Our closest relations - closest in the sense of being the ones we saw and interacted with the most - were the children of my mother's brother Kenny.
My mother was the youngest in her family; Kenny was next to her. Even then there was four and a half years difference between them. My mother was born in January, 1915; Kenny in June, 1910. Nevertheless, my mother said that she and her brother Kenny were very close, and that when she was in high school, the two of them used to enter - and win, apparently - dance contests. I had never heard of such a thing as a dance contest! How did you win? By finishing your dance sooner than everyone else??!!
Kenny's wife was Ruth. Actually, Uncle Kenny is 'Big Kenny' because his elder son is 'Little Kenny.' And Ruth is actually 'Little Ruth' because my Uncle Bob's wife is 'Big Ruth.' But more of that later.
Kenny was a lawyer.
Well, actually he did several things. He was a major stock player and I think made a lot of money that way. And he owned and operated a car wrecking yard. But he was indeed a lawyer. His children - our cousins (mine, my brother's, and sister's) were 'Little Kenny,' Bobby, and Terry.
As have said, I am certain that they - at least our cousins - were Catholics. Perhaps I am wrong. But it is odd that I should have believed that so firmly if it were not so. As I have also said, my very first - and enormously impressive - experience of the Mass was through them.
My memory is very vague as to my age, but very clear as to the experience. It must, I am sure, have been Christmas Midnight Mass - it was certainly nighttime, and what else could it have been. I cannot imagine my parents having allowed me up that late when I was very young, so perhaps I was 8 or 9, though my feeling is that I was younger.
Of course I had no context for this. I had been to a Presbyterian Sunday School a few times, with our neighbours the Deweys. I had once been taken to a Sunday Baptist service with our neighbour Mrs Langston - a service which impressed me enormously because of the singing and because of the beauty of the church. But in reality I had no slightest understanding of what religion, or church, might be about.
What I remember vividly about this Midnight Mass - and of course, this being the late 1940's or early 1950's, it would have been the old so-called 'Tridentine' Mass, in Latin - was its mystery. There were strange lights, kneelings, movements. I don't think I understood that the language was not English but then I would not have expected to understand much at all about what was said.
What filled me with a flush of awe and fear was the bells.
I could see a man, dressed in robes, with his back to us. And then a tinkling of bells of unearthly beauty sounded - and I could see nothing to explain the sound. I was genuinely struck with fear - was God's Hand ringing a bell suspended in air where I could not see it? I did not know, and am sure that I later surmised that someone I could not see was ringing the bells. But I knew with certainty that something important was meant by this. The bells must have rung three times, once for the Epiclesis, and then for the consecration of the Host and of the Cup. I have no recollection of detail, but have never forgotten my emotion.
Until we left Bakersfield, in June of 1954, we had much to do in the ordinary way with our cousins - particularly with Bobby and Terry, for Little Kenny was significantly older than I, the oldest in our family. After we moved to Oroville we saw little of them. Both 'Big Kenny' and 'Little Ruth' are dead now. Well, I know 'Big Kenny' is dead because I remember when he died. I think Ruthie is dead. After she was widowed she used to go to Hawai'i and spend time with my mother. I think she and 'Big Ruth' bought a house there at one point. But I think she is gone now.
Bobby is dead, too. He appears to have got drunk one day and decided to dive into the Kern River. Unfortunately there is almost no water left in the Kern River any longer so he hit bottom and broke his neck. Kenny became a fisherman (big time - I think he owned a fleet of fishing boats), Terry a horse and dog trainer. But I have had no contact with them. Peter may have done.
But I owe them the awe I still feel when I think of that first Mass. God grant I would realise that every Mass I intend should evoke the same emotion.