Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Saint Henry of Brookfield

There is a small park across the street from Saint Joseph’s Church in Libertyville, and for a few years back in the fifties, they used to flood it and make a skating rink there in the darkest, coldest few weeks of winter.

On late Christmas Day afternoons, the light failing, night coming on, my uncle, Saint Henry of Brookfield, would load his white four door Chevrolet with cousins and take us all there to skate.

Just getting us to the rink and out on the ice was a feat of extraordinary patience. There would have been nine or ten of us, along with skates, socks, mittens, stocking caps, scarves, jackets and snow pants. All those laces to cinch tight and tie. All that winter clothing to tug into place. He did it cheerfully and, once we were all launched, he would lace on his own skates and get out there too.

He was a working stiff during the week with all the cares and concerns working stiffs had back then. But for an hour or so on those Christmas Day afternoons, he was a light-hearted, high-energy, funny and generous uncle—part Lou Costello, part Curly Howard—the engine for countless games of Crack the Whip—the guy even the slowest kid on the ice could catch when we played tag.

He was good to us, each and all—the best uncle on the best day of the best years of childhood, and when it was time to go home, he untied all the skates, tugged on all the boots, got us back in the car, and led us in Jingle Bells all the way home.

The rink is gone now. I’ll bet not one driver out of one hundred passing by on Milwaukee Avenue knows or remembers it was ever there.

Saint Henry of Brookfield is gone too. But I can’t drive past the place this time of year without glancing over and saying, “Merry Christmas, Hank,” under my breath.