When I was a child November was a haunted month. It began in the trembling dark on the night that the doors were open between the worlds of the living and the dead, in the ancient Irish tradition of Samhain. Though we were proudly and adamantly American, there was enough of the old country left in our family that we would light a fire in the fireplace, the first blaze of the winter season, and my grandmother would set places at the table for our dead relatives. I remember peering into the dining room, when my brothers and I were very young, eager to be terrified by the spirits of our burly great-grandfathers, who had come across the sea as lean hungry boys with the dark narrow faces of hawks.
On the morning of November 1 we would go to Mass, it being All Saints’ Day in the Catholic tradition, and while formally we would pray for all the saints known and unknown, there being many more of the latter, quietly we would also pray for Ireland, at our grandmother’s whispered instruction, that someday She be wholly free and restored to integrity as the proud land She was before the savage lawless conqueror came, from a neighboring island, to which, the Lord be praised, he would someday again retreat, his arrogance shattered, his pride tattered, and his empire reduced to naught but bloody memory, forever and ever, amen.
We would also go to Mass the next day, November 2, it being All Souls’ Day, or mop-up day, as our father called it, All Souls’ Day being when we prayed for all souls living and dead, which included, of course, all the saints known and unknown for whom we had prayed, and whose intercession we had so earnestly requested, only the day before. You have to admire the meticulous thoroughness of our faith, as our dad said. It’s not every religion that gathers a billion prayers for all people living and dead in the space of two days.
When I was seven years old, in second grade, we added another November day of prayer to the family calendar, November 22; on that day, when I was seven, the whole family went to our church in the evening, before dinner, and though no Mass was scheduled or celebrated, a prayer service was held, and the church was crammed, and many people were weeping, including the youngest of the three priests who led the rosary. I remember marveling at the tidal chant of the rosary, back and forth between the jammed pews, one side offering the first half of the Hail Mary and the other side finishing it, and it seemed to me this went on for hours, although surely it was not hours. At some point the chanting ended and all you could hear in the throbbing quiet was a few people sobbing, and then we all filed out silently and drove home. Dinner was also quiet, and then we did homework and went to bed without watching television. I remember the next school day there was a rosary said at noon in the auditorium for the murdered young President of the United States. All of the school was there except one of the nuns who, it was said, was so prostrate with grief that she could not rise from her bed. She was the geography teacher for the upper two grades, seventh and eighth, and her classes were covered by another nun, the mathematics teacher. My sister was in the seventh-grade class and she told me later that instead of teaching math or geography the nun covering for her colleague just put her head down on the teacher’s desk and wept for almost the whole period. No one in our class said anything, said my sister, and a few of the girls cried too, and we were all stunned and frightened, and then finally the bell rang for the end of school, and we went home, and a few of us touched Sister’s shoulder as we went past.
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