At the Ringing of the Bell


“There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens.

A time to give birth, and a time to die;

A time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.

A time to weep and a time to laugh;

A time to mourn, and a time to dance.”  - Ecclesiastes 3:1-2, 4


When I was growing up in South St. Louis City, every evening around 6 p.m., my mom would stand on the back stoop of our house facing the alley and ring a large school bell.  It was important that your ears were attentive to the clanging of this bell, because if you were not seated at the dinner table within six minutes of its ringing, you were out of luck.  Breakfast would be available the following morning starting at 7 a.m.

Being on time was important in the Mees household.  And even though it was my mother who had possession of the dinner bell, we always knew that the order and structure that grounded our family life could be traced back to our father and his strong German roots.

There was a set time for everything, and my dad believed it was good not to have too much variation.  Weekdays were for school, then two hours of recreation, then dinner, then homework, with baths on alternating evenings.  (Good Lord, if every one of the eight of us kids tried to bathe on the same night, the hot water heater would not be able to handle it. Besides, there wouldn’t be enough time.)  Then there were prayers, usually wrapped up with a rousing rendition of “Now Thank We All Our God,” and then a solid nine hours of sleep.

Saturday mornings were the time for chores.  These mornings often began with Dad walking into our bedrooms, gleefully yanking up the blinds and singing, “It’s time to rise and shine and give God your glory, glory.”  What followed was the scrubbing of bathrooms.  Cutting of the lawn.  Mopping of the stairs (no kidding) and—most despised—the cleaning of the playroom in the basement where toys had inevitably gotten jumbled over the course of the week and needed to be sorted and re-shelved.  If a new sibling was going to arrive in the Mees clan, the way I most often found out was at Saturday lunch.  My dad would announce: “Your mom and I were thinking that we needed another worker to help clean the basement.”

But Sundays.  Sundays were for fun.  After Mass, my mom got what was often her only break in the week when my dad took all of us kids to the park.  Or for a long bike ride.  Or (our favorite) a trip to the zoo.  These excursions didn’t come for free.  We had to beg for them by saying, “Please?”  “Pretty please?” And finally, “Pretty please with whip cream and a cherry on top?”  My dad was always a sucker for sweets. 

There was a time for everything under the sun.  A time for work and a time for play.  A time study and a time for prayer.  A time for quiet and a time to run around outside like banshees.  And, gosh darn it, a time for dinner, which we ate together as a family every night—assuming you replied quickly to the bell.

In recent years, since the passing of our mother, and in a most particular way during the deadening monotony of early Covid, time began to play games with Dad.   It became hard to know what day of the week it was, and sometimes even what time of the day.  Dates on the calendar seemed to dance around all over the page.  Alarm clocks seemed to always be going off at the wrong hour.  Church doors were not open at the time he thought they should be.

And it fell into our hands—his children and grandchildren, but also many of those in the neighborhood where we grew up—to recreate some of the structure and order which he created to help us thrive when we were young.  There were neighbors who went out and picked up his newspaper and put it on the top step before they left for work each morning.  And neighbors who called us when they thought he might be overexerting himself.  There were new alarm clocks that announced “Time to take your medicine.”  And elaborate family Google calendars going on behind the scenes.  And there were dinners.  Someone with him still for dinner every night of the week.  Structures and schedules and showing up on time were the way we all continued to speak the language of love.

So you will then understand why, when my sister rang the bell last Friday morning and said our dad had had several heart events overnight and that the hospital was saying to come, every one of the eight of us left work, hopped on a plane, ran to the car, cancelled every other plan, and biked, flew, drove from South St. Louis City, the suburbs of Atlanta, downtown Milwaukee, and the crescent of New Orleans to make it to our dad’s bedside.

It was clear that Dad was hearing the dinner bell—perhaps again being rung by our mom on the other side—calling him to the heavenly banquet.   And once we had all spoken with him and prayed with him and sang with him and life support was removed, it took him only about five minutes to find his seat at that table.  We think he made it right in time. 

It wasn’t exactly the time we would have chosen.  I suppose it never would have been.  Who doesn’t want to hold onto their parents forever?  But there is a time for everything under the sun.  A time to live and a time to die.  A time to laugh and a time to tear up.  A time to mourn and a time to celebrate. 

This past week has been for me and my family a time to do all of these.  We’ve spent endless hours looking at old photos, eating, making funeral arrangements, making airport runs, eating some more, telling stories, cleaning out my dad’s refrigerator and changing the sheets, shopping for suits for our sons, eating even more.  The memorial service was this past Friday and now we’ve all begun to head back into our “every day” lives that still don’t feel quite “every day” yet.  As I write this, it now feels like a time of deep silence. 

A particular consolation for me during this past week has been the Eucharist.  For some reason, it is only just in the last couple days that I’ve begun to hear the bells that many parishes still ring before Mass or during the consecration in a new way.  Suddenly it strikes me that they are like the dinner bell of my childhood reminding me that the Mass is a meal.  And that when the bells ring, we are being called to gather at this table as a foreshadowing of the heavenly banquet and, in some mysterious way, already a participation in it.  When we gather at the altar, it is not only we who are living that are present, but our fathers and mothers and grandparents and the many generations who have gone before us.   Here at this table, for a moment, time is suspended and we are already all together again as we were in the past and will be in the future. 

I write this knowing that all of you reading this have also lost dear ones in your lives—family members, friends, religious community members, beloved parishioners, co-workers.  This week when you participate in Eucharist, I hope that it is a consoling experience for you also.  That for a moment you can experience stepping out of time and be with all the saints in “giving God your glory, glory.”