The lost child became an urchin,

Eyes endless and dark.

She escaped into the wilderness,

Lay beneath the tamarack,

And drank from the tiger lily’s throat.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Waiting and Hiding in Grandma Klimek's Dining Room

Inside Grandma's Dining Room
Last time I talked with Sandy she mentioned the stained glass in Grandma Klimek's Dining Room. Where in the world could it be? How awful if it were broken. Better had it been stolen. Hopefully someone, somewhere still enjoyed it--but most likely it had been stored underneath a cabin, or in the big garage, or even under the lodge itself before the wrecking crew came in to tear the old building apart. Probably it had been there, dirty, unrecognizable, and ground to bits under the treads of the bulldozer or the heavy boots of men. Things get lost when taken from their proper place, even precious things.

There were two windows, with a clock between--remember? Where Mary Jane sat waiting for her mama to return from town. The clock ticked and tocked the minutes by like heartbeats that became more lonesome as time passed. She couldn't move, that little girl, so bound as she was to the waiting, as though she could work magic by her stillness and the listening to the heartbeats of the clock and of the rain, and gazing through the window down the road. But I've told you that before. Writing it didn't take it from me, though, and here it is again. Seventy years have passed, and here it still exists. The child cannot rise from her little chair underneath the clock and walk into the living room. Even more could she not take herself outside. Something that makes the magic of return might snap. Some silver cord. Might. Snap.

The Clock, Grandma, and Some Mid-day Guests
The clock is clear, but I can't see Grandma Klimek's face because of the blur. She must have turned her head, and back then in the time of analog and shutters and film, nothing moved so very fast. She managed to hide whatever might otherwise be clear about her. I've found no pictures taken in the kitchen. Maybe she could be more clear there. It's odd, though, because I think she enjoyed being noticed. But that doesn't mean something isn't also hidden, does it? I warm to her when I imagine she is hiding something so important to herself she would quickly turn her head to blur our seeing it.

Mary Jane was a silver cord, a circle 8 in and out of this room. (Maybe this room is a metaphor--I hadn't thought of that)  Maybe the child both kept and broke the spell, the way she brought the outside in and kept the inside out.
See the sign "REFRESHMENTS"? That's the outside of where you were a moment ago. From outside you cannot see the little girl underneath the clock, nor the woman who turned her face, nor the light through the stained glass, nor the linen-covered tables and chairs. You cannot see the buffet that held the ice-cream wafers with their soft cream filling. You cannot see the big Lake of the Woods Muskie on the wall, nor the elegant but unfortunate deer. You cannot see the fishermen. You cannot see the flowers. You cannot see the ice in the water glasses--ice that the winter before was taken from the lake and stored in the ice-house. You cannot hear the waitress argue with the cook behind the door to the kitchen. You cannot know about the hiding nor the waiting nor the little chair nor the magical spells.

Does it amaze you how different outside is from in? When you think about the flowers, does it amaze you that the geraniums in the window boxes outside look tattered? When you think about the linen covered tables and chairs, do you wonder about the rutted road and the weeds in the grass? Are you even sure that I'm telling you the truth, and that you've seen the in and out of the very same place?

I don't remember if all this amazed Mary Jane, though I am quite sure she felt and obeyed the magic of it. The be-still-and-wait wound the magic cord around the ticking of the clock, the dripping of the rain, the vision of an old, old car twisting down the gravel road and taking time with it--taking Mama out. The child held that place inside, underneath the ticking clock, keeping the magic cord, watching the raindrops on the gravel road. Splashing. (I've told you this before. Remember. But it doesn't disappear. And it is different this time. Do you see?) She stayed in. She held the cord. She kept the outside in. The rain slowed and ceased. The car twisted up the road. It parked underneath the stained glass windows. And the spell did not break.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

What Passed Me By

Lately I've been digging old files out of my closet. It's what many of us do at my age when in a cleaning and organizing frenzy. The important stuff of a lifetime needs separating from the trash. I'm finding letters and photos and Christmas cards from way, way back. Invitations to weddings and graduations. Yellowed news clippings. A sketch of me done by an artist friend back in 1961 when I still wore a veil. Sometimes I come across a long affectionate letter from a person I cannot recall at all. How do I not know this person? We had to have been close when the letter was written. I Google the name. Sometimes I find the person. Yesterday I contacted one of them by email. He wrote back; can you believe it?? Space and time are closing in...or opening up! I'm haunted by all that passed me by.

The summer of 1945 when I was four years old I saw a living skeleton. If I'd had the daring I would have run to hide behind a tree at Klimek's Lodge, but he terrified me into paralysis. His clothes hung on him like laundry on a stick. "It's cousin Anthony," I was told, but I was pretty sure that a cousin of my grandpa could not really be a cousin of mine. They'd both been named Anthony, though my grandfather used the German/Polish form of Anton. Their parents were brother and sister--Anthony's mother and Anton's father. They'd grown up together in Poland until their families emigrated to the United States in the mid-eighteen hundreds. Those details passed me by back in 1945 when I was probably led forward by my mother to be introduced and shake this cousin's bony hand.

Rev. Anthony Kolodziej, SVD
His picture, which didn't look a bit like him, occupied a place of honor in Grandma Klimek's living room in Baudette. In fact, there were two framed pictures, this one and one I no longer have in which he is wearing academic robes. This man was quite an intellectual who helped found seminaries in both Poland and in the Philippines where he went as a missionary in 1933. All this passed me by.
What didn't pass me by even then was that he'd been captured along with the young men who were his seminary students and spent from December, 1940, until February 23, 1945, as a prisoner of the Japanese Army. During the last two years of his imprisonment he was in what he called "the Starvation Camp Los Banos. At the end I had only 75 pounds left." I found this information in a letter written to my Aunt Eva Klimek Mapes in 1972.

So what would you do? Right. I Googled Los Banos. Liberation of Los Banos The description of the terrors there confirm an image that had haunted me since I was four. In the evenings, at the Lodge, cousin Anthony told stories of his time at the prison. These details took root in the memory of who I was as such a small child:

--Cousin Anthony was given a small bowl of rice, often wormy, each day and ordered to eat it in front of the other men who were given nothing. If he ate it, he would live. If he gave it to anyone else, he would be shot. Day after day Fr. Anthony give his bowl of rice away. Day after day he would be taken to the yard of execution, tied to a pole, and blindfolded. The guards pointed their rifles at him. He prepared himself for death. And day after day they released him. But he never knew if he would survive that ordeal. 

Even a child can grasp terror such as that. I think cousin Anthony's stories introduced me to a kind of waking nightmare that surpassed what could be called the normal terrors of a child's daily life, explicable terrors. Here is a terror inexplicable. I read Wikipedia on "The Liberation of Los Banos" and realize that he was there on February 23, 1945 when the paratroopers landed. I see the prisoners who'd become too fractured, too wounded, too reduced (I had only 75 pounds left) to rise to their feet and leave. And I know that such terror continues all around the world, still today. I want to fall to my knees and scream a broken high C! Why?

But I know why, don't I? Do I? 

Cousin Anthony went back to the Philippines; that's what the card he sent my grandfather tells us. He went back when summer was over and the beautiful Lake of the Woods and Klimek's Lodge had provided a peaceful space for healing. Grandma Klimek must have cooked her amazing comfort foods, and Grandpa took his cousin fishing in his launch. What must it have cost Anthony Kolodziej to return to the place where he must have, many times, nearly lost his faith? What would he remember? Did he wonder that? What would haunt him, and would it matter? Or was he by then so refined by the fire of suffering that his whole soul was pure gold? Had he reached the state in which life and death are an unending circle and it mattered little or not at all where he might be in that unending and universal spiral?

All that passed me by. The child was haunted by the worms crawling through the rice. She shuddered. She was haunted by the "Ready. Aim. Fire." Haunted by the breath that didn't cease. Haunted by eyes opening once again to the sunlight. Haunted by his bony hands. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Don't Mess with the Redhead!

There's Sandra Su. She was born first and was the dearest, smartest, most talented, most to be admired child ever to walk the earth--except maybe for Shirley Temple whom she resembled. I knew her primarily from photographs in Grandma Klimek's living room in town. After Grandma told me all the wonderful things about my older cousin, I would visit each of her photographs, show them to my little friends, and imagine myself being able to do everything this Shirley-Temple-like-child did. In one large portrait Sandra Su is a ballerina posing en pointe and wearing a tutu. In another she must have been dancing to "The Good Ship Lollypop." I simply can't see re-runs of Shirley Temple without thinking that, really, the little girl on the silver screen is actually my cousin.

She is the eldest daughter of my mother's brother, Pete, and his wife,  Alice Lou. She is Sally Su's older sister. Sal may have not yet been born when Sandy and I posed for this particular photo. Likely it was taken during WWII. when Pete was shlepping Admiral Halsey through gunfire around the South Pacific. I don't recognize this house. Maybe it was where she lived in Iowa. Maybe it was Christmas; she looks pleased with that stuffed animal, and the tree seems to have lost a branch being hauled in or out. Whatever she has, it would have been her right to have it, being as wonderful as she was, but I don't really look all that happy, do I?

Sandy was just that much older than I to separate us during childhood. Even once the war was over and Pete's family spent summers in Baudette, it was Sally with whom I played, and Sandy found friends closer to her own age who lived in summer homes along the river not far away.

Sandy Su, Mary Jane, Sally Su
This was sort of the way it must have been. Probably I wanted to BE my cousin Sandy. I can already see in our faces the women we would become in later years.And look! Someone made us identical dresses. Probably that would have been Aunt Eva. And we even all ended up sixty years later wearing our hair in the same styles. Amazing!

We weren't sisters, after all, even though the grown-ups showed us off from time to time as if they wished we were. Both Sal and I depended upon Sandy as a kind of miniature adult; both of us rebelled against her restrictions and attempts to remind us that we were the little ones, subject to her rule. But that's the way it is in every family, right? Except for that one detail -- we were not sisters, and at the end of the summer they would return to Iowa and I'd become an only child once again.

Are children trained by life for the challenges that will visit them as adults? When I look at the three of us, I think maybe so. And since I'm gazing most intently today on Sandy, let me just say a few words about how Life insisted she be strong. She was the first in our family to work towards an advanced degree. Hers was in business. She became a college educator. She married a fine man who, midway along his road of life, was striken by a rare disease that would make him an invalid and Sandy a caretaker for the over twenty years remaining to him. She educated herself in the politics and practices of doctors, nurses, hospitals, government laws concerning health care -- and often knew a whole lot more about how to keep her husband, Wood, alive than they did. Their hearts might have fallen into their stomachs when they saw her coming. She dedicated herself. She became a Bear, a Harpy, an Archangel, a Goddess of protection. Wood used to laugh: "Don't mess with the Redhead!" He knew he could count on her. We all knew he could count on her.

And at the same time she continued to teach, she supported the family, she masterminded a new house where he'd feel stronger, on a lake where he'd enjoy the ducks and the boat, she survived breast cancer.

Wood lived longer than anyone could imagine. When he did die, Sandy lost herself for a while. We who have known widowhood understand that. Physically as well as emotionally she had taken a beating. She began needing to use her vast education of the American medical system to intervene for herself. And she did...she does. At present she's recovering from surgery to replace her shoulder. And here's something quite wonderful -- she can still count on her friends from childhood. Even if they live halfway across the continent they keep in touch. There's something more than special about our Sandra Su. There's an honor she's held up. There's a faithfulness, a tenacity, a courage with which she continues to face each moment.

Thanks, Sandy. I've always been grateful for your presence in my life.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Red Ball

Imagine her walking towards the woods behind the lodge. She'd been warned. There would be danger there. But imagine it anyway, though she wouldn't really do it because of the fear. One could venture only just so far away from home before the drop off where land disappeared as it did in dreams and in what they called imagination. Land didn't actually drop off like that, but she wasn't sure. So imagine it. Pretend she did step through the ferns into the tall grass and past the first tree, the territory of porcupines, skunks, snakes, weasels and wolves. What if she hadn't stayed in sight of the ice house and the garage, the lodge, the cabins, and Johnny Shellum's little shack papered inside with bathing beauties. What if she had been like Eve and disobeyed the order of the gods? What would she be like today?

I wondered this on a day in the early 1980's when Pat Kelly (my husband then) visited what was left of the old Klimek's Lodge. Not much. The lodge itself had been torn apart, sections of it moved and turned into cabins, much of it just tossed out as trash. (Maybe these thoughts should be saved for the ending of this Lorelands blog, but I'm thinking of it now. What can I do? I'm only the writer.) Pat and I wandered an unfamiliar landscape. "I think this is where the ice-house used to be..." and "there once were beautiful rocks along the shore. One was crystalline and Mary Jane would pretend to be inside it, following the fissures like roads to the interior."

We walked towards the woods where Grandma Klimek's daisies used to grow. The big tree where Mary Jane's swing hung--gone. Where was the spot she buried the baby chick? Where did she dance around the grave of Sparky the dog? The earth had reconfigured itself.

Is this also what becomes of us, the individuals who occupied a place? Are we as ephemeral as the land we once thought to be secure? So stable and so steady that even if everything else changed, the land would remain. And then it doesn't.

There is something more here than the once stunning notion that we can't go home again. Better is the poet's insight that we can go home again but only after long explorations, and then in the keen sight of a life intensely lived,  we can finally know the place, the essence of the soul, for the first time.

We walked the forest's edge. Maybe it was the wrong time of year for wildflowers. Leaf-green and the deep red of sumac curtained the interior. Pat was pointing: Look! A spot of red almost hidden in the long grass. Too round to be a sumac leaf. What? I went towards it.

Whether it had survived or returned there every time a spirit of innocence ran laughing at the forest's edge really didn't matter. Whether it had belonged to Mary Jane, a true archaeological find, or to a succession of individual children over the years, these details rarely matter to the heart. I laughed, feeling I'd found a bit of her, a round of color in a shaft of summer sun.

A child's red ball.

(Images copied from Google Images)

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Things Unknown

The more I think about my grandmother, Elizabeth Catherine (Friesinger) Klimek, the less I know her. She left a lot of hints and rumors behind her, but no diary or letter or journal. She left her name on legal and business documents as well as on the cover page of several prayer books. She left some photographs. 

Who was she? About twenty years ago I began to write a novel based on the hints and rumors. What I couldn't know as fact, I would fill in with imagination. I've re-written this novel nine times, and I'm back to writing it yet again! 

It began with a phone call from my cousin Don Lore who at the time was rabid about genealogy--tracking down the Lore side of our family. In the process he checked census records throughout Minnesota and happened upon early records of the Friesingers in Morrison County. Lizzie was still at home in 1900, and was twenty years old. She had a sister, Eva, who was five. WHAT????? Why had I never heard of this Eva who would have been an aunt to my mother? The only Eva I knew about was my own Auntie Eva, my mother's older sister, my grandma Klimek's first daughter. MAYBE her first daughter. The first Eva was listed as Lizzie's sister, as I said, which would have made her the daughter of my great grandmother, too old at the time to have borne her. Then, in the 1905 census this first Eva had disappeared. She didn't live with Lizzie's parents; nor did she live with Lizzie and Anton Klimek and their little son, Paul. She would have been ten years old, and she was nowhere. 

I called my Aunt Eva and  questioned her about the mystery. "There was no other Eva," she insisted. "Maybe it was the Klimek family. I think they had an orphan come up the river on a malaria boat. Lots of orphans came to farms that way those days. She grew up and married a fellow from Minneapolis. They lived on Chicago Ave. But she died early--32, I think she was. Her name was Mary." It didn't sound like the same person at all. I said that. I wanted to know if my grandmother could have given birth to this first Eva and passed her off as a sister. It's happened, I reminded my aunt who exploded in anger. "Don't you be saying such things about my mother!" And she hung up. Hum. What DID happen to the first Eva? I believed the census: she was here and then she wasn't.

Families hide their secrets like heirlooms. At one time everyone knew the value of the treasure. But after generations pass a forgetting sets in. The hint of meaning either points to something valuable, or it points to nothing at all. But the compulsion to find the hidden heirloom of a family story remains powerful. 

If there was a first Eva, what kind of effect might that person have had upon the family's history and all of us who share it. How did her presence as secret, as hint or as reality create my grandmother to be the person Mary Jane knew? And since this Grandma Klimek became such a power in all our lives, how might knowing the first Eva's story have affected that.

We have only a name and date inscribed upon the census record. A hint. And I'm writing. Here's a small scene in which the grandmother character is looking at her treasures and remembering:

A slower pace might serve me better, she thought as she prepared herself for bed. She sat in front of her dresser and opened the bottom drawer where she kept things too beautiful to wear. Now and then, when she felt her blood pressure rising, and when her head began to buzz, she opened these drawers and took each article of clothing out of its tissue paper wrapping to lay it on the bed and admire it. The bedroom lamp cast a rosy glow over the contents of the drawer as she removed the delicate lace and linen handkerchiefs, then the silk undergarments. She ran her hand over the rose colored panties, much too fine to wear, almost too fine to touch, especially if she had been cleaning house and her fingertips had cracked from the lye soap. She opened the silver colored box and, careful not to wrinkle it, folded back light blue tissue. It pleased her every time because the tissue wasn’t white, wasn’t ordinary, just as the cobalt blue satin nightgown in the box had nothing about it anybody could call ordinary. The little card from the store in Roseau remained tucked in the corner of the box exactly where she found it years ago. She lifted the nightgown from the box, stood up, and held the gorgeous thing to her body. In the full-length mirror on the front of her wardrobe, she could see that the gown still enhanced the color of her skin and brought out in her something that was once quite stunning. She folded it again and hid it between the layers of blue tissue, thinking as she did so how this had been her way for so many years that it, too, was now a part of her, perhaps her essence, though she hoped that it was not.
                There was more. Much more. Her dresser drawer contained photographs. The red enameled box filled with letters. Boxes and boxes of jewelry, stylish in its day.  A faux-pearl ring. A bracelet made of rosy gold. By the time she reached the bottom of the drawer, she had covered her bed with finery. She felt high, as she used to in prohibition days when she drank too much bootlegged Canadian Club whiskey. The one box remained at the bottom of the drawer. Usually she would leave it there, unopened. What was the use? She knew what the box held. But she wanted to see, to gaze on the shawl, to close her hand around the cool amber.
                She lifted the box from the drawer and set it on her lap. She took a deep breath before removing the cover. The sight of the blue silk brocade shawl, unchanged over all these years, drove her heart up into her throat. Her breath caught on it. She made a little sound, involuntary, a moan. Her hand, seeming of his own accord, moved to the pendant on its gold chain, the smooth German amber containing the honeybee that lived a million years ago and had been trapped and preserved all that time in the sap of an ancient tree. She stared at it as though she had never seen it before, and holding it in her hand, felt almost worshipful, as though she held a relic and had become lost in contemplation. She sat for what must have been an hour holding the pendant, surrounded by the things too beautiful to wear, until her breathing deepened like the breathing of someone in a dream, and the buzzing in her head disappeared. Then she returned the pendant and the shawl to their box and replaced it in the bottom of the drawer. On top of it she organized all the other finery, closed the drawer, and turned out the light.

Cover Art

Thursday, July 3, 2014

A Massive Love

Sally Su and Mary Jane
My cousin Sally Su had curly blond hair; Mary Jane wanted curly hair. Sally Su could hang by her knees upside-down on her swing set; Mary Jane worried she might fall on her head. Sally Su took off all her clothes and ran from the Wigwam Lodge to Klimek's Lodge; Mary Jane couldn't believe her daring. Sally Su pinned diapers on frogs and set them loose in the reeds. Sally Su sang "I'm A Little Puffer-Belly" on a makeshift stage and all the tourists clapped.

See how Sally looks straight into the camera; see how Mary Jane looks sideways, leans away from what is taking place. What is the meaning of this? Watching these two from my chair in the future of over sixty-five years, aware of the lives they stepped into after the day of this picture, I have to say not much has changed in the archaeology of their personalities. They became simply more of what they were. She still faces life head on. Mary Jane...well...

Always I assume there is a meaning. I've studied life through the filter of that belief from the beginning as though presence of meaning is obvious; if I can't find it, it's my duty to keep searching. This is part of what keeps the child in me hidden and requires that I find her, finally, while I still have a chance. Because it was a mistake from the beginning; the truth seems to be that meaning is never obvious. It's as the poet says:

And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.

This I know: few persons will stay with you forever. But Sally stays. I knew that even after I left her to enter the convent, during those years that Mary Jane was veiled from everyone, even her. Secretly the thought ran through my mind that if I had to stop being a nun, if I had to leave this enclosed place, I would go to her. She still would be there. She would look me straight in the eyes, telling me I would survive this, and I would believe her.

She did this for me every single day after my husband, John Weber, died. Every single day she called me with encouragement in stories, in laughter, in tears, in a voice full of faith in my tenacity. She did this for an entire year.

Sally has a gift of passion. She consumes the present moment with a passion few know and more than a few cannot abide. But she will hold tight to you even as her rage erupts over some injustice. Even if she slams some door, she'll be waiting on the other side. She acts life out for you, right in your face, all the magnificent passion of it, and you can either take it or not, but she stays. In her heart she stays. She won't flinch when she loves.  And her love is massive.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

A Mystery of Iniquity

In this picture Grandma Klimek looks worried. Or possibly she isn't worried so much as simply concerned that things go well with the picture-taking, and was caught making a suggestion that would create more order, make things right. She had a knack for that, I think now, looking back. The beauty and order of her dining room at the Lodge. The perfection of her kitchen back in town.

Hers was a large kitchen with white metal cabinets on the two walls above the sink, the counters, the stove and refrigerator, and a large freezer chest that she had purchased as soon as such appliances were available for homes. On the back wall two windows looked out on the alley behind the bank and post office. A door led outside past a wild rosebush onto a path leading to her garage. On the opposite side of the kitchen were a table always covered with a fresh embroidered cloth and surrounded by four chairs. By the opening to her bedroom her black telephone sat on a round dark wood stand. The room is a map in memory, perfectly laid out, real as if I'd just had my eyes open to look at it, then closed them and saw each image reflected on the inside of my lids. By now, I suspect, it exists nowhere else in this world. I see the room as it looked when I entered it through the living and dining room from the street. I look from left to right, seeing each object, placed exactly as she wanted it. There's no photograph of that room; why would there be? It wasn't like the rooms at the Lodge. It wasn't staged. And photographs had a rarity back then. People took pictures of the extraordinary and of what was loved. A room like this? Well, who knew something so commonplace would end up etched with such love on memory?

Grandma made hot chocolate here. She burned the tips of her fingers when the gas fire flared. She laughed and made her coffee cake. She sat by the telephone, lifted the receiver. She knew the switchboard operator by name. She started telling stories here in the kitchen on those nights Mary Jane stayed with her after her Grandpa died. And this was the kitchen through which Mary Jane ran on the day she tried to escape what I now would call the mystery of iniquity.


Sister of St. Joseph from a book published in 1948
to celebrate 300 years since the founding of  the Congregation

The arrival of the Sisters every June was better than a circus coming to town. They stayed in our town for two weeks every summer and taught "Catechism" to prepare the children for their First Confession, First Communion and Confirmation. They arrived in a billowing of veils, the deceptively cool look of starched linen, and a clicking of beads. Sister Bernard twirled for the first graders, her skirts spreading like an umbrella, and when she collapsed in laughter on the ground they ran to her, threw their arms around her neck, then arranged themselves on the carpet of her skirt while she told stories.
Sister Bernard

The Sisters laughed often, sang loud camping songs, played ball and tag and Pum-Pum-Pull-Away. Sister Rita's eyes narrowed to sharp points and her words fell like fireworks when she perceived any injustice, such as the time the boy named Billy placed a tack strategically on Mary Jane's chair and she yelped when she sat on it. 

She had started going to Catechism a year early with an older girl named Joan. After only one day she wanted to continue regardless of her fear of the other older children. The whole experience kept her in a constant state of breathless awe. That first June nothing was required of her. Treated like a guest, she watched and listened. She stared at Sister's face, at the white linen, at the black veil. Sister put her hands under it at her neck and shook it like a long fan. "Hot" she said. Mary Jane watched her walk up and down in front of the church pews where all the children sat trying to memorize Latin phrases to say at Mass even though the majority were never expected to be required to use them, not being the proper canonical gender. The nonsense syllables rolled out of their mouths importantly: "Ad deum qui laetificat juventutem meum," they recited, raising their voices on the "ti" and on the "ju" and the "tu" as though it was a nursery rhyme and they were jumping rope.
Each summer it was the same routine. The children walked in long lines, hands pressed together, thumbs touching their breastbones, fingers pointing heavenward. They genuflected, back straight, head bent. They sang "O Salutaris" and "Tantum Ergo" while the altar boys swung the ornate brass incense burner and enveloped Father Merth in a cloud of smoke.  They pounded their hearts with their fists when Father lifted the monstrance holding the large white Host of the Blessed Sacrament behind a little round window at the center of a gold sunburst.
At noon they prayed the rosary just before Sister dismissed them all for lunch. The rosary was long and repetitious. It made Mary Jane's knees hurt and her head float. She let it float and tried not to listen, wanting to be surprised by the last "Glory Be to the Father," so she could run to the ledge by the basement stairs where everyone had deposited their bag lunches. She liked her thermos bottle--the reflective glass interior that looked like a crystal well.

After lunch the little girls always walked the two blocks downtown for ice cream cones or candy to be bought with the nickle their mothers had tucked into buttoned pockets of dresses. The year of her First Communion, when Mary Jane was six, she stopped by the Gambles store each day to press her nose against the window and stare at a blue and white Schwinn bicycle. She knew it was too big for her, but she'd been growing all her life and didn't plan to stop. If she could own that bike... 

That year of her First Communion Sister Bernard told a story about a child who refused to tell a lie in self defense and consequently went to heaven where she became a saint. Mary Jane, who sometimes bent the truth a bit to keep from being scolded, vowed never to lie again. That noon, before joining the other children on their daily trip to Main Street, to Gambles, and to the candy counter at the drug store, she sneaked into the quiet church while the others were outside eating their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It was dim inside. Stained glass filtered and colored the light. She knelt in front of the blue and white statue of the Virgin Mary and looked up into her calm face. "Please," the child  prayed, "always let me tell the truth. Make me a saint. Take me to heaven someday." 

Afterwards, in town, she bought a chocolate marshmallow cupcake. Back at the church an older girl, nicknamed Peachy, invited a group in to sing by the wheezy pump organ. They sang everything she could play before Sister Rita Marie rang the bell that announced the afternoon class. At the end of the day, just before Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, all the children gathered in the pews by the organ to practice hymns. Sister Rita played the organ.  In the middle of "Salve Regina" the organ stopped. Sister Rita stood up from the stool and twisted her long skirts around to look at something. There, stuck to the back of her skirt, was Mary Jane's chocolate marshmallow cupcake.
"Who left this here?" Her face was red. Her voice just avoided being a shriek. "Who is the naughty child who was eating in church?"

Dilemma. Tell the truth? But all the children were present, not just the little ones, but the older ones as well--Billy and Gary and all the other mean boys. They might laugh. How badly did Mary Jane want to be a saint? 

"I did it." Her voice came out in a tiny squeak.

"Who said that? Speak up!" Sister Rita yelled.

"I did it."

"Stand up!" The nun demanded.

Mary Jane stood up. Tears made a round wet ball in her throat. Every child's eyes stared at her. Wasn't it wrong to make a spectacle of her when she had told her the truth just like the child in the story? Sister Rita suddenly resembled the witch from Hansel and Gretel. "I'm sick," Mary Jane whispered and left scrambled out of the pew to leave the church.

She ran, crying, up the street, turned onto Main, passed Gambles without even looking at the blue bike, slammed in through her Grandma's front door, ran to the kitchen and threw her arms around the sturdy woman's waist.

"I'm sick" The child sobbed when Grandma Klimek tried to find out what happened. It had to be the truth; little snakes crawled around in her stomach; her head burned; her eyes ached; her legs felt like seaweed.
"You just go lie down on my bed, Sweetheart. You take a little nap. You'll feel better later."

After waking, she told Grandma the story about the chocolate marshmallow cupcake and Grandma sent her back to apologize and offer to clean up the mess. Somehow the  Grandma's matter-of-fact calm made it seem possible to fix this disaster.
All the children were gone when Mary Jane arrived at the church. She climbed the white stairs and checked the organ stool. It looked fine--no marshmallow. The sanctuary was quiet.  She opened the door to the basement. Sure enough, the Sisters were down there. But . . . they were laughing! Even Sister Rita Marie was laughing. How could she laugh? What about the cupcake? What about the tragedy of her long black dress with sticky white smeared all over the back? Mary Jane tiptoed down the stairs. Sister Bernard held a big industrial broom in her hands and her veil was pinned back. She had hitched her long skirt up almost to her knees and had a checkered apron over it. Sister Rita looked pretty much the same as she always had and was washing a blackboard. They didn't notice her. She stood waiting. Finally Sister Bernard turned and saw her. "OH! Mary Jane. Are you feeling better, dear?" 

"I'm sorry about the cupcake!" 

"I hope you'll think twice before you eat candy in church again," said Sister Rita as she cocked her veiled head and lifted one eyebrow. "Now, how about helping us clean up this mess? You want to wash off the table tops?" and she handed her a wet cloth.

On First Communion Day she had so much to remember. Don't drink water. Don't eat anything. Don't commit a sin. Don't wrinkle that pretty white dress. Don't scuff those new shoes. Don't go in the road, it's dusty. Don't sit in the grass; it stains. Don't forget the white prayer book with the mother of pearl cover. Don't forget the white rosary. Don't forget the white veil.  (How could she forget the white veil? It was the best part.)  She went to the side of the lodge and picked lilies of the valley. Her mother pinned them to her veil. I still can smell  the lilies and visualize the damp white bells hiding under the ferns
Sister Bernard had told the children over and over that First Communion day was the most important of any person's life. Jesus who was God really and truly came into our hearts in the round white host that might stick to the tops of our mouths, but don't put your finger in and pry it loose because you're not supposed to touch God. If you stuck a pin in the host, blood would come out and this was true, because a little boy who didn't believe what his priest said took the host out of his mouth and waited until after Mass. Then he stuck a pin in it and sure enough. None of us would want to do such a thing, of course, because it was a terrible sin and the boy certainly could go to hell for such a sacrilege, which was the worst of all sins that even God had trouble forgiving.

On First Communion Day, Sister Bernard said, God would answer any prayer, grant any promise. This is the way it worked: After the priest put the host on your tongue (the children practiced sticking their tongues out properly) you were to bow your head and walk slowly back to your place where you should kneel down and talk to Jesus who now was in your heart. Ask him. Probably you shouldn't ask for a new bike. It would be better to ask for something he understood better, something holy. Mary Jane had heard enough saints’ stories to be able to grasp this distinction. She decided to ask Jesus, just as she had asked his Blessed Mother on the day of the chocolate marshmallow cupcake, to make her a saint.

Who could know how God saw things, or in His eyes what truth might be? All those times He must have been watching her with her nose pressed against the Gamble store window, and balanced that desire up against the moment of her First Communion prayer. What did she want more? And upon what fulcrum did they balance? Might it be that chocolate marshmallow cupcake stuck like sin across the back of Sister Rita’s black wool dress?

Or was it not like that at all? Maybe with one sweep of a divine wind even memories of such things are lost for all eternity. Maybe the only reality that continues is the reality held in our little minds, while in the grandness of Being it is as if it never happened at all.

The communicants sang "Jesus, Jesus, come to me..." and received the sticky host on their tongues, managing  to swallow it without putting fingers in their mouths. "All my longing is for Thee," Mary Jane sang with them while she yearned with all her six year old heart to become a saint and live with God forever. It seemed she had forgotten, at least in that moment, all about the bike.
After each First Communicant had a picture taken with the Sisters and with Father Merth, Mary Jane went with her family to Grandma Klimek's apartment. Parked in her kitchen was a brand new royal blue and white Schwinn bicycle. The child stared at it. It was the very bike that was supposed to be in the Gambles Store window down the street. What was it doing at Grandma's?

Grandma laughed. "It's for you, Sweetheart, for your First Communion. It's from me, from Grandma."
She didn't dare touch it. “What’s wrong?’ Grandma hugged her close. “I thought you really wanted this bicycle.”

She couldn't move. It was like a dream and she was waking up. Then her sobs came and tears fell.

And she couldn't have told you why.