O bells ring for the ringing! The beginning and the end of the ringing! Ring, ring, ring, ring!
William Carlos Williams, "The Catholic Bells"
The crack of a church bell splits the crisp autumn air. Then silence floods over the land, for five seconds...six...now seven. It is a comforting calm, this silence worn easily and often by the dwellers of the Plains. But on the eighth beat, the sexton draws hard on the thick rope rising to Saint Margaret's steeple, and pierces me again with his requiem bells.
I tell you these are the same bells that rang in Mrs. Tostenrude's fifth-grade class. The sound soared to the third-story window of Rolfe Elementary and High School, two hundred yards across the playground and catercorner from Saint Margaret's. Once a month or so these bells would summon me to my sacramental chores. The altar boys would gather in the sacristy to don our cassocks and white starched surplices. Then we would hastily arrange the cruets of water and wine, ready the censer with a charcoal puck, and light the towering candlesticks that flanked the bier. Finally, Father Weingart would lead us down the center aisle to the darkened church vestibule, where we would greet the funeral procession with the solemn, soothing phrases of my Latin childhood, "Subvenite, Sancti Dei, occurrite, angeli Domini, Suscipientes animam eius, Offerentes eam in conspectu Altissimi. Requiem aeternam dona ea, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ea." Come to her aid, O saints of God, come forth to meet her, angels of the Lord. Receiving her soul, presenting it to the Most High. Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her.
Long after the bells stopped ringing, the altar boys would join family and friends in the church basement for a Rosary Society dinner. We took our places proudly at the head table along with Father and the immediate family. Of all this, I remember most the dinner rolls, steaming bowls of corn and mashed potatoes, casseroles and slabs of ham that spilled from my plate, and the whipped cream salad whose concealed nuggets of cottage cheese would nearly gag me. We gave silent thanks during the blessing for a half-day free from school.
But today these bells reach me in the first car behind the hearse. We are following my mother, dead at age seventy-five. Her life was told in today's homily, which seemed only a slightly expanded, more salvific rendering of what the funeral home had printed on last night's prayer cards. Mom's card (with a feathered image of Saint Francis on the front) will join a rubber-banded deck tucked away in my top desk drawer. They are, for our German-Catholic relatives, a trading card that marks the passing of the generations.
After the funeral Mass, the motorcade crawls its well-worn route to a small parochial cemetery at the edge of town. There, the family gravestone has waited thirty years to receive my mom's dates, opposite my dad's.
In the quarter-century since I left home, the old neighborhood has picked up and moved here, slowly over time, from spacious Elm Street where disease has claimed more than the summer canopy. Here lie Russ and Maureen Ranney, our next-door neighbors, he who drilled my teeth and she who filled the cups of the coffee klatsch and were the best of family friends; the Tiernans down the block, who kept rabbits and teased me mercilessly about my big blue eyes; the Zeemans, whose daughter Cathy was struck by a passing motorist as her bicycle veered onto Elm near the tracks where we had played; the Biedermans, who pumped home heating oil; and the Reigelsburgers, who farmed and helped organize the annual spread at Saint Margaret's Turkey Supper. I can almost hear the silverware clinking, the bellow of a "howdy neighbor," the whine of my mower as it pushes through their tall grass or, in winter, a snow shovel that scrapes clean their blanketed walks.
As we stand in the shelter of the graveside tent, …