My mother was once a nun. She was not Mother Teresa. In fact, she was a nun only for a few years and never took her final vows. In her early twenties she entered a high-walled cloistered convent outside Spokane Washington, joining other young women who, like herself, were seeking relief from secret burdens. But the quiet habit of my mother’s vows failed to silence the din of her spirit. She was intelligent, and soon realized as she knelt her afternoons away in silent prayer that her knees were being exercised more than her mind. So, she left.
I know few details of the long intermission that played between the morning she walked out the quiet doors of that convent and the afternoon, years later, when she walked out the doors of a church with my father and a bouquet in her arms. I know that typewriters, travel, rivet-riddled B-24s, and a torrid romance with a bomber pilot are pieces of the story of her earlier years. In a somewhat un-Catholic way she had been around the block. At the same time, she was quite catholic in her worldview: catholic within the Latin meaning of ‘all embracing’. She followed the sun and moon from one American ocean to the other, train-splitting the brow of our Continental Divide along her way. She ended her personal tour of duty where she began, Spokane, where she met and fell in love with a young, handsome English professor who had himself been busy being both catholic and Catholic.
For most women in those days, unfortunately, accepting a Catholic marriage often meant surrendering a truly catholic life. My mother must have considered our home a convent furnished with a husband, six kids, and a deranged dog. But it’s hard to keep a good woman down—nor did my good father dare to try. This woman ruled our roost, as well as all other roosts that weren’t well guarded. She laughed, shouted, and cried while she drank red wine and rationalized her position. She cursed Saint Paul and most priests, but she silently surrendered her rosary to Mother Mary. She also told jokes and stories that often only the local Jesuits would dare to laugh at.
The first story I remember my mother telling to me was about an awkward young novitiate in a cloistered convent. This young nun-to-be accepted many menial and difficult duties, and she was desperate to impress the other nuns with her dedication and piety. Indeed, her vow of silence prevented her from complaining.
As one of her daily tasks she cooked and served evening meals to the other nuns. One particular evening she labored diligently but silently to prepare an especially beautiful casserole. She prayed that the Mother Superior would finally recognize her sincere dedication and offer her the opportunity to take her final vows, along with a ranking seat at the dinner table. The young woman was quite anxious as she brought the hot casserole from the kitchen. She was so anxious that she failed to properly mind her feet as she stepped over the threshold at the dining room entrance.
She tripped! She watched in horror as her beautiful casserole flew through the air before tumbling across the dinner table and landing in the startled Mother Superior’s lap. Instinctively the novitiate cried out, “Oh Hell!” She paused only for a moment before clutching the sides of her short black veil and exclaiming in disbelief, “Oh damn, I said Hell!” Then, as quickly, “Oh God, I said damn!” Then, not so quickly, she dropped her hands to her side, turned around, and walked slowly back through the dining room entrance muttering, “Oh shit! I didn’t really want to be a nun anyway.”
It delighted me to hear my mother tell that story. I had never heard her use the ‘S’ word in my presence. Some time later, after she had heard me repeating the story to somebody else, I was severely punished. My mother seemed not to be able to be catholic and Catholic at the same time.
The last story my mother told to me before she died was about an honest and righteous man. He was a hard-working man who honored his family and church and was a stout pillar of his community. His piety, honesty, and hard work eventually earned for him a wealthy life on earth. At the peak of his wealth, however, he began to reflect on a simple caution his grandmother had uttered to him from her deathbed. She told him what we’ve all heard many times: “You can’t take it with you!”
Gradually the man gave away his earthly possessions until at the end of his long and righteous life he was a virtual pauper. After his death he immediately found himself at the bright gates of heaven where smiling Saint Peter waited for him with open arms.
“Welcome, my son!” cried Saint Peter.
“I’m so happy to finally be here!” exclaimed the man.
“Well, you’ve certainly earned your place,” Saint Peter answered.
Then Saint Peter paused. He looked all around where the man was standing before furrowing his brows quizzically and asking, finally, “So, tell me my son, where’s all your stuff?”
I tended to my mother the evening before she died of cancer. As her body began to cool, I leaned over her bed, kissed her pale cheek, and whispered into her ear, “I love you, Mom.” I thought she was unconscious. But she opened her smiling eyes and said, weakly, “I know.”
You can’t keep a good woman down.
June 26, 2011