The driver of the dilapidated pre-war Packard impatiently waited in bumper-to-bumper traffic on North Eddy Street and finally pulled into a lot near the Notre Dame stadium amid a throng streaming toward the gates. Dressed a little too formally for a football game even in that more formal age, two young couples climbed out of the car and disappeared into the dusty chaos. Three of these four fans were long-time Irish football fanatics: a brother and sister and the sister’s husband from big Catholic families, for whom this 10-hour drive west on the Lincoln Highway from Pennsylvania was a pilgrimage at least on par with a voyage to the Vatican.
The brother, Bob, had been a fan since the fall Saturdays when he anxiously followed the progress of his father’s noon meal, hoping that an extra serving would hasten his easy-chair nap and allow Bob to quietly re-tune the radio from the Metropolitan Opera broadcast to the Notre Dame game. His dream of going to the school was delayed by the war, and then canceled by academic self-doubts after being out of school so long. The open-hearth furnaces of a Pittsburgh-area mill offered a more certain future that included enough income to indulge in an occasional road trip to South Bend with his sister Rosemary and her husband, Al, and to extend an offer of marriage to a pretty girl.
That pretty girl, a 21-year beautician and the other female on this trip, was an outsider on several counts: not Catholic, apathetic about Notre Dame’s and everyone else’s football team, and on her first trip outside the area where she grew up in a family of very limited means.
Unsurprisingly, Helen’s memory of this weekend does not include any details of the game that formed part of the team’s 1949 undefeated season and national championship. She does, however, recall Rosemary instructing her the next morning to grab a “loaner doily” in the vestibule of Sacred Heart Church and cover her head before entering for Mass. Her preparation for conversion to Catholicism was as novel and bewildering as her initiation in the other “religion” that was celebrated in the stadium the day before. Her upcoming marriage to Bob would immerse her in both creeds for many years to come.
An empty nest
The family party had lingered too long over lunch in the newly constructed LaFortune Student Center food court. Helen, Bob, and their three grown children were engrossed in conversation and hadn’t noticed that the crowd had quickly disbursed. When we realized how late it was, I grabbed my cap and gown and sprinted out the door toward the ACC.
My sudden exit reminded my mom that I was really flying the coop for good. My departure for Notre Dame four years ago was at best a kind of probationary passage into adulthood —evidenced by the uselessness of her tutoring me on proper laundry and ironing techniques before receiving the freshman information package that explained room and board policies.
Unimaginably to a mind formed by Depression-era poverty, the University’s role of in loco parentis also included laundry and maid service. At least the busywork of stitching on all those laundry labels helped take her mind off the impending emptiness of her nest during those last few weeks of August 1983.
In the four years since, Helen had maintained the reach of her apron strings via the U.S. Postal Service with weekly letters and an annual October cake-in-a-box to cheer me through my out-of-state birthday during midterms.
This final weekend as an official member of the Notre Dame community was the culmination of several pleasant visits to the campus. Helen had enjoyed seeing her husband’s satisfaction in being able to finally, if vicariously, attend his beloved Notre Dame; and the annual move-in week required what she loved best — useful, industrious employment. The blighted condition of Sorin Hall’s rooms in the 1980s, combined with Bob’s second job as a house painter, produced a flurry of private renovation activity every August that benefited both of them more than it did the University’s facilities management budget.
This routine, the football games, and other aspects of my stay at Notre Dame gave my parents welcome occupation during my dad’s first couple years of retirement, and now the well-timed arrival of their first grandchild to their oldest daughter provided a good segue into the next chapter of their parenting careers.
This year, faced with the bleak prospect of a “Ham for Two” Easter with her son, Helen jumped at the chance of an alternative that I proposed at the last minute. Granted, a “Retreat for Two” at Notre Dame was not exactly a Norman Rockwell image of holiday family togetherness; but with both children of her now-deceased oldest daughter busy with other plans, and her other daughter and her family far away in Tennessee, it was still an improvement.
My last visit to campus 10 years before was not a happy retreat: My father was dying of cancer, and I arrived in South Bend alone with two football tickets. I had hoped that my dad’s fluctuating condition might tick upward and allow him to cheer on the Irish one last time. This was not to be, but thinking it would somehow honor his love of the team, I made the seven-hour turnpike drive from Pittsburgh to attend the game anyway.
It was only after visiting Sacred Heart Basilica on Friday evening and breaking down in front of the mural of the death of St. Joseph that I foresaw the emotional impact of an empty seat next to me in the stadium. I sold my tickets the next morning at face value to a grateful manager of the Jameson Inn and drove north, spending the rest of the weekend staring out into Lake Michigan from the deserted dunes.
My mom unknowingly caused me another parental anxiety upon our arrival at the Morris Inn on this Good Friday afternoon. Although her stamina for walking had seriously declined, Helen still prided herself on living independently in the house she and Bob built over 50 years ago. I confirmed the availability of a wheelchair when making the room reservation, and spent the rest of Holy Week wondering how I would convince my mom to let me push her around campus so we could sightsee together.
Letting her walk between the Morris Inn and Sacred Heart Basilica for Stations of the Cross that evening did the trick, however, and the only resistance she offered the next morning was her request to be loaded into the chair outside and not be wheeled through the hotel lobby.
Despite the limitations of a hospital wheelchair that was likely part of the Morris family’s initial bequest for their inn, we spent a glorious, sunny Saturday taking in the many additions and changes on campus. Even Northern Indiana’s dead-level topography, which seemed so monotonous to these Pennsylvanians on previous visits, was a welcome feature of our tour. That night at the Easter Vigil Mass, the liturgical prowess of the Holy Cross Congregation’s Basilica ministry was in top form as usual: the nearly three-hour service was a seamless, moving experience of prayerful anticipation, renewal and, finally, joy.
As I pushed my mom past my old Sorin Hall haunt after Mass, I jumped at the sudden “boom!” of the Basilica’s eight-ton bell cutting through the lighter peals of the carillon. Helen, unperturbed by the noise, looked straight ahead through the cold night air. It was fifteen minutes until midnight, until the Resurrection Morning.
Greg Fuhrman resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He applies his engineering degree in his work for Duquesne University as a facilities project manager, and his knowledge of music liturgy gained in the Chapel Choir in his volunteer work as organist and cantor for a financially challenged inner-city Catholic Church. Email Greg at email@example.com.