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Carrie Gaska's USA: The Fish Fry

We shuffle into wooden pews and talk in whispers while we wait. Yellow and red bits of glass glimmer in the bright blue stained glass windows and the velvety green altar carpet reminds me that this is an Irish church.

Outside, empty, mushy cornfields await a new crop and silhouettes of huge leafless oaks stand against the dusk. The weak April sun is gone, leaving a purple and red smudge across the sky. A dozen kids play in the cemetery, ducking behind hundred-and-fifty-year-old weatherworn gravestones.

It's like a family reunion in the church, with people hugging and greeting each other warmly. We've all just come out of winter hibernation for St. Columbkille's annual Friday night Fish Fry.

Our three children sit with their grandparents in another pew and are called for dinner a half hour before my husband and I are called.

A man in his early 20's and a woman with a mass of long blond hair arrive wearing Tommy Hilfiger. Some of Madison Avenue has reached these parts, but fashion isn't a high priority. This small Wisconsin community is about families, hard work and keeping food on the nation's tables. This is the heartland of America.

What's important here is this fish fry. It's a rite of spring as important to the community as Lent is to Catholics.

This year the church is donating all fish fry proceeds to Carmen Brockmiller, a 17-year-old whose car collided with a snowplow in November. Carmen suffered brain injuries so severe that doctors said she wouldn't live. But she's here now, shaking hands and greeting supporters like a politician.

Carmen's mom, Alice, is nurse at the local hospital and cared for me after the birth of each of my children. She was on duty the day the EMTs rescued her unconscious daughter from the wreckage and brought her to the emergency room.

It's the first time I've seen Carmen in more than two years and I hardly recognize her. A picture of the Carmen I knew hangs on the massive oak door of the church. In it she looks so innocent with her long, light brown hair folding softly around her pretty face.

Tonight she is pale and limping and I notice a fading gash on her cheek. Her voice sounds raspy, probably from the ventilator that kept her alive during her month-long coma. Her hair is dark and chopped short and she's animated, talkative and entirely different than I remember.

It's our turn to be served and we're ushered to the basement where the din of people talking is penetrated only by the clanging and clinking of silverware and glasses.

Members of the parish serve the meal in a harmonious rhythm to diners at long tables covered with white plastic cloths.

"More fish?" a teenager asks an elderly gentleman. I don't hear the answer because my nine-year-old daughter rushes up to ask me if she can play in the graveyard with her friends. I say okay and she disappears with three other girls, hoods and jackets flying.

A perpetually smiley woman with long, blue-gray curls arranges dessert bars on a plate. She's another neighbor whose daughter mysteriously died in Texas last year. Nobody really knows how she died, but rumors of murder still circulate.

We're seated with two elderly couples we don't know. They greet us and pass potato salad, baked beans and coleslaw our way.

I see Maria working near the kitchen and wave. I once wrote about her son's first day back to school after he was injured in a car accident when he was about Carmen's age. He said all he remembered was lying in the ditch, laughing with his cousin after their pickup truck hit a telephone pole and they flew through the windshield. The laughter stopped when he realized most of his body was paralyzed.

But that wasn't the first tragedy in Maria's life. Shortly before her son's accident, her husband died from cancer, leaving her with four children and a dairy farm to run. In the cemetery outside lie her husband and three more children who died more than 20 years ago in a house fire.

My daughter and a gang of girls run through the church basement and sneak a few dessert bars when the lady with the blue-gray hair isn't looking. I catch them though, and cast a knowing wink. One of the mothers tells them to stay outside and they scurry down the hall and back up the stairway.

After dessert and coffee, it's time to leave and my daughter doesn't want to go. One of the mothers agrees to bring her home later. I say good-bye to Alice, who is touched by the kindness of the parishioners for organizing this benefit for Carmen.

A rotund, mustached man with a walkie-talkie in one hand waves us up the stairs and asks, "Was the fish good?"

"Excellent," my husband says. But I'm not sure if the fish was as excellent as the healing powers this event has on the community. It's too bad St. Columbkille's fish fry only happens once a year.


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