There are mornings that stick to our eyes like the pennies the old Irish put on the eyes of the dead, mornings we go to our graves remembering.

These are hours that our brains select for posterity, then send down to our hearts, where they live in amber shadows until we writers need them.

Easter Sunday, 1941. We were lined up in the shadowy corridor between the church of St. Mary and Joseph and the school next door, Billy Haggany, Paddy Carr, Johnny Desnoyers, Billy Aubuchon and myself. This was a special Easter because Monsignor Keating, who was to say the Mass, was resigning and leaving the parish.

The girls, of course, all wore their Easter finery. There was my special Valentine, Mary Lister, Betty Eisenhower, Carrie Karenbrock and her sister Nina, Joan Powers, Carol Stevens and Rosemary De Branco.

I only remember their names because my baby sister, Dawn, remembers their names, and at every wedding or funeral will recite them for me. The latest instance was at my oldest daughter’s wedding here in Maine, four years ago.

“Remember so and so?” she would ask, and then she would tell me if they were alive or dead, and if they were dead, what they died of and who was at their funerals.

Over the years, Dawn would call me at my apartment in New York or at my home in Los Angeles to tell me that so and so had died, and she had gone to her funeral and Paddy Carr was there, and that he had terrible arthritis and bad feet.

Tucked into those reminders, she always included the Easter Sunday when our widowed mother, who was struggling to keep her life together, was rushing us off to church in some strange neighborhood. On the way, Dawn fell and tore the knee of her white stocking. Mama refused to go back home, but dragged us on, and Dawn sat beside me, weeping through the entire Mass.

She remembered too, that Billy Aubuchon, while climbing the bluffs over the river one day, fell to his death. She said that he was lost, but that they found his cap covered in Mississippi mud on the levee. That was the cap, I presume, that was festooned with bottle caps.

This particular Easter morning, Sister Rosanna’s class was waiting patiently for Mother Superior Sister John Bosco, a dark-eyed woman of fulsome girth with a voice that would chill the ghost of John Gotti, to come across the street from the convent, and lead us into the church for Mass.

We stood in an early warm spring breeze, boys on one side, girls on the other, leaning against the cold stone walls of the church, dreaming, I’m sure, of hot cross buns and hot chocolate.

“She’s coming,” someone whispered. And then she appeared. Her first act, and this I clearly remember, was to slap Paddy Carr’s hand away from his nose.

Then she spoke, and a cloud passed over the sun and the birds in the trees fell silent.

“Can anyone tell me the true meaning of Easter?” she asked.

There was, as usual, a scattering of mumbles that seemed to please her. Then Sister flowed down the line, and before coming to me, paused at Nina Karenbrock, a tall, chubby girl with Shirley Temple curls, a cold sore and a stammer.

“Nina?”

“It’s the day the dead Jesus crawled out of the hole in the ground and walked home,” Nina stammered.

Sister inhaled slowly, her eyes closed for the longest minute, and then she sighed and moved on.

That church is sealed now, open only for special weddings. The nuns are gone to wherever old nuns go. The elms that lined the streets by the convent have died. There are wonderful stories there on that street, stories that now only the stones remember.

Yes, there are mornings that stick to our eyes like the pennies the old Irish put on the eyes of the dead, mornings we go to our graves remembering.

This was one of them. Happy Easter.

 

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer. 

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