At my church, between the homily and the Eucharist, a member of the congregation stands in the pulpit and reads a series of petitions to which we in the pews respond “Lord, hear our prayer.” Though all the rest of the service follows a beautiful ritual that is the same every week, these petitions offered in our name are a moment of profound spontaneity. I find myself wondering as the reader mounts the steps just what the liturgist will have asked us to focus on this week.
Today, the 12th of August in the year 2018, I knew that there was to be a march in Washington, D.C. later in the day, held by the same group that just a year ago marched in Charlottesville, VA, carrying torches and chanting obscenely racist, anti-Semitic, zenophobic slogans. This group of hateful people ended up killing one young woman–Heather Heyer–and wounding about a score more counter-demonstrators. I thought we might be asked to pray for an end to violence in the world as some sort of general plea for sanity. I was wonderfully wrong. Here’s what we were asked to pray for:
For all those who believe in the God of Abraham–Jews, Christians, and Muslims–and that our leaders will work to build harmony among all faiths. For an end to discrimination of all sorts, especially on the basis of skin color. For the original inhabitants of this country, that our governments will treat them with dignity and respect. For early immigrants who crossed our borders looking for a better life. For immigrants crossing our borders today, especially for the children.
As each wonderful invocation followed the next, I just stood there and wept with gratitude to my church for finding a way to respond to the violence and hatred by too many for people different from them in some important way. I also stood a little taller with pride to be a member of a congregation that responded with genuine energy as we made our usual response. Several people near me seemed to be speaking with more volume and conviction than usual, so I choose to believe they were feeling some of what I was feeling. Our priest has asked us on several occasions as he has been speaking to the many deep flaws in the hierarchy of Roman Catholicism to “be the church you want the church to be.” This is not just a palindromic clause–it is a mantra to live by, day by day and in all avenues of our lives. This morning, our group prayers to the God of our varied understandings achieved that lofty goal with clarity and conviction.
A while back, I wrote about my mother’s elaborately designed garden as one avenue where she could express her creativity. Doing that has brought her back to mind. Because she died fifty-four years ago and because we had a seriously tangled relationship, I have spent a lot of time not thinking about her at all. I would try at times, like on Mother’s Day, but memories usually were negative, so I became reluctant to return to painful or angry times. But recently I heard a fascinating program on National Public Radio about what constitutes a memory. The researcher being interviewed said we are constantly revising what began as an original memory; that each time we remember the same event or person, whatever really happened is removed a little bit more. He concluded that the only stable “memory” would be one that happened once and only once. He even posited that people who can no longer remember their past may well have the purest memories of that past.
I began thinking about writing this blog because I wanted to recount a clear memory I have of my mother’s Christmas decorations in our house in Fairfield, Alabama. I was going to argue that, like her work in her elaborate garden, her transformations of our living room and front porch afforded her another arena for her creativity. Then I remembered that I had already written about this phenomenon in my first memoir, I Dwell in Possibility, published in 1992. So I dug out my copy and read the relevant chapter entitled “My Mother, My Muse.” After describing what she actually did, I concluded that her insisting on doing exactly what she had always done for the holidays in 1955 was remarkable. I want now to return to that time and see how my memory may have changed.
My father and her husband died on New Year’s Day in 1954. For reasons best known to her, she made it clear to my older sister and me that we were never to mention his name in her presence because doing so threw her into a vortex of despair. So, as I tried to cope with all those devastating “firsts” experienced by anyone suffering severe loss of a loved one, Mamie (what most people called my mother) acted as if they did not exist. So during the first week in December, she set up our rickety step ladder in front of the majestic pier mirror over our living room fireplace. She had already gone into our basement and located several boxes of silver balls of various sizes. She’d also found the sturdy tree branch she’d painted brilliant white several years before. So the process began that resulted in a magical decoration. First she climbed up onto the last safe step on the ladder and lodged the white tree branch between the top of the mirror and the ceiling. Then she suspended all the silver balls on razor thin wires that were barely visible from the floor. The whole creation was, of course, reflected in the mirror, adding to the magic. Every time we had a fire in the fireplace, the heat caused the balls to move ever so slightly. The whole thing was simply beautiful. My problem was it made me incredibly sad to look at it because Daddy was not sitting in “his” chair by the radio where he listened to “Amos and Andy” or some one singing “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”
The decorations were still up on January 4th, the day of my father’s funeral. Because there was no church service even though my mother was a pillar of our little Episcopal church, the pastor came to our living room to perform some kind of memorial. Mamie’s two brothers were there as were some cousins from other cities in Alabama and at one point someone wanted to take a picture of her. As I said in the 1992 memoir, “She is as carefully dressed as ever and her hair and make-up are in place. But her face reveals a woman in deep grief.” Since my father’s death and the silence surrounding it were devastating to me as a seventeen year old, I assumed we would never again have those joyous and elaborate decorations. I was wrong. Mamie climbed back up on her ladder and reproduced her magical mobile into the future.
So the memory I carry now, sixty odd years later, is of someone who found solace rather than pain in making her surroundings beautiful. If the man on public radio is correct, I am adjusting what had once seemed some kind of stubborn stoicism or strangely conceived heroism. My memory now draws me closer to Mamie because I know a lot more about grief and loss than I did in 1954. And I recognize unabashedly that, like her, I rely on repetition and ritual to get me through my roughest moments. So I will hold on to this version of the memory because it serves us both quite well.
My maternal grandparents, my parents, my sister and brother-in-law are all buried at Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham, Alabama. When that cemetery was first constructed and for many years afterwards, it served funeral needs of very wealthy and prominent white citizens and was located in an upper-class white neighborhood. There are huge walk-in mausoleums bearing names of founders of the city. One section has a beautiful thatched umbrella canopy covering seats and a little bridge over a thin water display where children could play or families could picnic. My memories of Elmwood turn around the many Sundays after church when Mamie, my mother, and I would pack a picnic lunch, load up on small gardening tools, and go tidy our lot. Being there clearly met some deep sense of loss my mother felt about not having her beloved mother to turn to. What helped us each time we went was having a little water spigot at curbside very near our lot. Beside it always was some kind of plastic or wooden container into which any one could put water from that spigot to refresh the grass or fill vases holding real flowers or help grave tenders wash bird droppings or mud from the headstones of their loved ones.
As demographics of who lived where in Birmingham began to shift as black residents exercised new rights hard won in the 1960s, white relatives of people buried in Elmwood began to shun going to their grave sites because the neighborhood changed in ways that disturbed them. They reported not feeling “safe.” Blacks began buying real estate, so white flight took over, and within a decade or two, the neighborhood was predominantly black or poor white. By then I lived in Minnesota, but whenever I visited cousins in Birmingham, I always drove to see our lot. As long as my older sister was alive, she paid the cemetery for “special care,” which meant our grass was watered and mowed more carefully around the standing marker than was true for those not paying for that service. When she died, I stepped in and began writing monthly checks to Elmwood. To my deep dismay, by the 1980s I couldn’t really tell the difference between how our graves looked and the ones not boasting a little marker stuck into the ground reading “Special Care.” So I canceled the service and found with the help of my relatives a private service to take its place. Chris, a serious gardener, who happens to be a black man, plants pansies every fall and marigolds every spring. He uses his own hand mower so the grass looks neat, since the cemetery stopped paying anyone to do that since so few white people visited their families. It pleases me to know real care is given to the graves.
Chris usually sends me a picture of his two plantings, so this past April I got the usual photograph showing bright marigolds all around the big marker. A few days ago, my cousin sent me a photo from her smart phone showing her at our grave site. Imagine my surprise when I saw no marigolds–just grass carefully cut all around the Hurley-McNaron-McAllister marker. When I e-mailed Chris to ask where the orange blooms were, he wrote apologizing and saying that the extreme heat visited upon Birmingham this year due to global warming had killed the marigolds. Before I read his next paragraph I felt mildly irritated, since I as another serious gardener here in Minnesota where it has also been unusually hot this summer just run up my water bill. So why hadn’t he gone more often to use the spigot and water the marigolds.
The next sentence said it all: “I simply couldn’t protect them since the cemetery has turned off water for the entire grounds and the heat just beat them down.” Surely the officials at Elmwood would never have dared do such a cruel thing if the white survivors of those interned there were still driving to place flowers or just say hello to a loved one. Without water at such a locale, grass will of course wither and die in summer. Without water at such a locale, no fresh flowers can last past a day or so. Without water at such a locale, love and remembrance withers. Many people of various faith communities or psychological persuasions tell us that someone doesn’t die as long as s/he is remembered. Surely a cardinal reason for cemeteries is to provide a space for the living to remember the not-living, to keep them close in our hearts and our memories. So turning off the water because Elmwood is surrounded by middle-class black families is not an example of what many today speak of as racist “micro-aggressions.” And the fact that white owners of all those lots haven’t risen up in mass protest at what is being denied to them speaks of silent collusion in racism at its most obvious.
In many churches yesterday, congregants heard the story of feeding the thousands, supposedly, with “five barley loaves and two fish.” Some years ago, as I listened to the account of this event in John’s Gospel, I thought to myself “I bet lots of people who congregated in hopes of seeing Jesus perform one of his ‘miracles’ brought a little snack in case they got hungry waiting their turn to be healed from something.” At each subsequent service where this story has been read, I’ve become more convinced that it was human generosity and a willingness to share that was the “miracle.” A couple of months ago, the Gospel reading at my church was about Jesus’ interaction with a woman who had been bleeding internally for many months, who came up behind him, touched his robe, and asked him to help her. Jesus ignored his disciples who urged him to move on to help the daughter of an important citizen who was deathly ill. Instead he touches the devout woman and she stops bleeding. When she and the others are awed by his powers, Jesus corrects them, insisting to the woman “Your faith hath made you whole.” In John’s account of the hungry thousands, we’re told about there being a little boy who has the bread and fish for himself but gives it up to Jesus who then “took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted.” At the end of the day, Jesus instructs his disciples to go around and collect any left-overs “so that nothing will be wasted.” We’re asked to believe that there were several containers of left-overs.
In his brief homily yesterday, the priest said he believes the crowd could feel Jesus’ love for them so they extended themselves and shared some of whatever dibs and dabs of food or drink they had in their knapsacks or pockets. He also stressed the relationship between material food and the spiritual food available to us when we are generous with what we have. Instead of holding on tightfistedly to what is “ours,” we openhandedly relinquish ownership so that those less fortunate than we can feel better. Surely this is a “healing” that works both ways. In our story, there must have been many who perhaps didn’t have any extra food on hand or who were too eager to draw near to the man who seemed to have strange and amazing powers to help. In any case, they arrived eager to be “fed” in spirit. So maybe the aura on that expanse of grass where they reclined to listen to and witness awesome healings performed by Jesus took over and people shared. So it was their faith that let them feel a love of community. The “miracle” was feeling generous of material food because of feeling seen and loved by a stranger who knew of their untapped capacity to share. And the “left-overs” prove that generosity then or now defies theories of “zero-sum gain,” so prevalent in today’s world so often ruled by greed.
As I held out my hands to receive what I thought would be one of the little round, tasteless wafers from a member of the congregation, I was taken up short by what got put into my hand. It was a tiny triangular wedge and I registered where it had come from. At a pivotal moment in the liturgy, the priest raises a large round host wafer and breaks it into little chunks as he recounts what happened at the last meal Jesus would share with his disciples where he broke their hallah loaf into pieces and handed them to the twelve disciples. Chances of a given member of my very large congregation’s getting one of the resulting shards are very slim, yet there one was being put into my outstretched hands by a woman I know to be a staff member at my church. No longer believing in “coincidences,” I returned to my pew deeply moved by what was happening to me and all of us walking quietly up to the alter rail to be “fed” physical bread. The physical really felt like a stand-in for the spiritual significance of the moment.
I went home satisfied.