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Monday, August 21, 2006

Unconditional Love

Unconditional love

Not long before Abigayle arrived, Mackenna Jane said to me, “Nana, if Mommy has a boy, his name will be Liam or Jake. But, if she has a girl, her name is going to be Abigayle.”

“Ah,” I said, “And what do you think of those names?”

“Well,” she considered carefully, “I like Jake better than Liam.” “Mm hmm,” I said, trying to sound non-committal, although I tended to agree with her.

Hearing that, she rushed to add, “But, I could live with either one.” “Right, of course you could,” I said, adding, “Both names are really lovely, don’t you think?”

“But, Nana,” she breathed all excited, “Don’t you think Abigayle is the most BE-YOUTIFUL name in the WHOLE WIDE WORLD?”

Something in her voice told me that this almost 5 year old was setting me up.

Sibling rivalry, I’m convinced, begins in the womb. There’s a reason we all laughed at Tommy Smothers’ lament. No matter the circumstance, his reliable retort would always be: “Yeah . . . Well . . . Mom always liked you best!” Like Jacob and Esau, one sibling seems always to be grabbing the heel of the other in order to be first, despite the birth order.

Psychologists and social scientists have recently claimed that, even more so than parents, it is our relationship with our siblings that has the most influence on our development as whole human beings. Indeed, birth order in relationship to our siblings seems to exert a greater impact on the formation of our personalities – and that continues to influence everything from the life partners we choose, to the career choices we make.

In an odd sort of way, my grandmother had the most influence on my development as a child precisely because of this. We lived on the second floor of a tenement house owned by my grandparents. My parents were married two months before my father went off to fight in the Pacific Front in World War II, which delayed the start of their family by three years.

When he returned from The Great War, my parents set out to achieve their share of The Great American Dream. Life then seemed to be lived in chapters which began with titles like that. There was time to “Start your family,” and “Get a car” so you could “Move to the suburbs.”

My parents lived fully into those chapters of life. I was the first born – the mild disappointment that the first was not a male (which was how it was supposed to be) was overcome by the very fact of my healthy birth.

My mother’s first pregnancy was, tragically, stillborn. This was quickly followed by a miscarriage. The doctor advised my parents to wait a year before attempting another pregnancy, which they did reluctantly. There was now a five year delay in this chapter of their life. You can still hear the anxiety in my mother’s eighty-two year old voice when she retells the story.

When I was born, there was great rejoicing in the small Portuguese-American community where I lived. Everyone, I’m told, had joined in a weekly novena to the Blessed Mother as well as St. Joseph, the patron saint of families, and St. Gerard, the patron saint of infertility. The effect was like an all-points bulletin to the cosmos to bring a healthy child to this couple. I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I was wanted and loved and prayed into being even before I was conceived.

I’ve always loved that story. For me, it is a story of being loved unconditionally. It is a story of how we live out and into God’s unconditional love for us. Years later, when I felt like a motherless child and a childless mother, I clung to that story. Indeed, I do believe that story saved my life.

Having achieved success, my parents wasted no time in living into the next chapter of their life by creating their “Perfect Family: Four Wonderful Children.” Well, there’s a story in that chapter I’ll save for another time. Needless to say, my parents had three more children, each approximately 22 months apart.

With each birth, each one of us felt the sting of sibling rivalry – each in our own way. My sister Madeline held the spotlight for 22 months, but I retained a share of it as “The Big Sister.” We both lost it, oh cruel fate, to the birth of my brother, John. “The Little Prince,” we called him through clenched teeth, which you can faintly detect when you look at family photographs.

We never had a chance to shine in the enormous shadow cast by this firstborn son. You might have thought the heir of Jesus had arrived to usher in the Second Coming. You can imagine my sister’s and my delight when our “Baby Sister,” Diane arrived, right on schedule, 22 months later.

What rapidly developed was a pecking order of distinction. I was “The Oldest.” John was “The Son/Sun.” And, Diane was “The Baby,” (who still bears that distinction even now, in her 50s). The only one who really suffered was my sister, Madeline, who seemed to glory (still, to this day), in whatever attention she could get, which was mostly negative.

This did not escape the attention of my grandmother who lived just downstairs. She had had twenty pregnancies and twenty-two children, having seen fifteen to adulthood, earning her no small amount of expertise in sibling rivalry, among other important matters, to be sure.

Seeing that the rivalry was most intense between my sister Madeline and me, my grandmother took to inviting me downstairs to be with her. This suited us just fine. I gloried in my time alone with her and my sister became, in my absence, “The Big Sister.”

I arose at the crack of dawn to be with my VaVoa (Portuguese for Grandmother), usually in time to find her sitting at the kitchen table, still in her nightgown, combing out her waist-length hair, and then braiding it into a long strand which she wrapped expertly around and around at the back of her head until a beautiful braided bun appeared. I studied her carefully as her fingers moved quickly and expertly, but watching that braided bun appear will always be my first experience of magic and mystery.

It was then off to daily mass and communion where I had already memorized the Latin. While other little girls set up their dolls for Tea Parties, I set up altars and fed them communion from the crust saved from my morning toast. My mother says I knew every word in Latin. You can still hear the pride in her voice when she says that.

It was my grandmother who loved me unconditionally. She was a source of solace and strength to me. When Mother was busy with the little ones, I could always rely on a hug from my VaVoa, or an assignment that she had saved just for me, that only I could do, which made me feel useful and productive and important.

My grandmother was my first understanding of God – of God’s unconditional love. Of God’s unique vocational call which is individual and distinct. Of the solace and strength which we derive from our relationship with God.

I think Carter Heyward is absolutely right: Our most intimate relationships are a reflection of our relationship with God. And, our relationship with God is reflected in our most intimate relationships.

I suppose I had all this in mind in my conversation with my firstborn Granddaughter.

“Abigayle is a beautiful name,” I said, “but I don’t think it’s the most beautiful name in the whole world.”

“Really?” she asked, a note of genuine surprise in her voice. “What is the most beautiful name in the whole world, Nana.”

“Oh, that’s easy,” I said, “The first time I heard it, I knew it was the most beautiful name that made the most beautiful sound in the whole wide world. Do you know what that name is?”

She shook her head, her eyes wide with expectation.

“MacKenna Jane,” I said truthfully. I said it again, savoring the sound, remembering the first time I heard it and understanding.

“Really?” asked MacKenna.

“Really!” I said. “It’s the name that told me that I was really a ‘Nana’. It’s the name that told me that, as much as I loved your mother, there was room in my heart to love someone I hadn’t even met. It’s the name that told me that one circle of life had closed so another circle could begin.”

MacKenna looked deep into my eyes and, not really understanding everything I had said, but seeing the unconditional love there, melted into my arms as she said, ““Oh, Nana! I love you!”

You know, it just doesn’t get much better than that.

BTW: That picture is of MacKenna Jane in her "wight up Cindawewwa cwown." You can't see it, but she also has on her "wight up Cindawewwa neckwace."

Yeah, well, get over it! Haven't you heard? Grandmothers are naturally obnoxious.


marnanel said...

That's a very happy story about the dolls. My seven-year-old daughter would like to know whether you used grape juice "for the blood" as she puts it.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Please tell your 7 year old that I used whatever my mother had given me as the drink du jour with my snack.

It might have been juice, but it might have also been Kool Aid. It was holy drink, none the less.

Someday, I'll have to write up the story and post it here about one of the first Eucharists at which I ever presided, which was on a locked ward of a psychiatric facility.

We used what was given to us which was approved for inpatient use: graham crackers and grapefruit juice.

I can assure you: Jesus was fully present.

One last thought: If your daughter is asking these questions at age 7, I'd say her curiosity is clearly a sign of her intelligence, but it also may well be an indication of a possible vocation to ordained ministry.

Neither intelligence nor vocation to ordination were attributes that were ascibed to our gender when I was her age.

And, I'm not THAT old, thank you very much.

Makes my heart glad.