The Way it Was: Memories of springtime in northeastern Ohio

by John Straka Published:

"When it's springtime in the Rockies, I'll be coming home to you …" was a line from a popular song that Kate Smith (I think) used to sing. I wonder if there ever was such a song about springtime in northeastern Ohio? I'm not going to write such a song, but I am going to write a column about springtime, as I remember it from those good old days.

For me, spring starts around Groundhog Day on the second of February, or six weeks later, depending on if the groundhog sees his shadow. In my younger days, that was when I would start thinking about ordering seeds by mail from Park Seed Company. Planning a garden was almost as much fun as actually planting and tending one. More about that later.

Around mid-February, just about everybody we knew observed Ash Wednesday as the begining of Lent. We didn't make much of the day before, which is celebrated in New Orleans as Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday. There used to be much talk about what everyone was giving up for Lent. For us kids, that was often candy and very few did without for the entire Lenten season.

Easter Sunday was always a very big day. It would begin with the Mass of the Resurrection. The church would be crowded with a few folding chairs in the aisles and even then there would be many people, mostly men, standing in the back of the church. All the lights and candles were lit and the church would be filled with the aroma of fresh flowers, beeswax candles and Murphy's Oil Soap. The women of the parish would use that to restore the shine on the wooden pews.

Clean pews were needed because so many people came to church wearing their best outfits. Children dressed in new clothes were cautioned not to get dirty. Men would wear new shoes, or maybe a new hat or at least a new tie. Husbands and fathers would proudly bring their families. Church bells would ring to announce the Resurrection and the beginning of new life.

Women always wore hats to church, especially on Easter Sunday. One lady from our parish made her own hats and on such a special occasion she would go all out. Her hats drew a lot of attention, with their bows, ribbons, flowers and feathers. Many women wore a corsage, too. Some were made with as many as six blossoms. With their lightweight, colorful dresses, the women made Easter Sunday a really joyful celebration.

Easter Sunday afternoon, loads of people would go out for a walk to see and be seen. Downtown Cleveland would be like a parade ground with each person a vision of beauty.

Photographers would take pictures that would appear in the rotogravure section of the daily newspaper.

Another big springtime event was Mother's Day. Our parish celebrated with a great big fancy breakfast to honor mothers. They didn't have to cook and every mother got a red carnation. Sometime around Mother's Day, would be First Communion day for little children. In the early days, the little boys and girls would be all dressed up and they would march in procession down Arch Street to Libby Road in Maple Heights, then up Libby to Cato and into the church. Traffic on Libby would be stopped for the little ones on their big day. In those days, strict rules of fasting were enforced and to prevent the possibility that one of the children might spoil their fast by taking a drink of water from the drinking fountains in the hallway, the nuns would cover the fountains with towels.

Lenten fasting was observed by most families and it ended at noon on the Saturday before Easter.

Believe it or not, fasting in a home that smelled of fresh baked treats and waiting until the stroke of noon to eat that first bite, made it taste better.

Even as Lent was a serious ritual, there were some lighter moments. In a practice for first confession, a little boy said he had killed his brother six times. And in another case, the priest was listening to a football game while hearing confessions and for penance he imposed a 10-yard penalty.

A young couple approaching the church on Easter Sunday morning found everything just about perfect. The weather, the people, the flowers everywhere and best of all, the glorious church bells ringing. She said, "Aren't those bells beautiful?" He said he couldn't hear her because "those darn bells are making too much noise."

My best Easter joke is about Mrs. Smith, president of the Altar Society, who was reported as having laid an egg on the altar at offertory time.

I think springtime ends with Memorial Day, which used to be called Decoration Day.

After that, we get into summer, hot weather, lawn mowing, vacations and before you know it, the leaves begin to fall and we all wish it would be springtime again.

To get back to springtime gardening, I ordered seeds by mail from Park Seed. One year I planted about a dozen cucumber vines and my harvest was just a little over 200 cukes.

When I planted petunias, it turned out to be a great year for impatiens and when I planted impatiens it would be a good year for petunias. I grew gazania and giant allium, both very showy flowers.

While on vacation one summer, we visited the Park Seed factory and I saw how the women packing seeds counted out 20 tiny seeds. They used a special little scoop, a different size for different seeds.

Now I'm too old to tend a garden. I enjoy daffodils, hyacinths and peonies that come up every year all by themselves.

Editor's note: Straka can be reached at wenceslas88plus@gmail.com.

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