When I was young, Midnight Mass at St. Mary's in Sleepy Eye was a spectacle. Incense, candles, lights bedazzled. Trumpets, organ, and choir filled the church with rich sound.
We dropped Midnight Mass in the early '80s. A few years later it was back, only without the pageantry. In its place was a subdued, simpler service that continues today. Still joyful, there are fewer lights, a single cantor, a smaller crowd. As magnificent as the Christmas story is, I like stepping into the peaceful stillness of the church at that hour.
It was one of those Midnight Masses that I want to tell about.
On a Christmas Eve years ago, I was out at Miller Sellner in the afternoon. We only had daughter Anna then, and I went to Miller Sellner to buy a last gift from Santa, a little farm toy. Plus I might find just the right tool that wife Pam wanted for Christmas. Ahem.
Bart Kretschmer was there, too. Bart farms out south of me. He was also filling out his Christmas list, thinking his wife Katherine would like a new block heater for their 706 tractor. We agreed that we were lucky to have such pragmatic wives, and decided to toast our good fortune with a brief stop at Meyer's Bar.
Coincidentally, our buddy Salty Waters was up there. Well, it wasn't much of a coincidence. Salty was what you'd call a regular.
Salty was one of those characters you used to see in small towns. It didn't appear that he'd had the easiest life. Nowadays some social agency would have swept Salty off to senior housing. Back then, "senior housing" was living upstairs in the old Chief Hotel.
I think Salty came to town to work at Pietrus. We assumed he came from somewhere down south. He never said much about where he'd been. I'm still not sure if he was Salty Waters or Watters. He claimed he went by both.
Salty did lots of odd jobs. My dad had him out to help with bigger, usually nasty, jobs on the farm when I was young. He wasn't afraid to work. He made a little money, but quite a bit of it went to barkeeps in town. Bart's dad Hugo also had him as a hired hand now and then. Bart and I agreed you could learn a thing or two shoveling manure alongside Salty, not necessarily stuff our dads wanted us to learn.
So Salty knew Bart and me pretty well. He thought we were both too smart for our own good, and liked to give us grief about ending up back in Sleepy Eye. Salty always seemed up on the news, and he liked to tweak you wherever you were on the political spectrum. I remember Salty pointing out to that I couldn't vote for Reagan because he was going to nuke the Russkies, but I couldn't not vote for Reagan because he saved babies.
This was back when some of the first Hispanics were coming to Sleepy Eye. That wasn't the smoothest population shift for my little German town, where Swedes were considered exotic.
I remember once in Meyers when a couple Hispanic men were in there. The whole place looked his way when Salty started speaking with them in perfect Spanish from a couple stools away. Soon he was laughing with them about something no one else in the bar understood. Later after the men left an old guy hollered over to Salty, "Hey, Salty, how do you know Spanish?" Salty replied, "Whatthehellkindofquestionisthat? How do you know English? I learnt it."
On this particular Christmas Eve, Bart and I sat down next to Salty. Half-scowling, half-smiling, he asked, "Who let you boys out of the house?" He was drinking a pop which caught our attention. Salty said that it was Christmas, and that he was a C-and-E teetotaler. That didn't make much sense, but so be it.
There was only time for one and a little banter about Maggie Thatcher, who Bart and I proclaimed to be Salty's girlfriend. As we were leaving, I asked if he had plans for Christmas. Salty sort of huffed, "Yeah. I got people." Then Bart offered, "Going to church for Christmas? You should come to Midnight Mass." Salty was used to us being brash, and he said, "Young Mr. Kretschmer, you should probably worry more about yourself."
That night, it was just little Anna and I who stayed up for Midnight Mass. I was surprised, nay, shocked when I walked into St. Mary's, and there was Salty sitting way off to the side against the wall. I looked back at him a few times, and could see he wasn't following along with all the kneeling and standing parts. He mostly sat, leaning against the wall. At Communion, Bart caught my eye as he was walking back to his seat. He mouthed the words, "Did you see who's here?"
Only Anna and I were up this late from my family, and halfway through the homily it was just me. Anna fell fast asleep, and she lay snuggled in her big furry coat on the pew. As Mass ended, I lifted her, head up to my shoulder. I looked around and spotted Salty slowly getting up. The church was emptying, and with my load of sleeping-weight I went over to his pew. I said in a hushed voice, "Hey, Salty, Feliz Navidad."
He sat back down and looked up at me, "So. I don't got people. You probably knowed that. I used to, once." Salty looked at Anna, and said "I guess you got people. You're carrying one of 'em." I didn't say anything, but now I sat down in the pew, shifting my living baggage onto my lap.
"She's a gift, ain't she?" said Salty in her direction. I nodded my head a little. Then Salty turned toward the front of the church, and said, "I guess this is a gift, tain't it?" I wasn't sure whether he meant Christmas or the church or what, so I just nodded once more.
By now some of the lights were off and the church was mostly empty, a few stragglers praying. Then Salty asked, "Is it OK if a feller sets here for a while?" "Oh sure. People set here all the time," I assured him. Salty rested his head down some, and closed his eyes. Sometimes it seems right to just do nothing, so that's what I did.
Father Wyffels was preparing for Mass in the morning. He walked over to us and softly wished me a Merry Christmas. Then he looked over at Salty and asked if he was with me. I'm not sure why, but I said, "My uncle." Father nodded and walked on.
A minute or two passed. Salty opened one eye and said, "Uncle?" I shrugged, "Sorry." Then I heard, "Harumph."
Gradually the other eye opened and Salty said, "Spose'n, you better get that little girl home." I agreed, "Yeah, Santa's got to come yet tonight." I boosted Anna back up toward my shoulder, pulling her hood around her head.
When I got to the end of the pew I heard, "Feliz navidad y bendiga a su familia." Then with a smirk he added, "Nephew." I smiled. Then it was off to a cold car and a warm house.