For Tuyet, Katrina, KaSandra, and Luc
Massachusetts, 18 February 1973
Boston could be harsh, not Buffalo harsh, but harsh enough to make you dream about sailing the Caribbean on a 48 foot Catamaran with a freezer full of ice cream sandwiches and a fridge full of cold ones, Rolling Rock preferably. Now that I think about it, that dream had been one of my favorites back in the , a recurring one as a matter of fact, only then I was trying to escape the heat. I shook my head to clear my mind and continued to check my look in the vanity mirror. I had been killing some time in the small groom’s chambers, admiring my stiff new collar, while I waited for everyone to arrive. Nam
These sorts of occasions were typically without ceremony, but my mother would have none of that. She had convinced (some might say coerced) Father McKenzie that a proper blessing was needed before I left home to begin my internship at Saint John’s Cathedral in Fresno California. He capitulated of course, and she took it from there, planning this small gathering of several dozen humans, mostly family and close friends. I smiled to myself as I remembered that day a week ago last. The good Father sat at our kitchen table drinking tea with milk, reading the details of Mother’s little event. As he held out his cup for a refill, he said to mother, “Can you do nothing on a small scale Margaret Mary?”
“The saints preserve us, next you’ll be asking me to invite the Bishop himself to preside over the send off you’re arranging for young Ethan.”
“Don’t be giving her any ideas now Father, don’t be giving her any ideas,” I said to him. Mother poured more tea into our parish priest’s cup and stuck her tongue out at me. Now that was a Kodak moment, and as you can see I did manage to record it for posterity. Meanwhile, back at the ranch I looked at my watch, it was nearly time to get this little party started. I peeked out of the door and surveyed the room, knowing that we were still missing an important guest, one whom I would not want to start without. So, I returned to my chair and sat back down. I didn’t actually need to look for him, if he were here I’d have heard him by now, we all would have. The man did not speak so much as he bellowed, and he had never in his life successfully sneaked into a room. My big friend was like a goofy footed puppy on a freshly waxed floor, nobody would miss his entrance! I looked at my watch again and decided I would stall as long as I could, he would be here soon, I knew that we could count on him, we always had.
Paul Pulchoski lifted the collar of his P-coat and pulled it close around his neck, the bitter cold cutting through all the layers of clothing that he was wearing. He still loved that old P-coat, even though he had been out of the Navy for over a year now. It wasn’t the most practical of accoutrements but its sentimental value was high, as was his tolerance for pain. He stopped for a second to stamp his feet and see if he could hasten the circulation to his extremities. As usual, he was running just a little late, and to make matters worse, he had had to walk almost the entire way from Flynn’s Tavern on Beacon Street, all the way over to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Dartmouth Street. It seemed that last night’s record snowfall had made the roads unsafe for man or beast, much less automobiles. His slightly labored exhales billowed up in front of his rosy-cheeked face in great clouds as he stopped to catch his breath and check the time on his wristwatch. He could still make it he thought, but he’d have to cover the next couple of blocks in less than 15 minutes.
“Damn it Paulie, you’re gonna have to haul ass,” he said to himself encouragingly.
“Lofty goal,” he thought out loud.
“That's fast even for Kenny Wong, that skinny rat bastard,” he continued, finishing his thought. Paul smiled to himself contemplating the pun, and then resumed his race pace. Yeah, he’d make it all right he was highly motivated, after all this was a big day in his best friend’s life. How often does someone get ordained as a priest in the Holy Roman Catholic Church anyways? Well, not exactly ordained yet, I was only a year into St. John’s Seminary in Brighton since my graduation from Holy Cross University. Now it was time to begin my novice internship serving a neighborhood parish. The road to priesthood would take another couple of years before my actual vows. I remember explaining the whole process to Paul and Kenny one afternoon while the three of us shot hoops in Kenny’s parent’s backyard.
“It’s sorta like being Jim Reed on Adam 12,” I said referencing a popular TV show from when we were kids.
“I’m like this rookie cop, on probation see,” I explained.
“Sure, I get the uniform, the gun, the shield, you know, only it’s a hassock, a collar, and a Bible. And, then I have to ride along with a veteran, like Malloy, and he makes sure I don’t make any dumb bunny mistakes in the course of doing my duty. Then he grades me see, and if I hack it on the streets, then I get to swear in as a member of the force, get it?” I finished, searching their expressions for a sign that they understood. I was met with blank stares and slow nods, and was about to try a different tack when Kenny’s Mom appeared with a tray of food and lemonade. Boy was I relieved to see her, because the only other example I could think of was ‘The Mod Squad’ and that would have meant that one of us would have to have been Julie. And since Paul and Ken could both pound me, that plum role would have fallen to moi! Oh, and speaking of food, I always loved eating at Ken’s house. I never knew what we were going to have next it was all so exotic and new to me.
Now Paulie would push whatever was served around on his plate, test smelling the food and nibbling at the edges, where I would just leap right in and go for broke. Once he was convinced I wasn’t going to die, he would join the feeding frenzy, old man Wong leading the charge, his chopsticks like deadly weapons in the hands of a Kung Fu master! No sir, Kenny’s mother never disappointed us with any meal, they were always top shelf, even if we couldn’t pronounce their proper names. Ken and I would laugh until our stomachs hurt watching his Mom squish Paul’s cheeks together with her tiny hands trying to help him with the difficult diphthongs. He reminded us of Chumley the Walrus from the Tennessee Tuxedo cartoon show.
Paul checked his watch as he ran, well, trotted, OK, OK, as he walked really, really fast. Surprisingly, he was making pretty good time, he could have even slowed down a bit without a risk of slipping his schedule, but he didn’t. He knew if he was even one second late, my mother would box his ears for sure, no doubt that was the real motivation here! He finally arrived at his destination, slightly winded but none worse for the wear. He had covered the distance in twelve minutes flat, an accomplishment that would be shared repeatedly during the reception afterward, “this should be good for at least a pint or two,” he whispered to himself, panting slightly. Paul held onto the rail at the base of the stairs and looked up to the arched entrance. He walked up the steep steps to the old cathedral and opened the huge wooden door. It creaked loudly as the hinges struggled with the weather and the enormous weight. Whatever lubrication may have existed had frozen over a long time ago.
“So much for sneaking in at the last minute,” he said, closing the door as quickly as he could. The foyer and receiving hall was packed with people, all of them friends, family, and colleagues of one Ethan Matthew Kelly, who, by day’s end, would be forever known around here simply as Father Kelly.
“Stealth as ever Paulie, smooth buddy, smooooooth,” Kenny Wong taunted from across the room, shifting his three-year-old daughter from his right arm to his left. She was so cute, dressed in her white chiffon Sunday school dress with the pink lace and the little matching hat and gloves. You’d never guess the kind of world-class profanity that sweet innocent child was capable of delivering.
“Shhhhh, you don’t have to shout Ken, she’ll hear you ya know!”
“Yeah well, then I’ve got some bad news for you,” Kenny said grinning. He raised his free hand to his face, slowly extending his index finger along side his right eye, and pointing to the small figure standing behind Paul.
“OH man!” Paul whined, turning around slowly to face the music.
And there she was, Margaret Mary Kelly, all five-feet-two inches of her (in heels no less), standing just behind the uncomfortable center of attention. Her two fists were planted firmly at the waist of her smart navy blue suit, and she cast a glare at Paul that could curdle milk!
“OH, we all heard you Paul Michael Pulchoski! You weren’t hard to miss, barreling through those two great doors dere! Now, what have you to say for yourself boy,” demanded Maggie Kelly.
Paul began to stammer out a reply but my mother cut him off sharply.
“Come on now, out with it!”
“Yeah Uncle Paulie, out wit it you wiener,” a tiny voice scolded in the background.
Paul didn’t have to look back to see who’s voice it was, he knew it was Kenny’s little girl Sophia. He watched the child’s mother swat her husband on his powerful bicep, and then reach for her daughter.
“Sophie, that’s not nice baby, no potty mouths allowed in God’s house! Come on honey, let me have her,” Kenny’s wife Carolyn said, coming to Paul’s rescue before her precious little chatterbox could really start in on him!
“Ow, I didn’t say anything,” Kenny said chuckling, mock flinching slightly. He handed the child to his better half, and they smiled at one another knowingly. They never encouraged her misbehavior in fact they were really good at lovingly disciplining her with time outs whenever she got out of line. The two of them were textbook terrific parents. But, occasionally, Sophie’s timing and delivery were just too funny to ignore. Carolyn once confided in me and said that sometimes she would have to duck into a closet and bury her face in a coat to mute her laughter, after sitting Sophie in the corner as discipline for similar verbal infractions. Enjoying their daughter’s natural comedic timing was a secret vice that they shared between them, harmless really, probably not even a real sin, I’d have to check on that sometime. They had a great marriage too, even though most people around here would have bet big money against it. Their beginning was truly a clash of cultures, and I shamefully take pride in the fact that it was me who brought them together in the first place.
I had known Carolyn Haughtner since we were five years old. Her family had been neighbors of my Uncle Liam when he had first settled in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Amish country. She and her four brothers (two sets of twins) would come and play with all the Kelly clan at our family gatherings and we became good friends over the years. She was a lot like Kenny in many ways. They were both the eldest children in their families, and they instinctively accepted the role of shepherding the younger kids. They were loving and respectful of their parents, but they were fiercely independent as well, almost to a fault at times. Not pig headed mind you, but to say they disliked losing at anything would be a gross understatement. If I had a nickel for every time Kenny came close to pounding me for not taking some game seriously enough, I could have paid my way to Rome to visit the Holy Father at the Vatican! Well now, at some point during the years when we were all growing up together, I got the notion that the two of them should meet. I don’t know when or why, maybe it came to me in a dream, it really doesn’t matter, I can’t remember anyway. The fact is for whatever reason I managed to badger my Da into letting me bring Ken along with us one summer, to the annual Kelly gathering at Uncle Liam’s. And it was there that the future couple first met. On the surface, they were polite enough to one another, showing just the right amount of disinterest.
But just beneath the surface you’d swear that you could feel something in the air, like when you stood next to a power line. It was electric, like two magnets moving quickly across a table toward one another. It was the way she would look away whenever he caught her watching him. It was the uncharacteristic boldness of my normally shy and reserved friend, as he blatantly sought out reasons to be near her. It was what it must be like to witness the miracle of life, watching the cells divide and grow into something wonderful, only in this case, it was moment begetting moment. It was the fulfillment of a promise, bringing together two halves to make a whole. It was quite simply God’s commitment to deliver our heart’s desire. This one and that one, opposite yet the same, designed to fit together, one half completing the other, their differences being the real strength of their bond. It was so natural it seemed unnatural, and they almost missed it entirely, because as strongly as they were drawn to one another, their families seemed to repel one another. The parents were too firmly rooted in long practiced traditions and beliefs to allow their children to break from the mold and fall in love with one another.
Their cultures did not encourage, much less allow for change or compromise. And, in their defense, they were only trying to do what they thought was best for their babies. But in the end, after lots of prayer I might add, it was love that overcame the fear of spoiling the bloodlines. The same love that compelled these parents to circle their wagons so to speak, and protect their selfishly close-minded sensibilities, eventually took on a different shape. The same love that was all about honor, tradition, and logical acceptance of the way things are, slowly changed and became more about acceptance and understanding. Because love isn’t logical, it’s magical, and when Ken’s mother saw how genuinely happy this foreign girl made her son, how Carolyn seemed to bring out the very best in him, then the changes in attitudes started. The barriers began to come down, brick by brick, row by row. It was a beautiful thing to watch a grand merging of cultures it was.
Luckily they had the English language in common, because I suspect it might have taken considerably longer to get the parents together if they had to bridge the culture gaps in Chinese and German! I remembered giving them the little poem that I wrote describing their epic courtship. It was shortly after I had come home from my tour of duty, the day before their wedding actually. If I remember right it had been a left-handed parody of Allan Sherman’s ode to summer camp, and I had entitled it, pseudo-intellectually of course “When east, meets west.” I know, I know, its crap, but it seemed clever at the time. I must have written it during a bout with malaria, or during a mortar attack, or after one of Lieutenant Arron Walker’s prized Havana cigars (those always made me light-headed). In any event, I was obviously working a few cards short of a full deck when I penned this. I think it sort of went a little like this…
“Hello mudda, hello fadda
Look I brung you, a new dotta
She’s a white chick, but no loser
No I didn’t meet her at some college boozer”
Not exactly Shelly or Keats, and it kind of got a lot cornier as it went along, but my heart was in the right place I think. Besides, as I recall, Carolyn kissed me for it, Ken socked me for it, and the three of us decided it would be better kept just between us. Oh yeah, we also decided that I was pretty much the nerd of the century. Well, so much for any literary aspirations I may have had, cest la vie!
“That’s pretty low Kenny, teaching Sophie to dis me like that, I’m hurt man!”
“It's not me, you know that Shannon teaches her all that sassy stuff whenever she baby-sits!”
“Ahrrgg, you two are impossible, I’m going to get Sophie some punch,” Carolyn Wong said, turning quickly on her heels and heading toward the refreshment table in the hall.
“Now you’ve gone and done it,” Kenny snapped at Paul.
Before Paulie could fire off another quip at Kenny, my mother reached up and got hold of his ear.
“Will you be ignoring me in God’s own house Mr. Pulchoski? I may be a wee girl but I can still pack quite a wallop mister,” mother said in a harsh but playful whisper. I watched and listened to all of the commotion with sinful glee, peering out of the crack in the slightly ajar door that separated the groom’s chambers from the Church’s large foyer. I couldn’t help snickering to myself as I watched my friends deal with their predicament, “better you than me,” I whispered to myself, covering my mouth with both hands to mute my chuckling. My sinful delight in their suffering was dealt with swiftly when the door opened quickly into my face and I received an eyeful of heavily enameled wood.
“Oww, what the…”
“Careful Peepers remember where you are brother dear,” my sister Shannon said sweetly but obviously sarcastically.
“Father Mac sent me to fetch you so that we can get this over with and onto the party!”
I looked at her with one eye closed in an exaggerated wink, my head tilted slightly, vigorously rubbing my sore eye, and answered back, “Aye, what?” Even with only one eye working, I couldn’t help but notice how beautiful my little sister had become. She was almost sixteen now and she grew to look more and more like those pictures of our mother when she was young, the ones of her and Da when they were courting. Shannon had mother’s lovely figure and beautiful auburn hair, and she had inherited a little of Da’s height, so at five feet eight and in her modest heels, she appeared statuesque, positively regal.
“I’ll be along in a minute girl, just tell Father Mac that I need to get a little more comfortable with this collar,” I said running my fingers across the new addition to my wardrobe. Shannon walked over to me, wet her fingers and pushed the hair out of my eyes, then took a look at where the door had hit me.
“Ah Ethan, let me put a little make-up on that eye,” she said reaching into her handbag for her compact.
“We can’t have you standing up to be blessed in front of God and the Church with a big old shiner like that now can we?” Reaching up I touched my sore eye, and I didn’t need to look to know that she was right of course. But make-up, on my face, Lord above, that had to be at least a venal sin, I just prayed that neither Paul nor Kenny walked in at this moment!
“Alright girl, do your business, but be quick about it, the walls have eyes and ears ya know!” We both chuckled at the situation and Shannon applied the paste expeditiously but gently.
“There, good as new, I’ll tell Father that you’ll be out in a minute,” she said. Turning to leave she stopped after a couple of steps. She spun around and looked at me, her gloved hands clasped in front of her face, her eyes beginning to glisten. She walked quickly over to me and hugged me like she had the day I went away to Viet Nam. We stood there holding each other for a moment, then she stepped back and struck a real grown up pose, her arms folded in front of her.
“I’m so proud of you Ethan. Mother’s proud of you too. And you know Da’s watching now as well. He’s up dere, telling Jesus himself what a great kid he made, and that if it hadn’t been for the calling, you’d have been the next Whitey Ford!” I just stared back at her, I didn’t have the right words to fit the moment so I tried to say it all with my look.
“Now you promise me that no matter what, you’ll be here when my wedding day comes. I’ll not have anyone else say the words and give me away, do you promise?”
“I promise Shannon, I will.”
“Pinky swear,” she added, as she held out her hand with her littlest finger extended. I walked over to her and we hooked our pinky fingers together.
“One two three, this I swear to thee,” we said together, quickly pulling our hands back. “Now go on, I’ll be right out,” I said to her.
Shannon blew me a little kiss and walked out of the room. I went to the door and closed it gently behind her, then walked over to the vanity. Leaning forward I placed my palms onto the table and looked at my reflection closely in the mirror. The make-up my attentive little sister had applied was hardly noticeable and that was a relief that made me smile. I stared into the mirror, and looking back at me was a man, someone that I had only just begun to know. I could see in his eyes the memories of someone who had lived beyond his years. I could see incredible happiness and equally incredible sorrows. There were issues yet to deal with, things to set right, hearts to heal, much to learn, and the challenge of the unknown in front of him. I was actually taking the next step toward a calling that I was sure was real, but of which I was totally uncertain. I closed my eyes and the movie in my head started again, “The Ethan Kelly Story.” And I let it run for a few seconds, the memories as vivid as the days that they were initially experienced. I could feel my face smile, smirk, and then frown. My eyes became moist and then dry again as the short story played on in my mind. The last few frames that I watched were a replay of the day Pfc. Mitchell Rojas died. When it was over, I opened my eyes slowly.
The man in the mirror was looking back at me knowingly. I stood up straight and reached into my coat pocket and pulled out the envelope. Removing the letter from inside, I unfolded the pages and scanned the words that I had read a dozen times since receiving it. They were words of pain and praise, of love and bitterness, of anguish and hope. It was those last words of hope that compelled me to seek out the author and do what I could to ease the pain. This letter had reminded me of a promise I had made on the other side of the world to a man that I hardly knew. I folded the pages and returned them to the envelope and then put it back into my coat pocket. I looked in the mirror again and the man was smiling at me, it had taken me five years to answer this letter. “A promise is a promise,” I said to the man, to myself, and I turned to join the others. I reached the door, turned the knob and opened it. The whole room turned to face me as I walked into the foyer and I swallowed hard, and smiled, quite embarrassed as they applauded.
“It’s about time Ethan, I mean Father Kelly, we were about to send out a search party,” Paulie said to me beaming, happy to see me but more happy to be rescued from mother’s wrath.
“It’s a little early for the Father reference Paulie,” I said, although I had to admit, it sounded good, comfortable, just like Paul’s P-coat!
“Ah, so what are we supposed to call you then, rookie?” he said laughing.
“Hey, wait a minute! Is that make-up on your face?”
I ignored the comment out of self-defense and quickly looked down to find Sophie Wong standing next to me, holding onto my pinky finger. She held a Dixie cup filled with fruit punch in her other hand and together we walked toward the Church and the start of chapter one in my new life as Father Kelly…