It was fitting that we ended up in the church we had mostly grown up in. Attired in jackets, ties or dress, we paraded down the main aisle reminiscent of Christmases long ago. But this time, we had reserved seats, and no usher necessary to seat us.
Back when we were scattered about at various school locations, Christmas was the only time of the year when we were all together. We always went to midnight mass on Christmas Eve with my parents going at about 11:00 p.m. to save good seats for everyone. The rest of us kids would arrive just before the opening procession.
It must have been difficult to hold onto those seats for the entire family for an hour. That service is always very popular with standing room only by 11:30 p.m. Mr. P, the head usher, prided himself on being able to fill the pews with 600 people when normal maximum capacity should have been 400. He would stand next to a pew, hold up the number of fingers representing the number of people he intended to seat there, then beckon with a wave of those fingers. If no one came forward, he would start pointing at specific people standing against the back wall. Then he would look down at the people in the pew with a stern face that seemed to say, "You best be moving over."
I'm sure he tried several times over the years to force people into the pew my mom had reserved with coats. My dad probably didn't care and would have thought "serves the kids right for waiting until the last minute to show up."
But I'm sure my mom gave Mr. P a glare that said, "You best be looking to seat those people elsewhere."
And every year, we would saunter in just before midnight and sit in the pew that my mom had saved.
I think we always thought our "just in time appearance" irked her considerably. But we found out years later that she loved having us dressed in our best clothes parading through the entire congregation to our seat as if showing off the family. She said we looked like the mafia all dressed up with stern looks on our faces. Except for the crime, I guess.
I'm glad we did it one last time for her.
Five or six years ago, after another Christmas visit, I prepared to leave my parents' house to catch my flight. My mom still displayed a sense of understanding with an occasional word, maybe a laugh and that goofy look as if saying, "Are you kidding me?" I wore some ghastly t-shirt with raised lettering, and when I went to hug her goodbye, she traced the "S" on my shirt with her finger and said, "Superman."
I don't know if it was a lucid thought, a hibernating memory suddenly shot out of the dark recesses of the brain or if she was even talking about me. But I chose to think she was talking about me. I almost missed my plane because of having to pull over a few times to clear my eyes and get my thoughts together.
All these years later, it has finally dawned on me that she wasn't talking about me at all. She was talking about my dad. I don't know anyone that would or could possibly argue that he isn't Superman.
Most people, simply from watching television if nothing else, are familiar with the classic marriage vows, "to have and to hold, in sickness and health, until death do us part." I don't know if those vows are still in use, but I'm pretty sure it's hard to find a minister who actually believes it or can say it with a straight face. In my lifetime, I doubt I will witness anyone that can honor those vows as my parents did for 57 years.
"To have and to hold": that first dance, holding hands, that first kiss, a wedding kiss, an embrace on the first born, then another child, and another child, etc. A few stolen moments on weekend getaways, the kitchen make-out sessions when you thought there were no kids around (or just didn't care), the hugs upon family deaths, weddings, and minor surgeries. Holding hands in a custom built treehouse as the sun sets, holding her up on the first slip to holding/carrying her wherever she needed to go, to the final act of placing her in her resting place.
In retrospect, I guess the kids should have been the ones saving the seats for my parents at Midnight Mass. We might not have staved off Mr. P the usher with an easy glare, but with two lawyers in the family, they'd issue subpoenas and depositions while the rest of us engaged in fisticuffs, half'-nelsons, full-nelsons, eye-gouging ("Hey Mr. P, I got two right here!") and quite possibly a Stooges pie fight.
My parents probably would have avoided the fracas and simply taken a seat somewhere in the back. My mom would have put her head on my dad's shoulder and said, "Oh how I love them."
And we love her too, forever and ever.