I grew up in a time when the merits of Leopold Stokowski were discussed as often as the merits of Vince Lombardi, when there was only AM radio and black and white TV. No one carried day planners and the activity of children had yet to become an industry. It was a time when the standard form of family entertainment was impromptu ‘get-togethers’. On any given evening the doorbell might ring and a neighbor or two would pop in or we might walk next door and do the same. Saturdays were the best when several families might just decide to all gather at our house. I do not remember my parents making any calls or plans in front of us; people would just show up. I always enjoyed these little parties, it meant extended playtime with my friends but most of all they provided me an opportunity where I could spy on the mysterious world of adults. None of the parents minded we were in the room, as long as we practiced the manners we were vigorously taught or kept the noise to a “dull roar”.
These parties would always follow the dramatic form of a 3-act play. The first act was the “meet-and-greet”, several conversations at once, quick jokes and family updates. All the while my mom and dad would be seamlessly preparing and placing food and drink around the kitchen. I cannot remember a time when our refrigerator did not have several cheeses, pepperoni or antipasto fixings. There was always coffee in the pot and cookies in the jar. One of my father’s top sources of pride was being able to say, “No one leaves my house hungry and if they do it’s their own fault”.
The second act was when the men would separate from the women. It was then that the men could talk man stuff and the women could talk woman stuff. The rule for us children was the prepubescents could wonder between both groups but after puberty we had to separate too or “disappear”. At our house the cue to separate was initiated by my dad leaving the room carrying a plate of food after receiving “the look” from my mom, (of course it was not until I was married that I learned about “the look” and all its subtle meanings). Although the tone and focus would be different they talked about the same things. The men would talk about their work, their kids, and what home and yard projects they wanted to start or finish. The women would talk about their work, their kids, and what projects they wanted to start or get their husbands to finish.
The gathering I remember most vividly was a late winter party when during the second act one of the men started talking about how big his children were getting and that the house was growing smaller. He stated that it was time to finish off the basement to give the kids a place to play and “get out of his hair”. Another man said that it was about time he did the same, and another stated that he was also thinking along those lines. Then my dad said, “That’s a good idea we could use the extra space as well”. At which point my older brother whispered to me, “Have you ever seen dad with a hammer in his hand”? I told him that I had not.
Over the next several months the men went from house to house helping each other turn their cement grottos into knotty pine rec. rooms. At the first house my dad was the guy that carried and held stuff and at the next he started doing some of the construction and picked up a smashed thumb, no one laughed. By time we were working on our basement he had amassed a good collection of tools and my brother and I were the ones carrying and holding stuff. (When mom was not looking he let us try out power tools).
It was many years later that I found out what the women’s project was that winter. I had asked my parents why they always referred to my little brother as the “club baby”. Mom told me that the women had all decided to have another baby. That fall six new lives were brought into our neighborhood. Four basements finished, six lives started: all in all it was a great year.
The third act was when the adults would all do the clearing up and putting away with some last jokes, promises to do this again and herding up the kids. The announcement for this last act to begin was when one of the men would say, “Let’s go join the ladies.” And my dad would always say, “Yes let’s, so we can make one big lady”.
I did not know it at the time but once I started to read the Bible that it was these get togethers that made it all seem familiar, true and tangible, I knew these people. When I read the marriage at Cana story I love not only what it says but more of what it does not say. Mary makes a request to Jesus and He says, “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come”. And then she says, “Do whatever he tells you”. It is the space between those lines that show me a flesh and blood family and the intercessory power of Mary. She makes a request -He says no - she gives him “the look” - He acquiesces.
These little gatherings gave me a microcosm of Christ’s Church as well. True, like the Church, not all of the times were sit-com happy, sometimes there would be fights or a joke would be played that offended someone but we always forgave. We knew we had to live next door to each other; we needed each other for support in laughter and tears, good times and bad, sickness and in health. The grace that pours from the marriage covenant does radiate beyond the walls of the house, (“Neither do men light a lamp, and put it under the bushel, but on the stand; and it shineth unto all that are in the house. Even so let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 5:15-16). They showed me what Saint Francis meant when he said, “Preach the Gospel everyday and if necessary use words”.
It is difficult for me not think of those times whenever I read Paul’s letter to the Romans. 12: 4-6, “For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually parts of one another. Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us exercise them…”. My father could have never finished off our basement without the help of the other men working together as one. He knew he could not do it alone but was not afraid or too proud to admit his shortcomings. Even if all he ever did was carry and hold that was an important part of the project. But, he learned new skills and then taught his kids so that eighteen years later my dad, my younger brother and I helped build my older brother’s house.
That my mother and her friends talked the men into a new baby was no small feat either. It was a tangible out come of Ephesians 5. The neighborhood became stronger with a common goal, a common love of life and for each other. Parents took responsibility for all of us. There was not a mother we did not obey nor a refrigerator closed to us.
“Whoever is without Love does not know God for God is Love” (1 John 4:8). Through my neighborhood I got to know God before I could even pronounce his name. It is why when I did meet him in the Eucharist I was already familiar with Him. When I receive Him body and blood – soul and divinity I realize that if anyone leaves God’s house hungry it’s their own fault.
Jesus lived in a lot tougher neighborhood than I did yet the seeds for my neighborhood were planted there. At His last gathering with His friends He told them of the project He started and wanted them to cooperate with Him to finish. He bought for them, at great price, a box full of all the power tools they would need to do the job – the sacraments. It was not a playroom but a family room - a Church - made of living stones. These men taught others to build and so on down head long through the generations. Some would hold and carry and some were to make compound miter joints each vital because, as my dad taught me, you can not put up crown molding by your self, (“…if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy”. 1 Corinthians 12:26).
And now, on certain Sunday mornings, when my wife hollers up the stairs to roust our sluggish teens, “Come on let’s go! Time to join us for Church”.
I smile and think to myself, “Yes, so we can make one big Christian”.
The Secret People
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