BELL RINGER OF ST. CHARLES
THE SKIPPY JAR
A MOTHER’S FAITH
DAD’S NIGHTLY DEVOTION
HOME FROM SCHOOL
DAD’S GOLDEN GLOVERS
WHERE THE THREE COUNTIES MEET
Bell Ringer of St. Charles
"THERE NOW, BOYS, a sliver of hope," my father would say at the first sight of a crescent moon. "Hurry, turn the coins in your pockets for luck." My brothers and I would quickly flip over our pennies, if by chance we had any, and gaze above trees and rooftops to catch a wink of the young moon.
Dad’s expression came to mind recently as I passed St. Charles Church, in my boyhood parish in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where I still live. The moon’s scant shaving of burnished gold appeared to have hooked itself onto the turret of the bell tower, as if a band of angels were sliding from their starry loft to the belfry. At that moment, the evening Angelus tolled, stirring a host of childhood memories.
Upon our arrival in the States, the tears of greeting soon turned to tears of grief as Aunt Nellie told Dad that their mother had passed away on March 9, the week before we had set sail from Southampton. The following morning, Dad and his three sisters—Mary, Brigid, and Nellie—attended a memorial ser vice for their mother, little knowing that Brigid would die the following month after a long illness. If that wasn’t enough, Dad’s older brother Patrick, home in Ireland, passed away that May. Three deaths in three months’ time. Welcome to America.
Dad had little time to grieve, however, as the seven of us moved in with Mom’s sister, Aunt Nancy, and her family in Lenox in the Berkshires. Uncle Joe, a much-respected principal at Lenox High School, quickly found Dad two jobs—one in a textile mill and the other on a construction site, digging foundations.
With his native gregariousness, it wasn’t long before Dad caught wind of a janitorial position in St. Charles parish in Pittsfield, a modest city a dozen miles north of the village of Lenox. The job didn’t pay well, but it came with living quarters—a great incentive for a growing family trying to establish a foothold in a new land. This Irish parish consisted of church, rectory, convent, and a grammar school that his young brood could attend, less than a football field’s distance from their new home.
"Why not the GE?" someone suggested. At that time in Pittsfield, the county seat and so-called heart of the Berkshires in the far western hills of Massachusetts, General Electric employed nearly 8,500 residents in a city of sixty thousand. No wonder everyone invariably referred to it as "the GE." Dad’s experience working at a power plant in En gland might have served him well, but he wanted to start anew, and he could imagine no better place to do so than the house of God.
So, that long-ago autumn of 1953, our family took up residence in the drafty caretaker’s quarters behind the rectory of St. Charles, bracing ourselves for our first harsh winter. Upstairs in this small dwelling lived Mrs. Durette, a pious little woman of French Canadian birth with a large heart. Her rocking chair by the window faced the church’s high steeple. She explained to us children that the golden cross atop the steeple was as tall as any man in the parish, though it appeared no larger than the crucifix on the prayer beads in her lap.
After supper we would assist Mrs. Durette down the rickety staircase to watch westerns on our big-console, small-screen black-and-white TV, kindly left to us by the former custodian. She was a friend to our family and a comfort to our mom. One morning that first winter, as a heavy snowstorm blanketed Nobility Hill, the old and incongruous name for our neighborhood, Mom and Mrs. Durette looked out at Dad, bent low with an old coal shovel, clearing heavy wet snow from the sidewalks and steps of rectory and church, and up both sides of Pontoosuc Avenue to the convent and school. "Jimmy’s no janitor," she consoled my fretful mother with a hug. "No, your Jimmy’s a gem."
My brothers and I would often accompany Dad on his daily chores. In the summer months we’d play tic-tac-toe on classroom blackboards while he polished the wooden floors to a lustrous gleam. In winter we’d stand back and shield our faces as he shoveled mountains of black sooty coal into the fire-breathing furnaces with blistered hands.
On Saturdays we’d help out in the church, filling vestibule fonts with holy water and straightening missals and songbooks in the pews. Chores done, we’d venture up to the choir loft where, blinded by the light streaming through the stained-glass rose window, we’d giddily play in a kaleidoscope of colors until Dad, sloshing a mop of soapy water in the long aisles below, would glare up and hush us with a sshh! that echoed through the high Gothic arches.
My dad rang the church bell at masses, weddings, and funerals, and tolled the Angelus morning, noon, and night. He’d unlock the bell closet, take grip of the thick rope, and with firm pull and steady hold—lest the bell double-clang—pour out the mellow-toned "voice of God" over the parish.
Parishioners praised his bell ringing, especially at Christmas, when the merry and sleepy-eyed shuffled into midnight Mass. "Jimmy, you can make that bell sing," they’d say. "Solemn at funerals, joyous at weddings, and magical on Christmas night."
"It’s a knack you have," another man chimed in, as he and his family stood back to admire Dad working the ropes. "You should be ringing the bells at St. Patrick’s Cathedral."
Of course, we too loved to ring the bell, like tonsured monks of old. Dad would hold our hands between his own, and after one mighty tug the rope would lift us clear off the floor, as the bell resounded to the heavens.
There was no clowning around on the bell rope, however. Dad called it "God’s work," explaining that the Angelus, which echoed the Ave Maria of Our Lady’s Annunciation, had been calling Catholics to prayer three times daily since medieval times. The Angelus peals in a rhythm of 3-3-3-9, and Dad rang its sequence with impeccable timing, reciting the Hail Mary in Irish for deeper devotion.
A few years later, when Dad was no longer janitor, but still rang the bell, my friend Michael Nichols and I discovered a secret passage in the choir loft that led to the bell tower itself. Daring to enter, we climbed wooden steps that creaked and spiraled toward the stuffy confines of the belfry, but quickly retreated at a loud clap of pigeons above. But the next Saturday we reached the one last ladder and emerged into the daylight of the belfry, ducking low in fear Father Foley—or worse still, my dad—would spot us amid the commotion of pigeons.
On that spring morning, Michael and I crouched behind the railings and surveyed our dominion as if from a castle parapet. We looked down upon the gnarly woods and dark flowing river to the west, and sent a signal to our ally in the south, the glistening blue limestone spire of St. Joseph Church. We circled the bell and boldly ran our fingers over its Roman numerals—MDCCCXCIX, laboriously calculated to 1899—and its given name, Maria et Julia, etched on the curved surface.
Before descending, I reached underneath the massively heavy bell to grasp its metal tongue, which burned with cold fire. Afraid that I had profaned the holy object with a touch that might corrode the bell’s shining ring into a rasp, the next Saturday I confessed my wrongdoing to Father Kane, a young curate whose people hailed from beneath Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s holiest mountain.
There followed a long silence in the stuffy box of curtain and screen.
"What compelled you to do such a thing?"
"I don’t know, Father. To feel the weight, I guess, and how it was inside the bell."
"Well, son, no harm done. But I wouldn’t want you to get caught by Mr. O’Hara. He tolls that bell with great reverence, you know."
I gulped. "Yes, Father."
"For your penance I only ask you to stay out of the bell tower. Can you promise me that?"
"I can, Father, yes." And I kept that promise out of respect for my earthly as well as my heavenly father.
On the present night, beneath this crescent moon, the evening Angelus peals automatically on some electronic circuit. As the last notes of the carillon echo over Nobility Hill, no janitor in metal-clasped boots is making his way toward the old house. No Mrs. Durette calls down to watch "the cowboys." No brick school house, with its silent swish of nuns, remains. The moon speaks no folk wisdom of old, though it whispers of the past.
I remember, as I walk to my current home—still within earshot of the bell—how one Christmas night as a young boy I stirred in my sleep at the pealing of the bell, and rose to the window to watch my father trek across the churchyard, a humble figure heralding the birth of the Christ Child, but to my eyes like a rose-robed seraph trumpeting on that long-ago Bethlehem night.
Yes, I can picture the old man still, just as he was. How his mighty hands would clasp the bell rope, his chin anchored firmly to chest, the smooth repetition of pull and hold, his blue watery eyes intent but half closed, and his mumbling the Hail Mary in Irish, a quiet prayer for all the world to hear.
The Skippy Jar
MY YOUNGER BROTHER DERMOT and I—all of six years old in 1955—watched Mom drop a single dime into a large empty Skippy peanut butter jar.
"What ya doing?" I asked her.
"I’m saving our dimes for Ireland. ’Twill take awhile, God knows, but it’s a start."
She sighed as I peered into her glass container, her lone silver Mercury dime laying flat on its bottom.
"Can I go?"
"You can both go, please God."
She took the jar and placed it up on the pantry’s top shelf, away from the reach of little hands.
Over the months I’d often climb the high chair to see how Mom’s piggy bank was doing. It was filling up slowly at best. Unfortunately, many of her dimes were diverted for other duties. School milk, for instance, cost fifteen cents a week when five of us were trooping off to St. Charles. We’d always find a dime beneath our pillow after losing a tooth, and with Mom’s eventual brood of eight sprouting some two hundred milk teeth, a goodly number of dimes was forked over by our tooth fairy. Years later, a dime would accompany each of Mom’s five sons to buy a soda with lunch when we caddied at the Country Club of Pittsfield.
Only when Mom’s dime jar was chock-full did she have us count it. This was a special event, and it always occurred around St. Patrick’s Day. We’d pull up our chairs to the table and spill out the jar’s contents, sifting our hands through Mom’s enormous cache, never having known such riches.
Next we’d make little stacks of ten that dotted the table like "sheaves of oats," Mom would say. That done, we’d roll them into blue coin wrappers and line them up like logs upon a mighty river. If memory serves me, the sixteen-ounce Skippy jar could hold eight hundred dimes—eighty bucks! Task complete, Mom would place the blue rolls in her sewing box for safety.
Through those years, we’d often ask Mom’s permission to play with her Skippy jar. Our brother Jimmy had devised a soccer-like game—Mercury versus Roosevelt—that we played on an old Parcheesi board. Or Dermot and I would pretend to be one-eyed and wooden-legged pirates, using her silver for stolen booty. Remarkably, these dimes always found their way back to Mom’s kitty.
I suppose it’s difficult for the reader to believe a loving son such as myself would snitch a dime from his mother’s hope chest earmarked for her beloved Emerald Isle, the land for which she constantly pined. Shamefaced, I confess to the occasional theft, but didn’t I show remarkable restraint? After all, in my bygone youth, a sun-shiny dime could brighten the cloudiest of days.
With fingers burning in anticipation of hellfire, I’d delve my hand knuckle-deep into Mom’s treasure trove, lift a single dime, and soon find myself panting in front of a dazzling candy counter. There, I’d gawk longingly at chocolate bars and similar delights—not to mention other temptations like yo-yos or baseball cards—pondering my choice as cautiously as a jeweler his stones.
"Good morning, Mrs. Hood. Two Chunkys, please."
"Good afternoon, Mrs. Nichols. A bottle of Nehi soda and a bag of Rex potato chips, please."
"Good evening, Mr. Discoe. Two cent’s worth of malted-milk balls, one Dubble Bubble gum, two Squirrel Nuts . . ."
But however tasty my spoils, a bellyache would surely follow.
Stooped over with the pain of guilt, I’d scour the trash cans and clogged sewers of Wilson Project, finding mud-caked soda bottles I’d cash in for two cents apiece. On Monday, I’d turn down Mom’s milk money—a nickel and dime—weakly explaining, "There’s tons of extra milk because kids are out with the measles," then I’d set out for school with pants—and heart—sagging heavily with pennies.
Before the dear nuns could comment on the pile of filthy coppers I’d pour out into their pale soap-scented hands, I’d apologize. "Sorry, Sister, my mom is saving her dimes for Ireland."
"God help her," they’d say, pardoning me with a pitying wave. I’d often look at Ireland on the school globe, a little green island I could cover with the tip of my baby finger. What was its attraction, and why had it cast such a spell on my mom? One evening, as I was reading my junior version of The Count of Monte Cristo, I watched Mom drop a few dimes into her Skippy jar after grocery shopping. I fell back to my book and imagined her to be the imprisoned count, Edmond, digging her way to freedom one thin dime at a time.
Letters from Eireann arrived frequently, their colorful stamps depicting a glorious but melancholy history. It seemed everyone there shared the same spiky penmanship, as if the entire country scrawled with a collective hand. One of my grandmother’s letters informed Mom that a calf had broken its leg atop Slieve Bawn, but watching Mom read it, I took it for an earth-shaking tragedy. I was drawn into this correspondence bit by bit, at first trying to grasp my mom’s heartache, but then captivated by the letters themselves.
"Grannie’s thatched farm house is adorned with rambling roses," explained Mom one morning. "It’s still a rambling house, you know, where people are welcomed in day or night—a holdover from the Famine. Someday I’ll show you her roses and the songbirds that nest in her eaves."
Excerpted from A Lucky Irish Lady by Kevin O’Hara.
Copyright © 2010 by Kevin O’Hara.
Published in February 2010 by Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.