Making Peace with my Mother’s Paradoxes

Dear Mom,

You’re one of my angels now, nine years gone, cheering and challenging me from the spirit world after you blessed my vocation in our last real talk….but I’m still trying to make sense of your paradoxical legacy as I, in my turn, approach elderhood. Not only your legacy in my own life, but the legacy you left the nation through your contributions to the Heritage Foundation and Republican Party and the rest of your conservative causes.

I know you would never have wanted a man like the DT to become president – he would have horrified you – but his position as president-elect is nevertheless the outcome of many of the things you supported devotedly in your life. And I still, to this day, can’t figure out whyWhy someone so profoundly spiritual as yourself – I’m not talking about your conservative Catholicism, but your incredible, compassionate, visionary spirituality – could have fallen so completely for a party that waves its collective middle finger in the face of all the virtues you taught by your lifelong example: reverence for the natural world and all its beings; compassion for all regardless of color, nationality, creed; strength that did not deny your femininity.

Propped by my desk now is the prayer by Max Ehrmann that hung over yours, and spoke to the values you demonstrated through your life…

Let me do my work each day; and if the darkened hours of despair
overcome me, may I not forget the strength that comforted me
in the desolation of other times.
May I still remember the bright hours that found me walking over
the silent hills of my childhood, or dreaming on the margin of a quiet
river, when a light glowed within me, and I promised my early God
to have courage amid the tempests of the changing years. 
Spare me from bitterness and from the sharp passions of unguarded
moments. May I not forget that poverty and riches are of the spirit. 
Though the world knows me not, may my thoughts and actions be
such as shall keep me friendly with myself. 
Lift up my eyes from the earth, and let me not forget the uses of the
stars.  Forbid that I should judge others lest I condemn myself. 
Let me not follow the clamor of the world, but walk calmly in my path.
Give me a few friends who will love me for what I am; and keep ever
burning before my vagrant steps the kindly light of hope. 
And though age and infirmity overtake me, and I come not within
sight of the castle of my dreams, teach me still to be thankful for
life, and for time’s olden memories that are good and sweet; and
may the evening’s twilight find me gentle still. 

 

I still remember when I came home from school crying because someone in my fourth-grade class had said I was communist, because we had family in Lithuania, then behind the Iron Curtain. I was raging, “I hate the Russians for what they’re doing to our people!” and you corrected me, saying that the Russians were victims of their government, and that it was the Soviets who were holding our people prisoner.

Thirty-some years later, I was asking your former parish priest, the saintly Father Tony Dranginis, of the Lithuanian community’s church, St. Alphonsus, to help a Russian refusenik friend to bring his wife and son to the U.S….he was appalled, saying, “Do you know what the Russians did to our people?” I quoted your words verbatim…and he had a change of heart, and sent me to the Lithuanian community’s immigration attorney. She made the same objection, I gave her the same response…and six months later Sasha was welcoming Tatiana and Sergei to the U.S.

Your compassionate teachings had more of an effect than you probably ever knew.But for all your parenting wisdom and visionary writings, you could be just as righteous an essayist as your media favorites, William Buckley, George Will, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter. And here I find myself choking on why? Why, always Why? How could you not see the hate, the arrogance, the meanness of these people?

I remember years ago, when you told me, “When I was young, I was just as liberal as you are. Then somebody took me aside and told me how things really are.” I’ve wondered for years who that person was, what sway they held over you, that they could turn you aside from the natural inclination of your own soul – the compassion to which you’ve returned since your passing, that shone out of you so many times as you cried over forests being razed and wrote impassioned letters to the editor about cruelty or neglect to animals. The compassion that led you to feed the birds, squirrels, raccoons (“poor Mrs. Raccoon, having to be a single mother and raise her babies alone!”), foxes, possums, cats, dogs….any animal that came your way knew it would receive a meal.

Part of it, I believe, was the church in which you grew up – as Baltimore’s Lithuanian community church, St. Alphonsus was deeply imbued with anti-communist and conservative Catholic ideology; to this day it is one of the centers of the Tridentine (Latin) Mass, which you swore to the end that you preferred to the modern vernacular version. Part was surely generational trauma – your parents and sister Olga fleeing Lithuania for their lives, just ahead of the Soviets in 1919. How many anti-communist pamphlets did I unearth among your papers, your uncountable issues of The Voice of the Martyrs chronicling the horrors of life under Soviet Russia? I vividly remember writing letters to my cousins in Lithuania, with you carefully schooling me to
remove any references to Christian holidays because they could cause our family to be sent to the gulags.

I stumbled on an article the other day – The Red Scare and the Liturgy and Life Pamphlet Collection – that gave a deeper perspective: evidently good Catholics couldn’t enter or exit their parish churches without being accosted by ranks of anti-communist literature. And at St. Alphonsus, with its Lithuanian population still grieving families behind the Iron Curtain, that anticommunist message must have been particularly powerful….and amnesiac. I didn’t learn about Lithuania’s quisling government, or collaboration with the Nazis, until I was in my 20s, and was devastated by the information.

And you seemed to swallow it all in your devoted loyalty to Nixon, Reagan, Oliver North, the Bushes, your scorn for the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Democratic politicians across the board – “godless liberals.” Your conviction that only incitement by malcontent leaders with malign intent could twist “our fine black families” to engage in protest against the conditions of their lives. And yet you lived just blocks away from poor black neighborhoods in your Depression/WWII young womanhood in Union Square; you must have seen those conditions at least in passing. Or was your ethnic childhood so insular?

If anything emerges from my browsing through your writings, it is your innocence, your naivete, your allegiance to the patriarchal establishment, so conditioned that you couldn’t see the fusion of church and corporate interests. Working for Standard Oil in your younger days, you would have been in the thick of that paradigm, the rise of Christian Libertarianism. And surely there was an attraction (a crush?) to your hyperliterate conservative gurus; how many times did I hear you dreamily quoting William Buckley’s articles, savoring his turns of phrase like a fine wine?

You could have had no idea how it would all wind up; you died years before the rise of the Tea Party, when even Dad, staunch Republican that he was, abandoned the GOP and voted for Obama, not once but twice. “It’s a sin and a crime what the Republicans are doing,” he said. But even in his dying days my work for green businesses and the Earth was still anathema to him, your blessing clearly a misinterpretation on my part.

But always, you and I shared a deeper understanding. And I am heart-glad that, despite our differences, you saw that I was still coming from that spiritual/mystic place we shared…heading in different directions, but from the same point of origin.

Mom, as I’m reading the writing you left behind – years of letters to and from Aunt Olga and Dad, carefully stapled and filed in a box with cheery 1970’s flowers on the cover; years of Op-Eds, articles, and Letters to the Editor, carefully pasted in on fragile pages in big leather scrapbooks – I’m seeing some of the forces that shaped you, but so much remains a mystery. I’m glad that – even while you veered wildly between holding your political ground and cheering me on as a writer; asking me to review your outraged op-eds and saying you were proud of my work; borrowing books from your parish priest on bringing lost family members back to the Church and telling Dad that my husband’s and my Earth-based spirituality was no less real and valid than the fervent Catholicism you practiced – I never doubted your love for me. However reactionary your political and religious positions, you framed them from a place of heart and spirit, and even while you argued fiercely for the default masculine pronoun and derided feminist ideology, you were never any less than proud of being a woman, nor did you expect anything less than that as a woman, I would be strong and hold my own in a man’s world.

For all our differences, Mom, you’ll always be one of my heroes.

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