IV. Hairpins & Hopscotch

I was what one might call…weird…at university. For one thing, I’m pretty sure I had the only dorm with matching towel sets and seasonal floral arrangements. I collected house plants and Renaissance prints, woke up to Enya, and my idea of a party was a single ticket to the ballet. There was that one time I felt like being extra exciting I bought a Celtic Woman concert ticket. The median age at the event was around 60, but they gave such a moving, sniffle-inducing performance of “Nella Fantasia,” I didn’t really notice. In other words, I had about as much edge as a butter knife and as much street cred as a walking PBS commercial (the wholesomely boring, public broadcasting channel beloved by children and old people.

Looking back, sometimes I wonder if I’m ever going to regret not having acted wilder or at least more age-appropriate, but part of the problem was I wasn’t acting to begin with. The old Polish neighborhood where I grew up was precisely that…old. Sure, there were kids at school, but not many. Life centered mostly around the church, with a community that was stubbornly stuck in era which, to the rest of the world, had died long before I was born. There were accordions and polka music, church functions and monks in brown robes with heavy Polish accents, knights with capes & sabers & funny hats, daily masses and that odd tendency for old women to cover every available flat surface with statuary (at least one of which will be Jesus). My Nana whom we visited often had framed puzzle of the pope the size of a fangirl poster hanging in her brown (why is the décor always brown?) dining room. It’s something I just kind of took as a normal accessory, along with the Easter baskets full of sausage and the horseradish no one ate but still accepted anyway to avoid hurt feelings.

I never really had any opinions on the subject of my upbringing beyond a refusal to eat the horseradish (and the beets also, which I’d resented since the day they turned out not to be cranberry sauce). I just sort of went about in my head thinking about random things, listening to the people complain about a sermon or gossip about that near-brawl during last night’s bingo. Religion and everything surrounding it were a part of ordinary life, so also were funerals. Lots and lots of funerals.

As a kid, I never minded the funerals. Being an altar girl, I preferred them to weddings, which were far and few between and always seemed one loose hairpin away from a reality TV special. Funerals on the other hand, were blissfully predictable. If the incense smelled nice and the choir’s “Serdeczna Matko” was especially tearful, I was probably going to get a big tip. And there’s so much stress at weddings. This one’s not talking to that one. Those shoes don’t match her dress. This son’s living with his concubine and refusing to convert, but omg he’s going to be a doctor of the church someday and what’s your son doing, again? Real estate? Lots of petty and not-so-petty stress balls wait in the wings, ready to point out any minor flaw. At a funeral people are so emotionally-raw and guilt-ridden I’m pretty sure the only mishap they’d notice is if the person popped out of the box.

(Which is on the Catholic record books as having actually happened btw. At the age of 21 Saint Christina the Astonishing is said to have sat up during her funeral, flew up to the rafters and shouted, “I smell sin everywhere.” …Not really sure how that got through while Galileo’s heliocentrism did not, but that’s a whole other story apt to involve Aquinas, the Greeks and the development of optics).

And I’m happy to report no one ever sat up and proclaimed themselves to be undead at any of the funerals I served, but then again, I’m pretty sure the closing mechanism for caskets has greatly improved since the Middle Ages, so tough luck for anyone who might’ve tried. Actually, come to think of it the caskets might be sort-of like vacuum sealed as well because they make this ‘shwoozsh’ sound when they close, along with the hard ‘snaks’ of the lock thingy’s that keep the lid shut. It’s kind of disturbing if you’re close to the person. But if you are the person and were thinking about being astonishing, you’ve likely already had the blood drained out of you by this stage, so if you were going to wake up again, it’s best to do it before the embalming turns you into something between an icy mannequin and a dissection-ready, formaldehyde frog, just as a matter of interest. But I digress.

As I was saying, blissfully predictable. When done traditionally (which was basically always) the thing is like a whole, two-day affair. Fortunately for me most of the time I just had to show up for the Mass part. Though if I knew the person a bit better, I’d also have to swirl through the crowd at the pre-game meet and greet, where checking out the person’s Rosary (always wrapped around the hands) and the quality of the embalming were an absolute must, along with grabbing one of those cards with the person’s new address at the cemetery. The cards were taken entirely for the pictures and a sort of ‘proof of attendance’, btw. Though Mrs. Shwoozsh-shwuzsh-something-ski may have had the best kolacky at the church fest, there was almost a zero chance I was going to drop her a visit after the funeral, unless I happened to run over her new dig accidentally with my mother’s car. (I learned to drive at the cemetery, because my mother knew the gravediggers & because “well, it’s not like you can kill anyone.”)

I feel like I should stop at this point and mention the cemetery by us was super nice. It had winding roads, manicured lawns, a plethora of floral arrangements. In fact, it was almost like a park. If you avoided the infant section, it wasn’t sad or creepy at all. Except for that one mausoleum near the entrance. It had a window on the front and a stained-glass, 19th century-esque portrait of the woman buried there on the back, so when the light was just right she basically watched you from inside the stone as you passed by. That was creepy, but the rest was fine.

And that was more or less my childhood. There were more childish things as well (I mean I played like a normal person also, which was most of the time), though I do think my exposure to corpses and sobbing people might have been slightly above the average. Still, it was hardly noticeable. My mind was in books and schoolwork and PBS programs, in lunchroom politics and all the other worries children have in those years. There was always an inkling of it there though, memories of wandering past the stones, working out in my head how long people had lived and wondering from what they had died, considering also the percent likelihood I might go to hell if I suddenly broke out an impromptu game of hopscotch across the marble. So, it was still there. Like Christina the Astonishing waiting to pop out of the box, the heavy sound of the lid was there, which is how we finally get to Harvey.

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