As a math geek, I often find myself using math language to describe everyday life. For example, if I don't think that someone is credible, I might say "just take what he has to say and multiply by zero." Of course, multiplying by zero makes the product disappear to zero. I couldn't help but think of this when I learned recently that a big part of my life as a graduate student had, in effect, been multiplied by zero.
We went to New England on vacation a few weeks ago, passing quite close to Boston, where I had been a graduate student. As we would be traveling on Sunday that week, I wanted to find a way to go to church, and I remembered the parish I belonged to in Boston. While a bit out of the way for where we were going, I thought that maybe we could take a detour. It wasn’t long before I was even imagining being able to re-connect with the old priest from that parish, or the Sister who made sure it ran smoothly. I wanted to introduce them to my husband and daughter, and to let them know that I was doing fine. I wondered if anyone there would recognize me after more than 20 years, and realized that they probably would not. Still, it was a pilgrimage I had wanted to take since leaving the parish abruptly while in graduate school because the volunteer responsibilities I had taken on became too demanding for me as I applied for jobs. I would be, in a sense, the prodigal daughter returning to the place that had helped me become who I am. It was home to me in many ways; I found myself in meetings there at least once a week, and when I failed my first try at my comprehensive exams, they gave me free run of their basement as I spread out my notes and books in classroom space where I helped teach religious education. This helped me to finally pass the exams that turned out to be only a minor detour, relatively speaking, on my way to my Ph.D.
Those were days of naiveté, on many levels. I naively approached the job market that year thinking that if things didn’t work out, I would try again next year. I had no clue that the very existence of “next year” depended vitally on the job I would obtain and the health insurance that went with it. Catholic families of Boston would drop their children off with me and other youth ministers to spend weekend days volunteering, as it would be over ten years until the Boston Globe uncovered the horrors in other Boston parishes that would make such trust suspect. And I am sure that very few people in the U.S. could locate Iraq or Afghanistan on a map, as this was still decades before “Al Qaida” would become a household word. There were troubles, yes, but it was a different world, a world I miss in some ways.
Since this is the 21st century, I, of course, sought answers as to when services would be held by looking on the internet. I was shocked, however, to find what was there.
It wasn’t hard to find the parish’s web site, but I was not expecting to find what I saw there. Underneath its name and familiar address and next to a picture of a building where I spent much of my free time as a graduate student, was a statement saying “A Closed Parish” along with directions to look on the web page of anther parish from the same town. It seems that my old parish had been closed and merged with the other parish, and, while both facilities are still standing, they obviously share priests and staff, alternating masses between buildings with some being held in one parish, and others in the second.
I recalled the vibrant parish I remembered from my graduate school days, and wondered how it came to this. What happened to all those people who stretched across the aisle to hold hands during the “Our Father?” or sang with gusto as I stumbled along with my guitar playing that had much room for improvement? I wondered what had become of the quilt I helped create, with one square being donated by each family in the parish. I recalled that my contribution had been rather prophetic, as, without knowing that my own life was in grave danger, I had contributed a square that said “Celebrate Life.” Could it be possible that the quilt had survived the merger?
I felt guilty that I had left the parish so abruptly, as I (rightly) became a deer in the headlights as I approached the academic job market. As I looked at the remnants of the web site to my old parish, I realized what they must have felt as I left. Neither of us had a chance to say “goodbye.”