One time when a Roman Catholic priest named Father Eamon O’Gorman had commanded me to be president of the Altar Society, I had a memorable experience, one of those that etches itself on your memory in letters of fire.
Father O’Gorman had been an Army chaplain for years and was bored to distraction with the parish societies and all their works and pomps. He was bored with fund-raisers, with getting the new blacktop for the playground, with bake sales and magazine subscriptions.
The poor old combat infantryman wore his high-topped infantry boots when he said Mass at St. Mary’s Church in Fullerton, and when he whirled from one side of the altar to the other, his cassock would stand out from his ankles and the tea-cozy ladies would all cluck at his lack of dignity on the altar.
He had the dignity of an Alp and did not buy a pair of black kid oxfords because, for the same money, he could bail a couple of his high-spirited itinerant fruit-pickers out of the local pokey, where some of them were apt to languish after too much wine on Saturday night.
When Father O’Gorman met me, he spotted me for a sturdy Irish woman who had made it through Mount St. Mary’s College, and he saw the opportunity to slide the Altar Society on to my shoulders and off his own. I tried to explain to him that I was not even a member and that surely several of the ladies would feel they had earned the office fairly. They had never encountered anyone like Father O’Gorman, who felt that obedience was a worthwhile trait in an infantryman or a parishioner, and never mind the protocol.
So I was president of the Altar Society for that year, including Lent and Easter. During Holy Week preceding Easter, it was the custom in the Catholic Church to cover the statues in purple shrouds to denote the period of mourning at the death of Christ. The shrouds were like large, purple sateen pillow cases, which had to be taken off before the first Mass on Easter.
The right side of the altar at St. Mary’s was the St. Joseph altar, a particular favorite of mine, because I had been taught at school by the St. Joseph of Carondelet nuns and St. Joseph had always been helpful about untying knotty problems.
I was flitting around the altar, whisking off the purple shrouds in my stocking feet when it came St. Joseph’s turn. I climbed up on my kitchen stool and walked sideways with very small steps across the altar until I was right in front of the St. Joseph statue. I took one more step and my right leg dropped its full length into a hole in the altar, leaving the other leg to wave like that of an angry lobster.
In the middle of every altar is an opening that holds the altar stone, where the sacred vessels are placed. Where I had stepped, there was no stone, just the opening about 10 inches square.
Then I realized that the tall altar was not anchored to the floor and was rocking back and forth at an alarming rate. I called for Father O’Gorman in what I tried to make a soft voice, which is hard to do when you are almost cleft in twain like a grouse upon a spit.
I suddenly remembered a line from a hymn I had known all my life. “We wander in a fragile bark o’er life’s tempestuous sea.”
How fragile I had not dreamed until I realized I was about to be crushed by the statue of St. Joseph and his sturdy altar. “Well, St. Joseph dear,” I thought, “if we’re going crashing down together, can I count on some significant help when I reach the heavenly gates?”
Surely, a lady crushed by an altar on Holy Saturday would be credited with at least extenuating circumstances.
Then Father O’Gorman came clumping out of the sacristy in his great shoes, saw my predicament and ran over and steadied the altar. But not before he stood and looked at me quizzically and asked, “Zan, how do you do these things?”
I managed to pull my leg out of the hole in the altar, folded up the sateen shroud and tottered home. I was the only lady in the parish with a black and blue leg from toe to top for Easter Sunday.
Have a wonderful Easter under a sunny sky. We have been promised a pretty Southern California day, with a soft offshore breeze barely enough to ripple the Easter Bunny’s fur.
I hope everyone finds his basket, that the ham is crackling and savory and that the kids find at least most of the hidden hard-boiled eggs. Enjoy, and I’ll tell you Patsy’s secret for mimosas if you won’t tell anyone.
Put the orange juice and a few packets of Equal in the blender and add a couple of tablespoons of dehydrated low-fat milk. Whisk it all around until it’s frothy. Then pour half a glass of the mixture into a stemmed wine glass or a tulip and top it off with half a glass of champagne. The color is like the first whisper of Easter dawn, the color of the inside of new peach, and the taste is like a whipped cloud.