Mind On The Run: “The Alter Boy’s Debut”
“It is better for fact to morph into fiction, than vice versa.” — The author.
(Musical accompaniment: “I Love Paris” by Cole Porter — sung by Ella Fitzgerald.)
One of my convictions as I find myself in the “autumn of the year” is that much of my happiness must be experienced vicariously. A good example would be reliving my parenthood through doting on my grandchild. Our memorable trip to Paris several years ago can only be re-lived by imagining that the city has a local alter ego that can be visited any time we are willing to pack up our bags and drive for a few hours. This offers me an escape from the monotony and mundane considerations of home when my spirit needs a re-fuel.
This was exactly my intention when we visited our musician son at his home on the Delaware River in the mythical city of “New Paris,” or as I also call it “Nouveau Paris.” The twin cities of Lambertville and New Hope straddle the Delaware River at the point of Washington’s Crossing, like the Left Bank and the Right Bank of Paris compress the River Seine. Populated by art galleries, antique shops, and restaurants of all kinds of cuisine, Lambertville is the quiet home of the striving artist, musician, bohemian — much like the real Paris of the days of the Lost Generation in the ’20’s, or like the cultural climate of the hippies in New York’s Greenwich Village in the ’60’s.
With this cultivated reputation, Lambertville sent the devil across the river to New Hope — venue to nightclubs, theaters, and whatever is loud and electrifying. The Moulin Rouge of the Right Bank, namely the New Hope Playhouse, draws the crowds; it is rumored that the basement is a safe harbor for citizens of ill repute.
An old bridge notable for its snail-paced traffic (to accommodate the heavy load of pedestrians, especially tourists) is all the two towns have as a connection — I dubbed it the Pont des Arts, the footbridge in Paris famed for its proliferation of the “locks of love.” The tallest structure (a measly 4-5 stories) in New Paris remains a lonely electrical tower, a loft for the local population of eagles; I ordained this the Eiffel Tower.
We could find only one church with Saturday evening services on our arrival and this small, rather plain structure had to represent the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Although the building was unimpressive by architectural standards, it boasted a voluminous organ and a cantor who my son judged as a professional tenor. Attendance at the mass was so low that we concluded that in five years the building might be transformed into a brewery!
As per protocol, the opening procession was spearheaded by the altar servers, a preadolescent girl and a boy of about six or seven who I imagined to be her brother. The little boy was hardly cherubic; rather, he was quite thin with well-groomed dirty blond hair, eyes so aqua blue that you could almost see the white caps of waves, and a nose resembling a speckled vanilla jelly bean. He bore a solemn, constricted expression as he walked down the aisle, which he maintained for the entire service. His attention to detail was heartwarming. During the homily he sat motionless, framed by the large candle to the right of the altar and the long white cloth overhanging the same side of the altar — a picture of innocence which any art gallery in Lambertville would covet. He appeared to be searching to make eye contact for someone in the body of the church. Was it me? I made the prediction to myself that he was making his debut — serving his first mass in a blaze of silent pride. In contrast to the resounding organ music, he was “the warmest chord I ever heard.”
Shamefully, as the service progressed, pangs of jealousy overcame me. My parents had refused me the opportunity of serving mass, even though I had repeatedly proclaimed that I wanted to someday be a minister. “We have no car.” “We live too far from the church.” I vaguely recalled that I hated them for denying me this, as well as the opportunity to be a boy scout, to take piano lessons, and other falsely perceived deprivations. I remembered my father’s grim edict: “This family is different from others—you must learn to accept the fact that mommy is sick.”
I was envious of the little altar boy—in fact, did I hate him? In the house of God? With the organ playing? In the presence of my family? And the reverend rubbed some salt into my wounds with a public announcement that confirmed my speculation: “Let all of us congratulate John for serving his first mass so wonderfully — we cannot wait until his little brother Alex joins him.” As the little congregation applauded, I tried but failed to celebrate the occasion vicariously. John maintained a stoic, constricted expression in spite of all the applause.
In reconciliation, I felt compelled after mass to congratulate the altar boy. “You did a great job,” I smiled warmly. “Is this your sister?”
“No, she is his cousin,” smiled a delighted woman who was likely, by age, to be his grandmother. I was going to offer to take a cell phone photo of him for a memory, but due to shame and diffidence I thought better of it. Plus, he hardly smiled at my praise, as if he could sense the jealousy within — my desire to jump into his shoes and take his place that day at “Notre Dame.”
(Musical accompaniment: “Little Altar Boy” sung by Andy Williams.)
We all had a relaxing weekend in New Paris. We feasted on black ink squid on Saturday evening, the excretion of which nearly prompted demand for an emergency colonoscopy the following morning. In addition, a little red wine following the squid meal propelled me into a prolonged story-telling yarn about my Italian ancestors — as if dispelling skeletons from an old musty closet as drunken sailors do before departing for a long stint at sea.
As we left New Paris for home on Monday morning, we stopped for breakfast at an all-too-popular outdoor eatery on the outskirts of town.
“Just frozen yogurt for me. I want to get a beat on the traffic,” I moaned with that emptiness which fills the soul on leaving an important place — at least the emptiness had replaced my jealousy.
Dawdling impatiently in the line for food pick-up, my eyes lighted on a poster on a public bulletin board. To my astonishment, the poster highlighted a family photo of none other than the altar boy John and his little brother nestling between their mother and father — the posting dated about two months prior. There was a request for donations and for attendance at a fund-raising spaghetti diner the next weekend, the parents having been killed in a car crash earlier in the summer. The poster went on to say that the parents loved biking and the family was keen on any activities which involved action. The announcement concluded with an entreaty for gifts that would help the boys embark on their new life.
I told no one of my sighting, but merely said a prayer, asking forgiveness from my parents and his. I realized that there was little I myself as an outsider could do, although I wished that I could jump into his shoes on a larger scale than serving mass. Maybe my parents could break through the barriers imposed on us humans in this earthly domain.
The next time I visit New Paris, my heart will be gracious and there will be no doubt on which altar to proclaim my gratitude. John will always be serving and I vicariously will be his co-server.
And over my dead body will they ever turn it into a brewery!