Saturday, December 31, 2016

Magical Realism

The lights dimmed, and the church, filled beyond capacity, became quiet. An hour earlier I had dropped my mother off at the side door on Adams Street, which runs parallel with the large brick and Gothic inspired building. Adams Street is one of the primary roads through one of the thirteen villages of Newton called Nonantum, but known to most as “The Lake” where the colors of the Italian flag are used instead of double yellow lines, painted down the middle of many of the roads in this historically blue-color neighborhood, just across the railroad tracks and turnpike. 

My mother had agreed to be one of the readers for the four o’clock Mass on Christmas Eve, and I volunteered to drive her and attend as well. As the service was geared for families and children, it had become one of most popular attended events of the year and the parking lot and adjacent streets would be filled long before mass was scheduled to start.

Our Lady Help of Christians Church, or Our Lady’s for short, was dedicated in 1881 and is located at the corner of Washington and Adams Streets. The congregation, founded in 1872, was originally known as St. Brendan's, due to the ever increasing population of Irish Catholics in the Boston area. The large chapel can seat over 1400 people, which came in handy when Mother Teresa visited in 1995. It was also in this church that I received my Baptism, First Communion, Confession, and Confirmation, four of the holy sacraments. In addition, I’ve visited Our Lady’s for Christmas Mass each year until I was in my early 20’s, as well on many other special occasions, like each of my sister’s weddings, family christenings, and several funerals. And while I wasn’t around for it, my eventual grandparents, who had only recently emigrated from Canada, were married in the lower chapel nearly 90 years ago. That’s a lot of history with a church, especially for someone who considers herself to be an atheist.

With the church now darkened, and only the final pray and recessional hymn remaining, the choir began singing Silent Night. From where I sat, nestled at the end of a pew with a family I didn’t know, but who were gracious to let me join them, I could see my mom sitting at the back of the alter, surrounded by the other readers, Eucharistic ministers, and choral members, and she was singing too. I joined in, and for a moment I thought I could hear her voice, her strong and proud French Canadian voice, over the thousand other folks singing, it was like she was singing to me. Silent Night - holy night - all is calm - all is bright – round yon virgin – mother and child…

And in that moment, my emotions rose to the surface, and I had to stop singing. Tears dripped from my eyes and fogged my glasses. I reached for my black handbag and grabbed a tissue, hoping the people around me didn’t notice. I don’t know why the moment got to me so, maybe it was the thought of how much my parents have been through this year, both facing significant health concerns, my dad unable or unwilling to attend mass in a wheelchair, my mom facing his death, her own, was this their last Christmas together? I don’t know, and I don’t think they know either.

Or maybe it was my own insecurity, separated from my girlfriend who was attending a separate mass just ten miles away, huddled together in a church pew with her two boys and her ex. I felt alone, disconnected and removed from the other parishioners who filled the seats and lined the walls, dressed in their Sunday best, who believed in the magical realism of Christmas, praying for the promise of tomorrow and the all that the New Year may bring.

I looked up to the large faded mural above the alter which depicted the crucifixion of Jesus and closed my eyes. I saw all places I used to go, when I was young.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Blame it on Tennessee

The other night, after watching PBS NewsHour, which included a tribute to John Glenn, one of America’s first astronauts, and before turning to NBC’s Thursday Night Football, I fell under the spell Magic Moments: The Best Of 50s Pop, a rebroadcast of a concert from 2004, used as a filler and fundraiser more than once. The show featured stars, now in their golden years, singing their hits from the days of poodle skirts, penny loafers, and greasers. I’m a helpless romantic, and while I was impressed by host Pat Boone’s youthful enthusiasm, I was fixated on co-host Phyliss McGuire, of the McGuire Sisters, and her less than subtle plastic surgery, especially her enhanced, and slightly asymmetrical lips, sincerely wondering if that was my fate in 30 years time.

But before I could dwell on what might look like for me, she introduced the first act, “Patti Page, the Singing Rage”. Patti Page was the best selling female artist of the 50’s, and when she took the stage ensconced in a blue glittery gown, she was meet with a thunderous applause. And while some of the clapping was embellished during post-production, I felt it was appropriate; like it was her fans, applauding from the grave.

Her first song was her biggest hit, Tennessee Waltz. I know it only because it was featured in one of my favorite films, The Right Stuff. The movie, based on the Tom Wolf novel, is the story of the Mercury Space program in the 1950’s, which includes, John Glenn. As she began to sing, my mind wandered, traveling to place and an idea I don’t recall ever thinking about. How often does that happen? I thought about dancing with my dad, like at my brothers and sisters weddings, my cousins weddings, and even my own wedding some years ago. It was emotional.

And while I feel so fortunate to have shared the dance floor, on more than one occasion, with my beautiful mom who sometimes wore a cerulean blue dress, I haven’t had that opportunity with my dad. It’s not like he wasn’t there, he was, but I grew up and attended most of those events as man in my parents’ eyes.

Friday night I attended our Bangor Holiday event for work. It’s a simple affair compared to our annual Gala, we show up, organize the function room, have a few drinks, nibble on appetizers, give some awards away, talk about our work, and ask for money. It was my job to talk about our work with our guests, both from the stage and amongst the crowd. I’ve been doing these events for nearly three years, and in that time, grown confident in myself as a woman, and as an activist and public speaker. But I was thrown off Friday and felt more vulnerable than most nights. Was it my speech, which addressed some of the disturbing trends we’ve seen in the aftermath of Trump’s election? Was it the guest who misgendered me after finding out we were born in the same hospital in Boston? “He was born at St. Elizabeth’s too” she called out to her friend. Maybe it was the reminder of the Pulse massacre, mentioned during one of the other speeches. Either way, I didn’t see any of them coming, like a comet or meteor crashing into our atmosphere without warning.

I also don’t know why the thought of dancing with my dad got to me so. Maybe it’s the season, it’s dark in Maine in December, the days are short and the nights are long and cold. And while I often catch myself ogling at the star filled sky, I’m reminded how small I am in this world, and on most nights alone as well. My parents have aged right before my eyes, and as I face their mortality this Christmas season, maybe I’m afraid of my own.