Charles P. Ries
Beyond the predictability of my father’s work and prayer habits, there was one ritual he performed without fail. He blessed our beds. Each night after he’d washed and prayed, he’d come up to the two bedrooms on the second level of our home and make the sign of the cross over his children as they lay sleeping. Carrying a small glass bottle with a cross etched on the front, he sprinkled us with holy water. In his mind, he was showering us with a protective blanket of grace that would fill our room with angels and hover over us until morning. Most nights I was already fast asleep when he made his rounds, but on occasion just as sleep neared, I would feel a drop of holy water fall on my face or hand. It was a good feeling. An act of love that made the night safe. This rite of passage into the night was as sure as the sun rising in the morning. He’d silently come into the room I shared with my three brothers and bless our two beds. My father’s world was built on routines and rituals. They kept his feet on the ground. They made the world a safe predictable place for him and for us. In these silent acts of kindness he extended his heart. These were the hugs and kisses he never shared with us. Through this twilight ritual he came as close to touching our souls as he ever would and ever did.
I’d go through the same routine every time I visited. I’d tell him I loved him and then sit in silence looking at him. Waiting for him to say something. I wanted to run, but I owed it to him to stay there and say the words. He had earned at least that much respect. I repeated, “Dad, I love you,” one final time and saw what I thought was a trickle of tears coming from his eyes as he sat hunched and strapped in his wheelchair, unable to talk, his body shaking uncontrollably. I wasn’t sure if what I saw was the disease or a moment of real feeling. I had long given up on him, but still held out for a sign. I waited for the feelings buried deep within him to finally come out and breathe the same air with me.
As tears rolled down his cheeks, I was certain I had finally seen him. I was certain that the curtain of his disease had parted for a moment and he was sharing something real with me. The view made me pity him all the more, but I could not reach down and find tears for him. I had stopped crying years ago. I would not weep for him now.
After a series of small strokes and following the administration of the Last Rites, he mercifully died. His eighty-eight year life was over. “What am I to feel? How am I to be? It’s my father, who just died.” But I felt nothing. He had taught me well. I now had a firm grip on my feelings. They were stored a million miles away where they could do me no harm.
“My father was not a warm and fuzzy kind of guy,” my brother Joe began his eulogy. “He wasn’t a very playful person—he taught us how to work and all of my brothers and sisters know how to do that very well. I’ve learned some things are more important than being able to tell a good story or being able to entertain friends—things like integrity, sincerity, decency—in other words, faithfulness to one’s beliefs.”
I waited for something to open me up. For some sweet memory to find me and send me my tears, but nothing came. I was still angry with him. Angry that I had to shut myself down. Angry that I couldn’t remember him hugging or comprehending me. I had no connection with this man other than the holy water he sprinkled on my bed each night.
Every Tuesday night and often on Sunday, my dad would go to St. Vincent de Paul meetings and then would go out to visit and help families in need. My dad wasn’t a do-gooder, though, because that implies superficiality. What he did, he did from his heart. He did what he did because of a deeply held belief that it was just the right thing to do.
As my brother continued, I stopped listening. I withdrew and looked forward to the after burial luncheon and drinking a few brandy old fashioneds to my old man, the best minker that ever lived.
With closed eyes, I reached back and searched for my memories. The meaning of who I had become would be discovered by carefully remembering these building blocks of my nature.
A series of snapshots, smells, colors, and dreams passed before me—the mysterious pieces of a boy on verge of becoming. Splashing in a puddle created by a late August storm with my younger brother. Feeling the close quarters of my dad’s 1949 Buick as the nine of us crowd together en route to my Uncle’s for Easter Sunday dinner. Abducting my aunt’s poppy seed tort from the desert table and carrying it into a nearby clothes closet so I could have all its creamy goodness to myself and then crying hysterically as my mother discovered me and liberated my friend from my intoxicated fingers.
Snapshots. Fragments of memory.
Green farm fields. The chirping of my father’s mink after weaning and the smell of pelting season. Snow forts, ice-skating in the swamp and my mother’s garden with its raspberries, strawberries, rhubarb, and vegetables. The smell of bread baking in the kitchen. A world of constancy nestled in the heart of Wisconsin.
Our red brick house that stood next to my grandparents’ cream brick home. And next to our home my uncle’s and just thirty feet further south my aunt’s. We’d laughed and called it Riesville. Four homes along a blacktop country road populated with seventeen children and eight adults. The only things that ever changed were the weather, the seasons, and our ages.
It felt as if we had always been here. My ancestors homesteaded this land 1810. Fresh off boat from Austria, my great-great-grandfather bought his stake in America. Two more generations of dairy farmers followed and then came my father who would raise mink rather then dairy cattle. Hard working, church going, frugal men and women who made good use of their time on earth.
The earliest days of my life were without surprise or pain. There was nothing to distinguish one day from the other. Until my eyes started to open and as natural as life itself, I began to see. And the life I remember began.
“Chucky, is the mail truck here yet?” my mother called from the kitchen.
“Not yet. I’m watching,” I called back. My nose pressed against the window that looked north toward my grandparents’ house. Their home, and Riesville’s large postal box, stood beneath an Oak Tree whose branches reached like protecting arms over the sky blue roof and soft yellow brick exterior of their house.
“Well, it’ll be here in a minute or two,” she replied.
I was old enough for my first chore. At four years old I was big enough to find a place in the factory of my father’s farm.
“I can see it! I see the mail truck,” I shouted as I raced through the kitchen and out the back door, running with short urgent strides. Propelling myself along a foot worn path that carried me and a procession of mail collectors before me through a sparse orchard of crab apple trees toward the mailbox into which all of the mail destined for Riesville was placed.
“You must be the new delivery boy?” a voice called to me from the mail truck.
“Yes sir. It’s my job.”
“Think you can carry all this stuff? You’re just a little guy,” I heard the voice say as a tanned arm reached out of the side window and placed the day’s news, bills, and letters into my outstretched arms.
It was the commencement of my working life. It was the day I became a little man.
“Well look who’s here,” I heard my Grandmother Mary say as I opened the screen door leading to her kitchen. “So, you’re in charge now, huh?” she said in her thick German accent.
“I’m in charge of mail,” I replied, holding the overflow bundle. Hugging it and making sure not one item escaped my embrace.
“I see that. Well you just put the mail there on the table and sit down,” she said pointing to the chair where she wanted her grandson to sit. “You look hungry. You have three more houses to go before lunchtime. You need some apple pie,” she said in a way that always sounded like an order.
“Grandma, I have mail to deliver now,” I tried to explain, letting her know I knew my job.
“You will. But first you get some pie. You work. You eat. Little men have to eat,” she said placing a wedge of pie in front of me from one of the four she’d set on the table to cool. It was my diploma to manhood—a quarter-pan man-sized certificate of achievement. As I sat and took a forkful of the warm treat, I realized I wouldn’t complete my route until I’d finished her pie. As I ate, she talked to me in her short matter-of-fact sentences. “God gave us a good day. A good day for picking raspberries and canning tomatoes,” she said as she sorted the mail, not looking up until she had placed the day’s delivery onto four neat piles. She tied each pile with a piece of butcher’s twine and then took a long admiring look at the young man sitting at her table and nodded affirmatively, mentally noting that he was right on track to becoming a good, productive little Ries. Her gift of pie was God smiling on my life.
As I neared the end of my sweet tribute the phone rang, “Yes, Chucky’s here. Sure, he’ll have plenty of room for lunch. He’s busy with Grandma now. We’re talking. We have business to do. He’ll be home soon. He has mail to deliver,” she said to my mother who’d called wondering where the new mail carrier had disappeared. With my plate now spotless, I got up and received an uncharacteristic hug from my grandmother and resumed my route. She’d laid the three bundles of mail in my arms, “You get moving now. Your mom’s got your lunch waiting. Scoot.”
I bounded out of the kitchen and saw my Grandfather Peter coming up the gravel road that lead to the carpenter shop. “Better get moving Chucky, everyone’s wondering if the mailman thought you were a letter and mailed you to Green Bay.”
“Okay Grandpa, I’m moving now. Grandma had pie for me.”
“I’m sure of that,” he said as he watched me make my way back along the path, through orchard and over a wide mowed field where we played softball.
I walked the final hundred yards to the far end of Riesville where I delivered my aunt’s and then my uncle’s mail. Knocking on each door, handing the bundle through the opening to a, “Thanks Chucky, you want to stay for lunch?”
“Nope. I had pie at Grandma’s. Now I have to get home for lunch,” I said as I sped back across the softball field and entered the kitchen where my six siblings were already halfway through with their meal.
“All done?” my mother asked.
“Yup, done for this day.”
“Well, take a seat and have some lunch or did Grandma fill you full of pie?” she said, seeing the telltale sign of early desert on the corners of my mouth and clinging to the front of my shirt.
It was my first day of work and my life’s first memory.
Charles P. Ries lives and writes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He has completed a novel based on memory titled, The Fathers We Find: The Making of a Humble, Pleasant Boy. Holy Water is excerpted from this work. His second book of poetry titled Monje Malo Speaks English was published in January 2003 by Foursep Publications. He is on the board of the Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee. His work was nominated for a 2003 Pushcart Prize by Anthology. Also in 2003 his poetry won top honors in the 30th Annual Mississippi Valley Poetry Contest and the 2nd Annual Milwaukee.com Poetry Contest. His poems, poetry reviews, and short stories have appeared in over seventy print and electronic publications. Some of these being: Clark Street Review, Free Verse, Staplegun Press, Latino Stuff Review, WordRiot, Circle Magazine, Pearl, Philadelphia Poets, Pidjin, Thunder Sandwich, Wisconsin Review, Halfdrunk Muse, Remark, Pitchfork, Zygote In My Coffee, Pudding Magazine, and TMPoetry. He can be reached at charlesr[at]execpc.com.