Monday, September 14, 2009

Because of Harold Bassage

We hear a lot about memories so painful they are repressed. Psychologists study them: some actually happened, some not. But what about positive memories that we forget—of mentors, say, who turned our lives in positive directions? What happens to these memories? Are we too ungrateful to harbor them? And what do we call these memories when they finally alight? I call one of them Dr. Bassage.

For the first time since I began this blog, I remembered Harold Bassage today while out for a walk. And slapped myself on the forehead. And asked myself, you ungrateful twit, why no post about Dr. B?

How could I forget Harold Bassage?

I was ten years old when my father's Minneapolis company was bought by a New York firm, and my whole world was uprooted. We moved from the bucolically named County Road Five in the ditto hamlet of Deephaven, Minnesota, to a larger house on a hill in the intimidating town of Greenwich, Connecticut. I wept bitterly when informed of the move, and I missed my friends in the old neighborhood, like David Wiper and Billy Nickerson, and at Blake School, like Phil Ahern and Art Saunders. (Full disclosure: I did not miss my first Catholic friend. I don't even remember his name.)

I'm sure my parents missed our Congregational church in Wayzata (they had been married there), but I didn't miss it much. It seemed to amount to Sunday school mostly, about which my clearest memory is that my brother got left behind one Sunday. We drove all the way back to Deephaven before my parents noticed he was missing. But then we were four on the way to being six children; David was quiet; and there are precedents (Luke 2, 41–53).

So when my parents opted out of the Congregational parish in downtown Greenwich, and decided perhaps that Christ Episcopal Church was a bit too high-hat, choosing instead to become faithful parishioners of the much smaller St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in the countryside north of town, I didn't think much of it. But by this chain of circumstance, I was brought under the influence of Dr. Harold Bassage, and I believe that he contributed to my being a Catholic today.

I do not have a picture of Dr. Bassage handy. I know there's one on the wall of my mom's winter home, and the next time I'm there I'll grab it, scan it, and post it. But there's a tidy symbolism in the picture of an interior wall of St. Barnabas that illustrates this article (courtesy of the St. Barnabas web site). Other than the stone wall itself there are two items of interest: one I had personal contact with every Sunday I served at the altar, the processional crucifix, seen here in a mounting bracket; and one I don't remember at all, the date, 1958. You see what I mean about memories? We moved to Greenwich in 1962, which means the church was only four years old when we arrived. This fact seems significant to me now, but it made no impact on my youthful consciousness then. Either that or I repressed it.

But Dr. Bassage . . . I carried the crucifix ahead of him, and proudly. He was not the rector for most of the three years I served on the altar. That would have been Reverend Bailey, who may have been a D.D. too, but I never thought of him as "Doctor." Dr. Bassage was already relatively elderly by that time, and he was the assistant pastor, on his way to full retirement, as I recall. I remember Reverend Bailey, perhaps unfairly, as a bit of a moralizer who didn't quite connect with me as a 12-year-old. He admonished me in confirmation class, I remember, for not praying at night on my knees. That didn't go down well somehow.

Why did Dr. Bassage impress me so? Perhaps there was something in the theatrical connection. When you Google Harold Bassage, the first line is a reference to his late, lamented play, "Who Shot Willie? Mom told us that he was connected with a theatrical group in New York City. Theatre was an interest of mine as I moved through my teens, and we may have connected through this common interest.

But there was something else, something in Dr. Bassage's manner, probably in his sermons (though I don't remember one), and certainly in moments when I talked with him face to face that communicated something of a genuine religious life. He had a deeply honeyed voice and a kind, kind gaze. His voice quavered when he spoke and his double chin wobbled a bit, as though the words coming through were charged with gratuitous energy. Yet he had a reserve about him that was a bit out of place in Greenwich, a distance that he maintained between his self and whatever was happening right in front of him. This was the antithesis of high-hat—not supercilious or know-it-all at all. It was rather a real presence and respect for what was before him, whether it was a wealthy parishioner or an occasionally devout 14-year-old. It was a presence that I as that 14-year-old could truly sense. In Dr. Bassage's presence, I felt accepted as an intelligent, interesting person, and I felt perhaps that it was not he alone who was accepting me. When Dr. Bassage spoke, there was another presence in the room.

When I applied to boarding school, I asked Dr. Bassage to write my personal recommendation. I had no confessor at the time, not being Catholic, but I guess I figured that if anyone knew me, it was my beloved minister.

I have reason to believe that his last years, perhaps particularly after full retirement from the ministry, were lonely years, but that's a private issue. I regret that I did not stay in touch with him but rather heard, casually, along the way from my mother, that he had passed away. I did not attend his funeral. But with this post I hope to set things straight and lay a flower at his grave. Dr. Bassage was an angel I have too often forgotten, a hovering memory, meaningful but elusive.

Did you have a mentor like that?