I know this church basement. We come here three or four times a year. Been doing it for a decade. It’s my mother-in-law’s parish in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. We spend Christmas and Easter here.
I’m almost never in the actual church. I’m usually down here in the basement, an exile among the poker tables and thrift sale items.
It’s a humble parish. This is a humble basement. High-heeled shoes held together with elastic bands; Barney Miller-era overcoats in a variety of sizes; threadbare, beltless bathrobes—nothing here costs more than a buck. Fundraising isn’t the point.
There’s a small kitchen, too, along with a water closet. I wonder how many potluck dinners have been served down here on dark mid-winter nights. I wonder if those who come need the company more than they need the meal. This is a rural place. Loneliness is in the air.
Is this where the alcoholics meet? The folding chairs and the coffee urn suggest it is. The basement holds secrets too gruesome to tell a mere visitor like me.
I’m only here on holiday, chasing my restless Magdalena. Sunlight pours through the windows, which are small, to keep out the cold, and set high in the wall, to keep the basement from feeling like a dungeon.
At a minute before 8:30, the priest, a deacon, and a cross-bearing altar boy pass through. They are heading upstairs to the back of the church. I wish them Happy Easter. They smile at me like the stranger I am. Then they glance at Magdalena, who has Down syndrome, and their faces brighten.
“Happy Easter young lady,” says the deacon.
“Happy Birthday grandpa—TADA!” she replies, flinging her arms wide like a magician finishing a trick. Her voice is slightly louder than is appropriate. I smile. The deacon smiles too, his head tilting almost imperceptibly as he processes the non sequitur. I smile wider. They keep walking.
Mass starts and I can follow along. The voices are muffled, but what they’re saying isn’t. I know it like I know the lines on my knuckles.
But if we can hear them carrying on down here, they can probably hear us carrying on up there. The floors are made of wood. The whole building is made of wood. When the congregation stands, it feels as if everything might come crashing down.
I wonder if we can sneak up the creaky steps and into the back of the church. If possible, I’d like to take communion, but I won’t feel comfortable doing so if I spend the whole time down here.
Magdalena makes the decision for us. She can’t keep quiet or sit still. Her audience is gone, but she has a few more magic tricks up her sleeve. We head outside.
There’s something serene about standing outside a country church while worship is taking place inside. Out here I can’t hear the priest, but I can hear the drone of the organ. And through the windows I can see the faithful clutching their missalettes and mouthing their responses.
It is peaceful. Quiet. The only the sound is the wind in the evergreens. I abandon the idea of taking communion. I content myself to commune with nature.
My daughter skips between the parked cars, scuffing her feet in the gravel and singing to herself. She toddles over to a small shrine to Our Lady. It’s as humble as everything in this parish, chipped in places, paint dulled by the elements. But ‘tis herself, the mother of us all, as familiar as the smell of soft rain, her palms open as if to say, “Come. Bring me your troubles. I will make it all okay.”
Magdalena and I say a prayer together. We pray for my mother and my father-in-law. This Easter marks five years since they died, just a few weeks apart. Those were dark days. Things have settled, but nothing can fill the giant hole in our family.
We ask God to keep them close. We ask Our Lady to pray for us. Now and at the hour of our deaths.
Unprompted, Magdalena leans over and gives the statue a kiss. She looks up at me. Her eyes are as blue as the bright sky above. Her smile is as wide and loving as the God who made us all.
I expect her to throw her arms wide and say, “TADA!”
Instead she says, “Amen.”
From the April 2015 issue of Fairfield County Catholic