“When I am writing I am far away and when I come back I have already left”
– Pablo Neruda
I am further stepping into the wilderness of Montana and the wilderness of writing this week. I feel so held in this haven of the blank page and snow. If you’d like to create haven for your creativity…come to a Haven Writing Retreat here in Montana. June, August, and September retreats are now booking and filling fast.
Please enjoy this lovely entry to my “Long Ago: Community” series/contest. It brought me right back to the feeling of a Sunday morning in church– my first haven.
Submissions are closed. Winner announced mid-Feb. Thank you to all who are sharing and reading and commenting. We can build community from far and wide. yrs. Laura
An Echo from the Bronx, by Alison Bolshoi
I learned about a long ago community from a very old woman, my great grandmother, although it would be decades before I understood anything she said about it.
Molly, or “Mom” as we all called her, was a tiny person who never stopped moving. She lived every day to do things for other people, and is the only person I’ve ever met who was truly happy serving others. You meet people who say they are, but you can still see some resentment at the corners of their mouth or the angle of their neck. Mom was filled with joy and light. When I showed up at her apartment, she would turn from her sewing machine with an expression of happiness on her face that told me there was no one else in the world she would rather see, at that moment, than me. Yet everyone in my family describes the same experience when they would go see her.
Mom was a seamstress and made all my clothes until I was in high school; everything from my nightgowns to my winter coats and hats. While she sewed, and I helped, she told me stories I didn’t understand about church and community. She was born in 1888 and raised Roman Catholic in the Bronx, when it was still “the country” and had dirt roads and horse drawn carriages. She described the church as an amazing place. She met her best friend Anna there when she was a child. She and Anna did lots of things together, including working at the church office and washing their families’ laundry in the East River. They were poor but they didn’t seem to know it. When they were 15, Anna made Molly an incredibly beautiful scarf, crocheted out of raw silk, which was rare material back then.
Mom also told me about dances, bake sales, fundraisers, parties for people’s anniversaries and christenings, and even wakes and funerals, which all centered around their church. The whole church community would visit the family of the deceased throughout the three-day waking period, and bring food. Mom told detailed stories about so many different occasions, like one night when she and my great grandfather Jim were dating, and walked to a dance at church. Jim didn’t like that Molly wouldn’t kiss him, so he picked her up and put her inside an open garbage can. She screamed, but as long as she didn’t move, her dress didn’t touch the sides and stayed clean. When she finally relented and kissed him, he lifted her out and they went on to the church dance. The theme that night was “Old Italian Love Songs” and he said, “See? Even God said you were supposed to kiss me.”
Her stories seemed so alien to me. We went to church, three of them, in fact, in our area, but we never talked to anyone and there were never events going on in any of them. This was Westchester County, NY; stuffy, and for me, very fake. The closest we got to “community” was at the sign of peace, where you turn to the person nearest you and shake their hand, muttering “Peace be with you.” Then we’d go home and never speak to them again.
Mom’s stories stayed with me, though I didn’t understand them. When my son was seven and announced one day, as I picked him up, that he was Christian and wanted to wear a cross and go to a church, I nearly drove my car off the road. I hadn’t been to church in so many years, though I still felt Christian. I was terrified.
After talking with a friend and explaining my aversion to Roman Catholicism, he suggested St. Luke’s Church, right in town, in Montclair. I asked why that place. He said, “They’re Episcopal, and they’re a very happy group of people.” I said, “You mean ‘Jesus Freaks.’” “No,” he laughed. “It’s hard to explain. They’re just really happy to see you.” Hmm.
So I went. And an amazing thing happened. People talked to me. Not in a pushy, nosy sort of way, but in a welcoming, interested way. I went back. I realized that every Sunday after services, there was a coffee hour, where people talked to each other about their everyday lives. I saw that gay people sat with each other in pews, held hands, and even kissed at the sign of peace. Homeless people sat next to wealthy people. The church had a soup kitchen; a pretty famous one. And a “Second Time Around Shop,” a thrift shop run by the old ladies in the church, who organized it. People had parties for their anniversaries and christenings in the Assembly Hall.
Over time I saw what a real community this is, where wonderful, sad, magical, real things happen — like after two of my friends had a fire gut their apartment, and everyone came together and gave them furniture, dishes, clothes, money, and food. Or when my friend Tim’s son Maurice died suddenly at age 20, and even his horse was welcome inside the church, at his funeral. Or this year, when my best friend Monique renewed her vows with her husband Louis. I sang the service and we all went to a wonderful party in the Assembly Hall, singing opera karaoke, and left after midnight. It is my understanding that not all Episcopal churches are like this one. So I feel lucky.
These are not people who shake your hand and then forget your face by the time they get to the door. I found a Long Ago Community that’s alive right now. And I’m in it. I even wore Mom’s raw silk scarf, now 110 years old now, to the ceremony where I was ‘received’ by the Bishop.