Memories of a Milltown Girl:

“The Dormer Becomes Our Church”

Our home on Pulaski St., in the town of West Warwick, RI, glowed orange during the Christmas season, since that was the color of the candles Mom positioned in the windows throughout our two-floor Cape. I felt it a fine color—the glow seemed heavenly.  Some lights were tiers of three candles, while others were singular, but they all bathed our home in a warm amber light.

Nowhere was the light more pronounced than in the dormer of our 2ndfloor girls’ bedroom, for here I’d transformed the cloistered space into a mock sacristy.

On a table nearby, our kids’ red and white record player piped in soft Christmas music.

On the walls of the dormer I’d taped Christmas cards depicting the birth of Christ or the Three Wise Men following the star of Bethlehem, to the manger in Jerusalem. All the illustrated people wore the necessary faces of piety and solemnity. Since it was still the era when most people sent cards (requiring twice-a-day-delivery by the Post Office,) I had plenty to choose from.

I’d transformed Mom’s cedar chest into an altar, covering it with a white sheet, and on that, I placed my “tabernacle” which had been a neighbor’s cigar box from which I’d removed a panel, glued white construction paper to 3 sides, and run a knitting needle across the expanse of one side for a curtain rod. The curtain was one of Dad’s new white handkerchiefs. It had to be perfect, for behind that curtain stood the chalice.

The chalice was one of Mom’s best crystal glasses, topped with a cardboard square (again, covered in white paper). It held the small, perfect circles of Sunbeam bread I’d cut, using a half dollar coin as pattern. They awaited the singular moment I’d transform them into the body of Christ—the Host.

To effect that, I wrapped sheets about my body, draping them strategically to mimic the garb the Catholic priests of my church wore. I’d already anointed my younger sister as altar ‘boy.’ At 4 years my junior, she was only too happy for her role in the drama.

At that point, I invoked the spirits of the heavens– God, Jesus, the angels and archangels and I began the chant that was hardly Gregorian.  It was a child’s rendition of the holy words, rising in crescendo, at times, just as I believed I’d heard them at church.

At the high point of my delivery, I held the ‘host’ on high, genuflected, as my sister rang the dinner bell I’d conscripted for our use. Next, I turned to her, deposited the “host” in her mouth, and then did the same for me. We both bowed our heads appropriately, digesting the host and the importance of what we did.

My sister and I performed this nightly ritual all through the pre-Christmas season. I was 8 years of age and she was 4.

We performed the ceremonial actions we saw the priests and my brothers perform (as altar boys), in renegade fashion for our church barred girls from participation in the day.  In later years, the Catholic church would allow girls to serve in that capacity, but in our era (the 50’s), it wasn’t possible.

So, my sister and I created our own church, as only children can.

In retrospect, I might have seriously entertained the idea of becoming a priest if that occupation were open to me. Instead, I became a teacher– “doing God’s work,” as some friends describe it.

It would signal the beginning of a lifelong mission.

Paul and I wish all of you a very Merry Christmas and every blessing in this New Year. 

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