Ascension Thursday is May 29th and my endorphins are already gearing up. They’re a throwback to my days at St. Peter in Chains Elementary School when we were off on Holy Days—All Saints, Immaculate Conception, Christmas, Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God; and the Ascension. The Assumption on August 15th was never an issue because, back then, a new school year never began before Labor Day. My publican friends (the neighborhood kids who attended public schools) complained that it wasn’t fair; the same way I complained when they got a full week off for Easter break and we only had Good Friday and Easter Monday. And even then we were supposed to be in church with our families on Good Friday. (I figure they threw in Easter Monday because trying to teach 36 kids on sugar highs was tough for even the nuns.) But Ascension Thursday was my favorite Holy Day for more reasons than no homework the night before, and no tests or answering questions out loud in class the day of. It was more than enjoying the gorgeous pictures in our Catechism and on the calendar page for May of Jesus floating into the clouds , promising to be with me always. Ascension Thursday also heralded the final days of the school year—and the annual school picnic at Lesourdsville Lake Amusement Park.
On picnic day, certain things always happened. At least one teacher would remind the class that picnicking is spelled with a letter k even if picnic is not. The girls would secretly wear their picnic shorts under their dresses so changing clothes after Mass was quick. After Mass we would wolf-down whatever breakfast our mothers packed for us so as not to keep the buses waiting (back then the Communion fast began at midnight so we couldn’t eat before we left home.) Each class would visit the lavatories (that’s nun-speak for restroom) to change clothes and would be threatened with staying at school to clean blackboards and chalk erasers if they didn’t quiet down. We would stuff our school clothes in brown paper grocery bags that would stay on ours desk tops until dismissal time. And all sixteen classrooms would board the buses forming a long yellow train that traveled through the city streets before heading north on state route 4 towards Lesourdsville Lake.
I’m sure our room mothers tried to keep us together once we arrived, but as I remember it we jumped off the bus, ran wherever we wanted around the amusement park, rode rides, stopped for lunch, and rode more rides. We had a buddy system, too, someone who kept an eye on us and our eye on them. Janet, my first-ever-school-friend, was my buddy every year until her family built a new house that put them in the Queen of Peace parish. Back then, everyone had to attend the parish that they were geographically located in.
One year while Janet and I were waiting to ride the Flying Scooter two of my older sisters and their buddies were in line too. I was the seventh of fourteen children with siblings in just about every grade so that was bound to happen, but I have distinct memories of that particular day. Their madras blouses. The Bermuda shorts that grazed the top of their knees. Their black-and-white saddle oxfords with terra cotta colored soles. With great glee, Janet and I told them that we met a psychic!—that the man who ran the merry-go-round knew our names without us telling him anything! They all laughed at. We didn’t know why until my sister pointed out the name tags pinned to our blouses.
Janet and I finished our ice cream while they were on the ride, and when it was our turn to get strapped in we waved to them as they talked with Father Ratterman. I had never tried the flying rides before and it really was fun to be as high as the tree branches; to look down and see the bald spot on Father Ratterman’s head, to see everyone shrinking to ant size. Everything was okay until Janet used the rudder to make the plane go right-and-left-and-right-and-left all the while we were going up-and-down and up-and- down and circling, circling, circling. I was really dizzy and I bumped into Janet a few times as we walked towards my sisters. Father Ratterman asked how I liked the ride and I threw up on his shoes. I don’t remember everything that happened then, except that Father said these things happen and my sisters told my room mother they would take me to Tombstone—the western town. But they whispered to me that I couldn’t go unless I washed my face and hands so I didn’t stink up the train that took us there.
The train station was the last ride in the park. It traveled slowly through the woods, past Indians and teepees, a sheriff and a bank robber, and a tall, skinny guy in a black suit and hat counting money next to a wood coffin. A honeysuckle branch smacked a little boy across the cheek and his dad said it wouldn’t have happened if he didn’t lean his head over the rail like he was warned not to do. The whistle blew when we reached Tombstone and we jumped off the train as soon as it stopped. We walked up and down the street past the post office (where we could buy souvenir post cards) and the General Store (where we could buy souvenir candy and toys) and the salon with swinging doors. We ordered sasparillas (sarsaparilla to some) that tasted like a regular cola to me, sat at a round table, and waited for Hoss Cartwright to show up, or for someone to accuse someone of cheatin’ at cards, or for the piano to start playing all by itself. I wished that I could see Kitty from Gunsmoke with her long dress and fancy hat. My sisters said they wished they could see a gunfight at high noon but it was past one o’clock and we had to get back to the yellow train of our school buses anyway.
It’s easy for me to take time every May to reflect on the meaning of Ascension Thursday. What the pretty pictures of Jesus are telling us. Why these Biblical truth warranted a day free from the usual responsibilities of student life. How life is such a mixture of work and play, learning and assimilating, praying and just letting it be. And as I recall my childhood friends, caring room mothers, sensitive priests, and loving sisters I realize Jesus kept His promise. He and His love are with me—then, now, and always.