A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words
Some time ago (around 1998) a classmate of my sister in Philadelphia called to tell me she had a photo I might like to have. It was of a group of thirty-one Resurrection parish altar boys (ranging from the 6th to the 8th grade) taken on a picnic in the summer of 1939. Well, I remembered that picnic – a day of games, swimming and barbecue hosted by Fr. Monville on the rural campus of a local seminary. But I couldn’t remember any picture being taken. So I said, “Yes, send me a copy.”
Now you have to know that I attended Resurrection parochial school for only three semesters. Actually, my elementary school experience reads like a litany: St. Cyril’s, St. Ludwig’s, King of Peace, then back to St. Ludwig’s, then Resurrection, and finally St. Matthew’s. Six schools in eight years. The reason? Mainly economic. Upon my registering usually in the middle of a semester, I was led into my appropriate grade’s classroom, subjected to the skeptical gaze of about forty other children and introduced as “so and so who will be joining us – and I want you all to make him feel at home.” At that remark the skeptical look on the boys’ faces changed to one of latent sadism, a transformation that escaped the nun but was very evident to me, because I had been through this ritual before.
It usually took about a week before the schoolyard “initiation ceremonies” were exhausted. Then followed the cultivation of a few pals, significant eye contact with a redhead named Rosemary Maginn, enrollment in the altar boys – and so on, until my parents decided to move to another neighborhood before I could ever really say: “Gee, at last I belong!” The result? In my later years I could never quite get over a sense of unresolved distance between myself and whatever group I might associate with. I retained this feeling of always being on the outside looking in. And then Mary Jane called and said something that seemed like music to my ears, something I guess I’ve always wanted to hear. “You’re in the picture!” she said. And I said, “Send it!”
Within a week a manila envelope arrived addressed in Mary Jane’s still liquid Palmer script. I opened it and there we all were, laughing, arranged in three rows, standing, sitting, or squatting in the trampled grass – the Nolans, Kelley, Murphy, Corkery, Turco, the Vearling brothers, Tomlinson, Callahan. Some had tattered baseball mits; some were in undershirts, or no shirts at all, hair mussed. And there indeed was I in the front row, second from the right, smiling too, flanked by my friends, Bill Miller and Joe Whylie (now dead these many years).
And as I looked at my eleven year old face, it seemed to be saying to me, the viewer, “What are you doing out there all by yourself? Why do you continue to suffer the illusion you didn’t belong? Can’t you see you were very much in the picture? Don’t you remember how, amid all the moves your parents made, it was you who insisted on going to a school named Saint Somebody? Why? Because in some unconscious way you found there in that atmosphere of the Church, among the sisters and classmates and the saints that bedecked the walls, a circle of cultural solidarity that made you feel at home in ways this world will never quite understand. It doesn’t matter how many schools you went to or how briefly you stayed – because I, your eleven year old self, can testify: you did find family – as in these everlasting faces of your fellow acolytes with whom you shared that rare capacity to say in Latin: Introibo ad altare Dei: ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam; I shall go up to the altar of God – the God who made sense of my youth.