Monday, November 23, 2009
#31 – BOMB SHELTER
I return to the block on East 66th where my grandmother had lived. I enter the big church there on the other side of the street from her building. This Catholic church, huge and gothic, that had been patronized by the cooks and maids of people in her circle. So many of the servants Irish, whereas the 66th Street owners tended to trace, or claim, their lineage straight to England. And they would no more enter a Roman Catholic church than use a subway.
I had last known it as the church for my grandmother’s loquacious old servant Evelyn, who seemed to be a white woman, though when she was in the hospital she was visited by relatives who were quite black West Indians.
I walk into this church. It is dark inside, and as cool as stone. It is hardly full but there must be 50 people here, and they are all kneeling. Although this is 1986 there is no sign of what I have read is the modern church. There are no guitars. The priest is not in jeans. He is in full fancy dress. And he is droning on in actual Latin. And then there is silence.
I sit in a pew and try to make myself inconspicuous by kneeling like everyone else. I cannot hold it in the straight up kneeling position of born Catholics, so I relax, half kneeling and half resting on the pew seat. My eyes roam. There are religious paintings in dark places, and it does occur to me that they are hack imitations of something that might have been real long go in Italy. But I do not feel a need to hold on to that thought.
I have the sense that in the silence people are communicating with each other without words. And I don’t need words either. It seems to me that I am connected with these kneeling Catholics in the way people in the war might have felt connected to all with whom they shared a bomb shelter.
I was not in the war. I am not English. I am descended from people who wished they were. But I am walled off from people of my past here. And it as if everyone in the silent church is in on some secret.
Some stand up and leave. Others walk in and take their place. No one appears to have any need to speak. The all know the secret. And I feel that I do too, though I have no logical conception of it. And I am hit by a wave of emotion, glad I am surrounded by these people. For knowing the secret is as dangerous as being alive, in a bomb shelter.