Tuesday, March 24, 2015

How Did She Do That?

My mother taught me many things, as mothers do, and I use that knowledge all the time. But there are a few little skills that I wish I had asked her to teach me, and now those are lost forever.

One of these involves a man's handkerchief.

My mother could take one of my father's handkerchiefs and turn it into a little rabbit or a frog. I am not dreaming this. Somehow, she rolled and folded and tucked that handkerchief until it became that rabbit or frog. I vividly remember her doing this transformation but I never asked her to teach me. Never. I would give anything now to be able to do this trick.

Apparently my mother kept me entirely amused by this handkerchief manipulation on a long bus trip from Washington, DC to Norfolk when I was very young. I only vaguely remember that, although she told the story often. She would pop out a handkerchief and dazzle us every now and then when I was small. Then a long dry spell set in. Once in a long while I would ask her to make that little rabbit, just for fun. But I never asked her how she did it.

When my brother graduated from college, my parents and my daughter and I went to the graduation ceremonies. Of course, the university-wide graduation proceedings occurred in the stadium, and there were many things to distract and interest my three-year-old. Then we adjourned to a smaller venue, where the actual diplomas were given to the engineering graduates.

There were many engineering graduates.

Time dragged on. We were excited when my brother walked across the stage and received his diploma. But for a three-year-old, that was all she wanted to see. We were sitting very high up in the auditorium and it would have been too difficult to leave right after my brother's moment. So my mother reached into her grandmother bag of tricks and brought out the handkerchief. She mesmerized my daughter with those handkerchief animals. Mesmerized her. In fact, my mother mesmerized everyone within a couple of rows in the auditorium. I remember people sitting behind me, beside me, and in front of me, leaning in to get a better look and asking how in the world my mother could do that. Mother created quite a sensation that day!

And I never asked her to teach me how to do it. Wouldn't I have dazzled my students if I could have produced such an amazing transformation? I had so many opportunities to learn the secret! And I let time pass me by. The further mystery, of course, is where in the world she learned this trick! What a mother.

Oh, Go Fly A Kite

Ideas of things to do with my grandchildren frequently appear in my mind, which is not a surprising condition for a grandmother. As the March winds blow through Indiana, my thoughts have turned to kites. This doesn't seem to be a very kite-conscious area, however. Conditions might be more propitious nearer Lake Michigan. I will have to check that out. But kite flying with the babies is just a tad premature, since they're only 21 months. I have plenty of time to collect my materials and plan my designs.

You see, I will be making the kites my little ones fly.

Why on earth would I make a kite? I could choose from such an amazing variety of pre-made kites. Based on what I have seen just in the kite shops on the Outer Banks, the choice is nearly infinite. Nevertheless, in my mind, the very best kites are ones that are homemade. I have the memories to prove it.

My parents built their dream house in the early 1960's, and when we moved in, there were large areas in that part of Norfolk County, Virginia that remained undeveloped, often still farmland. The first spring after we moved to our new house, my father came home one Saturday after a trip to Churchland Hardware, laden with brown paper and dowels and string. We stood, goggle-eyed, watching him spread out the paper. He proceeded to lay out a variety of rectangles on the paper and then cut them out. He built a frame from the wooden dowels and then attached the paper rectangles. After securing everything, he tied string to appropriate points on the structure. My mother brought some old sheets to contribute to the project, and we tore them into strips. Suddenly there was a box kite in our living room!

My father bundled us into the car and drove a short distance to an area of vacant land (the Greenfield Farms and Belvedere neighborhoods now cover this). We hopped out and followed him to a flat, open portion of ground. He told us exactly what to do and how to do it, and before we knew it, our kite was flying. And it was really flying. Up and up and up and up it went. What a glorious day! The kite pulled against our grips, tugging sharply and strongly. We took turns flying it, and ran around in glee when we weren't in charge. My father convinced us that making a kite was the best treat ever.

Fast forward to late April of 1990. My father was making one of his visits to our home in Chicago. He had never been there in the springtime and he had never even mentioned making kites with my children. But as luck would have it, this particular stretch of April provided absolutely beautiful, warm, sunny days, with strong winds. Off went my father to the hardware store. Back he came with brown paper, wooden dowels, and string. I dug out an old sheet. As my children watched, goggle-eyed, he cut out the kite shape, attached the dowels and string, and there was our kite!

Horner Park in Chicago boasts a nice hill, right along Montrose Avenue. It made a perfect spot for our kite flying. We brought all our paraphernalia to the top of the hill and prepared to fly the kite. My father assigned places and roles to everyone, even the smallest. My sister and my daughter trotted away from us, carrying the kite, and then let it go. Up it went. But it looped around and around and didn't climb very high. It needed a longer tail. We tied more strips to the kite and then let it go again. Now we had a climber! Up and up and up and up it climbed. I thought it might hit the airplanes headed in to O'Hare on their final approach! Oh my, what an excellent kite! To use my father's expression, we "set it back". My children were enthralled and amazed. They took turns holding the kite (with a little help), and could hardly take their eyes off it. My father rigged up a system so that we could sit on the ground but control the kite string through a stick of thick dowel driven into the ground. One of my most-loved photos shows him sitting beside this with my youngest son, both of them completely focused on the kite.

That day was magic. And I know the construction of the kite provided much of that magic. I will try my best to follow in my father's footsteps when it's time to fly kites with my little ones. Won't we have fun?

In fact, maybe I should practice a little this spring so we can fly kites next year!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A Tale of Two Cemeteries

Today the Congregation of Holy Cross and the University of Notre Dame said farewell to Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, who served as Notre Dame's president for 35 years and is regarded as the 'second founder' of the university. As you might imagine, his funeral Mass inspired and moved those who attended as well as those of us who watched the live broadcast on television. We have been thinking quite a bit about Father Ted around here this past week.

At the end of the funeral, his brother Holy Cross priests filed out past his casket. Each of them, as far as I could tell, laid a hand on the casket as he passed it. They led him out of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and then in the procession from the church to the cemetery of the Holy Cross community about half a mile away. Hundreds of students and faculty and staff and local citizens lined the road which winds around the lake  to the cemetery.

Not every visitor to Notre Dame discovers the Holy Cross Community Cemetery. In a secluded area of the campus, it sits well away from the 'beaten path' that most visitors and students tread. I found the cemetery during the first weeks of my move here, and frequently make excuses to enter or leave campus by that route. I find it a place of great peace and serenity. Row upon row of small, white, stone crosses cover the ground, barely protruding above the snow that blankets the cemetery today. This is the final resting place of members of the Congregation of Holy Cross, the group of priests and brothers who founded Notre Dame. And you cannot distinguish one grave from another, save by reading the name on each cross. I find this a bit breathtaking.

Father Ted's grave will be just one of hundreds. Oh, I imagine that it will now be a 'must see' place for visitors henceforward, but other graves will soon surround it. Father Ted will lie with his brothers forever.

As I watched the procession and then the committal, I thought about the sacrifices of the Holy Cross priests who came here from France and carved a university out of the raw wilderness of northern Indiana. They first stopped in Vincennes, far south of South Bend, thinking their mission would be established there. A few years before, the Sisters of Providence had arrived, also from France, and were trying to start schools and missions in that part of Indiana. They encountered some challenges from the resident bishop, and Father Sorin and his Holy Cross brothers also found some obstacles in their way in Vincennes. When word came that there was land available for the Holy Cross mission in northern Indiana, practical wisdom indicated a change of scene might be good. Mother Theodore Guerin (canonized in 2006) lent Father Sorin an oxcart for the journey north. Off he went with his brothers, and the rest is history.

Both Father Sorin and Mother Guerin labored in the Lord's vineyard here in Indiana. Both were buried with their brothers and sisters in their communities' burial grounds.

I taught with Sisters of Providence at Guerin High School in Chicago, and made dear friends among them. Once, I had the privilege of attending a Sister's funeral at St. Mary of the Woods near Terre Haute. I thought about that funeral today as well. Sister Jean Margaret did not have the international stature of Father Ted, but she shaped and influenced the lives of hundreds and hundreds of students and colleagues. Her funeral, while held in a beautiful, stately church, didn't draw television coverage or thousands of mourners. Her photo didn't grace banners flying across the campus of the college. And yet, when the funeral ended, her sisters led her out of the church and stood at the doorway before her casket was borne away. We joined the group gathered there, and listened as the sisters sang their community's hymn, "Our Lady of Providence", as a final goodbye.

Sister Jean Margaret now lies beneath one of the hundreds of small, white, stone crosses in the Sisters of Providence Cemetery at St. Mary of the Woods. This cemetery also fills a quiet, secluded, serene spot in Indiana's countryside. Row upon row of white crosses stretch into the distance. Some of them now mark the graves of my own colleagues. One can trace the history of the Sisters of Providence in the names on these crosses. Benches sit in convenient places so that visitors may stop awhile and think and pray. It is a beautiful and humbling place. It is a powerful witness to faith and love and community.

That is what knits Father Ted and Sister Jean Margaret together in my thoughts today. That is what marked Father Sorin and his brother missionaries and Mother Guerin and her sisters. Whatever they accomplished, whatever accolades they received, whatever good came to others through them, they drew strength from their lives as professed members of religious communities, and they rested within those communities when their lives ended.

I will visit Father Ted's grave when spring arrives. When I do, I think I will walk around and read the names of some of his Holy Cross brothers and say thank you.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Her Mother Can't Help With This

My children grew up in Chicago, and I tried to give them many, many opportunities to explore the city and its environs. They lived in urban neighborhoods of streets and blocks and two-flats; they played sports in Welles Park, two blocks from home; they walked to our parish school, one block away. They became adroit at taking the CTA; they learned to ice skate; and Wrigley Field was a second home. I feel completely confident that any one of them could navigate safely in any place they might live. We haunted the museums. Each child plays at least one musical instrument and each has a good singing voice. Our parishes were blessed with good pastors and talented liturgical musicians, so the religious foundations grew strong, too. All three of my children are excellent travellers and we have many travel experiences that we would love to share with anyone who will listen. I tried to prepare them for their adult lives in as many ways as I could imagine.

But I failed in one area.

We never had pets.

Now my daughter has adopted an adorable little terrier mix (who looks rather like Toto) and has plunged into the world of pet ownership with no previous experience. Being a resourceful woman, she checked out a stack of books from the library, seeks advice and help from family and friends, and Googles whatever else she needs.  I know she's going to love having the little fellow around. Yet when she talks about some of the tricky bits of adjusting to this new creature in her house, I don't have any good, practical advice to give. Nothing. She laughs and teases me that I forgot about the fact she and her brothers might own pets one day. I did.

Here's the reason.

As a child, I had some serious allergies that triggered asthma attacks. Dogs and cats could not live in our house. When we visited my Aunt Rachel, whose dog and cat both lived inside, we could stay until my eyes began to water and then I had to go. (In the summer, of course, I just played outside with my cousins and siblings and had no problems.) My husband and I had friends in Malden, Massachusetts who owned two fine, furry cats, and I couldn't even get past the entry hall to their apartment if the cats weren't locked up in another room. I avoided cats and dogs in close spaces. I never considered having an indoor pet once we started our family.

Yet my allergies didn't fully blossom until I was around 8, and my parents kept a dog from the time I was around 6. The first was a beautiful, small, white puppy we chose ourselves and named Buck. I can remember bringing him home when he was just old enough to leave his mother, and I remember my mother making him a little nest in our front vestibule. She wrapped up an alarm clock so he could have a comforting, rhythmic beat while he slept. I remember house training him, and how he would play with us. Then one day I came home from school and found my sister and brother inconsolable. A neighbor had left our gate open and Buck had run out into the road and been hit by a car. The driver couldn't stop in time and was so sad. My father came home from his job and took little Buck away to the vet (to be cremated, as I now understand). We shed many tears that day.

Before too much longer, our neighbors' dog had puppies, and they gave us a fine little fellow whom we named King. He proved to be a faithful and lively member of the family. My parents had a new house built around that time and we moved out to Churchland, where there was an acre of space in which to roam. By then, my allergies were pronounced and King wouldn't be allowed to live inside. My father built him an excellent doghouse in our back yard. It still stands, under an enormous pin oak with branches that shelter the house from the heat and the weather. In the first years, King just ran free. We had some adventures with him in those days. He would follow us to school or to the grocery store. Once he even followed our school bus around the neighborhood and hopped on at a different stop. King was great. But as the neighborhood grew denser, we had to keep him chained up. I know this makes many folks very angry nowadays. But King was perfectly happy and we were with him all the time. I grew up in Tidewater Virginia, so the weather generally wasn't a problem. If things were bad, we brought him inside to our family room. We cared for King very lovingly. But he lived outside. I loved him at a distance.

My natural proclivities, therefore, are to keep animals at arm's length. If one is allergic to an animal that triggers an asthma attack, one quickly learns that this animal needs to be avoided. I will pet your dog but not your cat, and I will sit as far away from them in your house as possible. I will cheerfully play with them outside! But I don't 'click' with dogs and cats. And I really don't know the first thing about training and living with a dog!

Fortunately for my daughter and sons, my sister and brother are pet lovers and owners par excellence. They have dogs living in their houses (no cats) and they have raised dogs from puppyhood. So even if I can't provide the personal expertise to help my daughter with her puppy, she has the next best thing: a loving aunt and uncle who can help her every step of the way. Another reason to be thankful for families!

And I will cheerfully take the little doggie for a walk.