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Childhood mornings…

As a kid growing up, I can still remember those early school mornings.

With 3 sisters and 2 brothers, it was barely organized chaos.

My Dad was an early riser, so nobody needed an alarm clock. He’d just start singing. And gradually we’d all come to life, in the order we were born. If Pop singing along to something on WARM radio’s Harry West show didn’t do the trick, he’d issue a few stern individual warnings, and if that didn’t work you’d got a cup of cold water in the face. It was as effective as a cattle-prod. He didn’t need this nuclear option much, but he could be trigger-happy, so you re-dozed at your peril. We had the kind of heat that made the pipes sound like somebody was hitting them with a hammer, so that was a welcome sound on cold winter mornings. You knew the radiators were pumping, and you could lay your school clothes on top of them for a few minutes, which made dressing a little easier.

We had one bathroom upstairs, and one in the basement that nobody really used. Mostly we showered the night before. If I needed a shower in the morning, I’d have to wake up before the house moved to jump the line…..and I could go into the basement and be alone with the hot water and my thoughts. You had to be careful not to sit down in there and fall asleep though…..because it was so small you’d be covering the drain with your butt and the water would flood over the top of the stall and soak the carpet. A tricky situation, this. Even small comforts were littered with land mines.

Breakfast consisted of some Cheerios with mounds of sugar poured on top of it (our way of getting around our Mom’s ban on “sugar cereals” like Fruit Loops or Captain Crunch). Every boy in our class wore sneakers to school (there was no rule against it) but my Mom thought sneakers in school were an abomination so I’d have to shove a pair in my book bag and change into them when I got around the corner and out of sight. Then I’d have to change back into my shoes before coming back home. It was never easy navigating the terrors of adolescence, that I can tell you.

ST MARY_CROP_cropAt one point, maybe when me and my brother were in 5th grade, being an altar boy became a thing. Just about every kid in the class volunteered, even the ones you knew were heathens or closet Presbyterians. Word was out that you could make $10 or more serving a funeral or a wedding….and that sure beat shoveling snow for old ladies or cutting somebody’s grass in the wretched heat for a few singles and a glass of watered down iced tea. You could pick your own partner (but since I had a twin it was just assumed….and that was that)…..so these friends would pair up with each other. You’d see their names in the bulletin scheduled for the M-W-F 7am weekday mass and everybody knew there was no way they were gonna show up because they hadn’t been to actual mass since they got their head dunked when they were born and nobody got paid for the regular masses anyway. But because my father was a serious Catholic he refused to allow us to miss, so eventually we always got assigned the early mass because we were the only ones who would show up. A valuable lesson for later life, this. 

He’d take us, and attend the mass himself. He was proud, you could tell. He knew his kids weren’t abandoning the priest up there to wash all the dishes and ring that bell himself like those other mercenaries.

(I can tell you there is nothing more depressing than pulling on unwashed ill-fitting community altar boy clothing from a large closet while it was still dark outside. But we showed up, lit and then extinguished the candles with great aplomb, and didn’t drop stuff the priest handed to us. It was a low bar. But disappoint my father? Never.)

We lasted maybe 2 years. By 8th grade you’ve outgrown the cassocks in the closet and start to look silly up there, like you’re wearing a short skirt. One of my last gigs was a stations of the cross thing…..but the young Priest was a huge NBA basketball fan and was desperate to make it out of there in time for tip-off. So instead of reading the (long, drawn out) canned prayers (and awaiting the canned responses) at each station, he just made up his own (no responses required) and practically dragged us along with him from place to place. He skipped one of the “Jesus fell” stations by winking and whispering to us “let’s not pile on, right boys?”

I think he was done in 20 minutes. Soon after he left the priesthood and married a nun. This gave me hope for the future. I hope he still has his priorities in order.

My Dad remained devoted to his Catholic faith his entire life. He pretended that all his kids went to weekly mass and we made that easy by never telling him otherwise. One day before he got sick we were in my car and Tom Lehrer’s “The Vatican Rag” was playing on the stereo and I thought “oh shit”….but let it go….

Get in line in that processional,
Step into that small confessional,
There, the guy who’s got religion’ll
Tell you if your sin’s original.
If it is, try playin’ it safer,
Drink the wine and chew the wafer,
Two, four, six, eight,
Time to transubstantiate!

…and he laughed as hard as I’d ever heard him laugh and I knew he knew and it was fine. “Just make sure you’re all with me” he’d say. And I’d say “I’m going wherever you’re going….’cause you taught me everything I know…”

I don’t enjoy mornings now any more than I did then. But I miss being woken up by my Dad’s wobbly singing voice. I miss the Harry West Show on WARM radio….and the clanging pipes and the manually sweetened Cheerios. I miss the warmth of my childhood on the coldest days of the year. I miss my Mom and Dad and that house on North Webster Avenue, where dreams rarely came true but nobody thought less of you for having them.

In a bit..


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