My father’s funeral was a week ago. I’ve been thinking about him these last few days, which is to be expected. But I didn't expect how this one day of memories won’t let me go.
It was Easter Day, 1988. I was six. I woke up in my Italian grandparents’ house in Chicago Heights to the sound of smooth jazz. It was coming from the next room, my father’s room. I recognized the jazz as the jazz from the Weather Channel. My father was seeing what awaited him during the drive from Chicago Heights to Gary, Indiana.
My father watched the Weather Channel the way middle-aged women watch reality TV. When he was alone and the remote was his, he watched the Weather Channel. He truly was a disciple of weather. When I was a teenager and asked if I could take the car out, he said a hail storm was coming within the hour and lectured me on the dangers of it. When he talked to me about hail, I thought about the scene in the 1956 film version of The Ten Commandments, with the cloud approaching Pharaoh and Moses from the distance, carrying hail that burst into flames.
My father worshipped good weathermen. One was John Coleman, a fellow University of Illinois alum and the founder of the Weather Channel. Another was Dave Schwartz, a Weather Channel meteorologist who referred to his viewers as “my friends.” When Schwartz was laid off in 2008, fans started a website called “Bring Back Dave Schwartz,” and he was rehired in 2014. I’m not sure if my father was a part of all that, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he was. Schwartz died in 2016 after a ten-year battle with pancreatic and stomach cancer. When my father’s cancer spread from his pancreas to his liver and intestines, I told him to remember Dave Schwartz, how he lived ten years with pancreatic and stomach cancer. My father took that to heart. It lifted his spirits for a while.
We would spend Easter with my Lithuanian grandparents, my mother’s parents, who lived in Gary. We would attend 7:00 AM mass at St. Casimir’s Church, which was, I believe, the only Lithuanian church in Indiana. We would leave at 5:30 AM to give us enough time to pick up my grandparents, who lived off Broadway near the Merrillville border, and drive to St. Casimir’s, which was in downtown Gary.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep again. The voice of a weatherman replaced the jazz booming from my father’s room. It might have been Dave Schwartz’s voice, but I have no way of knowing for sure. I heard my mother yell at him to turn it down. She was half asleep and her voice was scratchy and she coughed after speaking.
I got out of bed and headed for the bathroom. The bathroom smelled of steam and Old Spice. My father was a very loud shower-taker, dropping soap and shampoo bottles and turning knobs. Usually, the sound of his showers would wake me up, but I hadn’t heard him shower. It was funny: I slept through his shower, but the sound of smooth jazz woke me from my growing boy slumber.
I remember the drive from Chicago Heights to Gary in the minivan. My father drove and my mother was drinking coffee in the passenger seat. My father didn’t drink coffee, so she talked to keep him awake. It was still dark outside and she was worried he might fall asleep behind the wheel and kill us all. That’s how my mother thought.
The two seats in the middle of the van were occupied by my brothers, who were still asleep. I was sprawled out on the couch-turned-mini-bed in the back of the minivan. The upholstery had made the transition seven months ago, during our trip to Orlando, Florida, and no one had thought to change it back.
I distinctly remember the Thornton Quarry in the darkness, the mini Grand Canyon off Interstate 80 near the Indiana border. I squinted my eyes to see the “canyon” under the moonlight, such a strange sight in flat Illinois, and I thought about how during the trip back home from Orlando, during the night in the hills of Tennessee, my father was driving and my mother was drinking coffee and talking to my father, like now. He said something like, “Jesus, driving through these Tennessee hills is dangerous. God help us!” My mother, who had once seriously considered becoming a nun before she met my father, asked him if he believed in God.
I forgot my father’s exact words. I know he said something about “not really believing.” He mentioned the Thornton Quarry, which he used to pass every day on his route from Chicago Heights to his first accounting job out of college in Crown Point, Indiana. He said as a young man he couldn’t believe in God because he read somewhere there are fossils in the stones at the bottom of the quarry that are 410 million years old. That’s 200 million years before the dinosaurs. What was God doing all that time? Why did he wait so long to create humans if humans were supposed to be created in His image?
I asked myself that same question as the quarry slowly disappeared in the moonlight, as its dying view from the minivan’s back window was violently snuffed out by a semi-truck that had forced itself into our lane. I was soon asleep again. I don’t know if I was ever fully awake.
When I awoke for the second time that morning, it was no longer dark outside, but it wasn’t light either. The sky was filled with thick, dark fields of clouds as far as the eye could see. My Lithuanian grandparents were now sitting in the seats that had been occupied by my brothers. My brothers were asleep on the ground. My grandmother, who had been in the middle of a loud Lithuanian conversation with my mother, heard my movements and turned around. She took my face with her hammy hands and pulled it towards her lips and the fuzz above her lips. She kissed my right cheek and said “good morning” in Lithuanian. She smelled of cheap hair spray. I repeated the Lithuanian words. I looked out the window next to her seat and saw that we were now in Gary. I saw the boarded up homes and the empty lot corners covered in weeds. I saw a large billboard advertising bail bonds at the intersection as my father turned right.
“Christopher is awake!” my grandmother shouted to my mother in Lithuanian.
A few minutes later, the minivan pulled into a parking lot in front of the church. The parking lot was almost completely filled. My father’s van filled it. Every Lithuanian in the state of Indiana is here, he said. He didn’t like this Easter in Gary thing. He knew my Lithuanian grandmother was behind it all, and I saw him stare at her in the rearview mirror with tired eyes filled with defiance.
The church didn’t look much like a church. Churches were supposed to be tall and airy. I was expecting something like the photo of Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow I had seen in a book my father had been reading. I thought Lithuanians and Russians were the same people and attended the same kind of churches, churches topped with colorful onions. But this church was a box of old brown bricks with a tiny cross on the roof.
My grandparents woke up my brothers as I stared at the box and the sad little cross. I was the last one to get out of the van. I was eager to breathe fresh, rainy air, but I smelled chemicals in a wind that was gaining momentum.
“What’s that smell, Dad?” I asked.
“It’s Gary,” he said.
“This doesn’t look like a church. It looks like the school you went to in Roseland, when you were a kid,” I said.
“It’s a church, a really old church. I think it was built in the early twenties. It does look like my old school,” he said, taking me by the hand.
I thought we were heading for the front door of the church, but we walked past it, in the direction of a building behind it. The building was identical in height to the church, with the same faded brown bricks, but three times as long.
“Where are we going, Dad?” I asked, feeling a sprinkle on my cheeks and forehead.
“We got to go to the banquet hall first. They have food and drinks there. You can change into your altar boy getup there too,” he said.
“I’m not an altar boy,” I said with six-year-old conviction. I was told I was just going to walk around the church with the other kids three times with a candle in my hand and that I didn’t have to do anything more than that. I certainly wasn’t prepared for the duties of an altar boy.
“No, you’re right, you’re not an altar boy. You’re just walking in the procession. I don’t think they have a name for that. But it’s not altar boy. Sorry about that,” he said, placing an umbrella over my head. I hadn’t noticed he’d brought an umbrella.
“It’s gonna start pouring soon,” he said.
The hall was packed with Lithuanians stuffing their faces with pastries and kugelis. There was a strange smell I did not like, a mixture of moth balls and bacon fat. I watched everyone eat and talk with their mouths full. I studied the women, many of whom were very fat. They had short hair and fat under their chins and pig noses. I saw their daughters standing next to them. Some were my age. I saw them putting on the “altar boy getups” and I became nervous. Some of the girls were really cute. They were blonde and skinny and it horrified me that these little girls might grow up to look like their mothers. I don’t know why it horrified me, but it did. It made me nervous. Perhaps I was scared of the possibility of having to walk in the procession with one of these pretty girls and, God forbid, hold her hand. I started to hate my Lithuanian grandma, too. She was behind all this. Because of her, I would have to hold hands with a girl who would tell me how much she hated holding my hand.
My father was standing next to me, but he was no longer holding my hand. I saw him raise his hand to get my mother’s attention. She walked over to us with a wrinkled white pullover. It looked like the kind of thing altar boys wore.
“What’s that?” I asked, fear in my voice.
“Relax. Take off your jacket and put this over your shirt,” she said.
I was wearing a White Sox jacket my father bought me the year before at Comiskey Park. We saw the White Sox play the Yankees, just me and him. It was my first baseball game. I remember the jacket keeping me warm from the cool wind coming off the lake. I remember holding the jacket in my arms, like a puppy, during the car ride home. I remember the empty taverns under the streetlamps on 35th Street as we drove on. My father was listening to the post game show on the radio. I could still smell the cigarette smoke of the two old men who had sat next to us in those tiny, uncomfortable green seats. They had been drinking beer and smoking and swearing. My father hadn’t said anything to the men or to me. I think he wanted me to see that too, as though that was also a part of the game. We didn’t get home until 11:00 PM. It was the latest I ever stayed up. The jacket was the greatest gift I ever received. I still have it. I will one day give it to my son.
I took off the jacket and gave it to my mother. She handed me the altar boy getup in exchange. I stared at the dirty wooden floor.
“Don’t drop my jacket,” I said to her.
“Don’t worry, I won’t,” she said.
I had a hard time getting the white pullover over my head.
“Here, let me help you,” my father said.
He took me to a corner of the hall. As he helped me put on the altar boy pullover, I stared at a poster on the wall. It was under a giant Lithuanian flag. The poster said, “This is why Lithuania cannot wait to be free from Soviet oppression!” Under the caption were black and white photos of dead Lithuanian men. It did not bother me as much as it should have, but my father saw me staring at it. When he had successfully gotten the white pullover over my head, he spoke to me.
“Don’t pay attention to that poster. If you really want to read about atrocities, read about what the Lithuanians did to the Jews during World War II. What the Russians did to the Lithuanians is child’s play compared to what the Lithuanians did to the Jews. I’ll tell you all about it one day, if you promise not to tell your mother, and especially not your grandmother,” he said.
He then brought me back to my mother, who had a paper plate with kugelis on it and was eating it with a white plastic fork. It looked like the most unappetizing thing a human could ever eat.
“Do you want to try some, honey?” she asked me.
I shook my head.
My mother was my holding my hand as we walked from the hall to the church. It was now raining hard.
“Do you have an umbrella?” I asked.
“No, sorry sweetie,” she said.
“Where’s Dad?” I asked.
“He’s back at the hall,” she said.
“Isn’t he coming to church?” I asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” she said.
“Why?” I asked.
“He doesn’t like church,” she said.
“But he still likes God, right?” I asked.
She didn’t answer.
We entered the church. The smell of incense made me cough. I preferred the smell of the chemicals outside in the cold, to the stuffy, heavy, incense air of the church. It made me more nervous, to tell the truth.
On the wall next to the entrance door was a small crucifix. I examined it closely. Jesus had blood on his forehead, cheek, neck, shoulders, arms, side, knees, and feet. I never saw so much blood on Jesus before. But what really freaked me out were his open eyes, looking at the ceiling. I had never seen so much pain in a pair of eyes before.
“Is he still alive?” I asked my mother.
“Come on, come on,” my mother said, grabbing hold of my hand again. She was trying to lead me to a pew where the kids participating in the procession were sitting. I saw a beautiful blonde girl smiling at me. She moved over so I could sit next to her. Then I heard music coming from the balcony above me. I saw my grandmother and grandfather and ten other old Lithuanians singing in Lithuanian. I couldn’t see the person playing the organ. The song sounded like it was coming from a Russian tomb, the voices like those of the Red Army soldiers singing the Russian national anthem in the black-and-white documentary my father was watching the week before. The voices were deep and low.
I broke free from my mother’s hand and ran over to the crucifix again. I stared into Jesus’s eyes. I wondered if he could hear the song from the tomb, from the balcony. I wondered if the incense burned his nose. My mother tried to grab my hand, but I spun around and ran out of the church. The rain had reached its prime, and it was washing some of the chemical smell away, but not all of it. I ran towards the hall, where I found my father sitting alone, reading a newspaper. It was an edition of Draugas, a Lithuanian paper published in Chicago.
“Chris, what are you doing here? Why aren’t you in church?” he asked.
“Why aren’t you in church?” I asked him.
“Come on, sit down and dry off. I can hear it coming down now. It should be like this the rest of the day,” he said, helping me out of the soaked altar boy getup. My White Sox jacket was next to the newspaper on the table. He had been watching over it for me. He helped me put it on, then got up and walked over to where the pastries and coffee were laid out. He came back with two cups of coffee in white Styrofoam cups.
“Here, drink up. It’ll warm you up,” he said, handing me a cup. I had never had coffee before.
“I thought you didn’t drink coffee, Dad?”
“Yeah, well, today’s different,” he said, taking a sip.
I took a sip too.
“What kind of coffee is this? It tastes good,” I said.
“It’s hazelnut,” he said, taking another sip.
“Dad, why are you reading a newspaper in Lithuanian if you don’t speak Lithuanian?” I asked.
He picked up the newspaper and flipped through the pages.
“I guess I’m just looking at the photos,” he said.
about the writer
Chris Pellizzari is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His fiction has appeared in The Awakenings Review, The Write Launch, BoomerLitMag, Good Works Review, and Delphinium. His novella "Last Night in Granada", was just published by REaDLips Press.