First, before I get started on The Christmas Bazaar, let me mention The Brown and White, my fictionalized memoir of my high school days in Chicago in the late 1960s. Forty plus years in the making, The Brown and White is a fictionalized memoir that tells the story of Collin Callaghan’s freshman year at a Chicago Catholic High School. Collin is a white boy who is living in turbulent times in a changing city. He clings to his neighborhood and his family as he heads out each day with his classmates on the Brown and White, the ancient school bus driven by free-spirited Willie. Memorable characters abound as this story unfolds. Collin’s loveable family, especially his Irish Catholic policeman father and his Irish immigrant mother face life together. Collin and classmates blaze their own humorous and passionate trail through the late 1960s. A unique cast of terrific teachers are there to see the boys through. Laughs and life meet readers head on as they travel on the Brown and White.

 

Now, for the story that I will be adding to my book on grammar school.

The Christmas Bazaar

At every parish event, students took their cue from the Dominican Sisters. Normally, the Sisters spent every minute of the day with students. Rarely did they have time to associate with adult parishioners. However, things were different when something special was on the parish calendar.

The best parish fundraisers were Christmas Bazaars. Money spent at these fundraisers supported the Parish School. These November Yuletide events brought people into the Christmas spirit.

In the Callaghan house, we emptied our piggy banks for the Saint Cajetan Christmas Bazaar. Each Bazaar started out as a magical, wonderful event, and then tanked in disappointment. One year however, things were different.

At the Bazaar, the Sisters would pop-up everywhere. Most parents knew of the Sisters, but not directly. The Sisters were known almost entirely by reputation that was fed by stories from students.

Students worked with the Sisters to make “lots of junk” to be sold to parents and relatives.  Sometimes the Sisters reached out to moms for help. Because the moms knew the nuns by reputation, it took courage for them to respond to a call from an unpopular nun. At the same time, the most saintly Sister might be confronted with the obnoxious parents of the “terror of the classroom” who wanted to help out.

Yes, the parish dynamics changed during Bazaar time. At some point, things would get organized and the roles were understood. Humanity won out and things eased up. You might even see a Sister eating a snack or laughing with a Mom.

My older sisters were known for their smarts and excellent behavior. There was a gap between the oldest three Callaghan’s and the youngest three. My older brother John followed the three oldest sisters’ lead; his grades were always close to the top of the class each year. My performance was not so good. Teachers had a difficult time believing that I was a younger brother of my smart siblings. I kept lowering the Callaghan personal best in most every class. By the time my youngest sister came along, the teachers did not know what to expect from a Callaghan!

Today, we have lived through decades of positive reinforcement and motivation for students. In my early school days, many believed that the way to help poor students was punishment and shame. I thought the key was luck. I was looking forward to this Christmas Bazaar as my redemption. My measly collection of dimes, nickels, and a few quarters was going to win Colin Callaghan a major prize that even the O’Briens would envy.

The Bazaar was held in the primary grades building; one of those Catholic school buildings that nestled a parish church in its center. That architectural arrangement worked so well, the parish built another school building with yet another church. The old church was turned into an all-purpose facility: auditorium, lunch room, and gym.

The Bazaar was the biggest event held in the all-purpose room.

The Bazaar drew a huge number of parishioners and a handful of local Protestants. Once the event began, kids ran from game to game, either losing altogether or winning prizes that might be found in a box of Crackerjack.

Once we spent our money we would head home, get a little more money, and then go back to the Bazaar. The older kids in the family were done after about 10 minutes and they left never to return. They had seen it all before, over and over again.

On my third visit, I won a gold fish that I rushed back home in one of those white Chinese take-out containers.  When I got home my mother had washed out the old gold fish bowl and my fish started swimming with a couple companions that my little sister Susie had won.

Getting back to the Bazaar, I was down to my last quarter.  I scouted out the raffle prizes. I had planned all along to win a big prize for the Callaghan’s. If I won a big one, I would be known across the parish as lucky and my entire future would be mapped out in wins and not losses. It seemed that important to me.

My eyes grew moist as I looked up and saw that one of the prizes was a television set! There were a few small appliances, some “expensive” toys, and two bikes—a big one and a small one. I stared at the big bike when the young second grade teacher, Sister Margaret Mary, came by, Sister put her hand on my shoulder.

“So that’s the one you want to win, Collin!”

Yes, Sister, it is!

“Well, Collin, we don’t always get what we want, but I’ll say a little prayer for you.”

I stood for the longest time wishing and hoping and praying that I would win. Finally, I walked up to one of the parents at the booth and put my 25 cents down. I got a numbered ticket and then went to see if it matched any of the numbers that were attached to the prizes.

At first, I was thinking about winning something big. No matches on the big items! I started to check the numbers on the small appliances—maybe a winner for Mom. Again, no matches. Eventually, I was down to the cheap stuff and bingo, I won a plastic kazoo.

With a couple pennies in my pocket, I bought a cup of lemonade. I sat there as one big prize after another was claimed. When I left, it was Christmas Bazaar 1, Callaghans kazoo.

At home some of my unlucky friends came by and we commiserated with each other about our bad luck.

As the November afternoon waned, my friends and I sat on the front steps and looked down Washtenaw Avenue. At the end of the block, we spotted my brother John coming along riding a tiny bike that was much too small for him. As he came to the house, he hopped off the bike and looked me in the eye and said, “here you are Collin, I won you a bike. It is ‘busting bronco.’ It has solid rubber tires, but it’s not too bad.”

Without thinking too hard about the prize, (that would come later), I was overcome by a lucky glow as I looked up and smiled at my friends.

 

Lawrence Norris

Copyright 2021, Sporting Chance Press