Spending 8 years in a catholic elementary school can create bonds that last a lifetime. I didn’t think I could remember the names of all of those 20 or 30 students from my class, until I visited the local church cemetery where my parents are buried.
We spent a lot of time together, especially the girls. We all joined the same church-sponsored girl scout troop, belonged to the “Handmaidens of Mary”, which, as noble as that sounded, was not much more than a way for the nuns to recruit unpaid housekeepers for the adjacent convent. We arrived early, before school started, joined them at morning Mass or prayer devotions, followed by breakfast, then dusting, furniture polishing, window washing, etc. Child labor, sanctioned by God, and we felt blessed.
One of the most popular ways to socialize outside of school was the slumber party. When her turn came, Mary J. offered her home, which was several floors adjacent to her family business, a local funeral home.
Her parents, of course, chaperoned the event. But then they tired, and went to bed. Mischief ensued.
At first, it was all about the Ouija board, which one of us had to sneak in; avoiding the confrontation with devout Catholic parents. The idea that a few pre-teens could scare up spirits at their fingertips was no doubt the work of the devil, and had no business here. We did it anyway; several were seriously spooked, a few were skeptical.
And then it came. The inevitable challenge…who would dare to crawl into one of display coffins. The actual working mortuary area was securely locked; but the viewing area and sample “eternal rest” vessels were accessible. I don’t remember who actually did it; I just know it wasn’t me. They looked comfortable enough, lined in satin with ornate pillows. It was just beyond creepy to me.
More than 4 decades later, I was to reconnect with Mary J., who had now taken over her father’s business, along with her young adult daughter. This would be the fourth generation for this family; the home opened in the late 1800’s and was the only Catholic facility in this small town.
I had contacted her on behalf of the grieving family of my youngest sister, who had tragically passed away after a battle with MS. We had not seen each other since our teen years, but I trusted her sensitivity and remembered her warm, gentle spirit. She and the funeral service were most impressive; the family was grateful that we had found her once again.
The viewing and service was several hours long on a snowy day in January. Long after guests had left, Mary and I were able to spend some time talking about our shared childhood, and the memory of that eventful slumber party under this very roof.
It was a conversation that would bring smiles to a day that was otherwise very sad; a moment of lightness; and one that I will never forget.