A Cardinal’s Brutal Homily

My mother lives on the second floor of a high-rise apartment building on West End Avenue. Back in the 1990s, she and her boyfriend bought themselves a bird feeder built in the style of a Swiss chalet, and hung it outside their kitchen window. One of the first regular diners was a resplendent male cardinal, whom they named “John O’Connor” after New York‘s archbishop. Whenever the bird put in an appearance, my mother would cry out, “Faith, ‘t’is none other than His Eminence!” — changing accents from her normal gentrified New Jersey to something far closer to the Old Head at Kinsale.

My mother, I’m proud to say, is the furthest thing from the Bill Maher type of ex-Catholic who dines out attacking the Church. Having gained her freedom and worked through her animosity long ago, she now regards Catholicism the way she came to regard my father — not her type by any means, but good enough in its way, and worth invoking when the situation calls for extra leverage.

I got a reminder of this today, when we had our Thanksgiving call. Somewhat like the Catalan language has done since Franco’s death, the domestic qualities my mother once suppressed have lately undergone a renaissance. Whereas, during my childhood, Thanksgiving meant Chinese take-out and a Holocaust movie, my mother now helps her boyfriend prepare cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, turkey and stuffing, for his entire family. She has, in effect, rewritten her life’s script, from Annie Hall to Hannah and her Sisters.

The trick, then, is in reaching her before they begin the serious work of stuffing the turkey. I managed it by calling at 9:00 AM, Eastern, before she’d so much as decanted the olives. After she’d run through the list of friends and relatives who’d fallen sick — a new, strange custom for both of us — I mentioned I planned to spend Black Friday lunching with my friend Rick.

Here, I was consciously choosing the lesser of two evils. Rick is the dinking buddy sans pareil; in the dozen years of our friendship, we’ve taken our Fear and Loathing act on the road, through Arizona, Nevada, California and the Mexican states of Sonora and Sinaloa. My mother’s as aware of this as she is that I’m a scant ten weeks on the good side of a drinking problem. At the same time, she also knows that Rick is my sole remaining close friend in the Valley. He lives a proper settled life, with a wife, a house and a beautiful basset hound who is just starting, at the age of eight, to go gray about the muzzle. He is a crackerjack cook, and all things considered, my mother would prefer to hear that I’d be with him than with nobody.

“I have every intention of staying sober,” I assured her.

“I’m so glad to hear that,” she said. Then added: “Oh, dear. I think I hear a portent.”

She explained that the birdfeeder had attracted a brand-new cardinal. “He’s not a stable character like O’Connor, though. There’s something the matter with him. He bangs his head on the glass, all the time. We call him ‘Headbanger’.”

I knew that birds weren’t terribly bright — hence, “bird brain” — and would sometimes fly full-throttle into windows, mistaking them for open sky. On a bad day, ASU campus, where buildings are commonly covered top to bottom in plate glass, could look like Tarawa Beach for grackles. But this wasn’t quite Headbanger‘s problem.

“Our friend Bapsi, the Parsee girl from Mumbai, said he sees his own reflection in the glass and thinks it’s another bird. He doesn’t dive straight at it; he just knocks at it with his head. She bought us a beautiful hand puppet shaped like a owl — apparently, she thought we were going to sit at the table all day wearing the puppet, just to scare him away from the glass. Instead, we hanged it from the branch right above the feeder.”

“You lynched the owl?”

“Yes. Yes, we did. He’s our strange fruit now. But Headbanger pays him no mind. He goes right on attacking his reflection, like he’s attacking himself. There’s no need — he seems like a very talented cardinal, with a warm heart and a lovely tuft like a Kennedy’s.”

“So that’s the portent?“ My mother, the English professor, deals in symbols — positing them, reading them. Some are subtler than others.

“Yes, that was the portent. As soon as you mentioned Rick, I heard him start banging his head. Perhaps he needs new contact lenses, too?” I told her I thought Headbanger was fine on that count. “In that case,” she said, “I think he was an agent of the Holy Ghost.”

Where the Church is concerned, my mother is a walking time capsule. She left in autumn of 1962, just after Martin de Porres had been raised to the altars as the first black saint, and just when the bishops were gathering in Rome for the first session of Vatican II. “Holy Ghost” sounded to me as quaint as the comparison of a cardinal’s tuft to a Kennedy’s. Normally, I subscribe instinctively to a 19th-century view of time — linear and ruthless, marching from darkness to light, trampling those too feeble to keep step. But for a brief moment, just before hanging up I felt like a Catholic should: buffered from the caprice of ages by the embrace of Mater et Magistra.

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