Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Grace and Mercy

Mom was 24 years old in 1939 when I had my first haircut.  The picture on the right is one of the last pictures I took of her before she died at 88, five years ago today.

Throughout my years of active ministry, I often began sermons and retreat talks by saying: "I was conceived in Grace, and born of Grace, because my mother's name is Grace."  Mom gave me the wondrous gift of life which I've been privileged to pass on to my children, Nicole and Andrew.  Early on, Mom instilled in me faith, honesty, respect for others and a fiercely independent spirit. She gave me the gift of belonging to my extended family, every member of whom I love, even though we're so separated by distance and time.  As any family, we have our eccentricities, petty disagreements, and failings; but when the chips are down we always come together to be there for one another.

My Mom had five sisters, seven, if you count the two who were stillborn.  Florence, my godmother, died in 1974 at age 61 of cancer, but the remaining four, Mary Jane, Suzanne, Rita, and Joan, are alive and well, two into their 80's already and two just shy of 80.  Remarkable, really, since their mother, Clara, died at the early age of 50.  "The girls", as they were often referred to through the years by friends of the family, were and are like older sisters to me, since I grew up as an only child.  That was before I discovered, many years later, that I had four half-brothers and three half-sisters!

One of the hardest days of my life was in 1995 when I had to put Mom in a nursing home as a last resort.  She lived out her final years in a place called Mercy Siena Woods.  When she died she was buried from her home church, Our Lady of Mercy.  Those who cared for Mom at the nursing home, one of them a pastoral assistant from the nuns' branch of the Precious Blood community in which I was ordained, surely witnessed to her the meaning of mercy.

I  learned only in the 1980's of Mom's frustrated desire as a young woman to have been able to follow in Florence's footsteps as a registered nurse.  After my father deserted us in 1939, Grace was a working mother with a latch-key child. Mom reflected on those days one time when we got into a deep conversation; I'll never forget it.  "...Do you know what a feeling that is when you're sitting there with not a cent in your pocketbook, and no way of getting anything, and running around with holes in the bottom of your shoes..?"  Mom was tough.  She got her first job at a big department store in Dayton, Elder-Beerman.  "...When I worked down there at Elder's," she said, "I'd come home and I'd bring my paycheck home and I would get the bus fare to get back and forth to work, and if there was enough to go around, I might get a dollar or two...I can remember how I used to practically hide in the locker room on my lunch hour because I couldn't afford to go out to eat any place and I didn't want anybody seeing me eat my...peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or what I used to take, whatever it was..."  Once she got home, especially if Grandma wasn't feeling well, Mom would cook supper, then get the younger girls bathed and ready for bed, and maybe have a little time for herself.  It couldn't have been easy.

I asked Mom what she thought she might have done had she not had all those responsibilities in the family.  She replied wistfully, "I have no idea, honey, I have no idea.  I was leaning toward [being an artist] when I was in high school.  I took art and I had those one or two good pictures...but I never kept it up..."  When I was a young boy I remember seeing some of her charcoal drawings, and they were magnificent!  Our conversation that day came to an end with Mom making the observation: "...You don't realize how much can happen in a lifetime..."  Indeed!

Mom was raised in the "old school" of Catholicism, which, for good or ill, engendered a good bit of guilt and fear.  She was scrupulous throughout her life.  She had her share of holy cards and statues and prayerbooks and religious magazines.  But aside from all the externals, deep down there was a tremendously deep, pure faith and a sense of justice which she passed on both to me and to my children.  I'll always remember Mom's love for the children of our family, and in general.  I often sat in amazement, watching her interact with them, wondering how she could relate so easily and joyfully, whatever their age.  Children seemed to delight especially in her hearty laugh and in the security they felt when she hugged them, blessedly endowed as she was with an ample bosom, which she often referred to as her "water wings".  Particularly in her younger years, Mom was a generous and giving person, remembering every family member's birthday, anniversary, or special occasion.

I suppose if I have one thing to hold against my mother, it was this:  she learned to drive back in the early 1970's, when she was in her 50's, which terrified me and probably many in my family! My first wife and I were living in Louisiana at the time, and Mom called to say that she was coming to visit us in New Orleans.  When I told her I'd pick her up at the airport, she informed me that she was driving down from Dayton solo.  We prayed an awfully lot until she arrived! But Mom was unphased by the long drive, which I had done myself several times.  The thing which truly galled me was that she made better time driving there than I'd ever done!

As I was thinking of something to say at Mom's funeral, a lyric from the song His Eye is On the Sparrow, kept rolling around in my mind.  I'd heard it sung when I was very young in a movie starring the inimitable Ethel Waters.  

I sing because I'm happy, I sing because I'm free;
His eye is on the sparrow, and He watches over me.

The loving God knows and cares for each of God's sparrows.  But Scripture reminds us that God's love and compassion for each of us goes unimaginably far beyond even that.  One need only think about one's own personal and family history to know how true this is.  Another name for that is God's forgiveness, God's mercy.

"You don't realize how much can happen in a lifetime..."  Thanks to the God of mercy for the life of Grace Elinor DeHaven.      

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