When I was growing up, my mother almost never made casseroles. I was an only child, and she was the type of thrifty person who didn't like to make anything that would go to waste. A normal sized casserole would have taken our family three days to eat, and she always said there was no reason to keep eating the same thing until you were sick of it. More important than that, my father could not abide anything with ketchup or Campbell's soup or Velveeta or boullion cubes. (My mother's lifelong secret was that she always snuck a boullion cube into the gravy for color. My father, Lord have mercy on him, never suspected, resulting in a long and happy marriage.) Needless to say, for such a meat-and-potatoes man, all manner of casseroles were out.
If Mom had been the sort who made casseroles, chances are I would have been tired of them, but because it was a food never served at home, yet perpetually on the tables of all the large, bustling families I knew, I felt somehow as if we were missing out on something.
Almost every Summer, we would spend a week with my Aunt Robertine in the woods of Connecticut. My aunt had five children, more than enough to justify a casserole of any size. How I loved Aunt Robertine's kitchen, always with a huge tray of something savory waiting near the stove. The children would come in and help themselves to a bread crumb topped tuna bake, and I would be right there among them ready to fill and refill my plate. There was something warm and friendly about lining up for food and sitting shoulder to shoulder at the table.
That is not to say my mother could not cook as good a meal as anyone. It's just that two pork chops and three potatoes would feed our whole family, and, good as it was, this did not seem half so friendly to me as a great big casserole.
Yesterday, as I was putting dinner on the table--a completely plain and hearty "Sour Cream Noodle Bake," loaded with browned ground beef and cottage cheese and cheddar--I thought about an only child from long ago and how much she would have loved it, particularly if she could have shared it at a long, beaten up farmhouse table lined with children exactly like ours.
I am very happy for her.
This afternoon, the older four girls and I went to First Saturday confession. I entered the confessional to repeat the same sin I confess month after month after month--"Father, I was impatient with the children." My pastor smiled, telling me (yet again) that he hears this from mothers all the time.
Is it any wonder that today, of all days, I came across this--a Hymn to Our Lady of All Patience (what a title!) written by none other than our beloved St. Louis de Montfort? Here it is, an anthem to Our Blessed Mother suitable for mothers everywhere:
Come to my assistance,
O gentle and divine Mary,
Come to my assistance!
I suffer and groan every day.
Be compassionate to my troubles.
Free me from them, I beg you.
Come to my assistance!
You are most merciful,
Everything is under your rule.
Give me then some help
Or at least, the gift of patience.
Please click here for the next five stanzas of St. Louis' hymn. He really seems to have been suffering when he wrote it, but it is a fine testimony to his faith in Our Lady's love and care.
I was sitting comfortably with the baby on my lap when Marie came in with an announcement: "Maureen and I are having a puppet show upstairs, and it is about to begin! Come see it, Mom!"
Now, when it comes to our children's shows and skits, there is a tri-fold law that must never be broken:
1. The stage needs to be set in the farthest reaches of the house, usually up or down a flight of stairs;
2. The show must begin precisely when I least feel like walking up or down the flight of stairs; and [this next point is crucial]
3. The proceedings cannot take place without Mommy in attendance, sitting front and center.
I tried buying myself a bit of time, saying "later, honey" and "in a few minutes" and "don't you two need more time to rehearse?" But Marie won me over with persistence, begging, and, as a last resort, that certain pouty look she has managed to retain from babyhood.
Little Eileen was weighing heavily on my hip as I started the slow ascent up the stairs. The effort was already beginning to pay off though--I laughed outright to find the staircase lined with homely signs scrawled in pen: "Puppet Show this way [arrow pointing up]"; "Maureen and Marie's Puppet Show"; "We hope you injoy the show!" Marie had managed to assemble all the children for an audience--even the busy older girls.
The curtain rose to reveal a china doll and stuffed lamb. From behind a chair, Maureen's thin voice rose, "Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb." It was simple and sweet . . . but extremely beautiful in its ordinary way, particularly because it was taking place in an uncluttered, painted corner of the house. I leaned over and whispered to Theresa, sending her off to retrieve my camera. She returned a moment or so later, and I snapped the photos below.
On occasion, I have heard it said that blogs do not present a complete picture of the homes they represent. We see all beauty and perfection, without the blemishes. Some would even say that these worlds of domestic tranquility are created for the camera and do not truly exist apart from the blogs. Still, I believe that this beauty does exist, and it may be found in every home.
This side of Heaven, there is no perfection, and all families are, in different ways, "mourning and weeping in this valley of tears." Yet, even in the dark valley, we are called to "wait in joyful hope." God trains His sunshine upon us, showing forth His goodness always. Just as in every home there are sorrows, there is also an Ideal waiting to be noticed.
The Ideal presents itself in any number of ways throughout each day and need not be created or staged. We find it jumping for joy as Daddy drags the Christmas lights up from the basement; we see it waiting for us with a picture book and hopeful expression; we hear its muffled shouts of fun through the glass of our back windows; and we feel its limp, dozing warmth by the armload on our laps.
When I am on vacation and see a worthwhile sight, I reach for my camera. So it is at home (the most worthwhile place of all). Marie and Maureen's performance is now in my heart's history book, and I will look at it when I am gray(er) and smile again. Indeed, it was not the only thing that happened that day--I'm sure I scaled a mountain of dishes and probably fretted over clothes and toys on the floor. That is all right and well worth it. The returning miner exclaims and rejoices over the diamonds, leaving the crags and rocks behind.
Any home where breathes a child contains more joy, contentment and beauty than the most well-crafted picture book or extensive magazine spread. And even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
Scenes from a puppet show, performed with neither stage nor puppet
The curtain is down:
Baby Eileen makes her way backstage:
And is promptly kicked out:
"There once was a little sister. They loved her very much . . . . ":
Marie feeds Maureen her lines:
The cast assembles for a curtain call:
The morning of the Feast of St. Francis, my local police department called with the news that my mother had been in an accident on her way to my house. She'd been paused at an intersection with her foot on the brake waiting to make a left hand turn, when a nineteen year old in the oncoming lane changed a compact disc, swerving just enough to hit her head on. The police said they were taking her to a local emergency room, but assured me her injuries were only minor.
Daddy rushed home from work to look after the children, and I headed for the hospital. Brushing aside a curtain in a dimly lit room, I found her sitting up in bed, wrapped in a blanket and looking reasonably well. Her leg was sore, but she remained upbeat, telling me the details of the accident, saying how nice the teenage boy had been and how sorry she felt for him. [He had already been discharged from the same emergency room.] More than anything else, she wanted to know if The Long Island Catholic had come out with my new column in it. [In other words, she was completely herself.]
A nurse bustled through the curtain with discharge papers, surprising us with the good news that Mom was ready to go home. My big black twelve passenger van, affectionately known around here as "the monster truck," is difficult for my mother to mount even on her best day, so there was no way she could get into it with a sore leg. I raced home to switch cars, returning in less than an hour and parking in the emergency room circle, hoping she would be ready to go.
Setting aside the faded curtain, I did not find my mother dressed and ready, eager to stop for a cup of soup on the way home, as she had been planning only an hour before. She was sick and dazed, her face red and puffy. Although she knew me, she could no longer recall the accident, acting surprised and alarmed each time she heard it mentioned.
Needless to say, the doctor on call would not send her home, but ordered she be taken to another hospital with a trauma surgeon. The fear was that she might have taken a bump to the head in the accident, causing a bleed on the brain. Personally, I thought she had had a stroke, brought on by the ordeal of the accident and just being in the hospital. As sweet and friendly as she is, my mother is a quiet person who craves privacy. I couldn't help feeling that if I had gotten her out of there in the first place, she would have been all right.
I returned home in the empty red Saturn, stopping to nurse the baby and grab a bite to eat before heading to the second emergency room. Night had fallen and there was a chill in the air. The hospital loomed before me, billowing smoke in crazy wisps, so that it seemed there could never be a more oppressive looking building. Six times before, Daddy and I had arrived at that same hospital at all hours, joy and excitement quickening our every step. How different was this lonesome walk, plodding toward the emergency room and a bleak unknown.
My mother was lying in a bed in the hallway. Other people's loved ones were lying in beds too, and a janitor made his way around them with a mop. Mom's cheeks looked redder than ever, making her eyes seem small and almost childlike. I stood trying to explain what had happened to her, waiting for someone else to come around and try to explain it to me. Eventually two young doctors took me aside, their speeches peppered with words like "dementia" and "loopy," concluding with a regretful, "she may never come out of it."
Back on the pavement outside, I felt sick to my stomach. Harsh lights beamed down on my head as I passed two hospital workers paused for a cigarette. An ambulance blared in the distance, drawing closer, so that the scene took on a surreal quality. I fancied it to be a movie set of an emergency room and wished I could tear it all down to reclaim the bright, hopeful morning that seemed so distant now.
The next day, I tried teaching the children in the cottage, the familiar routine somehow reassuring. Out of the corner of my eye, I kept catching glimpses of my mother walking up the driveway as she so often did, each time feeling a stab remembering that this might never be again. The younger children did not quite grasp the seriousness of Grandma's condition, mostly because I could not bring myself to tell them. In spite of my silence, Theresa's jaw twitched, and Agnes shed quiet tears, looking at me with round, understanding eyes. Those girls of mine are growing up.
By the time I was able to return to the hospital, the sun was just beginning to set, and I was driving right into it. It was enormous on the horizon, round and orange, the kind of sun no driver wants to face--yet somehow it made me think about "the woman clothed with the sun." I half remembered another experience in the very same hospital and the woman "with the moon under her feet." She had seen me through the bleak unknown before and had given me reason after reason to trust. I thought about that recent column and its bottom line: "The Blessed Mother always takes care of us."
All right, I decided then and there, I am going to trust. Not trust in the outcome I wanted, mind you, but in the Blessed Mother's care, no matter what the outcome.
I made my way to my mother's room and found her sitting up in bed. Something in the glimmer of her eye made me ask hopefully, "Mom, do you remember the accident?"
"Yes," she said, "I remember it, but it only came back to me a little while ago. A group of doctors was in asking me questions, and I kept telling them there had been no accident. I insisted I had come to the hospital after my doctor's appointment on Wednesday. The moment they walked away, it began to come back to me, and I realized what they were talking about."
She proceeded to tell me all the details, every bit as lucidly as she had during that first hour in the hospital. She began cracking jokes that had me howling, describing how the doctors had looked askance when she denied the accident, each one jotting down the same note in his or her book: "N-U-T-S!" [In other words, she was completely herself.]
Mom's leg is still in bad shape, and she cannot walk, but time and rehabilitation will take care of that. I have been taking sub-groups of the family to visit her at the rehab center every day, and there is currently no higher aspiration in life for my children than to be the one to carry the mail in to Grandma. Everyone is waiting hopefully for the day the red Saturn will bring her home to stay with us.
And, yes, as this title tells, there was a third emergency room in my future, but that, I'm afraid, is a tale in itself!
A very dear friend of mine once told me she does not especially enjoy looking at her children's baby pictures. It isn't that she does not appreciate them, but that the images are so bittersweet. Seeing those darling faces, she cannot help wishing she could spend some time with her babies once more, holding them in her arms and covering them with kisses.
All seven of mine are still at home, and yet, on occasion, when I come across a picture of Agnes or Theresa as an infant or tow-headed toddler, I feel a slight pang of longing. What I would not give for even an afternoon in our first apartment with those dear babies, rocking them in my arms, reading a story, or singing them off to sleep.
Sometimes, if my children are playing and I am in a position to sit and watch, I like to pretend that I am seeing them in a home movie. In my mind, years and years have passed--they are all grown up and a video of them as they once were is flickering across a screen. No matter what they are doing in the "movie"--whether it be playing and laughing, screaming or creating a mess--they are irresistible and adorable to me, and I watch with new appreciation for the blessing that they are.
When the reel runs out and the houselights of reality are raised again, I scoop them up and cover them with kisses--believe me, it is better than popcorn.
Scenes from some excellent films I have watched lately:
It seems my friend Elizabeth Foss and I both have the seasons of motherhood on our minds. I just visited her blog to find this post about "Writer's Block" and a son leaving for college all too soon. Her description of having ideas but not really caring about them right now reminds me of my feelings towards blogging last year when Eileen was born.
Prayers are being said here for Elizabeth, Mike, Michael and the whole family during this bittersweet time.
This time last year, I was barely blogging or even turning on the computer. Our darling Eileen had come to grace our lives forever, and her presence melted all words from my mind. I remember thinking how much I wanted to keep up "Cottage Blessings," but it was just impossible. The problem wasn't primarily a lack of time or energy either--the words simply were not there. Last July's archives contain only four posts: a meme completed by Agnes, a picture of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a photograph of one-month-old Eileen, and a link to a Cottage Garden post about Luna moths. This July, by contrast, has been my most busy "posting month" ever, with a new entry written almost every day from a City bursting with ideas and inspiration.
Comparing the two Julys side by side, each with its unrepeatable joys, stories and memorable moments--one mostly unwritten and the other well documented--makes me realize more than ever that there is a time in our lives for everything. During some seasons of Motherhood, we are inspired to share our thoughts and stories, and during others we are called to silent reflection. Mary "pondered all these things in her heart."
Often, mothers leave thoughtful notes on their blogs saying, "I'm sorry I have been away so long" or "I have been doing a terrible job in posting." We all strive to be faithful to any task we take up, and it is natural to feel a bit bad when our blogs fall out of rhythm for a while. Still, I would say that this, like so many aspects of Motherhood, is part of God's plan for us. We should expect those inevitable quiet times, not feeling the least bit sorry when they come, but embracing them wholeheartedly.
Let us rejoice in both the stories and the silence.
"Yet the sound increased -- and what could I do? It was A LOW, DULL, QUICK SOUND -- MUCH SUCH A SOUND AS A WATCH MAKES WHEN ENVELOPED IN COTTON. I gasped for breath, and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly, more vehemently but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why WOULD they not be gone?"--from The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe
One evening in the not so distant past, I was helping the girls get ready for a special event--Christmas maybe, or perhaps a Communion. Whatever the occasion, it was important enough for me to comb each of their freshly-washed heads myself. I began with Agnes, sitting her in our upstairs bathroom, carefully parting her straight brown hair and running a comb through it. This tedious process always takes a while, and before long she was absently tapping our loose shower door with her foot. Back and forth went the foot, closing the faulty door, only to have it spring open again and again. "Honey," I said, not especially liking the repeated taps, but still unruffled, "Would you please stop doing that?" "Sure, Mom," she said, immediately pulling her foot away from the door as I continued to comb.
Finishing up, I called Theresa into the room, carefully parting her straight blonde hair and running my comb through it. Before long, I heard a tapping and saw that Theresa was nudging the loose shower door closed with her foot, only to have it fall open once more. "Theresa, could you stop doing that?" I said firmly, "The noise is bothering me." "Sure, Mom," she obliged, retracting her foot as I continued to comb.
Next in the chair was (then) six-year-old Margaret, who had been playing dolls in her room with Marie. I carefully parted her strawberry blonde hair, running my comb through it. Within minutes, I could hear a tapping--a maddening, grating, inexcusable tapping. Margaret was closing the loose shower door with her foot, reclosing it each time it fell open. "Margaret!!!" I bellowed like a Bear in a Baiting, "WOULD YOU STOP OPENING AND CLOSING THAT SHOWER DOOR?!!!!"
Margaret looked dumbfounded--my sudden outburst in that enclosed space taking her entirely off guard. She did not even cry, but just stared aghast, her stark white face going red to the ears. In my mind, there was nothing for her to be surprised about--hadn't I repeatedly been saying to STOP making that awful noise?
Within ten seconds, of course, I realized what I had done. My patience had been worn thin by the tapping and the monotony of combing head after head after head. Margaret had not done anything wrong, although it certainly felt as if she had. Collecting myself, I apologized to her, explaining exactly what happened. We shared a laugh over it, and all was well again as I finished combing that strawberry head.
Every now and then, a single event shines a floodlight upon hundreds of others, and so it was with this one. How often had I lost patience with one child over something inconsequential when in reality my nerves were frayed by one or two or half a dozen other people who had just done the same thing? [This is completely understandable too, isn't it? No mother wants to yell at her kids--that Bear in a Baiting would much rather be eating blueberries placidly, or better yet snoring in her cave!]
To this day, when I feel the heat of maternal indignation rise within me, I try holding off just long enough to ask myself the question: Am I being fair, or am I giving my child "The Shower Door"?
And when, as it often does, it turns out to be the latter, we usually share a laugh over it!