Walking the Brandywine Valley Sept. 24 and finally enjoying the demands and rhythms of the road, I felt the strong presence of my parents, who have been gone a while now. At that moment, a butterfly – OK, given the season, it might have been a moth – flittered from behind my left shoulder and in front of me, hanging there for a few strides. The next morning, on day six of the Feet for Francis/Pilgrimage of Love and Mercy, we awoke Sept. 25 in the auxiliary gym of the Mirenda Center at Neumann University and walked a few hundred yards to its lovely Sacred Heart Chapel. Its main aisle is inlaid with three icons. The one closest to the altar? A butterfly.
Family was the theme of this day. Some are named Wojciechowski or Ansorge or Poetzel. Others are brothers, not necessarily of blood, from Curtis Bay. Now add to them a Lombardi and a Tiller, etc.
Father Jack Lombardi points the way the morning of Sept. 25. (Maureen Cromer/CR Staff)
Driving from Neumann University back to a point near Kennett Square, I moved to to where I should have been from the start, the back of the pack. Up front, I had just been getting in the way of Father Jack Lombardi, who has trained his pilgrims in military maneuvers, halting and warning traffic, walking in double-time.
Paula Tiller, with Clara Milstead, had a horse eating right out of her hand. (Paul McMullen/CR Staff)
We were on secluded country roads in the Brandywine Valley, with little traffic, where grazing horses would trot to the fence and sate their curiosity. A radio reporter from Philadelphia found us on the road. Jorge Ribas of the Washington Post walking with us and toting a video camera, blended in and became an afterthought. The through-walkers soldiered on while most hopped into support vans and headed to Chik-fil-A near Glenn Mills for a lunch of significant import.
En route there, neither Father Jack or I were riding shotgun in a support van, and the caravan missed its turn, delaying a radio interview WBAL-AM had scheduled for me. Never mind that it was being taped; I was in full Tasmanian Devil mode. At the Chik-fil-A, Paul Tiller came after me like one of my brothers from Church Street or Curtis Bay, to rightfully read me the riot act. While I was out back, waiting for WBAL to call, Paul came to me to shake hands, his wife, Paula, having read him the riot act. I blew off his outstretched hand. Instead, we hugged, like the brothers that we have become.
So it was that I was an emotional wreck when I visited with Mary Beth Marsden on WBAL. I asked her about the ages of her children. She has a child born September 9, 1999. I told her that I was in the waiting room at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center that day, as one of my grandsons was also born there, 9-9-99. She hit record and we taped the interview, but at the end the talk turned to sacrifice being part of pilgrimage, and I broke down, sobbing that I missed wife, Mary.
My Mary was alarmed by my state when she heard the interview. Over the phone, I fell back on Father Jack, who that very morning – no wait, was it the day before? – talked about ecstasy and its Greek root word, “ekstasis.” Until that point in my story-telling life, I had used multiple words to describe the emotion felt at the birth of a child, or marriage of a daughter and accomplishment of a son, or a sunset in Montana and the community created among strangers. Now I do. Aware and transcendent, it is ecstasy.
So it is that I have no idea if the photo below was taken before, or after lunch. Don’t know, don’t care. All I know is that Johnnie the rescue dog, in Concordville, Pa., gives kisses.
Back at Neumann University, we waited – and waited some more – for pilgrims and their supporters to come together, pray and dig into the dinner that had been paid for by the good women of Notre Dame Preparatory School in Towson. Somehow, the wait was alright.
Dinner from Seasons Pizza in Aston, Pa., was paid for Notre Dame Preparatory School in Towson. (Paul McMullen/CR Staff)