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Point of View in a Memoir

When I Arrived at the Seminary

This is another excerpt from my high-school memoir, In Another Century.

It wasn’t until my father turned onto Middle Street and drove the 1955 red Ford station wagon up the hill towards the seminary that I gave in to the looming presence of doubt. Was this really what I wanted?

I sat in the front seat between my father and my grandmother. My brother and my sisters put their books down, and my grandmother grew quiet. We were all attentive, curious to see what this place which had occupied so much of our attention that summer looked like.

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“Remember,” my father said suddenly, “it’s your education not anyone else’s. The only dumb question is the one you don’t ask.”

As he spoke, on our left and running the whole way up Middle Street, was a cemetery. Instinctively, I knew this was a Protestant cemetery and that there must be another one elsewhere in town, a Catholic one. This town burial ground formed a large square that filled the slope beginning on Lake Street to the north, and rising southward the length of Middle Street to the seminary property before it cut easterly to Federal Street. There were many trees, mostly maple in the cemetery and an iron chain link fence all around it.

The view from the car

Even before the station wagon passed through the two freestanding brick walls that served as a gate, we saw the first of the seminary buildings, a three-story brick house with a white, wooden dormer running the back length of the third floor. Then beyond the “gate,” we came into a large central area where there were two massive brick buildings and a long connecting structure between them. Pictures of these buildings that blocked the view of the town and the river beyond had been featured  in a little booklet I had received in the spring when the Oblate vocation director had come to visit with the eighth-grade boys at St. Bernadette. The four-story building immediately to the left, the large structure with the small windows, I knew, was the dormitory, and the one beyond the connection, the one ahead of us, was the classique. This second building would be at the heart of what I would most cherish in my seminary experience. There, I would receive the best of what the seminary had to offer, the core of what would inform me for a lifetime.

“They keep the grounds clean,” my father said, bringing the station wagon to a stop. After months of anticipation, after a summer that seemed both to never end and to end too soon, I had arrived at last at “Bucksport” as we would always call the school.

In the car, we were quiet. I looked out and saw boys and men pulling trunks out of station wagons and lugging them across the entry yard to the dormitory on our left. Women and girls in hats and gloves followed them with smaller packages and suitcases.

Priests, their cassocks flapping around them, greeted the newcomers. I was too nervous to make much of them as yet, but these were the men who would be my teachers, who I hoped would like me and I them. At the moment, they were merely part of a challenging mass of large buildings and mothers and fathers and children. Everything was screaming for my attention.

My father’s advice

“Don’t be afraid to ask whatever you want,” my father advised me, the keys to the Ford in his hand. He spoke perhaps impelled by the imminence of our leavetaking, pressed to articulate some archetypal need to guide and protect me. Or, perhaps he was more simply compelled by a working man’s impulse to frugality in the face of any expense my collège education was sure to incur beyond the scholarship I had received. Perhaps he was really saying, “Get your money’s worth,” but I like to think that he meant more than that even if today I have come to understand that there are dumb questions.

“Yes,” I answered easily, knowing that asking questions would not be a problem for me. “Yes, I will.”

To the left of the classique, the four-story dormitory created a phalanx, or perhaps more aptly a cloister, that blocked our view of the town whose life we were never to share and of the Penobscot River beyond. Both buildings were built of brick and both were joined, forming a large L, by the connection that housed the chapel. It would be possible to go anywhere within the school buildings without going outside. Our routines would be self-contained, uninterrupted by the outside world.

My father parked the Ford on the far side across from the dormitory, next to a statue of St. Joseph that stood on a narrow pedestal set into a slope. Behind the statue and higher up was a tennis court surrounded by a high, metal fence. Although my family lived only ninety miles away in Lisbon Falls, we had not come that summer to visit and so we looked around curiously, my father next to me on the left and my mother who was pregnant sat in the back, Mémère Ledoux to the right of me in the front seat. In the back were my fifteen-year-old brother, Bill, and my two sisters, eleven-year-old Claire and eight-year-old Rachel.

My parents and brother and sisters stepped out of the car as I waited for Mémère to climb out in her slow lumbering way. Finally she had extricated herself and was standing near the car and I scooted out right after.

At last, I had arrived. I was here.

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