The Corner of 18th and Morton

 

No one speaks.

There’s no need, there is enough other conversation going on.

Crickets are chirping signaling a muggy night. Nighthawks screech in their search for high-flying insects. The ghost of a breeze blows across legs, tickling as well as refreshing. The wind brings with it a mildewed perfume from the journey over the Nemaha River.

A coal train out of Colorado passing through on the way to an eastern seaport, blows a horn as it comes to the Fulton street crossing south of town. The tap click tap click of the wheels crossing the joints talks back to the crickets. The train fades, passing through cornfields surrounding town.

A chain on the empty flag pole in the neighbor’s yard across the street sends a sporadic ping as the draught convinces it to move.

The fragrance from a bowl of tobacco makes the rounds of those gathered for the evening. The earthy smoke gives a hint of fall, a season still far off.

Occasionally a car passes. Not fast, just passes.

….That is what a night on the Casey back porch was like.

Back Porch

Back Porch

All of the stories which I have shared so far dealt with events. Actions and situations are what shape our lives and let emotions live outside our bodies. From the comments, which I cherish, I know the stories have triggered happy memories for readers. Now, I am going to change it up for a couple of weeks and talk about special places that fashioned my growth pattern.

I invite you to share in the comments section your favorite places or the secret corners you retreated to.

If I could visit one room of the old house it would be the back porch. The room was screened on all sides and supplied with the most comfortable chairs of the house. It was easier to fall asleep on the porch chairs than it was on the living room sofa.  Mom guarded those chairs with more care than her indoor furniture. Every year they received a thorough washing down as well as a nightly rub off with an old wash cloth that was stored by the back door. Like any good screen porch it had a screen door with a spring when stretched played its own distinctive tune.  If you didn’t catch the door on its return, it would wake the cat-napping residents with a loud slap. I believe mothers across the country share a common phrase which I heard over and over, “Don’t let the door slam.”

A set of wind chimes hung in the corner. Over the years they became pitted from acid rain and dents from windstorms. When you called home to talk to the folks, who were usually on the porch, the chimes would invite themselves into the conversation. Their music seemed to improve with natures shaping and each season they played a different tune.

The porch floor was made of tongue and groove wood that was painted dark green every couple of years. Sometimes mom took on the job but most of the time it fell to dad. In later years the task was surrendered and old bones and arthritis won the fight preventing the usual maintenance. When we finally sold the house after dad’s passing, paint was peeling and the porch deck lost much of the gloss of the latest painting.

Between the two chairs was a small round stand covered on top with a left over piece of the kitchen linoleum. Permanent items on the table were dad’s pipe of the day, a fingernail file to manicure his perfect nails, the ashtray that looked like a rubber tire from a lawn mower (which found a way to my smoke stand) and a newspaper folded around the crossword puzzle that dad would work on until the day’s light faded.

Mom’s contribution to the porch were a few potted geraniums which she nursed through the hot summers. A blue plastic watering can was kept in the corner where a broom stood at parade rest waiting for the next order. Sitting beside this working class team was a plastic jug filled with the latest concoction guaranteed to nurse the geraniums to their full bloom. I think each year mom tried a different potion. To be honest, each year looked just as nice as the last.

The porch faced due south with the east and west sides being just as open as the front. This openness gave the porch perched participant (say that three times fast) full view of the neighborhood of Morton Street as well as the activity in numerous backyards. On the porch you were blessed with an unobstructed view west of the traffic on highway 73 and a good perspective east up 18th street towards Saints Peter and Paul Church.  If nothing was happening in any of those directions your entertainment was in the backyard which was filled with the attics of rabbits, the high wire acts of the squirrels and the popular bird bath along the back walk. The bird bath was the great critter equalizer. It was like the watering holes of the African Serengeti. No creature dared violate the code of fresh water which belonged to everyone, although, I do believe a few ornery blue jays tapped on the kitchen window from time to time wondering when dad was going to refill the bowl.

Looking up 18th Street

Looking up 18th Street

If you positioned yourself just right on the porch, you could command the neighborhoods coming and goings like Oz behind the curtain. If Mrs. Young across the street let her dog out, that was logged. If the guy renting the apartment down the street above Butch’s grandmother’s place pulled out, you knew he was making a cigarette or beer run. The people living in the old Saul place on the adjacent corner all worked different shifts. One would come home, park the pickup and within minutes, it was moving again for the next shift worker. There was never a need for a clock on the porch. The neighbor activity was as reliable as a sundial.

On summer days, before air-conditioning, the porch was where you went to feel some real air. When the folks grew older and blood became thinner, they would retreat to the porch to warm up while the rest of us weaklings opted for the fake air of the house. There is a fact about Nebraska and that is the wind always blows. It is not always a cooling breeze, but at least it is air moving. Wind in Nebraska feels like turning a blow dryer on your face. On the porch you could at least position yourself to feel some of the breeze over your sweaty skin. On hot days you were often accompanied on the porch by metal drink tumblers filled with ice water or lemonade. I think they kept drinks colder than any modern attempt at insulating. The cups themselves would sweat as much or more than us. By the time you finished your drink, you had a trail of drips up your shirt from the wet tumbler as well as a substantial puddle on the table.

The Casey porch was a family room, counseling center, neighborhood gathering place and also a place you were confined to if you deliberately violated one of mom’s rules. More than once I heard the words, “If you get off this porch before I tell you, you will be in bigger trouble.”

The porch was the place to enjoy mom or dad’s dessert of the week. The dessert menu was always planned in the house well before the main courses. Dad made sure there was always a bread or a batch of cookies, mom covered the pies and cakes. Dessert was considered as much a part of the meal as pass the salt please. For that reason, it was always served before the kitchen was picked up and the dishes washed. No fancy trays made their way to the outside. Every person carried their cake and coffee delicately balancing them passing through the door to the porch. Once outside, we settled in to monitoring the neighborhood activity until someone declared bath time. At that point the porch population would come and go depending on whose turn it was in the tub. When a freshly bathed family member returned, they declared a ritual saying, “Now I am the cleanest one in the house.”

When mom passed, the porch lost some of its attraction. Dad kept up the porch tradition. He maintained his chair and the geraniums with the same attention that mom would extend. As Teresa and I would come and go spending time with him, the porch was a retreat with him. Teresa and dad would share a love of reading while spending time together on the porch. Dad and I would share the evening smoking our pipes and every once in a while, he would share a childhood memory maybe evoked by the gentle roll of tobacco smoke.

Francis Casey and his pipe

Francis Casey and his pipe

The night before dad’s funeral, as a family, we all gathered on the porch for a true Irish wake. Combinations of alcohol, stories and booze inspired philosophical declarations carried us well into the early morning hours. The porch was put to rest in the same way as the last of the Casey clan would be the next day.

Time spent on the porch was… all part of growing up.

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Midnight 911

If you have never attended Midnight Mass you are missing a beautiful event. Next to Easter it is one of the most anticipated celebrations on the calendar. Regardless of the denomination, Easter and Christmas are the two days when the churches are packed with parishioners spilling out to the aisles.

Midnight Mass is also one of the most decorated of all the Masses. The sanctuary is adorned with pine, poinsettias, trees and other trappings of Christmas. In many churches, the transformation from the repentant Advent season morphs into the beauty of the season almost overnight by an army of volunteers. Those volunteers are proud, rightfully so, of their accomplishment. All of this work adds to the beauty of the celebration.

As a young altar server, to be selected to serve at this pinnacle of the season was an honor and as you can imagine…my story unfolds from here.

I started my career on the altar when we were still required to memorize the Latin prayers. Sister Marie, (from the blog “Your Hand will Stick out of the Grave 10/10/14 fame) was the examiner testing our proficiency with the prayers. You didn’t step on the altar until she gave her approval.

Once you mastered the Latin responses and went through the drills to learn your duties and positions on the altar, you were placed on the schedule of Sunday and weekly morning Masses. The early morning Masses were the real challenge. It meant getting up well before normal school time and then walking up the four blocks to church in the dark. If you were dependable in these early mornings, it wasn’t long before you were moved up the scale of serving at funerals, which got you out of a couple hours of class and put you in line for an occasional wedding on the weekends.

I soon turned altar serving into a for profit position. I was the server called on for funerals, weddings and special occasions. The pastors, of which I went through three in my tenure, soon turned to me as their master of ceremonies for all of the liturgical events. It was my responsibility to make sure everyone knew their place, the altar was ready to go, and we had enough personnel to carry out the celebration. For this service, I was usually slipped a few bucks by the priest, the family of the bride or the local funeral director.

Not a bad part-time job.

The first Midnight Mass of my MC career arrived. The church was decorated with Christmas trees on each of the side altars. Poinsettias were in every nook and cranny of St. Peter and Paul. The back altar with a carved wood back drop climbed to the ceiling. Injected at each level was a shelf holding a candelabra surrounded by poinsettias and the statues of the patron saints, Peter and Paul.

As midnight drew closer the church filled from front to back, quite opposite of the usual pattern of Sunday mornings. The church was dark with the exception of the red sanctuary light which cast a strange glow on those in the first pews. Around 11:30 the tradition of the living Rosary started. Students from the high school would walk in carrying blue or red votive candles depicting their role in the rosary decades. When it was over, the church took on the warm glow of mixed colors blended with the soft sounds of the choir. The atmosphere that inspired “Silent Night” settled on the whole congregation.

The time to light up the altar arrived. As the oldest server, and also the tallest, the honor and duty of lighting all of the candles fell to me. The candles on the lower front altar were no challenge. As the candle flames multiplied, so did the light cast from the sanctuary.

The next task was the candles on the back altar. Again, those on the lower back altar proved to be easy to light. Now it was time to tackle those on the next level.

With the candle lighter extended to maximum length, I was able to reach the highest candle by stretching myself out to my longest length.

Now if you employ a little knowledge of physics you can understand some of the dynamics of the actions that follow. When you have a pole reaching out six or seven feet, movement of several inches at one end transmits to twelve inches or better on the other end. If you stick a flame on the end of it, it now looks like a bouncing tongue of flame in the darkness.

With a full church behind me and nothing more for them to do than watch this process, I had the congregation’s full attention. Mothers grasped fathers with vise grip fear while they covered the eyes of sleepy little children with their free hand. The bouncing flame moved from one candle to the next each time coming closer to the dry wooden altar façade. Each level up required more of a stretch and with each stretch the ability to hit the target candle lessened.

With one miss swing the flame touched the leaf of the closest Christmas flower. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that poinsettias are not flammable. A collection of ooOOs and aaAAHHs rose from the crowd behind me. You would think they were attending the July 4th fireworks, not the December 24th holy celebration. The poinsettia went up in a flash and in my mind I pictured the entire back altar going up in a blazing apocalypse.

Thank God, this was pre-cell phone days. I am sure the thumbs would have been hitting 911 before the first leaf went up. Once again my guardian angel was tested. He must have flown up and with one mighty blow, extinguished the flower as quickly as it erupted. A blackened pot sat there as obvious as a black dog in a snow storm. This was fortunately the last of the candles to be lit. There was nowhere for me to hide. I only had one recourse and that was to retreat to the sacristy with the hope that Fr. Chonta was not paying attention to the congregation’s reactions.

All was fine until the opening procession for the Mass. As we approached the altar Fr. Chonta had to be blind not to see the glaring charred pot sitting under the statue of St. Peter. Being the saintly man that he was, he never mentioned the obvious eyesore. I think we were both secretly thankful St. Peter was a rock and not one of the wooden statues of the side altars.

Midnight Mass was…all part of growing up.

Altar Boy

By James Metcalfe

“Garden of my Heart”

(One my mother’s meditation books)

 In cassock and surplice white…He takes his privileged place…To serve the priest at Holy Mass…With reverence and grace…He kneels and stands with folded hands…And piously he shares…The Latin words and phrases of… Profound liturgical prayers… He moves the missal and the cloth… He sounds the altar chimes…The designated times…At benedictions he is there…To swing the censer high…And waft the fragrant incense to…The angels in the sky…He is the acolyte of God…Whose special time is spent…In serving Mass and being near…The Blessed Sacrament.

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Behind Closed Doors

The stories many could tell about what went on behind the closed doors of their homes could fill volumes. To select which of those stories to share or better yet, which stories are shareable is a delicate task. Parents cringe when children start to tell a story that borders on “too much information.” I have little doubt people wondered what went on behind the doors of 1804 Morton Street. Few stories leaked out through the cracks of casual conversation because as kids we were well trained in the art of what happened in the house stayed in the house.

Mom and dad were not real social butterflies. I can’t recall people coming by the house for parties or the folks visiting friends just for the sake of a visit. Mom never worked outside of the house so there was never a meeting of work colleagues or business meeting in the house. She did a stint as a 4-H moderator which at times filled the house with an occasional ban of teenage girls. During these meetings I was required to stay in the basement. I don’t know if this was my mom’s rule or my sister’s request. There must have been an Igor like quality about me that they wanted to hide.

Dad worked a split shift at the Post Office and was a member of the local National Guard unit. Like mom, he never had a reason to have work buddies at the house. We heard the names of the other carriers but never really put a face to them. While dad was with the guards he helped with the Explorer Scouts sponsored by the guard company. This pretty much sums up the extent of the community outreach from the Casey household.

A visit by a relative to our house was a rare event. Even the few that lived in Falls City were only seen at Sunday Mass, funerals and an occasional catch up conversation at the local Hinky Dinky grocery store. The exception to this was mom’s sister Aunt Betty. She was good for a weekly visit to the house. Aunt Betty would pull up and I knew for the next two hours the house would be filled with the smell of cigarette smoke and coffee. Betty would go through numerous cigarettes while mom downed cups of coffee poured from the green glass percolator on the stove. While this was going on, I would sit listening to these two sisters complain about their siblings, recall stories about their parents and share recipes back and forth.

Neither mom nor dad’s families were big on reunions. Mom’s family tried to have a few reunions but that soon fizzled out or maybe they just stopped telling us when and where they were having them. If you asked me to pick out relatives in a line up, I would be hard pressed to identify the right suspects.

Allow me to illustrate:

One summer day while home alone, the phone rang with the disturbing ring characteristic of the old rotary dial phones. The caller said, “We are from California and we are just passing through Falls City and Rose Schlosser said to give you a call and say hi.”

I politely informed the caller that they must have the wrong number, and that we did not know any Rose Schlosser.

Within minutes the caller rang again. This time they verified they were calling the right number. In the most polite way I could muster, I assured them that we did not know anyone by that name.

That evening, we were sitting around the supper table just having casual conversation. I shared with the folks the strange phone call I intercepted while they were gone. I told mom and dad I reassured the caller that we did not know any Rose Schlosser.

Mom, sitting to the left of me, was getting that look on her face of, “Oh no, my special son has struck again.” With her typical calm but you knew your where in trouble look she said, “you idiot, (this was the only time I ever heard mom use this word) that is my sister in California!”

How was I to know? I never heard about her and I certainly never met her.

You know, I don’t ever recall hearing about her from that point on either.

When holidays came around we never had to round up extra chairs and there was no such thing as needing an extra freezer or refrigerator to store large amounts of food. Occasionally we were visited by one or both of the grandmothers but even that was a rare event. Most often it was the six of us around the table enjoying a simple holiday meal. Mom was not into any fancy dishes and it wasn’t until I married into my wife’s Italian family that I found out there was more food than turkey and ham for holidays.

We did however celebrate holidays and special occasions in ways that would make those around us wonder what was going on in our house. St. Patrick’s Day was always a special day in the house. On St. Patrick’s Day the house was loaded with shamrocks, leprechauns and green top hats. Dad would bake his special Irish tea bread served with orange marmalade. Mom would set out cold cuts, cheese and crackers and we were allowed to drink a whole bottle of root beer or cream soda. To make the day even more special, dad would fly the Irish flag from the back porch and place stereo speakers in the upstairs window with the goal of filling the neighborhood with Irish melodies.

Halloween was another special day in the Casey house. Dad was always cooking up something special for the day. One year between the characters he created and the sound effects produced by Tom, there was very little candy passed out. You could see mothers and fathers moving their little goblins across the street to safety.

For several years in a row, the Casey kids took top costume prize in the annual Halloween Parade. The costumes that dad created in his basement workshop were some of the most anticipated creations of the season. Of course we won’t go in to the details of dads little disturbing the peace incident years ago at a local parade. Let’s just say it involved a costume that the horses didn’t like. His defense, the riders should have had more control of their horses.

Two of dads Halloween creations. Teresa and Brian

Two of dads Halloween creations.
Teresa and Brian

Despite some of the evil and twisted tendency you might be attributing to the Casey clan from the previous stories, we were for the most part a spiritual family. Prayer was always a part of life and I am sure it is what inspired my years in the seminary.

The four weeks of Advent season leading up to Christmas was probably the most solemn and challenging for the Casey spirituality. Every year at the start of Advent mom would drag the Advent wreath from storage. She took special care in decorating the base with pine and pine-cones gather from the area. Once it was set up, every evening after supper, we would retreat to the living room to pray the rosary. All the lights were out but as the weeks progressed, the room was filled with more light as additional candles were lit marking off the days till Christmas. Dad would lead the rosary saying the first half of the prayers in a droning monotone, (that I wish I could hear today) followed by our response to the second half of the prayer.

This appeared to be a very pious ritual. If someone was spying through the windows they would see this religious family gathered together around the holy candles praying.

That is what they would see.

What they didn’t see was Tom, who was quite adept at making shadow puppets, expressing his talents on the opposite wall. They couldn’t hear the snickers which we were able to contain until about the third decade of the rosary. From that point, an infectious laugh caught us all and no one could stop laughing in the darkness. I don’t remember if it was dad’s determination to get through one full rosary that broke us up or if it was Tom’s wall antics. If the peeping tom stayed at the window, they would see there were very few times when the rosary was completed in one sitting.

These are memories we share as a family. Memories that people outside the walls maybe suspected but never had enough courage to ask about. For us, it is what made home so special and leaving it so hard.

Years ago I thanked the folks for creating a childhood filled with so many memories that it was painful to leave behind. I always felt a little sorry for my friends when they claimed never to be homesick.

For me, being homesick was the best compliment I could give to my parents.

It was after all, all part of growing up.

 

The Last Leaving

 Our old house watches as we pull away for the last time.

The furniture is gone.

Mom and Dad are gone,

Their souls stand at the window.

 

We all know this is the last leaving, but no one has the courage to speak.

 

The old girl knows she will be alone on cold Nebraska nights.

Her eves droop as she wonders;

Who will watch out for me when the storms blow?

Who will I protect?

Who will dress me for the change of seasons?

 

She stares at the back of the car like a kindergarten student left on the corner waiting for the bus.

She knows we won’t be back for her and life will be different.

She has done her job well.

The flowers around the foundation reach up to hug her trying to convince “it will be okay.”

The new oak in the front lawn doesn’t understand.He is too young to know what is happening and giggles his leaves as he waves his lower branch, “good bye, see you again.”

As we pass the last block before the highway, her handkerchief shade flaps reluctantly like a loved one waving good-bye.  She dips the shade back occasionally to wipe a tear from the corner of her door.

Good-bye kids she whispers through screens.

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