To Be Yourself

To Be Yourself May 13, 2024

a red rose on a wooden table
image via Pixabay

 

 

It was the best kind of Sunday: cool, bright, sunny. We were going to church at the 5:30 Mass that evening, so I slept in until noon. I woke up to Adrienne presenting me with a wooden plaque from Dollar Tree and an origami card she made in school, signed in her best cursive. The school has been able to teach her cursive, something I never could.

I praised her for the gift and told her it was my very favorite shade of pink, while inside the grief stabbed me again. I will never be what I was supposed to be, what I desperately needed to be. I will never be a devout Catholic multipara homeschooling her cheerful brood of little ones. If I ever do manage to make a real peace with the Catholic Church, I still won’t fit in with the Steubenville Catholic set. I’ll never be a saint who did just what God wanted. I don’t fit into any category of hagiography; my story is a different kind. I have to be somebody else.

I went out to check on the backyard, where things were coming along.  I’d tried to transplant the volunteer sunflowers to the edges of the garden as a living fence, and they’d drooped, and I thought they were dead, but now all but two were thriving. The mixed sunflower seeds I scattered around them hadn’t sprung up yet. I’m going to have a great wall of sunflowers on the north side of the garden, at least eight different breeds if I’m lucky. The watermelons hadn’t quite come up yet, but the peas were taller than their trellis and starting to blossom. The onions were plumping. The herbs were happy. The strawberry blossoms had nearly all been replaced with hard green berries. Of course I bought too many tomato seedlings despite promising myself I wouldn’t: four bland Romas which yield an enormous amount of fruit, for making sauce. Four sublimely flavorful heirloom Mister Stripeys, which develop more slowly and yield much less, for eating raw. One red beefsteak, to see what will happen. I still want a purple Cherokee if I can find the space. Everything was going the way that it should.

For a moment, I wasn’t myself. I was the magician woman in the great flowered hat from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, growing the perfect earthly paradise to make Gerda forget her past.

No, I wasn’t. I was that horrible fanfic character I made up when I was a lonely teenager: a beautiful elf who was torn from her mother’s womb and kidnapped to be raised by an evil human sorceress before running away and hiding in the Misty Mountains where Elrond found me and welcomed me into his family. The backyard is Rivendell. The alley is the River Bruinen. No evil can befall me here.

No, it wasn’t, it was the grounds of Experiment House and I was Jill Pole, the only woman in the Chronicles of Narnia with whom I’ve ever felt any kinship. Eustace and I were going to open the gate any moment and find that it had turned into a portal to Aslan’s country. But I would never, ever, ever let Aslan return me home; I would escape from Aslan,  stay in Narnia and have adventures forever.

I was Estella Havisham, walking on the old casks in the garden at Satis House, and young Pip was enamored of me.

I was Alice visiting Wonderland, and the cards were painting the roses red.

I was Athena– Athena Parthenos, the gray-eyed goddess of wisdom and just war, and the reason nobody loved me was because I was beyond all of that, a perpetual virgin.

Just then a harsh, electronic whirring noise sounded from the east side of the yard– my old stalking neighbor’s house. I don’t need to remind my readers how fond she was of her electronic gardening tools. All of my masks fell down– I was nobody from any fantasy. I was myself: a fat middle-aged autistic woman with PTSD, trapped in Steubenville.

I told myself that it couldn’t possibly be her, back from the dead. She went into hospice care fifteen months ago. I must be hearing gardening equipment from the yard on the other side of her.  But I wasn’t. The noise was certainly coming from between our houses. Somewhere in my mind, I knew there was nothing preternatural going on, but a moment ago I’d been in Rivendell. For all I knew, the being on the side of my house could be a barrow-wight.

The ghost buzzed down the messy weeds on the side of the porch, so I saw the spray of pulverized plant matter before I saw who was holding the weed whacker.

It was Jimmy, of course. We’re paying him twenty dollars whenever we can scrape it together if he’ll come mow our lawn whenever he finishes his. He doesn’t ask when to come, he just comes and does chores when he has a moment.

“Thank you!” I said to Jimmy.

“Happy mother’s day!” he said to me, and my fear melted.

Later that day, we went to Mass. Adrienne sat in the congregation with her father, but I am still not that bold. I’m still afraid of God. I sat in the back of the cry room, scrolling on my phone, shivering. I wished the Cry Room was on the side of the church with the statue of Saint Joseph instead of the Virgin Mary in her silk flower May crown, because I am afraid of the Virgin Mary. The Virgin Mary is perfect. She would have no patience whatsoever for someone like me.

The young pastor is a pleasant one. He preached a good homily on the Ascension of the Lord and not a sappy one on Mothers’ Day. I will never trust a priest again, but I like him.

I stared at the icon of Saint Maximillian Kolbe, and wondered if his painful death in Auschwitz was a purgation of his sin of antisemitism.

I pretended to be Annemarie Johansen, the brave little girl from Number The Stars, riding on the train with Ellen Rosen to hide at her uncle’s house.

No, I was the Pevinse children riding the train to the Professor’s mansion, where the portal to Narnia was.

I was a nun, and the window in front of the cry room was the grille of my cloister.

I was back at Rivendell, and no evil could befall me.

At the end of the Mass, the priest said “I have a gift for all mothers today. If you’re a biological mother or a spiritual mother or a godmother, I have something for you when you come out of church.” I was expecting a prayer card or a plastic Rosary.

In fact, he was passing out roses– not cheap silk roses from the dollar store but long-stemmed red roses from the florist, with all the thorns cut off.

“Happy Mothers’ Day,” he said as he handed one to me.

I was a character in The Snow Queen again, but this time I wasn’t the magician. I was Gerda, finding the rose and remembering my quest to find poor Kaye.

No, I wasn’t, I was myself, and it didn’t hurt very much.

The best people are the people who make you want to be yourself.

 

 

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.

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