( Speaking about my mother in this morning’s reflection has inclined me to offer a second post today … a reflection I wrote 10 years ago. I thought some of you might enjoy reading it.)
December 21, 2008
I had been away – busy and incommunicado for several days. When I got home, the message was the last one on my answering machine. It lay curled like a wounded kitten and the end of a long line of incidentals. Mag had died at 101 years of age – the long faithful friend of my grandmother, my mother and me. The manner of her faithfulness to each of our generations had been different: a companion to Grandmom, a guide and confidant to Mom, a distant but vigilant observer and encourager of my life in my mother’s stead after Mom had died.
When I called back to acknowledge the message, there was only one meaningful way to announce myself: “This is Eleanor’s daughter.” Just that said everything – it paid tribute to both Mag’s and my mother’s lives. It recognized the duty I owed in both their names. Mag’s daughter said, “We don’t expect you to come… we just wanted you to know.” My mother’s voice spoke in the silence of my heart – “Of course, you will go.”
So last week, I traveled to the place where I grew up. There will never be anyplace in life that you know more intimately than the neighborhood of your childhood. You ran through its alleyways and knew its secret hiding places. You explored every inch of its terrain and to this day can remember its textures, smells, dangers and promises.
This past Thursday, I drove into its heart, remembering. But, as I approached the neighborhood, I saw that its edge had frayed like a tattered fabric. The industrial and commercial corridor that had hemmed the old neighborhood had disappeared. Abandoned lots had replaced the thriving factories and immigrant-run shops of my youth. The bustling avenues where I had once threaded my shiny Schwinn bike now echoed like empty canyons under my car tires. Loss rose up in my throat like a bitter aftertaste.
But as I neared the church, the fabric began to re-weave. People still lived in the houses and gathered on the brick pavements. I saw neighbors walking to the church, as my family had when I was young. I was to learn that the deep human links that had embraced our parish family had remained unbroken.
It had been nearly fifty years since I had last worshipped in St. Michael’s, but the church of my childhood was perfectly intact. Not only had it been physically restored to the perfection of its 200-year-old origin, but the descendants of many original families remained or had returned for the funeral. During the wake, we reconnected with one another, weaving names and histories into a warm swaddling of belonging.
During the solemn funeral service, many people came to visit me in the silence of my heart: my parents who had taught me to pray, the sisters and priests who had nurtured my call to religious life, my neighbors and friends whose lives had found graceful regeneration each Sunday in this sanctuary. This place had been the heart of our “village”. It was where we learned and acknowledged that we live life together, not alone – and that the myriad pieces which make up who we are belong in some way to every person who has ever touched us. Every one of us attending Mag’s funeral was paying honor to that reality.
It takes a lifetime to fully learn the office of honor. I remember as a teenager not wanting to accompany my mother on her many dutiful journeys: not wanting to visit my old maiden aunts in their very Victorian home, to take a pot of soup to a house in mourning, not knowing what to say at a neighbor’s wake. I remember my mother’s words to me on such occasions: “We show up. It’s what we do – because it’s all that we can do. It’s an honor to be with someone at these moments of their lives.”
I am old enough now to cherish that role of honor guard. I have learned its beauty and character from the many – including Mag — who have kept vigil beside me and my family in the challenges and blessings of life. I went to Mag’s funeral last Thursday privileged to exercise that role in my mother’s name – to assume the duty of our family to “show up”.
I now know that to stand within duty is to be like a surfer poised inside the huge curl of a powerful wave. It is to ride on an energy that does not belong to you – to open yourself to it with gratitude, awe and trust. It is to know – in an indescribable way – the profound power of God that holds all life together beyond time and beyond burden.
Last Thursday, as at many times of my life, I was proud to be Eleanor’s daughter. I know she and Mag smiled as I rejoiced in that pride.