Saturday, August 19, 2006

A Young Martyr at Play

I don't know if I've mentioned it before, but I had an active imagination as a child. I mentioned some of my antics here and wrote about a family friend and religious sister here. And I've been hinting at telling another story from my childhood.

My father's family lived in New England. The matriarch, my grandmother, lived in Montpelier, Vermont, while her niece, my dad's cousin, lived with her family (my second cousins) in Manchester, New Hampshire. Two of the cousins (the boys) were closer to our age (mine and my brother's), while two others (the female cousins) were in their teens. There was one other I didn't meet until much later. My grandmother had us all over one summer to stay in her rambling Georgian house on School Street in Montpelier. The public elementary school sits right across from the old house, and St. Michael's Catholic School stood on the hill just above both.

I still remember the house quite fondly. It was one of three my grandmother owned there and had a basement and three stories, including a turret on the northwest corner. My dad and his brother had grown up there, along with their two cousins (one being the mother of the Manchester clan). In addition to the various twisting and turning hallways and passages, the family had decades of belongings stored in the cellar and the garage. (My dad still likes to tell stories about some of the things he and his brother found in the garage—baling wire, goat wagons, entrenching equipment.)

I had two modes as a child: class clown and wandering dreamer. I either wanted everyone's attention (and would behave in the silliest ways to get it), or I just wanted everyone to forget I was around and go on about their business. On this particular day, I had opted for the latter. Everyone else had planned to go off to Burlington or to do some antique shopping in Middlebury. As an aside, I can't imagine WHY an 8-year-old wouldn't want to go dig around in a dusty old antique shop along some back road in Vermont. Oddly, my adventures in Grandma's house really weren't all that different. Except all the adults were away, Grandma was napping, and I had no adult supervision.

So there I was, in wandering dreamer mode, digging through my Grandma's cellar. I have to say she had some cool stuff stored away their. I imagined it belonged to my father (most like not), and I'd hoped I would run into some of those things I'd seen in those old photos: that cool Navy outfit, an old pair of his skis, Snowball, his pet rabbit. Okay, maybe I didn't really expect Snowball to come bounding out, but it was THAT KIND of delving. Any little bit of junk became potential Dad memorabilia.

Amid the boxes and piles I found some planks. As I moved them, I found they were tied together in the middle. As I moved them, they twisted into one form or another until at some point a Catholic waypoint in my mind clicked, and I saw that they formed a cross. Some new possibilities for my afternoon just came to mind.

So let me step back a moment here and confess that this was not the first time I had crucified myself. It was actually one of my favorite games. My brother and I had this bunk bed, and if you've ever owned a bunk bed, you know that they are excellent staging devices for all kinds of adventures. During my Western phase (yes, I had one, and that will shock those who now know me and my contempt for western movies—way too dusty), a bunk bed made a perfect stagecoach. Then came the privateer phase. Yes, privateer, not pirate. I had several heroes. In first grade, it was George Washington. In third and fourth, it was John Paul Jones. And let me tell you, a bunk bed makes one hell of a Bonhomme Richard.

But a bunk bed could also be used for landscape. In a purely theatrical sense, it was my Mt. Calvary. Whenever I has one of those wandering dreamer modes during the school year, I would claim to be sick (of school, but that was a minor technicality). I don't think Mom was ever fooled. However, I did well in school, and I think she figured I knew when I needed time off. So she pretty much left me to my own devices. Invariably, around 2:00 PM or so, I would don my tunic (see here for a description) and the obligatory loin cloth underneath, I would scale Mt. Calvary (my bunk bed), and I would crucify myself (or be crucified by unseen Roman centurions). I'm sure I expired at 3:00 PM sharp.

So how was this Montpelier experience different? Well, to me, it wasn't. I was in dreamer mode, Grandma was napping, and the uncles, cousins and parents were elsewhere.

And so my trip down my Via Delorosa began. I donned my loin cloth (a towel) and my tunic (probably bed sheets), took up my 5-foot-tall cross, and made my way to Golgotha, which just happened to be on at the end of the drive way, across the street from Montpelier Elementary on Loomis Street. Now, I don't know why I choose this location. Frankly, it would've been more appropriate for me to haul my thin pine cross up to the playground at St. Michael's, which was actually situated on a hill. But I was never one for verisimilitude in those days. (Arguably, some could reasonably claim I'm still not one for it.) Nonetheless, I carried my burden out to the end of the driveway, planted it into the ground, and began my self-martyrdom. I cast off my tunic to be gambled away by the imaginary centurions, and stood there in nothing but a loin cloth/towel with my hands draped over the cross beam. (Oh yeah, that thing about verisimilitude? I didn't apply to loin cloths.)

I don't know how many cars might've driven by, or how many neighbors glanced out their windows. What I do know is that Grandma never found out (not until I told her some 25 years later). 3:00 PM. The hour of mercy in more ways than one.

I finally revealed the story of my crucifixion to my grandmother when the family got together for my uncle's funeral. Grandma had always favored me (far more than I deserved). When I told her the story, the edges of her lips turned up slightly, and she just shook her head. I imagine she had the same thought in her mind when she died a year later: "What am I going to do with you, my little William?"

[Technorati tags: Christianity, Catholic, Catholicism, Church History]
Post a Comment