Among my first memories in this wondrous world were brittle palm fronds folded reverently behind the four crucifixes in our childhood home. As a small child, I assumed they were issued with the crucifix, and had something to do with the poor gaunt man on the cross. Only later did I discover that the palms were an annual ritual, blessed on Palm Sunday, carried home carefully by my mother, and then folded with respect beneath the crucifixes, as last year’s palms were removed and buried in the garden. I remember once that a visiting priest suggested that last year’s palms be burned, but my father said that the days of burnt sacrifice were long gone, and besides if he kindled a fire in the fireplace the squirrels nesting there would be discommoded and discombobulated. I remember those words because I had never heard them paired before, and I liked their alliterative and consonantive gallop.
One Palm Sunday, as I recall, our church ran short on palm fronds, and we ended up blessing and handing out willow wands instead. I was the altar boy that morning, and I remember the sharp green wild sappish smell of willow, not at all like the faint exotic scent of palm, and the way the long willow wands drooped and swooned wildly among the congregation. One small boy wore his like a Dionysian necktie. Almost certainly the willow wands had come from local trees—the splay of weeping willows was everywhere evident in our town, usually near water of some sort, and for a moment, as I handed them out, I wondered how they had been harvested. Had Father Driscoll gone around picking them himself that morning? Had he sent out agents? Was there a secret willow-wand entrepreneur in town?
Most of the congregation accepted their willow wands with equanimity, but there were a few older women, led by Mrs Dealey, who disdained the willows and held out for palms. They approached Father Driscoll in a body after Mass and made their case. Father Driscoll discussed the shocking cost of shipping from Florida, and expounded on coconut palms, and fishtail palms, and tiger palms, and many other species of palms, and noted that as far as he could tell from his inquiries, Our Blessed Lord rode His donkey over the fronds of date palms, which is why our parish makes a strenuous effort every year to obtain date palms, for historical accuracy, but inasmuch as this year the cost of date palm fronds was prohibitively high, he was sure that the ladies would agree with him that the correct thing to do was to use local willow wands instead, and thus save money that could be directed to the poor and unfortunate of the parish. Wasn’t that what the ladies were really here to ask him to do? In which case he was more than happy to accede to their wishes, unless they wanted to spend more time discussing the many other species of palms, like the Bismarck palm of Madagascar, which is named for, interestingly, Otto van Bismarck, chancellor of Germany in the old days. You wonder how that happened?
The ladies demurred, and retired in some disorder, and Father Driscoll, who had one of those pale placid faces that never quite revealed if he was smiling or not, had me stack willow wands for the next Mass. For a moment I thought he was going to help me, but then he coughed and excused himself and said he had to step outside for a moment to clear his throat. When Father Whelan said he needed to step outside, that meant a cigar, but Father Driscoll was not a smoker, to our knowledge, so when I heard him making odd staccato sounds outside I figured he had a cold and was indeed trying to clear his throat. He came back into the sacristy a moment later and said By rights if we are going to hand out tree branches today we ought to thank Saint Dorothea, don’t you think? She is the patroness of fruit trees, but I am sure she keeps an eye out for the willow family. Don’t you think so? I said Yes, Father, and he made that staccato sound in his throat again, and then it was time for us to get ready for Mass.
Brian Doyle is most recently the author of the essay collection So Very Much the Best of Us.