COLUMN: Holy week memories

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Editor’s Note: This Easter column was first published in March 2005.

For a young altar boy worn out by a two-hour service in a packed parish church, the woman’s words were as refreshing as the nighttime air flowing around his black cassock.

“You did a good job tonight,” the then middle-aged woman said after watching me empty an incense pot of spent charcoal in the church’s gravel parking lot. It was a rite that sent orange sparks flying around my ankles. The priest had spooned grains of incense onto the hot coals all during the Easter Vigil Mass, which was the longest – and for an altar boy, the most complicated – church event of the year. But the service was over and I was ready to pedal my bicycle home, where my mother and siblings were coloring Easter eggs.

More than 20 years later, it’s not the eggs I remember, but Helen Epple’s simple words and memories of her standing in the packed church. Today, Helen is at rest just a few steps from where we chatted that night. She died a few weeks ago of cancer.

Judged by today’s standards, Helen was a rare woman. Never married, she helped care for her young siblings after their mother died and lived most of her life on her family’s home farm, not far from New Boston. She later built a home next to her brother, Sylvester. After Sylvester’s wife, Annie, died, brother and sister lived next to one another. For a single, retired woman who worked for years at Abbey Press and a farmer mourning his wife’s death, having family nearby was the most important thing in the world.

Sylvester died a few years later and that had to be a hard blow to Helen. But she coped and moved on. A quiet woman, she always seemed to be wearing a smile. She was devoted to her parish church and spent hours volunteering. I remember seeing her at summer church socials, working in the kitchen.

Not once in all the years I helped her brother on the farm did I hear Helen raise her voice or say a harsh word about anyone. To me, that made her special. But her life wasn’t remarkable in many respects. She never made headlines or lived an extravagant life. She bore no children to keep her memory alive, but she’ll be remembered for who she was: a caring person who cared for her family and was loved by her neighbors.

I was out of the country when Helen died, but I paid a visit to her grave last week. The cemetery was wet from rain and my shoes sank deep into the grass as I walked through the cemetery. Helen’s family: her parents and brother, are buried nearby. What a blessing it is to be buried among kin.

While working on a recent story on Irish immigrants who settled in Perry County, I was moved by the graves of men and women who left their own families some 150 years ago. Yet, they never forgot their homelands, making sure their Irish counties of origin were etched on their tombstones.

For those of us who hold the Easter season holy, people like Helen Epple stand as symbols of faith and joy. They prove the richest of lives are often the simplest – and call out to us from heaven that the grave isn’t a symbol of despair, but hope.

Longing for Spring

March and Easter are supposed to mark the arrival of spring but it seems winter – or at least winter-like weather – just doesn’t want to let go.

Easter daffodils are blooming but lawns and farmers’ fields have yet to green up much. Wheat fields, however, are green and growing some. I know it’s only late March but it seems like trees and flowering bushes should be budding by now. The forsythia bushes in my yard don’t seem in a hurry, either.

Perhaps the delayed spring is good, meaning fewer blooming things will be nipped by a late freeze or frost.

With a little luck, dogwood trees will be in full blossom in April, just in time for the Dogwood Tour.