The Disarming of a Crusader: Memories of My Mother

She called herself a crusader, as far back as I can remember…and as Mother’s Day approaches, I am thinking once more of my mother’s folders upon folders of writing and correspondence.

Leadership in the Maryland Back to God Movement, volunteer hours spent with the National Federation for Decency, donations and letters to innumerable similar organizations. Op-eds supporting Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, letters and essays on abortion, school prayer, pornography… writings on every conservative hot-button issue imaginable.

In those same bundles of files are also her environmental campaigns: passionately advocating for the trees in the City and in our neighborhood. For the preservation of green space. For protection of the Chesapeake Bay, of national parks and wildlife, of alleycats and retired horses.

And then, radiant spiritual meditations such as The Mystery of Love….or her extended memoir piece, “Recollections of an Ethnic Childhood in Baltimore”…or laugh-out-loud humor pieces such as “Die Comes Before Diet” and “I Married a Workaholic.” In two packed file cabinet drawers I have a multilayered, nuanced, intensely complex portrait of a fiercely independent-minded, deeply spiritual woman who fed every creature that came to her door, who held firmly to the teachings of old-school Catholicism and scorned the label “feminist”…but held firmly that women were responsible for protecting the Sacred in art, culture, and politics. And protect it she did, with all the ferocity of her Confirmation saint, Jeanne d’Arc.

Like her namesake, she was a mystic; born “with a caul,” she spoke of having had visions: when her beloved sister died of alcoholism, she stormed heaven with prayers until she saw Jesus cradling Aunt Olga as a lamb, and received the message that all was well. I believe that was not the only vision she had…and she certainly had the gift of foresight.

But that mysticism was firmly reined in by dogma and politics. When I became involved in the Charismatic movement as a teen, she came in with me to be sure it wasn’t a cult. We studied together, were “baptized in the Spirit” together…it was one of our closest times. But Campus Crusade for Christ came in and we both were swept off into evangelicalism, albeit from different perspectives: I saw the narrowness of a succession of fundamentalist churches and fled first to Quakerism, then Earth-based traditions; for her, a fusion of experience and dogma led to an ever-deepening love affair with the political Right.

I see the foreshadowings of today’s polarization of the nation in her writings at that time….her 1977 piece, “While Gentle Art Languishes,” for example. It started off with a line in the sand

“I hate liberals, radicals, leftist activists, activist leftists, and all others of that ilk. While my ideological persuasions are, of course, involved, I have an even more compelling reason for hating them. They and the brand of mischief they are dedicated to fomenting are preventing me from peacefully pursuing my chosen avocation of creative writing. They are like fiendish imps of the perverse creating discord, controversy, confusion, and always a deliberate state of unrest. All of this, as a matter of conscience, demands of a patriotic, conservative American a prompt and impassioned defense of whatever traditionalism is currently being attacked. As a result, it turns out that before the Muse can be indulged, duty always seems to be demanding protesting letters to Senators, Congressmen, editors, TV networks, local politicians and/or bureaucrats, schools, churches – the scenario is repeated continuously. The end result, of course, is that my creative writing is neither created nor written……”

Originally submitted to the Baltimore Sun, it was rejected (which she interpreted as a sign of that paper’s liberal bent and the unlikelihood of her being published there….despite their publishing many of her op-eds and letters to the editor). It went on to be rejected by the National Review, the Foundation for Economic Education, the Boston Globe, and other publications before it was finally retired to her files with “Unpublished” firmly written across its first page…..the only unpublished manuscript I found among her files.

Why point up this one, bitter, early article out of her long and well-respected writing career (albeit minimally paid….when she wanted to retire on disability from her work as an executive assistant, she was forced to prove at length that her writing was a hobby, yielding an occasional windfall of pin money, not in any sense a second income)? One reason, mainly: it puts in specifically personal terms the moral outrage that lay behind her political writing….not to mention the delicacy of the dance we shared over the decades that followed.

How did she, a conservative Republican Catholic, feel about having a daughter who married a Quaker liberal and ultimately made a living writing for businesses, nonprofits and individuals matching my mother’s list of hates,  signing endless petitions to vent her outrage at the actions of a government representing the unholy religious-political marriage my mother seemingly supported?

We never talked about it. We tiptoed around the elephant and donkey in the room. Oh, there were openings – one year she asked me to buy her the latest Ann Coulter book for Christmas while I asked her for Starhawk’s Webs of Power – but neither of us took it any further. Out of love and respect for each other, we bought and gave the requested books without comment, hugged and kissed beside the Christmas tree, and that was the end of it. We asked each other to edit our op-eds, and gave critiques that were grammarian, literary, and studiously neutral.

It wasn’t because our relationship was equally pro forma. Despite all appearances, I believe we both knew that we shared a foundation that went deeper than political demagoguery…that the right-left rift was superficial at worst and that we were in deep alignment at a spirit level, where it really mattered. I gave her Sue Monk Kidd’s The Dance of the Dissident Daughter one year…but when she quizzed me later on my fascination with herbalism (nudging toward an inquiry about spellcasting), I was wary. Eventually we had deep theological conversations in which she sought to understand what I believed and why – but she ultimately admitted that she found it too challenging and retreated into her conservative comfort zone.

That core alignment was never so clear as it became at the end. Nine months after my husband passed, and after years of rigorous cardiac self-care and two bypass surgeries, Mom had a heart attack, falling and hitting her head, causing the beginning of her decline. I’d already begun to pursue my master’s degree at that time, and when Mom was in hospice a year later, I showed her some of the reports I’d written in the program. They began by thanking her for teaching me to value and connect with the natural world and hold it sacred….and went on to lay out the framework underlying my spiritual understanding.

She struggled to follow my reasoning, stopping midway through with a sad smile and saying, “I’m not up to reading this, I’m sorry. But what I clearly see is that you have a vocation. It’s not the one I would have wanted or chosen for you, but it’s clear that you have a vocation.” She stopped and said slowly and with great intensity: “And I want you to follow your vocation.”

That was her blessing, and our last deep conversation. My father was a constant presence when I visited after that, mandating stilted small talk and precluding mother-daughter sharing. She passed peacefully in her sleep, two weeks later.

The hospice called that morning at 6:00 am to let me know; Dad and I came to say goodbye and do the necessities. When I came home afterward, I walked in the door and asked the house – Where’s Mom here? Where is her energy in this house?

As if she were standing behind me in the flesh, I heard her say, “I’m right here with you. I’ll never leave you.” Not as a ghost, stuck on this plane, but as a living ancestor protecting the generations that follow. Feeling her energy, all I sensed was our deep spirit connection – all the conservative Catholic dogma, the hard-right political ideology, had fallen away. She was as I’d always known her to be.

She is one of my guides to this day.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. I love you.

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