A Catholic Life

A Catholic Life April 4, 2021

My Mom’s life began in a farmhouse far out on the edge of the tiny town of Arroyo Grande, California, the youngest of 5 children. Her earliest memories were formed in the crucible of the Great Depression. That event, and the ensuing deprivation and rationing of the Second World War, left in her an abiding frugality that was a commonplace of so many in her generation.

Mom was a saver; she saved money, cooking implements, pretty much anything that might possibly be useful – just so that if old man Depression ever returned, she would be ready.

In her desk at home, there was a old spice jar tucked away in a drawer that had little pieces of string she had saved – from parcels, presents, bits of old kite string from when we were kids. Each little piece of string had a story.

Little pieces of string – stories of love.

In the countryside around her childhood home there were emigrants from the dust bowl. Some lived in tumbledown shacks next to the fields, some lived in their cars. Many locals pejoratively called them “Okies,” but whenever mom mentioned that term, I heard a touch of anger in her voice. Mom never used that word. She told me a story of a refugee friend her age named Clare, who came to Mom’s eighth birthday party.

Clare’s present to Mom was a pretty scarf. After all her guests had left, Mom went to her mother and said, with a touch of disappointment, “I saw Clare wearing that scarf yesterday!” Her mother bent down, put her hands on Mom’s shoulders and said, “Anne – that’s all she had to give. I hope you thanked her for it.” Every time Mom told me that story, she had tears in her eyes.

Little pieces of string – stories of love.

Mom married Dad in February of 1960, in a little church in her hometown. It is said that one of the signs of the Sacrament of Matrimony is the love between the spouses, and that this love can be seen as modeling the love of God for His children. Mom and Dad lived that, consciously and thoroughly. When the Church called, they came – whether assisting new Catholics in coming into the Church through the RCIA program, or continuing their religious education, or giving generously to those who asked, they lived their faith through their marriage. It is amazing how many people remember them still as the older couple walking downtown holding hands, greeting friends and strangers and talking affectionately to each other.

Little pieces of string – stories of love.

Mom loved to cook for her family – this also was an expression of love. I can’t remember a single instance from when we were kids that Mom called us in for dinner and we didn’t come running. She had a gift for cooking, and I’m sure we all remember her specialties – the soda bread (I think she learned to make it in part to honor Dad’s Irish heritage), the Boysenberry cobbler she made whenever our boysenberry bush gave its usual bumper harvest, Tomato soup with jack cheese melted on top, her tollhouse cookies. An old family recipe for Macaroni and Cheese was a particular favorite. It was a birthday tradition that on our special day, Mom would cook whatever dish was our favorite, and most of us chose her mac and cheese as the main dish.

Little pieces of string – stories of love.

Mom spoke fondly of a favorite uncle, “Uncle Joe”, a man with a deformed back, whose heart was as kind as his body was bent. He would take her fishing for eels when she was a little girl, go on walks through the dusty, oak-dotted countryside where she spent her childhood. Mom learned a lot from him about seeing without judging, and that sometimes the most beautiful gifts come in unconventional forms.

Little pieces of string – stories of love.

Perhaps due to her relatively rural upbringing, Mom always loved growing things. She grew both vegetables and flowers in her garden through the years. She especially loved growing snapdragons. The thing about snapdragons is that if you squeeze the sides of the flower, it opens like a little mouth. I remember when I was very young, maybe 4 or 5, mom took me by the hand and led me out to her flower garden. Mom took a little snapdragon and squeezed the sides to make it “talk” – and using the flower as a little puppet, told me how much she loved me.

Little pieces of string – stories of love.

My late brother Mark’s adolescence was a troubled and stormy one and matched the wider tumult and upheaval that marked the decade of the seventies in the United States. He and Dad were constantly at loggerheads: eventually things reached the point that they were barely on speaking terms. Amid all that, Mark got into a car with a drunk driver, and the driver rolled the car doing about 80 or so; Mark broke his neck, and the injury left him a quadriplegic for the rest of his life.
The wake of his accident was an occasion of Grace for the family, a time when we were immersed in Love – people from the church came together, and my parents did not have to cook dinner for the four months Mark was in the hospital, because someone from the Church would bring food every single night. Mark himself never went a moment without prayer during the difficult days after his accident, and during physical therapy in Kaiser: people from the church were praying literally around the clock for him.
One of the nurses in the Kaiser Rehab program was a woman named Marilyn. Mark and my family came to enjoy her very much – she grew up in a rough area of Boston, and was both plain spoken and very devout, but in a very earthy way. She was a parishioner at St. Dominic’s, our parish in Benicia.

She eventually revealed that her husband, Bobby, was the drunk driver who had paralyzed Mark.

Bobby was an alcoholic, and in the wake of what he’d done was swimming in shame – he could not bear to face my parents or the rest of my family. My parents were obviously livid when Mark was first hurt but came to a place before too long where they could forgive Bobby, and not carry around the burden of a poisonous grudge. They had Marilyn relay this to her husband, but he still could not bear to face them.

One day, my family came out of the church, and saw Marilyn, and greeted her – “Hi, Marilyn!” – and she greeted my parents by name. Bobby happened to be with her – and suddenly everyone realized who everyone else was. Bobby realized he was facing my parents, and my parents realized that this man with Marilyn was the man who had paralyzed their son.

Bobby turned to my father, his face dark with shame, and said, “I don’t know what to say.”

Mom and Dad went to him, and hugged him, and said, “It’s ok, Bobby. In a way, you gave us back a son.” Bobby wept in Mom’s arms.

Little pieces of string – stories of love.

Mom took these little pieces of string – these Stories of Love – and with her life wove them together into a beautiful tapestry that spoke of Mom’s overflowing love – the love that the ancient Greeks called “agape” – an overflowing love that seeks nothing in return, and unconditionally wills the good of the beloved. Theologians describe this as the Love of God operating in the human heart.

Mom died Monday of Holy week.

On Thursday, we hand off this beautiful soul to eternity. Mother, grandmother, great grandmother, aunt, friend, mentor, teacher. She was many things to so many of us in her life. We who knew and mourn her will carry with us the little pieces of string, sure in the knowledge that we are a treasured part of the tapestry she made.

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