I was born when I was very young. I always wanted to use that line since I heard Popeye say it to his nephews one afternoon after school when my little brother believed that eating spinach would give him big muscles a la Popeye. So, now you know that I have a little brother. I also have a little sister, a big sister and two big brothers. But at our ages ("classic" as my daughter would tell you) big and little have entirely different connotations.
I am a member of the baby boom generation, children of survivors of both the Great Depression and World War II, people filled with enough hope to be fruitful and multiplied with enthusiasm so that our schools were overflowing and the competition for jobs became pretty fierce once we managed to graduate from those crowded classrooms.
I grew up on the outskirts of Queens in the City of New York, right down the street from the Nassau County line which was the beginning of "the Island", as in Long Island. Long Island contained Brooklyn and Queens, but because they were part of "the city" (no need to name it, they think there's only one) their allegiance and identification was to NYC. Nassau and Suffolk were peopled with escapees from the city who reached for the American dream of backyards, barbeques and shopping malls. We straddled both those worlds with our little yards and membership in the five boroughs.
I am also part of one of the last hurrah of Catholic education in which whole neighborhoods of children spent years in plaid wool and blue knee socks and neckties with the school’s initials machine embroidered in gold thread, taught by nuns in habits and priests in cassocks and the occasional biretta. When I started first grade the Mass was in Latin and Vatican II was just building up steam. By my graduation from 8th grade the Mass had been changed and we sang about peace and brotherhood to the strum of a guitars. Today Catholic schools have become more like private schools that mostly the well-to-do can manage and they are of an entirely different character.
I was formed by the Catholic school system, by American Catholic culture, for it was a culture, a force, a way of life and a worldview. Belief in God was as natural a belief, an assumption, a given even, as belief that your parents existed and your math homework was due tomorrow. On the wall in every classroom was a crucifix and an American flag. We said our morning prayers and we pledged allegiance. We sat with our class at Sunday Mass and we attended Benediction on First Friday afternoons after spending the lunch hour running around the schoolyard, playing basketball or jumping rope. Sweaty boys in rumpled cassocks assisting Fr. Dunnigan with the gold monstrance, swinging the incense to cover over the afternoon exertions of red-faced kids, ancient Mr. Bolton playing the pipe organ in the choir as we intoned Tantum Ergo were early lessons in the sacred and the ordinary moments of life linked arm-in-arm.
I went to an all girl Catholic prep school where we studied Latin and French and trigonometry and literature and art history. My husband attended one of the all boy Catholic prep schools and we met when we were 16 putting on a play at my school. We’ve been married forever (after each of us graduated from Catholic universities) and have four great kids and we have been living in the ex-burbs of Dallas for the last 18 years.