Love Me Tender,” a romantic ballad recently made a hit by Elvis Presley. I was a fourth grader waiting in the wings to play a simplified Mussorgsky hopak on my violin, and I fell in love. For the next four years I maintained this preadolescent crush, gazing at him in church, sometimes writing his name inside a heart on a bookcover, once getting reprimanded by Sister Mary Rita for this. “Who’s Bobby?” she shrieked one day after stopping suddenly at my desk, causing all the Roberts, Bobs, and Bobbys in my class to shrink down in their seats.
Memories of people like Bobby P. and my ardor for him are bound up in all the memories I have of Fifth Street and Our Lady’s. They live side by side with the recollections of the injured cat I tried to save in second grade and the poinsettia song from seventh grade and the folded stars we made in sixth grade and Robert Frost bedeviled by the wind and the glare at President Kennedy’s inauguration in eighth grade and Marilyn Monroe’s death the summer after ninth grade. I hesitated for a moment, then turned around. Bobby was in conversation with someone else. I moved on.
All afternoon people kept arriving, some from Maryland and Philadelphia and other distant places. We spent some time trying to identify everyone in our First Communion picture. We got a lot of names down but remained divided about which of the two nuns standing in the top row was Sister Bride and which was Sister Nicholas. We gave a performance of the poinsettia song. We called up people who weren’t there and told them what they were missing.
Bobby P.’s younger brother and some of his classmates joined us. “I had such a crush on your brother,” I told him. “When he worked for Emerald Drug I used to hope someone in our house needed a prescription and he’d be the one to deliver it.” “You should tell him,” the brother said.
I got up and walked over to where he was sitting. He looked up as I approached. “Margy,” he said, getting out of his chair. “I thought that was you. Do you remember me?” He asked after my parents. I told him about the “Love Me Tender” performance. “I carried the torch for you for five years,” I said, “till you graduated and went away.”
His face (still handsome) softened. “That is so sweet,” he said. “Thank you for telling me.” And he put his arms around me and kissed me on the cheek.
I went back to my friends. We told more stories, remembering the joy we knew growing up on a street of closely-built double houses with no lawns a block and a half from the school. We made sure we all had each other’s current e-mail addresses. Sitting there, I forgot that I am overweight, that I hate how short I had my hair cut, that tomorrow I have to start trying to straighten out an insurance snafu that dates back to June. When the park staff came by with big trash bags and asked if we were finished with the plates and cans on our table I realized that it was getting on toward 6:00. I bought an OLBS Parish Centennial tote bag, talked to Bobby one more time, and finally took my leave.
I’ve known Carl Sandburg’s poem about happiness for almost as long as I’ve known the people I spent time with today. As poems go it’s pretty straightforward, with nothing hidden in elegant metaphor or arcane figures of speech. I have always understood it.
Today I lived it.
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