“Do you think I’ll catch a Clownfish?”
We were eating breakfast when this question came up. A typical Sunday morning: breakfast around half-past eight. The Girl off to choir practice at quarter past nine. The boys off to Mass about an hour later. That morning promised to be our normal, comfortable ritual. The afternoon, though, promised adventure.
“No, son. Clownfish live in the ocean. They’re salt water fish.”
“Plus,” added L, “they live in reefs.”
It only took him a few minutes to get the hang of it, and for a while, he was casting beside the Girl as she practiced with her new archery set.
A few bites later, he had another thought. “What if I catch a shark? I’ll have to be strong if I catch a shark.”
“I don’t think you’ll catch a shark.”
“Oh, right. It lives in the ocean.” He thought about things for a few more moments, then added, “All the fish I know are salt water fish.”
Planning for the afternoon fishing trip really began on Christmas Eve, when our children following Polish tradition were opening their presents. Our neighbor, who goes fishing often, had bought the Boy a beginner’s rod and reel set, complete with a small tackle box. He was thrilled, and he was even more excited when I found a casting weight in my old tackle box downstairs and explained that he’d be able to practice casting in the backyard.
A few days ago, when our neighbor was packing up his gear and hitching his boat to the truck for a morning fishing trip, the Boy informed K that his rod and reel were, in fact, for nothing. “They’re not for decoration,” he explained. And so she told me when I got back home that afternoon, “You must take him fishing this weekend.”
I haven’t been fishing in probably close to thirty years. I can’t remember ever going fishing with my father — not because I asked and he refused. Fishing was simply not something we did in my family. My mother’s brother was very much a fisherman, and during one visit, he gave me a handmade graphite rod with a very sturdy reel with a tackle box filled with every imaginable worm-like, grub-like, and fish-like lure one could imagine. I was twelve, I think. I probably used it no more than half a dozen times, if that many.
In thinking about taking my own son fishing, I had a whole list of concerns. Some were reasonable: what’s the best type of bait to use at this lake when fishing from the shore. Some weren’t: what if I can’t remember how to tie a hook? But with muscle memory, that latter worry disappeared. But the bait? When I saw the lake, I realized that it really didn’t matter: we weren’t going to go onto one of the fishing piers because the Boy, having no practice casting with an actual hook, might cause disaster. (In fact, he caught my shirt once, but fortunately only my shirt.) Since the lake was so shallow with a gentle slope out to the deeper water, I knew he’d never cast far enough from the short to catch anything, so we tried a number of lures.
He caught nothing but my shirt. But he begged to go back tomorrow after school.
Today is the last Sunday of the month, which means Polish Mass. It’s not much of a Polish Mass as much as it’s an English Mass with responses in Polish. Finding a replacement Polish priest is not all that easy, it seems. Yet L’s recent involvement in the children’s choir has energized and interested her: she doesn’t want to give it up. So we went to Mass in the morning, the three of us, and K went in the afternoon. Kind of like we used to do when one of us was sick: one stays home with the kid then goes to Mass later in the day.
It’s been a real benefit to the Girl, children’s choir. It keeps her focused in Mass for thing. It’s hard to fidget about when you have to pay attention and be ready to sing. It’s also helped her make new friends with girls who seem to have their heads looking forward and their priorities straight. It’s a constant worry we have: what kind of friends is she making at school? What kinds of behaviors are being modeled at school? We’ve met her best friends, of course, but she comes into contact with so many other children that it would be impossible to keep up. And so we’re happy to have some more positive influences in her life.
After lunch, it’s the same old Sunday tradition: exploring. The Boy and I headed to the other side of the creek to the neglected, overgrown portion of the lot of the all-but-abandoned house. The owner of the house died in his backyard a few years ago — we heard the cries of anguish in our yard when they discovered him — and I guess they moved his wife into assisted care or something. At any rate, someone comes and mows the yard a few times a summer, but the long triangular off-shoot of the lot has been completely neglected. There is now a stand of Sweetgum trees there that just makes me shudder.
But we were after something else, something sweeter.
Honeysuckle. When I was a kid, finding a fine of honeysuckle was a rare and wonderful treat. Our neighborhood didn’t have any wild areas, and I don’t think many people cultivate honeysuckle.
Later, in the early evening, E and I went back down to have another snack. The Girl joined us, bringing a small bowl to bring back some blossoms to enjoy during the movie.
I love the simplicity of that.
It’s been raining since Saturday night. It’s rained so much that our sump pump, installed well over a year ago and never actually in use, got a chance to kick in. Granted, that’s because there was a bit of water in the basin, though not enough to raise the float and trip the switch, and so I manually pulled the float and it hummed on.
I’d thought about it on and off today, wondering how it might work after so long of just sitting there. While doing our kitchen remodel, I added an outlet for the sump pump on its own dedicated breaker for extra security. The last thing I wanted was for it to happen to throw the breaker and flood the crawl space again.
When I got home from work, I knew the Boy would want only one thing: time in the puddles. Much to my surprise, he wanted first to take a bunch of random pictures with my phone.
He’s asked for a camera a couple of times, and this of course thrills K and me endlessly. I’d like to let him use one of our digital cameras, but unfortunately, they’re a bit on the too-expensive-to-let-a-kid-touch-without-immediate-adult-supervision side.
But some things are free and unbreakable, like puddles.
We first headed to our backyard theoretically to check on the level of water in the creek, but in reality, to explore for puddles.
I still don’t get what’s some much fun about splashing about in gum boots in dirty rain water. I’m sure at some point in my life I loved it too, but I watch E and think only one thing: “I’d hate to have my pants partially wet like that.”
We also headed over to the low point of the creek behind our neighbors’ house to see how it was flowing. It’s at this point that it first jumps the banks when it’s a real flash-flood-inducing deluge like it did a year and a half ago and three years ago and four years ago. By then it was already subsiding, though, and with the rain supposed to stop before the evening’s out, it looks like we won’t have to worry about a serious flood.
That didn’t keep us from checking the neighborhood to make sure, though. E armed himself with his plastic assault rifle and out we went, searching for puddles for him to walk through.
Toward the end of the adventure, he found a stick at the edge of a puddle and stomped on it to break it. Water went everywhere.
“We have to go in now,” I explained.
“Because I told you not to stomp in the water, and you just did. You disobeyed, and what’s more, you’re wet now.”
We began walking back up to the house, and he said, “That was a good idea.”
“No,” I corrected, “that was not a good idea.”
“No, I mean the idea I just thought of.”
“What was that?”
“I should have taken it out before I stomped it.”
“That was a good idea.”
One: Alone Together
The Boy wanted to get into the Girl’s room; the Girl wanted some “alone time,” which we all do from time to time. With the two of them, that conflict is a frequent occurrence. As parents, K and I must balance the two opposing factors:
- The Girl needs to learn that she can’t be by herself all the time. She needs to have a relationship with her brother.
- The Boy needs to learn that he can’t play with L all the time, that she needs some privacy.
I feel like we need to be keeping score of the whole thing: one time forcing L to let the Boy in her room; one time getting the Boy to understand that the Girl needs some privacy from time to time.
The Boy was looking for his Bugatti (toy, of course).
“I last saw it on the counter downstairs,” I tell him.
He thumps his way downstairs, wanders around a while. Then I hear him ask K, “Mommy, what’s a counter?”
Three: Special Music
During the announcements at the close of Mass, Fr. Longenecker pointed out the fact that the text of the communion hymn dates from the twelfth century and the music from the sixteenth. At that moment, several thoughts that had been swirling randomly in Mass coalesced.
First, at one point, I was thinking about how different a Roman Catholic Mass is from the church services I attended in my youth. All the smells and the bells have no correlation with the staid services we had. And yet there was a certain similarity: each service was identical in its format just as each Mass is identical in its order of liturgy. I suppose that’s true of all churches.
Still, our church being Protestant (though its members then would have begged to differ most vociferously), liked to suggest that if it wasn’t in the Bible, we didn’t do it. I found myself in Mass briefly wondering about the liturgy (for lack of a better term) the church followed: it’s no where in the Bible. I believe the pastor would have suggested it’s one of the traditions mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 2.15: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold to the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word or our epistle.”
Thinking about it further, I remembered the little distinctives of our service. We had a short warm-up message called a sermonette. Google shows that other denominations use the sermonette format, but it’s certainly not a common feature. After the sermonette were announcements, followed by something called special music, then the sermon.
The special music was always some kind of choir performance or solo piano performance. Choral numbers were always selections from sacred music (but we had to be careful about that text!), but instrumental music was often some kind of classical composition. I choked down a laugh in Mass thinking about that, wondering if it was “special” music if it appeared every week.
Four: Divine Mercy
The first Sunday after Easter is Divine Mercy Sunday. Since this particular celebration began in Poland, it’s a pretty big thing for the Polish community. At our church, we have a newly-consecrated shrine to the Divine Mercy with relics of St. Faustina and St. Pope John Paul II.
Not bad for a little Catholic church in Greenville, SC, home of Bob Jones University — probably the most virulently anti-Catholic school in the States.
I’ve had enough experience teaching now to realize that my worries about returning to school after spring break — potential laziness, potential mutiny, potential problems of every sort — are almost always unfounded. The first week back is almost always painless. But it’s busy, getting used to the schedule again.
This week was the last week before testing. Our school has decided to do the state-mandated testing a little differently this year, and I applaud the decision. Instead of having a week of eighth-grade testing, where we test day after day after day (math, then English, then science, then social studies), followed by a week of seventh-grade testing and a third week of sixth-grade testing (divided by grade because we still don’t have enough Chromebooks for the whole school to test at the same time), we’re testing one day a week for four weeks. Next week we begin, and once those four weeks of testing are over, the school year is almost over. Perhaps that’s what makes the transition from spring break always a bit easier: we all know we have that final push until the big break.
It’s also the time of year that students who are at risk of failing a given class — students who throughout the whole year have usually done very little other than disrupt class — decide they might want to try to do something to save themselves. There’s always one or two who don’t, and they usually move on the ninth grade anyway through this or that administrative and summer school magic. I’m not putting down our school: it’s a phenomenon that occurs throughout the country, I suspect. But I do have mixed feelings about it.
On the one hand, what will keeping these students back accomplish? It’s not like they’re going to behave any differently if they repeat. Because our district — perhaps state? never cared enough to check into it — has a policy that a child cannot fail two years, they’re just going to get pushed on, and if they have already been held back, they know they can’t be held back again, which probably prompts a lot of the apathetic behavior. (Students have told me, “I’ve already failed one grade: you can’t hold me back again.”)
On the other hand, isn’t this just teaching them a wonderful lesson for the future? “I can do nothing and still succeed!” What happens to them when they get to high school and the rules change? I’ve told several students over the years, “When you get to high school and fail freshman English, they don’t say, ‘Well, he was close. Let’s give it to him.’ They say, ‘Try again.’ And if it looks like you’re going to fail a second time, they don’t say, ‘Well, he’s already failed once. Let’s move him on.’ They say, ‘Nope. Try a third time.'” And by then, they’re old enough to drop out, and they do. What happens to them when they try to keep a job with that kind of thinking? In short, they don’t. They can’t.
So this is the time of year all of this swirls through my head, and I find myself thinking about my own responsibilities. It’s much easier for me, regarding paperwork and the like, just to move the kid on as well. It’s much easier for me to make my class almost impossible to fail. I think to myself, “They’re still kids: they’ll grow out of it.” But I look around at some millennial young adults and find myself thinking, “Well, maybe not.”
It’s also the time when thoughts and plans for summer are solidifying. This time last year I was getting a little nervous about the huge project that was looming on the horizon. I didn’t know what all was behind the walls, what all awaited us. And now I know what’s behind the walls because I put it there, and the only thing that awaits us in the kitchen is a bright, open space now.
But plans are just that, and now it’s time to get planting, get mowing, get weeding — all the joys of spring that just leave you exhausted but strangely satisfied.
And time to play guitar with your neighbor.
Easter is the highlight of the liturgical year, and so for Poles, it’s the highlight of social year in many ways. As with Christmas, begin quietly at home, breaking the evening’s fast (and the non-meat fast of the last several days) with treats from the baskets blessed yesterday.
Bread, ham, sausage, boiled eggs, a lamb-shaped cake, slivers of apple and orange, and a horseradish sauce. A simple meal, a somewhat humble meal.
It’s not like the equivalent for the Christmas Eve dinner. That will all come later. But the Boy is simply not waiting for anything more elaborate.
“One more piece of ham,” he chirps, sliding it to the side of his plate. “Save the best for last,” which he doesn’t — he eats it in a few moments, then repeats.
He downs four or five slices of ham, a serving of veggie salad, a large proportion of the orange, a couple of sausage hunks, some bread — he eats at least twice as much as L.
After breakfast, it’s off to Mass with us. I take the Girl an hour earlier for choir practice and sit in the pews, watching the brightening sky slowly illuminate the church.
This is our first Easter in our new parish, and it’s parish’s first Easter in the new church.
All the colors seem to glow as a result. Or perhaps that’s still the sheen of newness. Likely a bit of both.
Mass in this wonderful space feels like it should: an explosion for all the senses. The altar servers process in, the first swinging a thurible and filling the middle isle with incense that drifts upward, catching rays of light and glowing. The choir is sublime. We kneel, stand, sit, kneel, cross ourselves. The physical beauty of the place surrounds us. The sweet Communion wine lingers as we head back to our pew.
In front of me, a young lady has brought a friend — boyfriend? — and he’s clearly not Catholic. I remember the first time I witnessed all of this. It was so different from everything I’d experienced growing up. “The smells and bells” forced out of me a begrudging respect as did the humble faith of the parishioners.
This young man keeps his hands in his pockets most of the time, rarely looks around, and seems bored. Perhaps he’s not having the same experience I did twenty years ago when I first went to Mass. Perhaps he is and simply doesn’t show it.
After Communion, the girl, still kneeling, eases back onto the pew, and her father, sitting to her left, places his hand on the small of her back and massages gently. The girl pulls herself back up into a full kneeling position. I smile at the universality of fathers: I’ve done that many a time with the Girl, but she’s never with us in Mass these days. Instead, she’s in the choir loft.
I think about the obvious: there will come a time when the Girl might want to bring a young man to Mass with us. She’s already growing so fast that K and I can’t keep up with her, but right now, she says boys are disgusting.
“They’re always messing up things on the playground,” she often complains. “They steal balls, bother us, chase us.” How long will this last? Not long enough, I’m afraid.
I can still get into my wedding suit, but looking at the picture reveals the sad truth: a bit of a gut has formed that pushes the jacket into slight wrinkles. “I forgot to suck it in,” I think to myself, remembering all the times my own father did something similar. Like father, like son.
In the afternoon, all the usual suspects come over. We eat; we drink; we eat; we laugh. After a while, a couple of us go out to hide Easter eggs for the kids. Some we hide in the open; some we actually hide.
In the end, a perfect day.
Good Friday in our family is just as it would be in Poland: work, work, work, then more work, work, work, then church — not for Mass because that’s not celebrated on Good Friday, but rather the Liturgy of Good Friday — then back home for more work, work, and still more work.
K, after a small breakfast, spent most of the day in the kitchen. Doing what? I’m really not sure. Baking, I know. Fixing lunch. Other than that? I don’t know: I spent the entire morning giving the carport a good scrubbing, literally from top to bottom.
The kids got into the spirit, too, helping me by cleaning every single thing we’d taken out of the carport. E was a little upset because he felt at times he didn’t have a real part in helping out, and for him, that’s about the worst thing he can experience.
“Have I ever told you how happy it makes me that you are so eager to help?” I said at one point as he was using an improvised squeegee to pull away water that was puddling in the corner of the stairs to the kitchen from the carport.
“Yes.” I often play this little verbal game with him. “Have I ever told you…” followed by something I tell him all the time. If it’s “I love you,” he smiles and shouts, “Everybody knows that!” One thing I haven’t told him is how much joy it gives me that he consistently says “Yes” as opposed to “Yeah.”
“I hope you always stay that way,” I said.
“I will.” I really don’t doubt it.
At the church, it was like being in Poland again. Our pastor is a very traditional priest. (In most aspects, that is. He’s married with kids, which is rare among Catholic priests, but not so rare among Anglican priests who convert to Catholicism and after years get a dispensation from the pope for the discipline of celibacy. But that’s another story.) He’s really a “Say the red; do the black” priest, which means traditions that I haven’t seen since Poland are present everywhere, including the use of wooden clappers during Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday liturgies. One site explains it thus:
In most liturgical services during the year, the consecration of the bread and wine is marked by the ringing of altar bells. The Easter Triduum, consisting of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, is a time that is set apart from the rest of the liturgical calendar. Because these three days represent the three days that Jesus spent in his tomb before he was resurrected, they are traditionally marked by increased silence during mass. In traditional catholic worship services, the last time the altar bells are rung before Easter is on the evening of Holy Thursday. In between then and the Easter Vigil, a wooden clacker is used. A wooden clacker, sometimes called a wooden clapper, serves the same function as the altar bells. The clacker is sounded at the consecration of the gifts during the liturgy of the Eucharist, reminding the congregation of the awesome transformation that takes place at these moments.
So we knelt and stood, knelt and stood, kissed the cross, and felt at home.
Back at home, we got back to work, putting everything back in its proper place. K ran to the store for the thousandth time. (I’ve got a few store runs waiting for me tomorrow, without a doubt, but it wouldn’t be Holy Saturday otherwise.) The Boy finally got to use the pressure washer, helping clean out the cuts in the concrete portion of the driveway, which resulted in a wonderfully dirty little boy.
At bath time, looking at himself in the mirror, he said, “It was a great day!”
I think we all agree.
Last night, I went out to get something I’d left in my car, and as I was opening my car door, I heard behind me a thunk. I turned and saw silhouetted against lights of the house a shape that moved ever so slightly. For a moment, I thought it might be a raccoon: we have them all over the place, including in a hole in our neighbors’ Sweet Gum near the base of our driveway. That didn’t make sense though: why in the world would a raccoon jump onto the car? And would it even be possible? Sure, one had jumped onto our deck once several years ago, but that jump was from our not-so-long-gone gas/AC package unit, a jump of about three feet.
A closer look showed it wasn’t a raccoon but looked positively owl-esque. I walked slowly to the back of the van and saw that it was indeed an owl. It came back this morning, drawn by the birds nesting in our downspout. Determining that there was no way it could get to the birds, it left as quickly as it came.
That was probably good, because everyone had lots to get done today. For K, it was a baking day. She finally was able to bake a miodownik like her mother always bakes. “You have to bake four sheets, and we never had an oven big enough,” she explained. Now we do.
So K baked and baked while I was out cutting grass and cleaning up the lawn for our Easter guests.
I got the kids out to help by picking up Sweet Gum seed balls, the spiky little bits of hell that can spawn dozens of almost-impossible-to-kill saplings each. They decided to count as they collected. Front and back yard yielded over six hundred, they said. And the probably only got about thirty percent of them in total.
They finished up just in time to do some egg painting. K tried some new method that involved whipped cream (or shaving foam) and food coloring, which remained a mystery to me throughout the process,
but the girls elected to go with more traditional methods. An egg painting mini-party has always been a staple in our Easter preparations, but it’s been on the decline over the last few years. This year, it was at its most minimalistic.
One chore left: smoking the meat. Two racks of ribs, two pork loins, six large chicken breasts. The ribs will go into K’s Easter żurek along with generous amounts of horseradish. The soup is my favorite part of the whole meal.
The soup is my favorite part of the whole meal.
The Boy likes to help. That’s established. Everybody knows that, as he might say. Often his help is anything but help, yet it’s always welcomed: he’s learning, that’s what’s important.
Today, though, he was being genuinely helpful for a while. He’d seen me trimming some bushes, and while I was finishing up K’s decorative fence, he decided he wanted to trim. I showed him how he needed just to cut the branches that were extending above the sphere of the bush itself, and he seemed to be doing fine, so I went back to work.
Later, K pointed out that he’d cute a relatively large whole into the bush.
“It’s an animal trap,” he explained.