Some of the members of the art group at my synagogue were installing the seventh grade project – an ethereal, light filled mosaic – on the front of the podium in our outdoor chapel.
I went to synagogue planning to attend services, forgetting that they were being held elsewhere. The camera was in the car, it was a perfect day – bright, and clear, and temperate – so I made use of my error and started taking some pictures.
That’s when I wandered around back and got a sneak peek at the mosaic that will be unveiled next week. It ended up being a good way to spend Shabbat morning.
As I watched Jay, Laura and Allan position the piece – adjusting for the nature of outdoor space – ground that isn’t level, squares that have shifted, and varied individual visions (those of the artists, as well as those of the individual congregants, once seated) it struck me – as much everything does – that this was a metaphor for life, and for love.
There were choices to be made. Improvement of one line of view brought a gap to another. A gap that might be a problem really wasn’t – the leaves of the forest filled in the visual space. Metal flashing, instead of being unsightly, worked with the mirrors in the mosaic.
All of which leads me today to my Mom.
My mother was and is quite traditional in many ways. And I was raised with her conservative and somewhat strict ideals about how a woman should speak, behave, and dress. This was not always easy for me. I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, and have hurtled through the ensuing decades. But I was born in the 50’s and I remember both the promise and the prison of little white gloves.
Mom did not come by her strict viewpoint on her own.
Her mother’s side of the family came from a religious tradition that would have made the teen rebels in Footloose heave a sigh of relief. No drinking, no dancing, no cards, no makeup – not even soda was permitted. Too easy to hide booze in it. Even if you weren’t drinking alcohol, someone might think that you were. The appearance of evil was only one step removed from the act of evil.
Ironically, these lessons came from her grandfather, a man whom she adored. Her mom, and her five aunts and one uncle, had, to varying degrees, left the fold. The pushback resulted in women like my Aunt LaRue – loud-laughing, hard-cracking, card-playing LaRue. She always appeared to be enjoying herself. I think that even if she wasn’t having fun, she wouldn’t have known it. By sheer force of will, perhaps borne of this strict upbringing, she simply refused any reality that she did not choose.
So my mom was schooled in religious fundamentalism, three days a week, and steeped in it constantly. Religion infuses.
I’ve got nothing against religious fundamentalism (or any sort of religion) as long as it doesn’t try to tell those who don’t subscribe to it how to live and think. I’m a committed Jew who has no conflicts taking photos or hammering a nail on the Sabbath. There are many ways to sanctify time.
What matters to me is intent, and the way one interacts with and treats other people along the way, every day. Holiness cuts a wide swath. It’s a choice, it requires intention and deliberate-ness, but it cuts a wide swath, one that enables individuals to realize their unique potential in their own unique way.
Back to the story.
My mother was and is a smart cookie. She knows words I’ve never heard of – and I’m a big fan of words. You never find this out until you’re playing a game with her, like Boggle. Same goes for cards and math games. She demurs and protests that she is really not a very good player. But don’t buy it.
So Mom was smart. She had a tight intellect – good reasoning. The family story was legend: A young girl, maybe 14 or so, one day raises her hand in Sunday school class and asks the teacher: “So, if I came to you, and I was pregnant, and I said that I had never been with a man, would you believe me?”
Can you imagine, asking that question, in that environment, peers all around and not a drop to think?
So I knew this story about my mother, knew that she was an outsider in her community (because she enjoyed school, and excelled there), knew that she met my Dad when she was 14 and he was 17, and that from the beginning they talked about religion, and philosophy, and life.
There was also much that I didn’t know. When did she first start questioning? What made her question? And how did that Sunday school teacher respond to her audacious question?
The answer to the last one was a corker. She said, “Well, she started saying something about putting the fire in the poker or the poker in the fire – I don’t know what it was. Her answer just didn’t make any sense. All I knew was that she wasn’t answering my question.”
She said that she first realized that she didn’t believe what she was being taught when she was fairly young. She remembered singing the song about God loving all the little children of the world.
This did not jibe with another teaching – specifically, that one had to believe exactly as she was being taught, otherwise – eternal hellfire.
She could not understand how a good God would condemn all those children – all those decent people – Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews – millions of people – how God could consign all of them to such an excruciating eternity, merely because they believed differently. She simply could not fathom it.
Then she said to me, “I decided then and there that if he could do that, he was not any kind of God that I wanted to worship.”
I asked her how old she was when she figured this out.
Four. She was four years old.
She was a little girl in an insular city neighborhood in America, during the depths of the Depression, but she knew justice. She was adamant about it.
Then it dawned on me.
My mother – my conservative, play-by-the-rules mother – was a rebel.
I asked her how the other churchgoers reacted. Though she hadn’t attended that church for many years, a member of her former church phoned her before she married my father, concerned for my mother’s soul because she was going to marry a Jew.
My mother said to her, “Well, I will tell you. I am sitting here, wearing lipstick, smoking a cigarette, and having a glass of wine. And in a week I am going to marry a Jew. And if you don’t like it, well then, I’m sorry.”
The caller mumbled something about praying for her immortal soul and hung up.
Most people cannot cite anything that was perfect about their upbringing. I can.
The way that my folks raised me, always answering philosophical and religious questions with questions, always emphasizing that the most important, sacred act was that of treating others kindly, with respect, justly – that part of my upbringing was perfect. It has served me, and served the world through me, admirably, and it will until the day that I die.
So while I continue to struggle with conflicted concepts of gender, personal identity, and power, I do best when I approach it in much the same way that Jay, Laura, and Allan approached the setting of the mosaic.
There will always be gaps, there will always be imperfections. But we choose which gaps to close and which we permit to remain. We choose what we can live with and what we cannot live without.
And once we make our choices, the secret lies in what we choose to see and notice.
One of the daily prayers available to Jews is Birchot Ha Shachar – the Blessings of the Dawn. It is traditionally recited upon waking. It is a beautiful exercise in mindfulness: We thank God for permitting us to wake again, for our bodies, for the gifts of sight, and freedom, and learning, and growth. We thank God for She’asani Yisrael – as my prayerbook translates it: “Blessed are You, Oh Lord Our God, who made me a Jew.”
Whenever I say that prayer, I cannot help but think:
I thank my mother for making me a Jew.
Guess that kind of makes every day Momday.
I know that yesterday was a tough one, Mom, but happy Mother’s Day.
Every single day of your life.
© 14 May 2012 Isabella Darling. All rights reserved. Header image © Isabella Darling 2009. Other images as attributed.