Essay

Where is thy sting?

By January 10, 2020 5 Comments

In another day and another time, the buildings crowded on the block made all kinds of sense. The school’s own precious history makes clear that once upon a time the staff was entirely religious: “The Sisters of St. Francis of Dubuque arrived the next year [1888] and had primary responsibility for the education of parish children through the 1950’s – with as many as 24 sisters serving at one time.” The sisters are long gone, but an admirable convent is still there, no more than a block away.

I’m sure that way-back-when, no one thought twice about crowding buildings. Determining that the school would occupy the very same block as the church never raised an eyebrow. Made good economic sense. Created community.

I’d never been there before–been to the town but never to the church. I wanted in because I wanted to see–and photograph–an icon, a religious statue, a carving its people are rightly proud of. But when I drove up–from miles away–that wonderful tower is impossible to miss–a perfect row of cars stood all the way around the church. Had to be a funeral. 

It was close to noon. I had other places to go and times to get there. I thought about stopping later, on my way home, but I gambled, thinking what I thought to be a funeral would be over soon. I drove around town for ten minutes, no more, headed back and saw cars backing out onto streets. Bells tolled. Some of those cars lined up right there in front of school, lights on, in a January processional that would lead to the graveyard south of town. 

That old school looks formidable, doesn’t it?–so very early-20th century. I don’t know its age; the school’s website, like most people I know, chooses not to bring it up. It’s a proud old building with a proud tradition, I’m sure, in an old Iowa town and region chock-full of Catholics. 

The thing is, that old school doesn’t appear to have much for a playground but the apron of grass–and snow–that is the wide front yard of the church. When the funeral was over, the kids–lots of them and all of them little–were at recess. Once I pulled into an open parking space and waited for funeral-goers to step warily down the church’s front steps, there I sat, as if at a pageant. I couldn’t help thinking what I was witnessing was an unlikely juxtaposition of nothing less than life and death. 

Fourth-grade boys were passing a football out there in that snow, playing some kind of keep-away, that ball squirting out of their hands time and time again, getting wet and cold in a way I remembered sixty years ago myself. All around them and even though them, old men and women made their stuttering way to parked cars and the solemn processional that would lead to the cemetery.

All those kids yelling and laughing, passing a football amid tolling bells–football and funeral. I googled the name of the funeral home. The deceased was a woman, 82 years old, who’d done the books for her husband’s construction outfit. The obit makes clear what is always true–she will be missed.

What I couldn’t help but see in front of me was no still life, the town around me no longer just a town but a community formed in a circle of life. 

I’ve seen ancient faces light up an old folks home when some darling two-year-old marches by munching a cookie. I know the radiant appeal of childhood to those farthest beyond. 

And I shouldn’t speak for the deceased. I never knew her, but I can’t help believing that if she had any sense at all of the joyful play of all those children at recess at the very moment her mortal coil was bound to mother earth, her soul couldn’t help but smile. 

I waited a couple minutes. Watched it happen. Then walked up those steps and into the church. It was beautiful, still decorated for Christmas.

Remsen (IA) St. Mary’s

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

5 Comments

  • Mary VanderVennen says:

    A lovely picture of community! Reminds me of the old Anglican burial service: “In the midst of death we are in life”. But the converse is also true: “In the midst of life we are in death.” Thanks for your reflection, as well as the beautiful photo.

  • Eleanor Lamsma says:

    Thanks for this, Jim. These are very poignant words. It brought me back to the year 2000 when my 92-year-old mom passed away. Just two days before she passed away, my first grandchild was born. They shared this earth for such a short time. A reminder of birth and death in my own family. Our God is a God of the generations – “Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations.”

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Oh man, you did it again. Thanks so much.

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