by Frank Reilly
“Here, you’re next.” I was whispering to the boy behind me. I was attempting to hand him the blessing device used for the holy water. He refused it and started to cry.
I was institutionalized, because of polio, for 11 years as a child, along with my sister, Rita, who remained there for 13 years. Many events occurred. However, this event is rather burned in my memory. I had been ordered to attend several funerals of boys and girls who died while I was in the institution. Whether they died from operations, or other reasons, I don’t know. However, I hated funerals and all things connected with them. I had seen too many during my time there. Attending a funeral of any kind was dubbed by the nuns as “paying your respect.” Too often, in the past, I had paid my respect.
We had a “handyman” who worked for the hospital. His name was Mr. Hoffmann. He appeared to be everywhere performing various jobs. He drove the very old Graham Brothers ambulance, which we all called, “The G-Boy.” He graded the dirt in the boys’ yard. He tended the well system in the back of the large vegetable garden we had there.
He owned a dog in a fenced area in the boys’ yard. I hated this dog. Being a persistent dreamer, my mind would be elsewhere than at the institution. I would start to walk up those old cement steps leading from the boys’ yard when this dog would viciously attack the chicken wire fencing and bark at me with fangs showing. On more than one occasion, he caught me by surprise and scared me to no end. I was always afraid he would someday break through the chicken wire fencing, and I would be in a great deal of trouble. Therefore, I developed a dislike, bordering on hate, for this dog. Yet, I had seen Mr. Hoffman within the chicken wire enclosure feeding the dog. I thought him to be a very brave individual.
Mr. Hoffman lived in a small bungalow, a gray and blue structure, located at the rear of the girls’ yard. His spouse and mother resided there as well. He spoke with a very noticeable German accent. He was always most pleasant to all of us, bidding us “Good Day,” or “Guten Tag.”
On one occasion, when I was keeping a good distance from the barking dog, he suddenly appeared within the enclosure. He said to me, in that German accent, “No be ‘fraid. He no hurt you.” Then he admonished the dog, loudly, saying, “Stop dat! He gut boy.” Instantly, the dog would sit, or lie down. Yet, when Mr. Hoffman was nowhere to be found, that dog would attempt to get at me, and some of the other boys, through that thin chicken wire fencing. I thought the dog to very devious, and disliked him intensely. Over the years, I noticed that the dog would bark at me less and less, and not attack the fencing as before. One evening, late in the year, when it started to become dark early, I was in the eighth grade classroom. My seat was close to the window. I happened to look out early that evening, and saw Mr. Hoffmann leading this dog on a leash across the long wide lawn we had there. Under his other arm he was carrying a shotgun, or a rifle. The next day I was told that Mr. Hoffmann had to shoot the dog to put him out of his “misery.” I was not sorry. This may seem callous, but I felt the dog never liked me, and I did not miss him. I sincerely hoped that we would not have to go and “pay our respect” to Blackie.
All seemed to be going well at the institution. No one had died. None had gone through any operations. We were just a bunch of cripples happily going through our daily routines of eating, school, swimming in the pool, church, and all the other things associated with being an inmate there, when disaster struck.
We were notified the following news one fine warm summer day, by Sister Thomas, while attending class. “Mr. Hoffman’s mother has passed away, and you will all go in groups to pay your respect.” The thought of another funeral frightened me, and I would have gladly dreamed up any excuse not to go. However, I was not that lucky. I, along with the other boys, would have to make that trek down to that bungalow. It was, again, time to “pay our respect.”
Except for myself, I don’t think any of the boys had ever been in the girls’ play yard. I used to go there to visit my sister, Rita, almost daily. But, I had never been in that small bungalow. The concept of seeing another dead person filled me with dread. I was afraid of the nightmares that usually followed. However, I did not have any idea of what was about to happen.
We were assembled in groups from our classes. Sister Thomas, who was both the Principal, as well as the seventh and eighth grade teacher, decided how large the group would be. Due to very small rooms in that bungalow, she came to the conclusion that six at one time was maximum. We were told to put on our best clothes, make sure our hands and face were clean, and assemble at the head of the girls’ yard. When all six were assembled, we started the walk down into the girls’ yard, and toward the bungalow.
The doorway was quite small. This allowed only three boys at one time to enter. When entering the very small vestibule, immediately to the left was the casket. It was positioned against the wall. (How they got it in there is still a mystery to me.) Directly in front of the casket was a small red velvet stool for kneeling in prayer. Being an altar boy, I recognized it as one from the Chapel. Also, in front of the casket, just to the right of the stool, was a small, tall, table containing a crystal dish. There was some water in the dish. There was also a device that looked like a small blessing tool used by the priests. This one had a black handle and a small silver round bulb at the end. This silver colored bulb had miniature holes, and I believe it contained a very small sponge. I had never seen a casket before. From my vantage point, I could see the very white satin completely surrounding the casket, and this satin was even in the lid. Just a short distance away, Mr. Hoffman was seated at a table with two other people, all of whom were deep in prayer. It was deadly quiet. It seemed quite fitting for a wake.
The plan, as laid out by Sister Thomas was as such: Each boy was to enter, stand just in front of the stool, take the “holy water” blessing device from the dish, shake it toward the corpse, making the shape of the cross in the process, return the device to the dish, kneel on the stool, and say a prayer for the departed. When completed, you were to rise, turn right and pass behind Sister Thomas, exit the small vestibule, and wait outside until the entire six had “paid their respect.”
I was the fifth of the six in a group to enter that small vestibule. I watched as the preceding boy picked up the blessing device, shook it toward the corpse in the sign of the cross, returned it to the dish, then knelt and prayed, and exited the bungalow by passing behind Sister Thomas. All was going well. Though I did not want to be there, and feared nightmares from this experience, there was no escape.
My turn came. I picked up the blessing apparatus. I shook it toward the corpse with the full intent of making the sign of the cross. To my utter dismay, it flew apart. Perhaps I shook it too hard. In any event, the silver colored bulb had come loose from the handle, bounced off the satin-lined inner casket lid, and fell into the casket containing the corpse. I stood there as though struck in the face. I was extremely fearful. I had no idea as to what I was to do next. I was holding what were the remnants of the blessing device. I was holding only the black handle.
I turned to Sister Thomas for some directions, or help of some kind. He face was immobile and white. The only portion of her face moving was her mouth. Through gritted teeth, I heard the order, as a hiss, “Get it.”
I quickly glanced toward Mr. Hoffmann. With bowed head, he appeared to be deep in prayer. I put the black handle into the dish. I reached out with my right hand and felt that white satin that surrounded the casket. I glanced down, located the red stool, and stood on it to gain some height. I leaned over, and it was only then that I really looked at Mr. Hoffman’s aged mother. I believe she had passed away when she was in her 86th year. I had never seen anything that old and wrinkled. All other funerals had been children of my age. I had to get extremely close to her face in an attempt to locate the silver bulb. I could see the drops of holy water on her face. For a moment I thought she was crying. She seemed to be quite wet in some locations on her face. I felt the concept of the holy water was being overdone. They seemed to drowning the old lady. I intended to tell Sister Thomas about it.
I searched for the silver bulb. I had to lean over the casket, bending at the waist. I had great fear I was about to fall in, and accompany this old lady to her final resting place. I placed one hand firmly on the satin-lined lid of the casket to get a better view. I was extremely close, much too close to the old lady’s face. I finally saw the silver bulb. It had bounced off the lid, fallen into the casket, and came to rest where her neck met her shoulder. It was on the farthest side of the body from me. It was barely visible because she was wearing a dress with a very frilly collar.
I reached in gingerly with my right hand. I had switched hands, and was now holding the lid of the coffin firmly with my left hand. I had the firmest grip I could muster. I was deeply fearful of the lid slamming closed with me in the coffin. With my additional weight on the edge of the satin covered casket, I was afraid the silver accordion-like unit on wheels that held the coffin would suddenly collapse. I was afraid that if this happened, it would crash to the floor, the lid would close on me, and I would be in the embrace of the old lady in total darkness. I also had thoughts about the old lady not being dead at all. I had visions, that at the right moment, she would grab me, and with a chuckle, slam the lid closed on me. It scared me just to look at her. I was afraid of touching any part of that old body. Finally, I was able to retrieve the silver bulb by pressing the satin pillow down and allowing it to fall into my hand. However, just as I was pushing myself up straight, standing on the red stool, I heard Mr. Hoffmann say, “Vat is dat boy doing to my Mama?”
I stepped off the stool, and I examined the bulb. I saw that it was threaded inside. I picked up the black handle from the dish, and it too, was threaded. Somehow, and I don’t know why, it had come loose and flew apart. Perhaps, I shook it too hard, or the fact that it was not assembled correctly had caused the problem. I deftly, and quickly, screwed the wet silver bulb onto the black handle. I made certain that it was tight. I replaced the assembled unit into the dish of “holy water.”
I knelt down and said a very hurried prayer. A flurry of conversation was coming from Mr. Hoffman and his guests. I don’t remember my prayer. All I wanted to do was to get far away from this situation, and this house. Apparently Sister Thomas quieted Mr. Hoffmann down with some sort of hand gesture for I heard not a further word.
At the completion of my prayer, I took the device from the dish, made sure the bulb was tightly screwed on, and attempted to hand it to the boy who was next in line. He refused it, and started to cry. I returned the apparatus to the dish and, as I turned to go around Sister Thomas to exit the bungalow, she hissed, “You are going to get it.”
I was an altar boy. Somehow, after that event, all church services that involved water of any class, reminded me of a very wrinkled old, old, lady.
Especially, when it came to “holy water.”
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Last changed: March 09, 2005