Hymns, Halloween, Christmas, and Candles

We children at the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children eagerly looked forward to the holidays, complete with many memorable celebrations.  In those happy uncomplicated days before the separation of church and state, religious education played a central role in our weekly and even daily lives.  In the dormitory, our days would begin and end in prayer.  In the morning assemblies, Braille song books would be taken by each student from the front pew of the chapel, and many patriotic songs would be gloriously sung i unison, the beautiful voices of the boys and girls blending so marvelously with the strains of the pipe organ.  At Thanksgiving, we would intone, “come, ye faithful people come, raise the song of harvest home, all is safely gathered in, ‘ere the winter storms begin” and on would be instantly transported to the first Thanksgiving in 1620, imagining the pilgrims singing this joyous song of thanks.

On still other mornings, we would break into the school song.  “to dear old WPSB our praises we will sing, along the stately hallowed halls, our fondest memories cling.  Let’s give three cheers, three rousing cheers, and shout along with glee.  Our loyalty, our fealty, to WPSB.”  This song is always sung at the conventions of the alumni association, which are held every two years, and one can still feel chills every time the song is sung.

Religious education classes would be held in one of the classrooms in, what at that time, was known as the Main Building, now the Mary Schenley building.  Held on the second classroom level, the classrooms would smell delightfully of candle wax, which I thought was the smell of crayons back then when I was a wee tot of seven or eight.  Bible stories would be read, children’s hymns would be sung, and my first year, each of us was permitted to choose a favorite book of the Bible, which we then received as a gift in Braille.  There was a lovely older woman, Miss Mason, in the Protestant religious education class, who was quiet and very kind.  She played the piano beautifully.  I eagerly looked forward to these get-togethers each Tuesday evening, so I could sing and smell my candles.

Halloween and Christmas were two of my favorite holiday celebrations.  Carving pumpkins and marching in costume in the Halloween parade, always taking place on a Thursday night, held a really special place in my heart back then.  After the parade up and down the corridors, we would hold our individual classroom parties where we would bob for apples, drink apple cider and eat homemade doughnuts.  Then, the crowning point of the celebration would be a giant candy-filled sack which was given to each child to enjoy all on ones own.

Another of those treat bags would be given at Christmas time to each child, the annual Christmas program would be held the day of the holiday recess, and a very special Christmas Hanukkah party would be given just for the students by the Squirrel Hill Lions club.  Literally every well-known local celebrity would be in attendance.  Baseball players and announcers the likes of Bob Prince and Willie Stargell to the wrestlers of the day, Bruno Sammartino, to locally prominent disk jockeys such as Hal Murray.  We girls had huge crushes on so many of them, Hal Murray in particular, used to be featured on radio station KQV.  The idea that one could actually meet the person you were crazy about was so wonderful and mystifying at the same time.

The school had active friendships with so many well-known performers.  Comedienne Phyllis Diller visited our school, as did the chorus of young teenagers known as   Up With People.  We accepted so much of this brushing up against the famous as a simple matter of course; our absolute entitlement.

We were never overlooked nor forgotten, and it is due to so many kind and good folks that the memories remain to this day.  High school hayrides in the Fall, hot dog roasts and dances in the spring, all of them lovingly orchestrated and prepared with love for us.  In retrospect, these reminiscences become even more special and cherished.  Poignant and so pure, they remain like a fine wine, becoming more mellow with age.

Ellen Goldfon