My mother—let’s call her Alice—was born during the Depression to a couple who could neither hear nor speak, and were rather famous around Coney Island for their ability to initiate spontaneous parties and sustain them for whole weekends.
They were the polar opposite of today’s “helicopter parents.” For them, parenting was not half as interesting as playing the ponies, their factory-shift work, or partying with their fellows (had the word “homies” then been in vogue, I have no doubt that Gran and Grampa would have used it, turned their caps backward, stuck out their tongues and folded their arms with nods full of attitude), so they frequently left Alice under the long-term supervision of a rather bitter grandmother who taught her how to sew, bake, and weed a garden with such resolute vigor that I never saw Alice do any of those things during my lifetime.
She was big on floor-scrubbing, and the sheets were always fresh, but like her parents, whom she adored, Alice preferred the social and monetary rewards of working outside the home rather than within it.
While Alice was faithfully, if rather sternly, clothed, fed, and taught her catechism by her grandmother, it was her glamorous-seeming parents who captured her imagination and on whom she modeled her own personality. As a mother, she too was dutiful—if the meals were awful, the school uniforms were pressed and the lunches made—but she parented with a determined eccentricity, as well. Returning from school one day, my brother noted that most of his closet was strewn about the neighborhood, one shirt still dangling from his bedroom window. Laughing, he gathered up clothes as he walked, and explained, “Yeah, I forgot to make my bed, this morning. She hates that.”
Dutiful and a bit daft, my mother might be a prime example of how we are formed by our nature and our nurturers, but her decidedly non-hovering style helped her children to become self-sufficient as well; if she did not gush about our gifts or accomplishments—she was more inclined toward jeering—she was the first to say, “If you want to try it, you should. Go! Work hard! Send a postcard!”
Like my mother, I left home young, worked hard and took a measure of pride in my ability to sustain myself, even if it meant going to work with a dime and a subway token in my pocket. When love and marriage and then children came, I was able to strike something of a balance between motherhood and mayhem. My kids did occasionally put up with announced “opera days” and “tap-dancing rooms” (if they wanted to talk to me, they had to sing it; a pass through the kitchen required a time-step), but they never lost their clothes over an unmade bed.
Perhaps because her upbringing placed her between a boozy, cheerful but silent world and the grim-but-educated alternative, Alice adored multi-syllabic pronouncements; she memorized poems, speeches, and soliloquies. She gave to me a love of words—the ability to take joy from phrases tripping nimbly from the tongue, and in giddy, delight-laden alliterations. Not all of the memories are good ones, but drunk or sober, angry or gleeful, the stuff that poured from her mouth would routinely stop me in my tracks for the sheer glory of it all.
While she was still alive—and when I had matured a bit—I wrote Alice a note, thanking her for her fine madness, for her willingness to give me my own head when I needed to go, and for all the words I’d received from her, the stupid ones, the slurred ones, the brilliant ones:
Without intention, without realizing it, you have handed me my profession on a platter—amid all the coal mined in our time together, there have been these diamonds, and I will not forget.
Was our relationship made perfect by that? No. But my ability to see through a forest of anger to acknowledge the fruitful trees Alice had planted for my eventual gleaning was the beginning of better times; an essential start to a healing.
Last week, several friends who believe that “the church hates women” and works to suppress them, sent me a link to a story about historian and L’Osservatore Romano columnist, Lucetta Scaraffia, who, in an interview with Agence France-Presse announced, “There is misogyny in the Church . . . It’s not possible to go on like this. Women in the Church are angry!”
That some women are angry is indisputable, but reading Scaraffia’s remarks, I wondered if these angry women–particularly the media heroines of the Leadership Council of Women Religious currently doing battle with Rome—would be willing to look at their relationship with Rome as I did mine, with Alice. With maturity, are they able to admit—as no one else will—that the imperfect, “dutiful and daft” hierarchs, from whom they are now estranged, were the ones willing to give women their heads when no other institution and no “respectable” society in the world would; that when a woman said she was called by God to take in orphans, build a hospital, start a school, or a mission in the Congo, the church didn’t condescendingly ask them instead to sew a quilt; it did not growl “pipe down and make me a sandwich” but said, “if you want to try it, you should. Go! Work hard! Send a postcard!”
The work of Catholic women is justly celebrated throughout the church. That they have accomplished remarkable things was acknowledged even by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in their April 2012 assessment. It couldn’t hurt—and might very well help—if some female voices could give a tip of the hat to history, and to a charged-to-contradict church that did not hold them back, when the world would have.
In my experience, it is a small but very healing thing to look back, even in anger, and acknowledge where—amid all the coal—the pressure formed diamonds.
Healing, after all, must begin someplace; best in a place of truth.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.
CDF Assessment of LCWR
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