My mother had a way with words.
At a party to celebrate her 80th birthday, about three months before she died, I was nominated (read: instructed) by my older sisters to give a toast. I decided to share some of her “greatest hits,” the phrases that made their way into our memories, or at least into my memory. Hers weren’t zingers or one-liners aimed at anyone in particular. They were observational, almost footnotes that filled in missing links to conversations or ideas, or that efficiently and wittily wrapped them up. She was succinct, and, sometimes, she was too succinct, offering only an occasional hmm to let you know she was still listening. For Mom, and for me (most of the time), that’s all I needed to hear from her.
Her phrasing was pithy. She made you think quickly to discern the hidden joke, which wasn’t always clarified by her tone or gesture, and her deadpan was convincing. Most of her recurring phrases were useful — she kept an arsenal handy for lagging chatter or to cover awkward transitions. She knew how to keep a conversation moving, and she knew how to wrap things up. She could engage and detach in one fell swoop.
Inane arguments, whether at her dinner table or on the nightly news, would end not with her opinion but with a declaration that, “Semantics is the problem with the world today.” It wasn’t a particularly revealing insight, but it did make you stop to wonder what semantics was.
She loved to spin classic proverbs with a turn that you didn’t anticipate, always short of crass but often glancing toward coy. “Well, you know, people who live in glass houses…shouldn’t take baths in the daytime.” And when a conversation about large feet ensued (it comes up more than you’d think in a family of ten siblings), she’d tap the wisdom of her father and say, “You know what they say about men with large shoe sizes. They can kill a lot of ants in the summertime.”
Sometimes, she’d get political — but not too political. When given the opportunity to take a trip to the UK, she declared, “I’m not going to England until they let my people go.” Her people were the Irish (well, some of her people…and it was a couple of generations back), who were apparently still being oppressed à la Cromwell by the English. My sister, Patty, and I quickly revised the lyrics of the old Spiritual and sang, “When Sheila was in Engl-land…let my…people…go…”
Eventually, my parents did visit England (just a few stops on a cruise, not a slash-and-burn campaign on behalf of the suffering Gaels). She loved to tell the story about subtly (read: passive-aggressively) wrangling with a tour guide over the proper honorifics for Thomas More. When the guide referred to “Sir” Thomas More, she pointedly corrected him, doing her part in the centuries-old Catholic-Protestant standoff, with a clipped, “Saint — Thomas More.”
When my mom was 18, her mother gave her a subscription to Good Housekeeping, which she maintained for decades, but the magazine crossed a line. When an agent called to ask if she wanted to renew her subscription, she said, “No,” (and here, in her retelling, she would shift her weight and her tone, assuming what I can only think of as her over-the-phone-power-pose), “I wouldn’t.” She described a recent cover of the magazine that featured Princess Diana (“Princess Charles. The Lady Diana,” as she would, in other contexts, correct you) to the poor agent on the phone. “Don’t you people know we had a revolution? We don’t have to pay attention to them anymore.” When she retold the story over dinner with Mrs. Crump, my sister and I cringed while Mrs. Crump cheered her on.
She was a well-read woman and spoke with real authority, but once in a while I’d hope that she would cite her sources. She wouldn’t travel to France because, “Well, they never paid their war debts,” or to Japan “until they open up free trade for rice and computer chips.”
I was — hmm…let’s say “lucky” — to inspire in my mother two unique turns of phrase. Despite the fact that I embarrassed her by declaring my desire to be a lounge singer with an NPR talk show at my Divinity school graduation, she did enjoy hearing the esoteric topics and diverse paths that my fellow graduates were taking. Div school commencement is a very particular glimpse into the world, but the thing that irked her surprised me. After the ceremony, she said, “Well, that was very nice. Now, what the hell is e-co-fem-in-ist spirituality?”
A few months later, as coverage of planes striking the Twin Towers spread, my mother called me and left a message on my voicemail. “Well, happy birthday…on this awful…awful day.” (That was the entire message.) I forwarded the message to multiple friends and can still do a perfect imitation. It’s made people cackle.
Mom inherited her wit from her father. Actually, she cultivated it. She studied him, admired him, elevated him. Mom beamed when she spoke about her father, and a part of her withered when he died, about a year before I was born. As she told the story, he was the son of poor immigrants who worked the jobs and lived the life of the immigrant Irish in those days. They sent him to college and earned a JD, but when he picked up his license to practice law an old classmate from elementary school was there to meet him. At the offer of some work for the old classmate, he declined, telling him that he never intended to practice law, that it was just something to keep in his back pocket. While my grandfather grew into a decent and honest man, the old classmate became a gangster. Fearing that world, mom told us, he pursued other jobs that put to work his charm, his affable nature, his wit. Fearing that world might’ve morphed into regret, grief for a career that was lost before it began, but she never got that far in speculating about her father’s choices. To my mom, it was a moment that revealed his integrity, and that was enough, but to me, it was a profoundly sad detail. Though I never met him, I could feel my grandfather’s disappointment, I could feel his parents’ confusion, I could feel the shame and disappointment and disillusionment that swelled, a mixture that integrity is never quite able to absorb.
He was the one who coined the crack about “ants in the summertime.”
He was also the one who, at a wake, when asked by a friend how my grandfather thought the deceased looked, said, “He looks dead.”
He took her to every wake in town as a child.
He taught her to play golf.
He combed Vaseline through his hair every morning, giving it a dark and shiny texture, but after a stroke in his seventies, a nurse washed his hair and revealed a thick shock of white. After he died, my mom couldn’t watch a movie with Spencer Tracy without a) reminding anyone around how much her father looked like Spencer Tracy, and b) quietly weeping. I always thought her mother looked like Barbara Stanwyck, but Mom was never interested in comparing her to celebrities.
We lived in an affluent suburb, but instead of reveling in the glories of suburban life, she told stories about the three-flat she grew up in with her parents, sisters, and cousins, where her father was the only man in the house (one aunt’s husband left her during the War, another aunt died, and then so did her widower, leaving his second wife in the three-flat on Deming Place). She told a story (that I never really believed) about seeing a man get shot on her walk home from the beach with a friend. My disbelief was less about the facts of the story and more about the possibility that my mother grew up within blocks of imminent danger.
She talked about growing up in the city with pride and with the expertise of a London cabbie. Any directions requested would allow her to demonstrate her mastery of the grid of the city of Chicago. It was never enough to say “three lefts and a right” — any journey from point A to point B included a near-mathematical equation that taught you about the numerical system underlying the city’s map. When I worked as an architectural tour guide, I geeked out about Daniel Burnham, the master planner who designed that city-grid masterpiece, and hoped my enthusiasm about the 1909 plan would make her proud.
If a tutorial on urban planning wasn’t enough, she’d frequently identify in which Catholic parishes the starting and ending points of the journey would be. If you were lucky (and I mean this sincerely), you’d pass by the church where her great uncle (a woodworker or carver or layer or something) did all the woodwork (he installed the floors or carved the sculptures or pews or something), all the scraps of which were integrated into an unusual little game table whose entire surface was patterned with tiny pieces of wood and whose corner pockets were hidden (but I figured out how to open them when I was about seven). The church on the near west side of Chicago and the game table in the corner of our living room were monuments to craft, to history, to stories that could be told.
She raved about working the reception desk at the Edgewater Beach Hotel, where all the ball players stayed while batting at Wrigley. If asked, she would tell you who the kind and courteous players were, evaluated according to how they treated hotel staff and whether they’d stop to sign admiring kids’ collector cards. She also laughed at her own inadequacy for overbooking the hotel by 98 rooms, a mistake that somehow (read: because her boss was a friend of her father) didn’t cost her the job.
She told stories about treating boyfriends badly. “Teenage girls are the worst,” she declared. “I know, because I was one.” One boy asked her to a dance months in advance, and she declined by telling him there was a funeral she needed to attend.
When I was in preschool or kindergarten, my grandmother had a stroke that paralyzed the left side of her body and required her to move out of her apartment and into full-time nursing care. I don’t have the memories of “Grandma’s House” that all the cookie commercials told me I was supposed to have. I do remember a long, shiny, linoleum-tiled hallway with rooms on both sides. I remember old people in robes and hospital gowns and pajamas, ambling up and down the hallway with a walker or cane. I remember a woman with a goiter on the right side of her neck that was as big as a grapefruit. I remember another woman who never said anything but who was very happy when I’d wander into her room and sit in the chair next to the pillow-end of her bed. I’d rearrange the few things that were on her bedside table (a frame, a book, a rosary, but I never touched the glass of water) and then I’d continue my rounds down the hallway, eventually making it back to Grandma’s room, where I’d find Mom doing a crossword or needlepoint, maybe telling her mother a story or maybe sitting in silence. As long as she was in the nursing home, my mom and her sisters visited every day. One sister came for lunch, Mom arrived mid-afternoon with me in tow, and the other sister came for dinner.
It never occurred to me until after she was gone that one of Mom’s deepest worries had been steeped in years of obliged devotion at her slowly-dying mother’s bedside. When I asked her whether she was worried about dying, she confessed only to worrying about my father. She didn’t want him to eat alone. Breakfasts, lunches, dinners…for the nearly sixty years they were married, the kitchen table was the thing that connected us. I grew up on a long butcher block table — five of us on one side, five on the other, sometimes a sixth if any guests or the milkman decided to stay, and a parent at each end. My dad came home for lunch every day (it wasn’t until high school that I realized that most fathers brought their lunch to work, or had lunch with colleagues, or did “business lunches”), and in grade school we walked home for lunch every day. Dinner was a command performance, as was engaging in conversation. The standard “grace” was mumbled before Mom improvised. “Well, let’s pray for all the people who are sleeping on the street tonight, because it’s just so cold.” Or she’d invite us to pray for someone’s safe travels. Or she’d invite us to pray for someone who had no food. Or “the old ladies” that she drove home from the senior center on Wednesdays.
By the time I was in high school, she spent a good chunk of each Monday at a day shelter for women who were homeless. A woman named Dolores quickly befriended her, and after she made and served lunch, Mom and Dolores would play Scrabble. Dolores was the only person whom Mom permitted to play with unverifiable words, and while pre-dinner grace frequently featured Dolores, dinner conversation just as frequently included updates on Dolores’ neologisms.
She arrived at the day shelter one Monday and learned that volunteers from the Junior League would be arriving soon with lunch for the clientele. With nothing to do while lunch was being served, Mom grabbed a newspaper and sat in the corner, waiting for lunch to finish so she could visit “with the ladies.” One of the volunteers, whom Mom described variously as lovely, kind, sweet, perky, or persistent (depending on how much Chardonnay preceded the story), circled around to her several times with trays of food. When she came around with lemon bars, the volunteer leaned down to Mom and whispered, “Are you sure you won’t have just a bite?”
You see, in that moment, it dawned on Mom that this was her finest. Her daily ensemble typically included a wrap-around-skirt from a catalogue and a pair of plain, white Keds. She never dyed her hair and never put anything more than a comb into it. The only makeup she donned was a bright, coral-hued lipstick. When the Junior Leaguer made her way around the room, she assumed that Mom was a client, a woman who was homeless, a woman with too much pride to take a free lunch, even from these lovely, kind, sweet, perky, and/or persistent volunteers. I’d bet she replayed the interaction in her head several times on the drive home, preparing to open dinner conversation with, “Well, I’ve finally done it. I’m a success.”
After Grandma died, something happened between my mom and her sisters. One Christmas Eve, dinner was delayed because our cousins hadn’t arrived. When she finally called her sister to find out where they were, she was told, “We were never invited,” even though we’d done Thanksgiving at their house and Christmas Eve at ours for decades. When I found her to say goodnight, she was sitting on the couch in the living room with Mrs. Crump, crying. I leaned in to give her a kiss, but all I remember from the moment, my first really vivid Christmas memory, is the taste of Chardonnay.
I don’t remember Mom enjoying holidays, but I remember her preparing for them. Three days before, the dining room table would be extended, the pads would be put out, and the tablecloth spread to ensure that any creases were gone by the time we sat down to dinner. Two days before, she’d set out stacks of plates, clusters of glasses. Everything was completed in stages so that by the time the hordes descended upon the house, final prep wasn’t stressful and dinner service was a well-oiled machine. By the time I was in high school, I started to notice that my siblings were unexpectedly eager to be the first to clean up the kitchen, even while people were still eating. Perhaps Mom saw it as a well-trained and efficient staff, but I knew they just didn’t want to be the one who had to refill her wine glass. “I’ll have a little more of your wine,” she’d say to whomever sat closest to the bottle. Sometimes she’d stumble through it or just shake the glass while holding its stem, the universal symbol for “I’m soused.”
One Christmas, we watched “It’s a Wonderful Life.” When Mr. Potter came on screen, she gave us a brief lecture on Lionel Barrymore. “You know, when we were kids, we — just — worshipped him. And we all thought he was in that wheelchair because of polio. Well,” she geared up, “it turns out, he was FULL of syphilis.” Every time Barrymore rolled into view, someone got the nod for a refill and we all got a different iteration of the Barrymore legacy. Some of the details would change, but one phrase was consistent. He was FULL of syphilis. And then when Jimmy Stewart started to berate Uncle Billy, Mom got up to exit, weeping, saying, “I — just — can’t watch this.”
Dinner customs didn’t change when there was only one bird (me) left in the nest. The butcher block table was gone by the time I was in high school, and except for the occasional sibling who was back for a short stint or just visiting for dinner, setting the table, clearing the table, and refilling my mom’s wine glass were my exclusive ken. Dinners were less conversational — sure, with three people, there are fewer things to talk about, but the real shift was that conversations had become soliloquies, and soliloquies slipped into diatribes. There wasn’t much I could say to steer the conversation, and there wasn’t much I could say that would be remembered the next day. By the end of dinner most nights, Dad had finished two or three scotches (“Chivas Regal on the rocks with a twist and a little bit of water on the side” was the standard order I’d learned by the time I was 7), Mom had finished two or three vodkas -and-water-on-a-lot-of-ice, and they’d split one or two bottles of Chardonnay.
Once, when they came back from dinner at the home of friends, Mom was so drunk she tried to get into the house through the wrong door. The family room had an exterior door, a leftover from the room’s original purpose (as a garage) that was adjacent to the kitchen door (our primary entrance). I was watching a movie and was startled when I heard a rap at the door. When I opened the very-much locked door, I was greeted with a look of shock and surprise that mirrored my own, a look that instantly made me think it was my fault she couldn’t open the door (Catholic guilt, #amiright), a look that humbled me and pushed my gaze away. I focused on the long necklace she wore, one she inherited from my Dad’s mother, a string of large, white coral beads. That’s what had been rapping at the handle, that’s what had startled me.
About a half-hour later, my dad returned to the family room where I was still, ostensibly, watching a movie. He told me without my asking that it was his job to take care of my mother. I said, “Ok.” Then he went to the fridge and took out a bottle of Chardonnay and poured himself a glass.
My mom enrolled me in piano lessons in 4th grade. (Apparently) Unlike most of my siblings before me, I stuck with the lessons — not because of some prodigious talent that was activated (because that definitely didn’t exist) or because I particularly liked it (which I actually did), but because it was the first time I could claim some space of my own. If I practiced an hour a day, that meant that I had my thoughts and my feelings to myself for an hour. At school, I wasn’t liked (or I was picked on, or I was shunned, or I was targeted, as my mom would variously describe it, using codewords for “different,” familiar to all mothers of queer children), and among my siblings, I was ornamental (you know — there, but unheard, peripheral).
It never occurred to me that I should talk to someone, even when Mom arranged for Father Terry to talk to me (and by “talk to me,” I mean, he came to the door of my classroom, asked the teacher if he could talk to me, and brought me out of school to the rectory next door). We went to his private office, and he asked, “How are you doing? I hear you’re having a tough time.” He was warm, and he was kind. I could smell the coffee on his breath and the cigarette-stink on his hands, and he opened a door that I didn’t know how to navigate. I couldn’t tell him that I felt different. I couldn’t tell him that I felt lonely, or that I didn’t understand other boys. I didn’t know how to play videogames, because nobody showed me. I didn’t know how to throw a football or any of the confounding and arbitrary rules of the game, because nobody showed me. And when my athletic incompetence became public knowledge during gym class, I didn’t know why everybody laughed at me. I didn’t know why Coach made me spring out into the field in the first place. I didn’t know I was supposed to go out about a hundred feet, turn around, and catch the football speared at me. I didn’t know it was so funny that the Coach was the first one to laugh. Then again, I also didn’t know why I was the only one who could quote “Young Frankenstein” and “Murder by Death” by the time I was seven the way that other boys could rattle off baseball statistics and the names of basketball players. And I definitely didn’t know that, a couple of years later, Father Terry would turn to my parents when he felt the pain of the conflict between his vocation and his sexual orientation, that he would turn to my parents for advice on how to break his vows and transition to life as a lay, openly gay man.
With enough time at the keyboard, I got to be pretty good. I struggled with reading music (I never got to be the “sit down at the piano and can play anything” guy that I secretly hoped I’d be), but I had a good teacher. She spoke softly and directly. She sat not-too-close and not-too-far. She paid attention to things no one ever paid attention to. She praised me for being able to express when I played. Her husband made a point to compliment 7th grade-me on the “gentle touch” I applied to the Rondo alla turca at a recital. It was the most important affirmation I’d ever heard. Between pieces or technical exercises, she told me stories about touring Italy as duo-pianists — she and her husband and a Kawai grand, driving up and down the Italian countryside, giving concerts here and there. It was, I thought, the most glamorous and magical life, a life I wanted to live (a life I still want to live). After mastering (read: making it through in one attempt) a particularly difficult (for me) passage in a Beethoven sonata, she exploded out of her chair, shouted “Wunderbar!” and clapped her hands twice before she brought her pencil to the sheet music, where she scribbled, “Wunderbar!” I’m not sure I’ve ever been prouder.
Mom kept track of my time at the piano, and she understood what it meant for me. Some time in my 30s, I found a form that she completed for my counselor at summer camp. To the question, “When is your child happiest?” she wrote, “At the piano, alone.” (She was half right.) At dinner, she’d note that I hadn’t quite reached an hour “at the keys” that day. On summer days in high school, if I wasn’t working or out with friends, I was at the piano, and, wherever she was in the house, Mom was listening. If she was in the next room, I’d hear her sighs at the end of tough passages and the cluck of her tongue at sloppy runs through a piece. Once, I rushed through a Chopin polonaise, and heard her, from the kitchen at the other end of the house, “That’s not — quite — right!”
Occasionally, Mom would summon me if they had friends over for a drink (read: five drinks) to play for their guests. “No” was not in the vocabulary available to me at home, so I’d sit down and play. Sometimes politely and sometimes genuinely, their friends listened, rapt, marveling that a human could work 88 keys with 10 fingers. I learned to read my audience: if they wanted to keep chatting, I’d play something soft; if they’d run out of conversation, I’d play something showy; if they were sober, I’d get away with the second movement of the Pathetique and a Gershwin Prelude; if they were wasted, I’d run through everything I could play from memory. They were usually wasted, so cocktail hour gave me plenty of time to practice.
A few weeks before she died, Mom decided she was finished with chemo. She was ready. So hospice care began, and in the fridge, in addition to the food that my siblings and I were making amidst our competitive caregiving, where there had once been a bottle or three of Chardonnay, there was now a stock of morphine and other specialties to “make her comfortable.” A hospital bed arrived, and it quickly displaced the small couch in the den, where she slept at night and between visits from friends and relatives. Almost 40, I was sitting at the piano like a teenager, playing through whatever I could remember without sheet music, and Mom ambled by, headed toward a nap. I stopped playing and moved to stand up — and she chirped, “What are you doing?” I told her that I’d take a break so she could nap. She pursed her lips, shook her head, and kept moving. I understood my instructions: sit back down, but nothing too loud. I played Gershwin’s second Prelude (she always liked that one) and heard her sigh at the last note.
There are words that stick because they’re repeated, or because they evoke a happy moment, or a funny story, or a legacy. Those are words you want to repeat. Those are words I want to hear again. Then, there are words that stick, even if you only heard them once. Whether or not you want them to inhabit your mind, they stake a claim and tag a little footnote on every other memory that says, “Don’t forget the time she said…”
Apparently, when I was in high school, a few of my siblings confronted Mom about her drinking. I’d heard rumblings of this or that sibling embarrassed by it or worried about her health. It’s too bad they never asked me — I could’ve told them how much she drank each day, how much she drank when with my dad, how much she drank with friends, how much she drank when she went out to dinner, how much she drank at holidays (which was different — it always started later on holidays, because she had too much cooking to do before she could make it through her dosage of vodka-and-water-on-a-lot-of-ice before she could enjoy some Chardonnay). I could’ve told them what she thought about all of them, because once the second glass of Chardonnay was filled each night, the library was open and she’d list their offenses. I could’ve told them that I resented the fact that they got to jump up and exit the dinner conversation while I was pouring her “a little more of my wine,” or that I resented their claim to suffering because of my mom’s drinking because they got to go home and the home they left me in was filled with too much Chardonnay. I could’ve told them that they were neglecting Dad, that he was the one who claimed responsibility to take care of her, that he was the one who opened the bottle every night, that he was the one who wandered to the other end of the house after dinner to write poetry and finish off any open bottles. I could’ve told them that he was the one who drove when they went out to dinner, that he drove home drunk, that he drove drunk with Mom in the car, that he drove drunk with Mom and me in the car. I could’ve told them that I know they watched me get in the car and said nothing, that no one seemed to notice that Dad would never surrender the keys.
Once, during the summer before my junior year of college, Mom went on a tear about several of my siblings. I don’t remember what prompted it or even much of what she said. I remember words like “thoughtless” and “ingrate” bouncing around, and I remember a coldness that overtook me, that started in my cheeks and slowly spread down. I remember looking at my fingers on the table, shaking ever-so-slightly, and the words coming out of my mouth slowly, cautiously, because I knew (from experience) the wrong word, or the wrong look, or the wrong glance would draw her ire toward me like a dagger to the gut. When I could speak, I told her I didn’t want to listen to her talk about my siblings. My parents both gazed at me like I’d missed my cue, read the wrong line. I continued, and I said when I came home from college, I didn’t want to have to hear this.
“Well, you don’t have to come home.”
I loved going to church with my mom. When I complained that I didn’t want to be an altar boy any more, she slyly accepted it, but then talked about what a privilege it was to be on the altar, so close to the Eucharist. (I didn’t quit.) Her brand of religion was practical, integrated, and just under the surface of every part of her life. There wasn’t a line between church and not-church — like death, church was a part of life. And that meant that she was going to have her way with the words. She was always the first among a congregation to rise, the first to kneel, the first to sit. She was the pacer for the whole nave when it came to communal prayers, and just when you thought you understood her, just when you thought she was the model, compliant Catholic mother, she’d throw her own translation into the Our Father.
“Our Father, who is in heaven,” she’d start, prompting the first wince from someone in earshot…is that the right word?
“Hallowed be your name.” Why is everyone else saying thy?
“Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread, and forgive our sins,” that’s not right, “as we forgive those who have sinned against us,” what does trespass mean, anyway?
“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us…”
A speaker came to her Catholic, all-girls high school during her Senior year and spoke so powerfully and so movingly about the religious life that “half the class was ready to join the convent.” The Prioress met with each of the young women to discuss their newfound zeal, and she talked Mom (and most of the others) out of entering religious life. The moment reinforced something for her, though; it crystallized ideas like vocation and conscience, ideas that she’d actualize through parenthood and citizenship.
When young Catholics are introduced to the sacrament of the Eucharist, we’re trained on the choreography of the event more than the theology behind it, since ontology and transubstantiation are a bit advanced for the 7-year old brain. At mass one Sunday, a few weeks before my classmates and I were scheduled to celebrate our First Communion in a Mothers Day liturgy, she decided that I was ready ahead of schedule and instructed my father to take me back to the sacristy after mass. There, in the liturgical “green room” on a sunny Sunday morning, Father Sullivan gave me my first communion as my dad rested his hand on my shoulder. When we found Mom back at the car, she looked at me, smiled, took a beat, and then abruptly turned to get herself into the passenger seat. The next Sunday, I joined the line of churchgoers moving up the center aisle, just ahead of my mom and dad (Dad, ever a gentleman, always stepped out of the pew to let my mother and anyone else in tow go ahead of him). I dutifully and in good form received the host (in my left, upward turned palm, my right hand beneath it, as high as my heart, said “Amen”) and turned left, but before I could scan the congregation to see if any of my classmates had seen me receive communion well ahead of schedule, I heard my mom receiving a host after me. When the priest held up the host and said, “The body of Christ,” she responded, “I believe.”
Though we grew up in a neighborhood with numerous large families, a sprawling brood was still a conversation starter. When someone turned to her in disbelief to confirm, “Did you say — you have…ten children?” (which people did, and frequently), she’d lean in and reply, with a half-cocked eyebrow, “They’re from my husband’s first marriage.” Curiously, three sisters among the brood didn’t seem to surprise folks, but seven sons — that was notable. “Well, God gave me seven sons for a reason. Six to carry the casket, and one to say the mass.”
I was the seventh son, and by the time I was conscious in the world it was clear that the first six were not headed to seminary. When I declared myself a Religious Studies major and took on a Philosophy minor, she didn’t object in the way that we’re told parents are supposed to react to the news of majors that don’t obviously and directly lead to a paycheck. Instead, I think she saw a prophecy coming to fruition, and when I’d send papers home for her to read, she’d write back or tell me on the phone, “Well, I don’t understand all of it, but you write beautifully.” After she died, I found a stack of essays that I’d sent to her while I was in college and Divinity school, and it was accompanied by a note from a friend of hers, a priest. He noted my writing and said something like “you must be so proud” or something else priests say to mothers. Obviously, he didn’t understand her intention that he recruit me to holy orders.
After I accepted my first job, a position as a campus minister and religion teacher, she called me and, chuckling to herself, told me about a dream she had. “You were cutting letters out of all sorts of colors of construction paper and making a bulletin board.” I laughed, understanding the joke between the words, that all that time devoted to academic had led to the world of chalk and stickers, and said (with the absurd confidence of someone who’d never taught before but always said to himself, “Yeah, I think I’d like to try teaching. How hard could that be?”), “Oh, that’s not what teaching is going to look like for me.” Three months later, as I was putting the finishing touches on an overly-elaborate bulletin board for the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls, I fumed because she was right.
She always had — not good, but pointed timing. Her mother was buried on my sister’s 13th birthday, and our dog was put down on the same sister’s 15th. The day before that sister’s wedding anniversary, Mom declared that she was done, and she died the next day. On the trip back to Chicago, I chuckled, thinking about the end of my sister’s wedding reception in the backyard. Once the revelers cleared out, my brother, my dad, and I were the last ones standing. We went to the family room where my dad opened a bottle of Chardonnay. I turned on the TV to find live coverage of the death of Princess Dia…or rather, the Lady Diana.
During my last visit before she died, we planned her funeral. The Monday I was due to fly out and prepare for my first weeks as a middle school principal, I waited as long as I could to leave for the airport. She’d taken a nap after lunch but was in a deep sleep by the time I needed to leave. I thought about waiting for her to wake, but I also inherited from her a compulsion for punctuality. And I don’t think I could’ve borne the guilt she would’ve cast had I missed my flight. So I wrote her a letter and included words that I’d written to her before.
“Thank you for giving me life, and thank you for giving me a wonderful life to live.”