March 3, 2013

Levittown provided a sense of safety to a pious young church goer

Kathy walked to church every day for six weeks during Lent

By KATHY STAHLMAN ZINN
Class of 1963

In the early spring of 1955, I was nine and a half, in 4th grade at Summit Lane School (Miss Temesy) in Levittown, and the eldest of 5 kids, Theresa having been born a few months previously (3 more kids would come in the next 7 years).

It was Lent, that season where Catholics and some other Christians "give up something" to prove their piety in the 6 weeks leading up to Easter. I was a very pious little girl. That year, instead of the moderately difficult giving-up-TV for 6 weeks, I decided to be holy, indeed, and go to mass every day. 

I don't know if I even told my parents.  My mother was busy with the other 4, including the baby.  It was so early in the day when I left  that I don't think anyone noticed I was gone.  My father was often away overnight on his job as a co-pilot for Eastern Airlines.  So I would leave 99 Butternut Lane in the often-cold, still dark morning air.

I walked down to Sycamore Lane and turned left;  walked past a few houses and turned right onto Bucket Lane, which curved around and went all the way to an entrance to the shopping center. But I turned left,  halfway down Bucket Lane,  onto a short street that took me to Squirrel Lane, and turned right.  Now I knew I was nearly there   I also had a crush on someone who lived on Squirrel (whose name will go to the grave with me), whom I always anticipated seeing, but never did (how's that for piety?).

I finally came to Grassy Lane, turned left, and had one short block until I reached Hempstead Turnpike, right across from my destination, St. Bernard's Catholic Church.  In my memory there was no stop light at that intersection, so I waited for the traffic to clear (not too heavy at that hour), walked across, and went into the church, which, on the outside, still looked like the renovated airplane hanger that it originally was.  

Inside the church, it was warm and cozy, with candle light. The few members of the congregation present were scattered throughout the pews. They were mostly little old ladies dressed in black, with babushkas (head scarves), and a few old gentlemen.  I was clearly the only child at the mass. 

Daily mass is much shorter than on Sundays.  There are  fewer people, and fewer prayers.  It actually was much more of a meditative experience, the priest with his back to us, muttering in Latin, the little old ladies whispering their rosaries, no sermon, with Communion being the highlight of the services.  It was over in less than a half hour. 
Then I went back out into the cold early-Spring air, with more light in the sky.  I crossed back over Hempstead Turnpike with no stoplight, walked one block down Grassy Lane, turned right on Squirrel, walked back down past many houses (still hoping, in vain, for a glimpse of my heartthrob), turned left on the short, name-forgotten street, turned right onto Bucket, left onto Sycamore for 1 block, and then right onto Butternut, past 3-4 houses, to #99, walked in and had my breakfast and went to school.

Surely my mother was up by then as well as my 3 sisters and one brother.  Surely my mother knew.  But in my memory, she didn't know and didn't ask.  None of the old ladies, nor the priest. ever spoke to me. I never told any of my friends - they would have thought I was weird, and well, I WAS weird, for a 9 year old little girl.  Probably I was feeling kind of alone at that stage of my life, and this great "sacrifice" of going to daily mass was my special time with God - and, not insignificantly, with nature - for isn't nature also God?

I loved seeing the earth change every day, as it got warmer, the crocuses and daffodils starting to peek out, maybe a few other colors, mostly yellow and white, starting to appear, each day being a little lighter at the start of my journey, and, by the end of Lent, full sunlight and the pink blossoms of Easter cherry trees. 

I realize, now, that my trip must have been around a mile each way.  I was a little girl, alone, in the dark for part of the way.  I crossed over a busy highway.  I sat, knelt, and received Communion by myself in the big church. It is difficult to imagine that today someone wouldn't have wondered what I was doing there, especially the priest.  But Levittown was safe - or at least we all operated under that illusion.  And it would have been unusual, in those days, for the priest to intervene.  His role was strictly to say mass. He probably figured someone knew that I was there.  

My daily journey for six weeks instilled in me a sense of being special, a wonder at the signs of God in the natural world all around me (it amuses me to think of my finding nature in this most planned and artificial of communities), a sense of being close to God, and a great sense of confidence and independence.

It was my way of coping, and it worked well.  And Levittown provided me with a sense of safety,  like huge, loving arms around me. 

33 comments:

Anonymous said...

From Michael O'Boyle, class of 1960: Kathy walked down Owl Lane on her way to church, my father pointed out (when we were walking to church from Boat Lane), that no one had an owl lane address, as the houses on Owl faced other lanes.

Anonymous said...

Nice story, and nice memory.

Anonymous said...

Today’s blog, written by Kathy, was absolutely beautiful. It really touched me.

Thanks
Lynn Smith Dos Santos ‘65

marilyn Monsrud Frese '63 said...

Can no longer cut thru Owl to the Turnpike... was fenced up decades ago!! Used to be a huge car dealership there... now other stuff. No more access though.

Kathy, I think I know who your interest on Squirrel was... but won't mention it here!!

Anonymous said...

Gary DeCastillia, class of 1960... This story is great. Your memory of the street names started me daydreaming. You passed my house every day. I lived at 91 Sycamore Lane. The corner on Butternut and Sycamore.

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