Say “Uncle”

Tomorrow I will head “up north” to attend the funeral of my dad’s oldest friend, my brother’s godfather, “Uncle John.” They’d been buddies since the first grade.

Uncle John was one of only two people whom we called “uncle” although they were not blood relatives. The other is my godfather. I can only guess that this is because my dad considered both of them to be as close as brothers to him.

When I think of Uncle John, I think of laughter. He found joy in the simple things–his family, his friends, a backyard picnic, a funny joke, a childhood memory that he’d spin into a story that would leave everyone in tears from laughing so hard.

kuvaszWhenever Uncle John told a story, you were never quite sure if he was serious. On a whim yesterday, I looked up a dog breed that he’d frequently referenced. I don’t know why he talked about this type of dog so much; maybe he just found it fun to say. But in the back of my mind, I always thought that he’d made it up. Turns out that the Kuvasz really does exist. That makes me smile.

Uncle John had the biggest heart of anyone I know. I’m sure that Aunt Mary, and his children and grandchildren have a huge treasure of happy memories of Uncle John. I’m sure that most of them involve lots of laughter. I pray that these happy memories will console them in their grief. Uncle John was one of a kind, and I am blessed that my dad knew him as a friend and an honorary brother.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

Celebrating the Faithful Departed

Tomorrow is the feast of All Souls.

On this day is observed the commemoration of the faithful departed, in which our common and pious Mother the Church, immediately after having endeavored to celebrate by worthy praise all her children who already rejoice in heaven, strives to aid by her powerful intercession with Christ, her Lord and Spouse, all those who still groan in Purgatory, so that they may join as soon as possible the inhabitants of the heavenly city.” — Roman Martyrology

I’ll be in church tomorrow–but for a funeral. I’ll be honoring one of our parish’s Faithful Departed. Her name is Helen, and she passed away Sunday morning after a long illness.

I met Helen when Big Brother was 4 or 5, and I was working at the school’s Bingo. She and I worked in the Bingo kitchen together, every 5th week. I’m sure she had well over 40 years on any of the parents in that kitchen, but she worked circles around all of us. If there was a break in the action of selling coffee, tea and hot dogs with sauerkraut, she’d get out some Brillo and start scrubbing the 9-burner industrial stove. That thing got a good cleaning once every 5 weeks thanks to Helen.

At the church carnival, Helen was a fixture in the Polish kitchen, dishing up pierogi, kielbasa, and other favorites. Again, she never stopped moving. She taught half the parish how to pinch pierogi.

Her hard work wasn’t limited to kitchen duty, either. After Mass, Helen would tend to the flower arrangements and make sure that nothing in there was wilted or drooped. She was on the Monday-Morning Pew-Cleaning Crew, and she scrubbed those just as hard as she did that kitchen stove.

I enjoyed working at Bingo with Helen. While we scrubbed the stove and filled the coffee urn, she would tell me stories about raising her young family, about growing up in rural Pennsylvania, and about what the town was like 50 years ago. Every time we worked together, she would tell me about her annual trips to visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa.

Helen is one of the Faithful Departed now. So it is very fitting that her funeral will be held on All Souls Day.

Tomorrow I will pray, for Helen and for all the Faithful Departed:
Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon her. May her soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

Syrian Cheese and Watermelon

The Kitchen Madonna’s watermelon salad recipes made me remember this from my childhood:

Every summer there would be a Big Family Picnic at the Harrington house. Of course, everyone would bring their special favorites and signature dishes. Nanny would bring potato salad, Catherine would bring macaroni salad with tuna, Leo would bring some beefsteak–to be sauteed in butter and served on slices of bread, and there were plenty of other picnic favorites as well. There was always a big watermelon on ice, waiting for someone to slice it open after dinner–and we kids would line up for our juicy, sweet slices of melon.

A new favorite was introduced into the mix when my aunt Eileen married a guy whose parents were born in Syria. Louie brought Syrian “string cheese” to the picnic. Some of my cousins had never seen Syrian cheese before the picnic, and they weren’t sure what to make of it.

“How do you eat this?” they asked Louie, who was shredding the cheese into a big bowl.

“Go get a slice of watermelon,” he instructed them. After they’d done that, he said, “Now poke out all the pits with your finger. See how that leaves holes in the watermelon? Now stick these shreds of cheese in the holes, and just eat it.”

He was teasing them, but they had no clue. All of us kids tried it. All of us loved it! The salty cheese, the sweet watermelon–they were perfect together.

And I’m sure you’ve all guessed now what will be on my shopping list for next week. (I can’t get Syrian cheese around here, but Armenian cheese is pretty close and readily available).

Saying Goodbye, in Pictures and a Recipe

My great-aunt Anna has made an agreement with a buyer and will likely sell her house before the end of the summer. She’s lived alone in this house for almost four years now, and has recovered from a stroke and knee surgery in the past two years. She’s moving to an apartment in a retirement community and won’t have to worry about maintenance and safety. I pray that she’ll have many happy, healthy years there.

The places where you spend your childhood stay with you for a long time. This is the last house that I associate with the days when I was under 10; both my grandmothers have passed away and their homes have been sold, and my parents moved out of our childhood home four years ago. They are just houses, but they hold many memories for me.

I spent a large, happy chunk of my childhood in this house. When we were kids, every Saturday morning we’d come here after my sister’s allergy shot. We’d visit with Grandpa (our great-grandfather), our great-uncle James, and our great-aunts Rose and Anna. Rose would be finishing up the vacuuming when we got there. Anna would make pancakes if it was early, or tuna-fish sandwiches if it was closer to lunchtime. We’d hang out in the family room playing “Trouble” and watching “Scooby Doo,” “Josie and the Pussycats,” and “The Jetsons.” Grandpa would tell us stories and teach us to sing “Goodbye My Coney Island Baby” and the refrain to “Marching through Georgia.” He’s the reason I still love to hear barbershop quartets.

On nice days, we’d play in the backyard under the big pine trees. Every summer there would be a big family picnic back here. The volleyball net would stretch from the edge of the trees to the patio. Picnic tables were under the trees, in the shade.

We figured out that you could write your name, or messages, in the pile on the living room carpet. Rose never liked when we did that, but we did it anyway. Sometimes we’d vault over the back of the sofa into the dining room. We’d look at the big picture of an autumn scene that always hung over the back of the couch. There was a little organ tucked near the stairs and we’d pick out some tunes on it. I always liked practicing my beginner’s piano lesson on that organ.

In this kitchen, there was always something cold for kids to drink, in an Archie glass. No plastic cups in this house–we used glasses and never broke one. (If Anna ever decides to give away those glasses, you can bet there will be at least five nieces and nephews fighting over them). In this kitchen, we learned to sing “Zippity-Doo-Dah” and other happy songs. In this kitchen, Anna made her famous vegetable soup and fabulous Thanksgiving dinners. Only real butter was served, and it was always soft because it was never put in the refrigerator. I think they went through a stick of butter in less than a day, so it didn’t have time to go bad!

Here’s the recipe for Harrington Tuna, otherwise known as Nostalgia on a Plate:
1 can solid white tuna
Miracle whip
Soft butter
Wonder bread

Mix tuna with miracle whip. Spread softened butter generously on two slices of bread. Add tuna and cut on the diagonal.

After lunch you can have two Hydrox cookies for dessert. Don’t fight with your brother and sister over who gets the Jughead glass. There are enough Archie glasses to go around.

Good times.