I was in a place called Laguna Niguel for Christmas Eve. It’s a gated community in California a little south of L.A. It’s about a million miles away in every possible sense from Mississippi Avenue where I grew up.
But the people there were people from the neighborhood. The hostess Paula was my sister’s best friend from childhood. Paula’s mom, Mrs. Gerbino, brought the traditions and memories of my childhood Christmases with her. It made this first holiday without mom a little easier for both my sister and me.
Christmas Eve dinner was all that I remembered from my youth. Mrs. Gerbino and Paula had already been cooking for days before my sister and I arrived. Yet we still spent a good deal of our time in the kitchen preparing even more food while remembering the people, like my parents and Paula’s dad, who no long could share the feast with us.
Their spirits, though, were at our elbows, guiding us as we prepared the fish salad, the seafood pasta sauce and the antipasto. We had scungilli, calamari, swordfish, crabs, scallops and more. We debated whether the salad was suppose to be three fish for the Holy Trinity, seven fish for the seven sacraments, twelve fish for the twelve apostles or 13 fish because some tradition of unknown origin demanded that the number always be an odd one.
When we finished the fishes, we started the cookies, adding to the stack of pizzelles and biscotti brought by Rose, another old neighbor who lives in southern California.
It was inevitable that when talked turned to neighborhood memories, the name of Victor Saracini would be brought up. He was one of the pilots killed when his plane was flown into the World Trade Center. He was a neighborhood kid and no matter where the conversation started, it always seemed to come round to September 11.
Rose had lived two doors down from us in the neighborhood. Her dad had a grocery store, as did my dad. Both her parents are gone now and the store is shuttered. When I was east for Thanksgiving I walked by it. In the front window of the darkened store pictures of Vic are taped up along with a poem his children wrote to him.
Mrs. Gerbino spoke of the memorial service that had been held for him at St. Michael’s, our neighborhood parish. She said that three of his 8th grade classmates spoke about Vic and how close they’d always remained despite the widely divergent paths their lives had taken.
Paula spoke about the incredulous looks she got when she told this story to people because of the referent to his 8th grade graduating class at St. Michael’s. People can relate to high school and college classmates but apparently most have no strong bonds with their 8th grade class.
In our neighborhood we did. The church and school were the focal points of our existence.
The church provided a social life to our parents through groups like the Knights of Columbus and the Mary Help of Christians Sodality. The school provided their children with everything from a formal education to a religious education to our first boy/girl dances.
Your 8th grade graduating class had been together since Sister Angelina’s kindergarten. Together you had blossomed in Sister Beatrice’s 1st grade, survived Sister Gaetana’s 4th grade and somehow made it through Sister Mary’s 8th grade.
Forty years later, in a California community half a world away from Mississippi Avenue, alumni of that time and place could gather together from two different generations and feel that world still comforting them.
Its strength was such that for us no explanation was needed as to why Vic’s 8th grade graduating class was a part of his memorial service no matter how far they had to travel to be there.
I think that’s probably the greatest tribute that can be paid to a small parish church and all the wonderful people it served.