I needed to get away. I needed time and space to write. Alone time, with no interruptions of inane questions and consultations for advice on whether or not the toilet bowl brush was round enough to cover the necessary area (not really, but of that nature of non-importance). My friend Kathy has offered her house near the beach, in New Jersey we call it ‘down the shore’. She had inherited it from her Uncle Paul, Father Paul to the rest of us.
Father Paul was an eternally smiling guy, a very quiet man, but with a smile that made you want to sit down and have a beer with him. Every time I found Father Paul at Kathy’s house, he was invariably stretched out on her sofa, shoes off, watching television, and he’d wave and smiled that smile, as if to say, “yep, I’m just here for the company of others”. He was a quiet and gentle soul, who liked a quiet and subtle, yet sarcastic joke and he yearned to make you laugh with him, or better yet, smirk along with him. He was also Kathy’s closest family connection to her Mom who died young, before she could really enjoy her own grandchildren as they grew up. Paul was her mother’s brother and her closest family. Other relatives lived on the west coast and were older. Father Paul was ‘brother-uncle-friend’ Paul.
Uncle Paul was the ‘priest in the family’, who would sometimes say Mass in Kathy’s dining room and tell one of the kids to say ‘ding-ding’ during the consecration of the Eucharist because there were no real bells like when in Church, to ting-a-ling during what was supposed to be the most solemn and sacred time of the Mass. He was serious, but seriously low-key and quick to remind a person to not take much of anything too seriously.
I had my own personal connection with Father Paul. My grandson Mikey had been getting therapies for a Traumatic Brain Injury. Even before Mike's injuries. I would always describe him as a gentle soul. Kathy’s home was also the day care where she took care of babies and toddlers while young moms went to work. While we juggled therapy and doctors’ appointments, Kathy was one of our team, and second-in-command with Mikey's recovery and progress.
One day I came to pick up Mikey after work and in the living room was Father Paul stretched out on the sofa and baby Mikey lay across his chest while Paul stroked his back as he peacefully dozed. He said, "What a great soul this kid has. You know, Mike is going to do great things someday." Mikey was just about 8 months old at that time.
Over the years, if Paul stopped by for his nap on Kathy's sofa and Mike had just come in from school, you could find them both anchoring each end. Paul would slide his legs off to the floor and Mike would slip in along the back of the sofa, and the two of them would doze, or just quietly lay there, almost like a yin and yang.
When Uncle Paul died unexpectedly, Kathy found that she had to deal with more than just his house in Cape May, New Jersey. She had to deal with settling the “estate” of a retired catholic priest. It seemed to me that she was simply overwhelmed with settling the affairs of someone she never expected to ‘not be there’ anymore.
After his funeral, when things with his estate started to gel, Kathy would take infrequent weekend trips to the shore house and do not much more than sweep and clean. She never considered to remove anything that once belonged to her uncle.
She frequently offered use of the house to me for breaks away and a quiet place to write. She said, “somebody should use it rather than just sit there empty.” So I took her up on the invitation to take advantage of the shore house that was once Uncle Paul’s. I thought it a nice break in the daily grind and it was after all, a shore house in the summer. After a weekend at the house, it was apparent to me that it was still very much Father Paul’s home even though he’d been dead about a year. When I returned her key, she asked what I thought of the house and location. All I could think of was the feeling like the house was still her Uncle Paul’s and I said so, “Kathy, that house is yours now. It’s time to make it your own.” Her response was, “I know. I just can’t. I just can’t do it.”
Although his vestments and clothing were removed by his fellow clergy, there was an abundance of bric-a-brac stuff that an unmarried man who happens to be a priest of advancing years would accumulate. There was a collection of reference material for composing the Sunday homily, a weekday missal, a digest for various scripture readings, a St. Jude’s catalog of religious goods, and a variety of post-its of phone numbers of various doctors, his dentist and a handyman tacked up next to the photos of family and friends. His furniture was a spare collection of odds and ends, except for the dining table, which was a pretty set of white washed pine with an inlaid tile tabletop and Windsor chairs. Always on the table was the Sunday Inquirer he finished reading the day before he died, just where he left it. There were various collections of barware, dishes, and coffee mugs that were an accumulation commemorating one event or another. Then, there were the pots and pans.
The first time I took up the invitation to the shore house I planned on cooking breakfast and eating out the rest of the time. When I took inventory of the cabinet that held the pots and pans, I was put off by the condition and collection of nothing that matched and most of what was there, I was sure, had to be from 1960 which was about the time he was ordained and probably the original Teflon. What was worse to me was they were gummy and sticky, mostly from age and non-use. Ugh. The dishes and glasses also had a film on most of them. But, who was I complain? It was free lodging and close to the beach. I could hear Father Paul channeling in my brain. “Shut up and enjoy the view, just don’t use the dishes or pots and pans.”
Let’s return to my need to get away. I ask Kathy if I can use her shore house. She is thrilled to have someone make use of the house. “Of course!” She says. “ Here’s a key.” “Wait.”, I say to her. “I’m only going if you let me start to clean that kitchen.” I tell her that those pots and pans HAVE to go. “Go ahead.” she says, “I trust you .” Those can be three pretty heavy words. I. Trust. You.
So, there I sat in Kathy’s shore house that used to belong to Kathy’s uncle, Father Paul. I can see a few small changes she had made over the last couple of months. There were frilly valances on the windows and Kathy had added some holiday decorations and cleared out some of the homily reference material. There was still a three foot long crucifix on the wall in the spare bedroom, and the kitchen was still in need of serious attention. But the year old Sunday Inquirer had finally been removed.
I focus on the kitchen before I sit down to write and start at the corner cabinet with the collection of clear glass dinnerware and coffee cups. There is a collection of ceramic teacups with no saucers and various lead crystal bowls that might supplement for bread bowls in serving Holy Communion. I found a variety of all shapes and sizes of glasses and a complete set of Corning Ware casserole dishes, with the lids. I spend an hour clearing out the cabinet and washing down the shelves and the film off the dishes and cull the stuff that needs to go.
It is interesting to me that the coffee mugs are like many other households, mementos of life events. From Uncle Paul’s cabinet there is a coffee mug commemorating a family visit to Mt. Rainier, WetnWild waterpark in Orlando, a retreat at the Abbey of the Genesee and really odd pieces that might have been gifts, like one solitary Spode Christmas Tree mug and a Limoges porcelain china creamer pitcher that could have doubled for a small flagon to be used during one those Masses he held in the dining room.
Next, I attack the cabinet of pots and pans, more culling, ALOT of culling. Halfway through this chore I suddenly realize the reason why my friend has not done this task herself. As I clean out what I see as the foibles of a single man who lived alone and had no partner to point out his lack of home decorating finesse, I can see why Kathy cannot do this. No matter that he lived a relatively simple and non-materialistic life. No matter that Father Uncle Paul left her property. Paul will no longer be found lounging shoeless on her sofa with that smile. He will no longer conduct Mass in the dining room. When Uncle Paul died, he left a suddenly empty space in Kathy’s life and on her sofa. Most significantly he left his house suddenly empty. I don’t think anybody can fill that space. Like losing one’s mother, it is a vacuum that can never be filled. By helping to clean out the room that is central to the house, I hoped I helped to make it easier to fill this space Uncle Paul left and begin to make it her own.
Once I was finished with the kitchen, I set up my laptop at the empty computer desk in the living room. It didn’t take too much time before I began to write about my day of cleaning and a brief journey through the cupboards of Father Paul’s life. It came together fluidly, without much thought, in a very calm and comfortable way.
It is easy for me to believe that maybe he was channeling this message, since the desk is where Father Paul died.