This is an excerpt from my high school memoir, In Another Century. I am 13. In the first published excerpt, it is still summer and I am thinking of what it will be like to leave home for the seminary. In the previous excerpt, I had just arrived at the seminary high school where I will be living. This excerpt starts as I have brought my trunk up to the dormitory and are about to leave the room. I am with my parents, my grandmother my brother and two sisters. All the people in the story are bilingual.
We walked down the three flights and through the réfectoire, a low-ceilinged room with rows of formica-top dining tables abutting the two long walls. There we waited for my grandmother to catch up to us and then together we went out through the lobby into the chapel, a high-ceilinged, rectangular room with long, plain, colored-glass windows on either side of the nave. Although the walls were constructed of cinder block, it was wood that commanded our attention. The pews, the window frames, the beams on the ceiling, the communion rail, the altar, the baldachin above the altar, and the statuary itself were blond pine and oak. Because it was September 1960, the altar faced away from the congregation—the Second Vatican Council had not yet convened; we still prayed in a church whose rituals seemed to date to the beginning of time. Mass was said in a Latin that evoked centuries of tradition and something beyond the little circle of our lives.
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My mother and my mémère genuflected—my mémère’s a shallow gesture conceded to the pleas of stiff knees—and entered a row of seats. There they crossed themselves and closed their eyes. I followed suit—prayer was after all what I had come here in part to do—and the others entered pews, too. On my knees, I asked for help to be worthy to persevere in my vocation if this was what God wanted. From outside, I could hear the rumble of cars starting and doors slamming, and there were sounds of voices, with those of children rising.
My mother got to her feet, and as if given a signal, we got up, too.
“C’est beau,” my grandmother whispered appreciatively, clutching my arm for what seemed support.
We returned to the lobby and followed another family down narrow stairs to the recreation room. Windows on the east side opened out to a narrow wooded area beyond which was the town of Bucksport and its houses. The rec room, with many pool and ping-pong tables, ran beneath the length and width of the chapel. There were boys playing pool with their fathers—I had never played with my father and did not know if he knew how to play, but I certainly didn’t. There were priests talking to other parents, and I realized that soon I would know these men well.
Would I like them? Would they like me?
We walked through the rec room to the locker room where all kinds of boys—thin boys and fat boys, tall boys and short boys, boys who were clearly boys and boys who looked like young men—were pulling things out of trunks and suit-cases and filling tall, narrow lockers. The room was a mess, but it felt exciting to be in this clutter. For the first time, I had an inkling of the kinship I would feel with the boys I saw around me and knew we were all here together at the beginning of something that was not only important in life but important in our lives.
We followed a flow of people into the basement of the classroom building we were always to call the classique.
The seminary buildings seemed huge and labyrinthine to me who had gone to a four-room grammar school. I was excited but I was also filled with enough dread that I couldn’t give what I was walking though all my attention. My parents, my grandmother, my brother and my sisters would leave soon. Was I ready to see them go and would I be all right when they left without me? In spite of telling myself I wanted to be there more than anything (how could I be so sure at 13!), I feared the moment when I would find myself alone with strangers.
We looked into the small gym on the basement floor of the classique. Its floor was marked with lines, and there was a balcony along three of the walls. There was no weight equipment in sight. The gym did not interest me as I was not familiar with gyms—there was none at St. Bernadette and no one I knew went to gyms or had spoken to me about what one does in a gym—and I could not imagine what I could do there that would bring me pleasure or be satisfying. We went up the wide back stairs. At this time of year, the view from the two lower floors was only of a playing field and a few small houses, but on the third floor landing, we could see the St. Regis Paper Company whose smoke stacks rose above the town. We exited the stairwell through double doors into a large hallway. This hallway opened up on the area where our car was parked. Just a moment ago, we had been on the third floor and now, by walking cross a hallway, we were on the ground floor! For the first time, I realized the classique was built into a slope.
There were three large, well-painted classrooms on that level and a small one. A boy wearing a cross pointed out the two First-Form classrooms, and we peered into them. They were large rooms with high ceilings. Each held thirty desks with plenty of space around the edges. These seemed like serious classrooms—certainly in much better condition than Lisbon High School which my eighth-grade classmates were already attending, where I would have gone, had I not chosen the seminary.
My mother and Mémère commented on how clean everything was. I looked around with “clean” in mind. Yes, it was all very clean and orderly.
Slowly, so that my grandmother could follow, we went up the wooden staircase that ran on the opposite side of the building from the stairs we had previously ascended. These front stairs groaned and creaked beneath our feet as we made our way up to a mezzanine. From there, we looked out on our car in the oval gravel drive and on the statue of Saint Joseph, and then we continued our ascent. On the fourth floor, the auditorium had seats, a boy told us, recently purchased from a movie theater that had closed in town. Through the auditorium windows, as almost everywhere around the classique, we saw tall pines that towered above the school and created a wall of green.
Mémère kept recalling how things were similar to or different from the seminary that her Lucien had attended in the thirties. My mother kept stating how I would like this or that, how I would be happy there, and I tended to think that I would be. My father, silent, observant, deferring to the opinion of women in such matters, seemed to concur.
After inspecting the third-from classroom and the science lab, we wandered down the front stairs again, my grandmother holding the railing firmly, nursing her arthritic knees as she lifted a foot and slowly lowered it on the next step and repeated the process with the other foot. Finally, down to the second (from the back) floor, we walked down a hallway and left the classique and entered the connector addition that had been completed recently—in 1956.
We stood in the library. Its walls were of the same cinderblocks as the chapel and, like the chapel, it had the feel of wood. The bookshelves lining the four walls, the long tables filling the center of the room as well as the chairs pushed against them were of blond wood. The many windows opened out on trees on both the east and south side. The room was flooded with light from the south. All around us were books. This was a room, I hoped, rightly as it turned out, where I would spend a lot of time.
As she had all afternoon, my grandmother gripped my arm—for support, I thought then, but I think now because she would miss me. Mémère had lived upstairs from us on the farm in Lisbon Falls for ten years. When I was born, my parents were living with her and my grandfather so it was to her house that my mother had brought me from the hospital. Mémère had seen me and my siblings grow up and she was very attached to us—to me especially, I realize now, because in many ways we were similar persons.
What must it have seemed like to her who had never learned to read well in her own language to have a grandson who was about to enter a book-filled experience in two languages? She must have sensed that this would take me far beyond her world. How could she not have a sense of loss despite her pride in me? How could she not have sensed that it would make me into a different sort of person than she was? Perhaps that too is why she clung to me.
“He’s going to love this room,” my mother was exclaiming to Father Houle, the librarian, who stood near her with a stack of school books he was distributing. He said that we did not buy most of our schoolbooks but only had the use of them. That must have pleased my father who always had expenses on his mind.
My mother turned to me. “You’re just going to love this room, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” I replied simply because I had been thinking that very thought. Still, I felt as if she were pulling it out of me, as if I had to feel what she felt. It was going to be the last time in months that I would have this familiar interaction with my mother—her demand, my reluctant assent.