Here Is What I Hope

GeneMc-6November is a melancholy month. We are urged to remember, not only by holiday sentiment, but by nature itself, all the people and events not only of the past year but of our lives. There is something in the air in November, the turning leaves, the cooler days that turn us inward. Nature asking us to stop  between the heat and the coming cold to reflect, to both cherish and regret, and if regretting, to correct.

It is the correcting part where I have to place my hope. And hope is one of the cardinal virtues which brings me back around to the earliest teachings and yes, swaddling influences of my life.

Despite the trash talk and controversies and who holds power in the Vatican-- that is all ancillary and distracting from the theology and spirituality of which I was not only baptized into in the back of St. Clare's on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception some 56 years ago, but I was immersed and yes, again, swaddled in the mysteries and the lights and shadows and the lives of saints and gospels stories in the stain glass around the marble church.

And the sanctuary lamp.

The red flame and the gold doors.

All the activity, prayer, songs readings and gestures all focused on who was housed there in the form of consecrated bread.

Not something to be scoffed at or dismissed. No, there was a great mistake in that movement, but that is for a different time.

Here is what I hope: I hope that with our natural time of reflection and feasts of All Souls and All Saints, the communion of saints which uphold us and upon whose shoulders we rest, I hope and yes, I believe, that the mistakes and misunderstandings can still be corrected, forgiven, absolved, not only by God, but by those we miss and mourn, by those we can finally see in a different light, a kinder light, a more generous and Christian light. And they, us.

I hope this, not only for theological or spiritual reasons, but for very human needs, because if our regret stays stuck in the physical fact of our loved ones not being here to touch, to have that last conversation, that last hug or apology, how do we cope?

Perhaps it is my age, (some would say i am in the November of my life) perhaps it is because I now have grandchildren and all the years of family stories and people I carry within me and are carried forward by my children and grandchildren, or just the nature I was graced with, but I am not able to see death as the end, but just one chapter of a much longer life, and because of that, I hope.


My dear good friend Bill Marvel used a word in a sentence at our Salon the other day. Neither of us remember clearly what he was referring to, but the word, bromeliad, struck a chord with me.

What's that? I asked.

One of those little plants that seem to exist unconnected to any roots, he replied, perhaps. (Both of us indulge in memoir from time to time, so I say 'perhaps' because we don't feel the great need to quote exactly, as long as we are true to the gist of things.  which, of course, comes with its own set of problems, memories being what they are, but I digress)

So, I had to look up bromeliads, natch.  I discovered that bromeliad is the larger group that contains the free floating untethered bits of greenery called Tillandsias.  Since bromeliad has a much stouter ring, evoking Jonathan Swift, that satirical Irishman, and his inventions of sounds such as Brobdignagian and Lilliputian, we shall throw all the bromeliads in the same bag and watch it float away.

I had, indépendant of Salon, been thinking about the concept of being untethered for a while. This nagged at me because of a conversation I had with someone dear to me who politely declined my suggestion of 'tethering" her family through a religious rite I hold dear.

Years ago, when part of my job was to teach Baptism classes, the fashion was to de-emphazize Original Sin (sorry St. Augustine) and to emphasize community and heritage and family lore and connectedness to the Big Story, our overarching Christian mythos that binds us one to the other and to God.

I asked the class to bring with them some token from their family history that they held dear. Some brought photographs, coin collections, medals, bits of jewelry, that sort of thing. I brought a potato peeler. Not because the Irish ate a lot of potatoes, but because this peeler was used in countless family meals, both great and small. And so, it held a bit of our family history.

A stretch? Maybe.

But, it stands in place as (shall I say it?) a sacramental. One of the greatest things for a Catholic writer, or a writer who is Catholic, is the abundance of ordinary, everyday objects and physical, rough, elegant, oily, watery, things that evoke the holy by the manner in which they are used and remembered. The ordinary holy burlap and silk of the way we are tethered, one to another, and personally, communally to God.

Untethered is a fiction, for even Tillandsia Bromeliads need water and air and a place to hover.


When I was a kid, one of the jobs I'd have to do the day before Thanksgiving or Christmas or Easter, was polish the silver. We'd fill a basin with warm soapy water, rub some pink goo over the knives and forks and spoons, rub extra hard on the little black spots where tarnish had settled and get in the thread-like grooves, or patina, that had been scratched into the silver. The patina is where the stories of the spoons and forks and knives lived. the patina was the interesting bits of the life of each piece of cutlery. So, twice, maybe three times a year, we'd rub the silver like Aladdin rubbing his lamp, and place the shiny bits on the freshly ironed linen, next to the plates and wine glasses. The company would come, and in those early years, in the years when we wore our nicest dress and the boys wore a tie and polished shoes, the silver haired relations would tell stories and hold their shiny forks and leave their imprint on the touchable pieces of family history.

I found a new word yesterday: Wabi-sabi. Two words, really. Japanese. An approximate meaning I gleaned from Wikipedia is this: imperfections that make something interesting, bring its history forward, if only indirectly; hinting, whispers.

That is, the cracks in the crockery, the stains on the linen and lace tablecloth, the patina on the silver.

Which brings me to this short excerpt from THE NARROW GATE, when Rose discovers her grandmother's attic:

From Chapter Thirty-Three

Here is a treasure trove of history in this dusty room. Sheets cover armchairs, a desk, an old bureau. There is a sled, the kind she's seen in movies, that must have been her father's and uncle's. Boxes of old clothes that weren't supposed to find their resting place here, but did because they were forgotten or outgrown when it was time to get next season's garments down. A desk with an old typewriter covered in a towel is the best find. Black enamel keys with gold lettering, the keys are stiff with disuse, bit the indentation where fingers were to be placed, round with a band of metal on each one, feels so much more important than the plastic electric typewriter her parents have.

A Good Word

My father died last week.  He was 94. His wake and funeral were the most beautiful I've ever been part of. All the testimonials, all the affection, all the gratefulness for his many, many years of service. I presented a short eulogy at the end of his funeral Mass.  I share with you an excert: Dad liked words: he liked words so much he created his own and appropriated standard words and put them to new use. He had names for us, starting with his mother whom he called Minnie, his baby sister, Alice who was Nellie Hamburger or Adrian Zilch. Our brother Gene became Jasper, MaryEllen was McGinkly Old Girl and Giggles McGuirk, Peter was Pierpont, Alicia was Lovely Leesh, the old Peach, Gerry was Reginald Von Bimburg the Third, shortened to Reggie, I was Kazook, or more fully Juli Kazool the silliest girl in Kalamazoo, Mom was Millicent, My dear and Pasta Fagioli.

When he was annoyed, Oof e gad popped out. Oof e gad was heard quite a bit in our home. When he thought his children were not acting up to their potential as his offspring we might hear “Balloon head” or "Balliftina" directed our way.

For all his affectionate naming he didn't much care for malarkey or jibberjab and he didn't have patience for a rigamarole when things became more complicated than they needed to be.

He had many qualities: he was a scholar, a thinker, a speaker, a writer, a pray-er, a husband, a father, a brother, and perhaps the quality that showed itself in brilliant colors these past six and a half years, he was a fighter.

When he landed in Marseille in December 1944 he entered what was the coldest winter on record in Europe. The temperature ranged from about zero to ten below.

The army trained him as a Mechanical Engineer and because of his sharp strategic abilities he was sent over as a scout. As he put it, he was good at the Cowboy and Indian games. This strategic ability of his coupled with his natural leadership saved the lives of countless of his fellow soldiers during The Battle of the Bulge. Because of his heroic leadership he was given a Battlefied Commission to First Lieutenant.

On March 22, 1945 German bullets caught up with him at the Siegfried Line in his head, shoulder and back. The men in his squad told him they saw who shot him and they were going to get him. He immediately said, No, Don't Do It.  He didn't know the young German kid, of course, but he recognized in him a similar fate. He didn't want to be in this bloody war any more than Dad did. He believed that boy’s mother was home praying for him just as much as his own mother was keeping her rosary warm with persistent Hail Mary’s for his safety.

You see, above and beyond all the qualities of our father, beyond his sharp wit and penetrating intelligence, beyond his movie star looks as a young man, beyond his strategic mind and leadership, Dad was a Catholic, the kind of Catholic it might be difficult to find anymore.

That order forbidding his squad to kill the German soldier who shot him uttered from a deep and true part of his soul. He took seriously the Gospel which he breathed in and out in all his years of formation at St. Elizabeth’s and St John’s and his natural bent toward holiness. Yes, holiness.

In these last difficult years he was the soul of grace, enduring, uncomplaining, through a stroke, countless infections, bouts of pneumonia, and for the last two years, a respirator, robbing him of his ability to talk.

He was a man of deep faith, his Catholicism informed every aspect of his life. I believe he was able to not only endure his suffering because of this grace, but he transcended the pain and, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, transformed his pain into redemptive suffering, a lesson learned from the crucifix.

Dad lived 94 years, something incredible in itself. 68 years ago he was all but killed on the battlefield. The Army told him he would never work, that he was 80% disabled. He said goodbye to the Army, turning down a promotion to Captian, immediately went to Law School, married my mother 64 years ago, had six children, became a NYState Supreme Court judge and retired at age 72. See what 80% disabled meant to him!

It will take a long time for me to unpack the lessons he provided, maybe the rest of my life.

Dad, I send to you a “Whack on hine, Kiss on Snout.”  We love you, you  old Curmudgeon.


Wrap Your Mercy

I have a favorite song. The title is Last Six Hours of Summer, but I always refer to it as the mercy song. You might get a better feel for why it is my favorite if you heard the music, but that I don't know how to do in this space.    Wrap your mercy around me.  Bury me in light.

   All the days get older and older then die every night.

   Last six hours of summer,  driving 'round the lake,

   Silver lights dance over the water 'til day starts to break

                Follow me back home, let the daylight into our bones

                Starts and it stops, breaks all the locks, there'll be peace

                when the morning comes

   Take these chains from my body, hang them over your door

   I don't want to carry the weight  of my sins anymore

   Give me back to the water, lay me down across stone,

   Let the moon call all her waves back to shore,  take my bones

            Follow me back home, let the daylight into our bones

           starts and it stops, breaks all the lock there'll be peace

           when the morning comes.  Repeat

(© Mike McCullagh)

I've been part of a Tuesday Morning Prayer Group since we moved to Texas more than twenty years ago. We were, at the time, a gathering of mothers with young children. Now, twenty years on, our kids are grown and some of us are grandmothers. For all these years, we have been with each other through good times and tough times, through births and deaths and struggles with faith, with life.

Just this week we had an emergency meeting to pray for one of our mothers and her family because they are going through a terribly difficult time. Seven mothers were able to attend, seven mothers praying the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary with the hope and faith of sending hope and faith and relief to this family, who are dear to us.

These small communities of faith are perhaps the best kept secret of the Church. Many times they are the only face of the church that its members can belong to, for a very, very long list of reasons. Dark nights of the soul, family troubles, illness, depression, confusion, spiritual warfare, just to name a few. The struggles of life that many of us might succumb to if we didn't have a manageable faith group to catch us. There's the Church and there's the church, the small gathering of saints and sinners meeting in each others homes, holding each other together in prayer and fellowship.

Wherever two or more are gathered, you know.