Sun 16 May 2010
as my Mother’s Day present to my long-suffering mother, i went with her to church last weekend.
church is the centre of my mother’s orbit in this life. her social whirl, her weekly schedule, her sense of what matters are all directly and primarily shaped by the faith community in which she grew up. the church is having a clothing sale? the kids must have something they’ve outgrown. a fundraising dinner? she’ll mash potatoes by the bucket, even if her swallowing disorder means she hasn’t eaten pork roast herself in a quarter century. sponsoring a refugee family? she’s suddenly on Wikipedia for the first time ever, learning everything she can about Somalia.
i could, on the other hand, spend weeks in Somalia, and my mother might eventually look up what side of Africa it was on. she is generous with her time, loves her grandchildren, loves me. but despite the fact that the age difference between us is small and that i have friends her own age, my mother has not even a foot in my world, or even in her own generational world. David Bowie, whom i’ve been set since the age of twelve on marrying someday, is a year older than she. yet only if David Bowie came to sing at her church would she ever suddenly develop any interest in being able to identify his music. i suspect she’ll recognize him at the wedding, but only just.
so i’m a little jealous. i’m an only child. it’s hard to share your mother with God, okay? look what happened to Jesus.
ba dum bump.
my mother’s church, and my grandmother’s before her, and her grandmother’s before that, is housed in a big, old, austerely grand building with wooden vaulted ceilings. it has deep, dour Protestant Reformation roots: it does not draw attention to itself. there is no showy witnessing in its circle, no language of prayer and The Lord permeating everyday conversation. as i cringe when people attribute daily actions and outcomes to deities – unless they’re swearing – the circumspection and minimalism of the place suits me. i like sitting there, my back against the pew, stained-glass-light dappling the old people’s hair in front of me. if i squint, i can imagine that i’ve time-travelled, that one of the bluer rinses a few pews ahead is my Nannie, gently croaking out an old staunch hymn the congregation hasn’t sung in forty years. i love that.
but i don’t go.
i have this private hubris that i’m a Personal BadAss. now, Personal BadAsses eschew church and all its middle-class bourgeois self-satisfaction. rows of women in fur stoles, passing the peace of Christ? earnestly updated hymns laden with sentimental theology? Personal BadAsses are deeply uncomfortable with all that…comfortableness. they like Mapplethorpe exhibits and whatever makes other people squirm. they only wear fur they killed with their own teeth. why, they’d smoke, still, just to blow it in somebody’s face, if the habit hadn’t gotten so gosh-darn expensive and wouldn’t land them in an emphysema ward.
the problem with being a Personal BadAss is that it does not wear particularly well after the age of 35. unless one is PJ O’Rourke, i suppose. or Mickey Rourke. or Mr. Roarke from Fantasy Island, but he was more suave than bad.
God did not make me suave. i should ask my mother to speak with him/her about that.
anyhow, one day you look around and you’ve been carrying your diaper bag to work as a purse for six months and your car is a glorified mini-van and even the haircut you thought had edge makes you look – at best – like an aging Depeche Mode fan and you may as well haul granny’s fur outta storage and go sit in a pew.
so last week i went to church with my mother.
we stood in the pew where i sat as a child. no one stared. no shouts of “blasPHEEEMer!” went up in the sanctuary. i smiled nervously.
and then the heavens parted.
i am not a believer, plain and simple. which is the main reason simply being in a church makes me feel like a wretched hypocrite. but it was Mother’s Day, which i figure is forgivable by any standards.
and by Jesus, God went all out fer me, people.
my daughter, the hurricane, sat quietly in her grandmother’s lap for half an hour, then went to sleep on my shoulder for the first time since she weaned six months ago. Oscar led the procession from Sunday school with Mother’s Day carnations and a beatific little smile. i sang beside my mother and the words to the old hymns were quick on my lips. a tear leaked down my face.
i thought JESUS, Jesus. you trying to do me in?
there were no furs, no self-congratulations. in the prayer, they spoke to mothers who grieve, mothers with AIDS, mothers who wait for babies that never come. the sermon was as radical a piece of public discourse as i’ve heard out loud in years, replete with visuals of gay adoptive parents interspersed with biblical stained-glass allegory.
i was ready to shout Amen. which would have embarrassed my mother almost enough to qualify me as a BadAss all over again.
the last shot that went up on the screens projected at the front of the old church was Michelangelo’s Pieta. the mother cradles her broken adult child, her body braced to hold his weight. he is gone; she is utterly alone.
i looked down at Posey in my arms, eyelashes fluttering. my lip trembled as i smiled on her. i made sure she was breathing.
over her head, my eyes met my mother’s. we both nodded at the miracle between us, the slumbering child. my mother raised her eyebrows in bemusement, i shrugged my shoulders in response.
we laughed. aloud, right in that moment of perfect silence before the offertory.
the Very Model of a Modern BadAss Family, i told myself, raising my chin with great pride.
i didn’t go back to church with my mother this morning. if i were a good daughter, i might’ve. maybe. there’s still that little hiccup of belief standing between me and the way i was raised.
my mother began bringing Oscar to Sunday school last September. he loves going, she loves bringing him, and we figure it’s a fine education in community and literacies plus an hour with one less child every weekend. but for the first time this morning as the two of them walked out the door hand in hand, i felt grown up. because for all my respectful mother has never once asked me to come – even last week, i volunteered – every week the part of me that remained petulant Personal BadAss sulked with self-consciousness at the very idea of church. even though no one was asking me.
until today, i really couldn’t quite have told you whether i stayed home out of personal ethics or because i am secretly Twelve. it felt nice, finally, to figure out the difference.
today, i just smiled at my mom when we met her at the door. Posey reached for her shoes, and i said, no honey, no church for us today.
nap! she chirped, protesting, and my mother and i both broke out laughing. again. clearly, we all have our own ideas about what church is for.
so i stayed behind, content in my lack of belief. and my mother and Oscar went off to the bosom of her Other Family and i waved from the window.
and it was good.