Standing outside of Saint Philomena Church, Father Stoltz exchanges pleasantries with his parishioners. Please join us for dinner tonight, Father. My dad is visiting us for the long weekend,” a well-dressed woman says to the priest.
“Okay, I’d love to,” the pastor answers.
In the distance nuns disappear behind tall privet hedges that cloak a pretty pink convent. Clattering in the wind atop a lofty flagpole, Old Glory hovers like an eagle above the long-standing churchyard. Families depart from the church. On a front porch across the street, an old gramps rocks in a rocker. Dressed in white trousers and a collared shirt with his white hair styled back, the craggy gentleman watches a group approach.
On the porch step sits a small metal cooler labeled “Schwenk Dairy.” Retrieving the four cold glass bottles of milk from the cooler, Gramps’s daughter stops to say hello. “I’ll take those inside,” Gramps says. “That’s fine, Daddy,” Rose responds, glancing at her baby sleeping in the wooden playpen. “Maybe you can keep an eye on Cecilia a wee bit longer?” she requests. “Absolutely,” Gramps replies while readjusting his specs and the East Hampton Star newspaper folded in his hands.
“Oh, your old friend Father Stoltz will be here for dinner tonight,” Rose tells her father as she opens the squeaky screen door. “That’s nice,” Gramps answers. He looks up a moment into the distant landscape. From the clothesline in the backyard a set of dry diapers flap like raucous geese calling. On a picnic table Rose sets down a straw basket. Bright sunshine strokes the auburn hair of her daughter Rita, now helping her mother to fold the diapers.
Scott and Frank Richardson, a pair of handsome brothers, and their best friend Timmy Stone all race for Main Street on bikes. Along with other Boy Scouts, they will help set up flags along the wonderfully wide street in preparation for the Memorial Day parade. “Hey, be careful,” their father yells while standing at the far end of his long driveway, making ready to change the car oil. Without slowing down, they holler back, “Okay.”
Promptly at four in the afternoon, the pastor arrives at the Richardson home. Rose soon invites everyone to be seated at the dinner table. Fresh-picked daffodils in a blue vase beautify her well-set table. Dinner candles are lighted and plates are passed filled with delicious salad, roasted chicken, scalloped potatoes, and warm homemade bread.
Joe Richardson offers wine, and creamy milk is given to the children. Baby Cecilia drinks from a glass bottle while cradled in her mother’s lap. The priest offers a prayer before the meal, “May God bless this wonderful food and all gathered here tonight.” “Amen,” the family replies. Soon enough the scrumptious meal is thoroughly enjoyed. The pastor takes up his half-filled wine glass. “To this great country and to all of our war dead, that they shall not have died in vain,” he says. “Amen,” all say while clinking wine glasses gently.
Dessert and coffee are carried on a tray from a wallpapered yellow kitchen into a pale blue-carpeted living room. The baby is put upstairs in her crib. Much to their chagrin, the older siblings are sent upstairs too, after helping to clean up. The four adults retire down a wood-paneled hallway into an attractive parlor.
“Seems the weather’s warmer, but still chilly at night,” Gramps states while counting cards in his manicured hands.
“Yes, I’ll be planting my vegetable garden soon,” Joe declares, calling “one no trump” to his wife sitting across the card table from him. The game is played as firewood crackles in the fireplace. The mantelpiece clock ticks past 10 p.m. Gramps closes his tobacco pouch and puts it away with his pipe. He stands to shake the Father’s hand, announcing that he will be retiring to bed.
“Me too,” the priest says, rising from his chair then stepping to the fire before leaving. “Goodnight all, and thank you for this pleasant evening and the delicious meal,” compliments the priest, donning a coat with help from Joe.
The pastor soon strolls alone along Buell Lane, feeling the nippy air. Fragments of lights flicker from dark houses, resembling stars in a black firmament. Silvery clouds float in the night sky like ghostly ships lost at sea. Blushing embers smolder to rosy ash in the screened fireplaces as darkness obscures the silent seaside town.
Come morning yellow daffodils lend fragrance to a rain-soaked field. On the rectory porch the weathered priest looks at puddles in the walkway. Eyeing the church flagpole, he walks to it to hook up the American flag to the halyard, quickly hoisting it to full staff. Then, reverently, the priest lowers it back down to half-staff, securing it there. Honoring those who died in service, he salutes the flag, reminiscent of his days of service in the military clergy during World War II.
Strong sunshine penetrates the beautiful stained glass windows of the attractive church, scattering spectrums of color across vacant pews. Flanking the altar table, vases of scented red roses and baby’s breath adorn a golden tabernacle.
Frank Richardson and Timmy Stone enter the church, genuflect before the altar, and soon disappear behind velvet curtains into the sacristy. Whispering parishioners fill the pews. Some unintentionally drop the weighty kneelers, which bang to the floor. Ushers seat latecomers as the organist plays “Lift High the Cross.”
Lighted candles flicker as Father Stoltz begins Mass. The altar boys kneel during the consecration. Bowing forward while shifting side to side like small boats tacking windward above the holy altar, they recite long prayers, barely audible, in Latin.
Old Father Stoltz lifts the consecrated host and chalice as Frank rings bells. An usher fastens a side door that was banged open by a gust of wind. Kneeling worshippers receive Holy Communion on their tongues at the altar railing.
Afterward, Father greets everyone outside while “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” resounds from the church. Puffy clouds dance overhead, and giggling girls play beneath a flourishing magnolia tree. Groups of adults talk in glad voices.
Approaching noontime in this lovely setting the veteran priest shall once again hoist the Red, White, and Blue to its full standard. On the village green a group of uniformed veterans shall also raise the American flag. Prevailing proudly above the countryside, the full-staffed flags resolve the living to honor those who sacrificed their lives in service to this country, and to not let their sacrifice go in vain but to fight for “liberty and justice for all.”
With a large assembly watching, a group of decorated veterans, including Gramps, shall stand tall, shoulder-to-shoulder, alongside a traditional graveyard. They will unleash a rolling 21-gun salute.
A single Korean War Veteran stands apart from the others. With deliberate intent, he ceremoniously raises a decorated brass bugle to pursed lips. To the sobered throng he plays taps, echoing the patriotic demonstrations taking place throughout the land.
Reverend Stoltz prays aloud, saying, “May Our Almighty Father bless this Memorial Day today in the year of our Lord 1956 and forevermore in time, throughout this great land we Americans are privileged to call ‘home sweet home.’ Amen.”
The names have been changed in this memoir, part of a series on growing up in East Hampton. Mary Koncelik Miller is a mother and grandmother who grew up on a family farm in the Northwest Woods and still lives in East Hampton with her family. A section of her memoir has previously been published by The Star.