Mothers, Artists, and Pain: Moon River and the Feast of the Immaculate Conception

Mothers, Artists, and Pain: Moon River and the Feast of the Immaculate Conception December 8, 2016

My maternal grandfather was born on December 8, 1912, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. I barely remember him now, only that he was a heavy smoker and a Wild Turkey drinker, that he wore thick-lensed, heavy black-framed glasses that would be hip today, and that he often growled at my complaining grandmother to “go on, y’ol bitch” (under his breath, but loud enough that we could hear that Georgia smoker’s rumble).

But my mother loved her daddy with such ferocity that when I complained I didn’t want to visit him because “he smelled” she wheeled around and slapped me hard across the face. It was the only time she ever hit me.

On the first December 8th after his death, my mom and I were standing in line at the Eckerd Drugs on Pontchartrain Drive in Slidell, picking up some last minute gift, in a hurry, as usual. I remember another time she was wrapping a present while driving me to a birthday party and became so frustrated she threw the tape and the wrapping paper out of the car window on Sgt. Alfred Drive.

That evening in Eckerd we were probably late for Mass, as the Immaculate Conception is a Holy Day of Obligation. I was scanning the candy near the registers and preparing to make a plea for some gum when, to my horror, I noticed my mother was crying. I didn’t dare ask what was wrong. She was volatile and often locked herself in her room, and my dad would have to pick the lock with a bobby pin. I braced myself to weather whatever storm was brewing, and later asked my dad. He told me the song “Moon River” had been on the PA in the drugstore, and that it reminded her of Paw-Paw. I didn’t know the song, but when I finally heard it years after she died, watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s with my high school friends, I burst into tears too.

Audrey as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's
Audrey as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Whatever memory my mother and her daddy shared with that Mancini song is lost to me forever, but when I hear it–and I make a point to listen to it every December 8 for Paw-Paw’s birthday–I still cry for her, gone from me now for more than 25 years, and for all I never understood about her burdens and her grief and her pain.

Oh, dream maker, you heart breaker
Wherever you’re goin’, I’m goin’ your way

Because all this is wrapped up with a Marian feast day in my memory, I guess it’s not so strange that when I hear Johnny Mercer’s lyrics to Mancini’s song I hear an echo of the Virgin Mary’s fiat. If you don’t know the word, it’s when the angel appears to the young girl Mary, not much younger than my mother when she got pregnant the first time, and tells her she will be overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and will bear a child called Jesus, and Mary answers, despite her fear, let it be done to me according to thy will.

God, you old heart breaker. Why must you always ask of us what seems impossible? Why must it break our hearts to go your way?

But I’m not supposed to be writing today about the Annunciation or my late grandfather’s birthday or even my grief for my mother; I’m supposed to be writing about the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which for me is a celebration of the grace required to bear the weight of the impossible. To keep going the way God asks, despite the cost.


The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception teaches that Mary was conceived by her parents in the old fashioned way but without the stain of corrupting original sin. This teaching, an innovation by Catholic standards, as it’s only been on the books since the 1850s–is particularly horrifying to fundamentalists and Sola Scripture types, though the concept is firmly rooted in scripture, if only symbolically (the ark of the covenant was made of incorruptible wood, and even those who carried it were thought to be “sanctified”). It’s also deeply embedded in traditional popular piety. Scholar Brenna Moore writes beautifully about the need and even the demand for the elucidation of this doctrine as a sign of the post-Enlightenment times: this insistence upon the mystery of Mary as full of grace–from the moment of her conception–was a vigorous stand by the Catholic Church against the “dangerous error of Rationalism,” according to Piux IX.  At the time, particularly in France, where Mary identified herself as “The Immaculate Conception” to the teenaged visionary Bernadette Soubirous, “Catholicism was the domain of women and was hostile to the calm, cool, and intellectual atmosphere of rationality,” writes Moore.

We Catholic ladies hear a lot about the “feminization” of our Church these days, but somehow it’s no longer a good thing. And yet, there was a time when “feminization” was seen as the most effective counter to the “male” intellect and post-enlightenment thinking that would do away with the mystery and emotion at the heart of Catholic worship. The kind of mystery, emotion and suffering that makes incarnation–the giving of flesh to unseen divinity–possible. At some point along the way, rationalism won the day, and the Gift of Tears became a sign of weakness, hysteria.

Crying openly in the drugstore or even in the pews makes you look crazy, not holy.

And yet women’s suffering, in the Catholic tradition, has been seen as holy, and the suffering female body–a woman in labor, a woman in mourning–was conceived of as a locus of God in the world. And I’m not just talking about Mary. Throughout the history of our church suffering gave women spiritual and intellectual cred. In midcentury France, to crib from Moore again, a woman who had some serious thoughts on the making of Catholic art might have to write that book with her husband (see Raissa and Jacques Maritain). But if she’d gotten the stigmata she’d have had a line of male intellectuals and artists at her door to sit at her bedside and learn from her wisdom and absorb her holiness by osmosis.

But today, do we really want to know that a woman is suffering? Does the incurable illness, the psychiatric diagnosis, the isolation and loneliness of contemporary motherhood, incline us to think that the women suffering from all this and more have some unique spiritual gifts to offer–that they may be a locus of God in this world?–or do we mistrust their words as evidence of sin and hysteria?

I thought of all this as I listened to Incarnation by Sister Sinjin–three accomplished artists, writers, musicians, singers–and when I read on their website about their resolve that art must be created among the “uncomfortable realities of our lives … because it must be in order to survive the exhausting and the mundane. Maybe creativity is more incarnation than transcendence.”

They go on: “Creativity of obligation requires us to show up with all our baggage and create something anyway.”

Maybe we are seeing a return to reclaiming our truly messy lives–not our art-directed, Instagrammable messes, but our unspeakable messes–as the grounds for holiness, as worthy of writing and painting and singing about.

Sister Sinjin goes on:

“We have carved out space though it has been brief and hard won. Most of our creative process, however, has happened with children surrounding us, in dirty kitchens and cluttered cars. If we had all the time and resources in the world we could create something more grand, more elaborate, but not more beautiful. What results will be all of what we had to give in a brief period of time with pinched pennies and crying babies at our side.”

I listen to the real beauty they’ve created, cries of the heart to God from cluttered minivans and dirty kitchens, as they say, but also, I know, from untold heartbreak, loneliness, and struggle. They haven’t pushed aside but pushed through, carrying all that should keep them from creating, from incarnating, from letting Christ be born in them and in their work.

What grace it takes to say yes to that call when the odds are so stacked against you. Yes, it does seem mysterious. And miraculous.

So tonight I thank God for that Grace that made Mary, Sister Sinjin, and my mother grounds for his coming.

If Sister Sinjin had not said yes amid imperfect circumstances and personal distress, I’d be less with Jesus than I am as I sit and type these words and hear their voices.

If my mother had not broken down in tears in the drug store for love of her own flawed father, if she hadn’t thrown the damn wrapping paper out the car window and let it flutter behind us like a rocket’s tail on the way to that birthday party, if she hadn’t fought her way through 13 of my years before the darkness took her, I wouldn’t know what real love feels like, and I would be less with Jesus when I hear Moon River, and swoon under the weight of my own obligations, losses, pain, and desire to sing out in my own way.

“Our obligations do not stop us from creating, they compel us,” says Sister Sinjin.

“How can this be?” says Mary to the Angel.

“Wherever you’re goin’, I’m goin’ your way,” sings my mother, reaching for her lost father in the drugstore on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

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