|Angelic Voices Past|
Yesterday, I had a one hour conversation with my 85 year old aunt. The one who was a nun for - oh, I think it was - 12 or 18 years.
My aunt would want you to know that she did not leave the convent in order to get married. She would want me to be sure to tell you that she was out of the convent for three years before she married the man who would become my "Uncle Joe".
No, she left the convent because she had contracted tuberculosis and, as she tells it, "was on the verge of a nervous breakdown". She was a member of an order of religious women who could only be described as "spartan" in their lifestyle. She says they didn't eat regularly or well. They ran an "orphanage" in those days, and "all the food went to feed the kids first".
Over the years, as I have heard her repeat the story, I hear tinges of anger about her convent years. Oh, she's still a faithful Roman Catholic. That would never change. Being Portuguese and Roman Catholic is a bit like being a Jew. It's who you are and what you believe about God.
That's no so much true any more - about the Portuguese or the Jews - but for men and women of my parent's generation, that was The Truth, the Whole Truth, and nothing but The Truth.
She said that, once she got well, she tried to re-enter the convent but the Mother Superior said she'd have to start the process all over again. "I wasn't going to do THAT again," she said, the horror still evident in her voice all those many years later, so she left for good.
One can only wonder what doing "THAT all over again" was all about.
Even so, in some ways, a piece of her heart will always be there, in that spartan convent filled with devout women of prayer, caring for "orphans" in the years during The Depression and after WWII.
She met her husband two years later and they were married. They bought a tenement house in the same town where they were both born, and had two children. It was not an easy life, but they were happy.
"Mostly happy" is what she says.
We talked about the struggles of family life and came back, as we always do, to my grandmother, who defined the term "struggles of family life".
Some of you have heard me say before that she had twenty pregnancies and twenty-two children, fifteen of whom lived to adulthood. By the time I was a child, there were nine left. As I write this now, there are four left - three girls and one boy.
"Oh, there was always laughter when your grandmother was around," said my aunt. I do remember lots of laughter in my grandmother's house. I didn't understand a lot of the humor but I knew some of it was stuff I wasn't supposed to hear.
"Ma," my mother or one of my aunts would exclaim, "the kids are around!"
My aunt told me one of those stories. So, it was at my aunt's bridal shower. One of her friends gave her a large envelope stuffed with $100 in $1 bills. They poured out onto her lap, along with some confetti and - oh, no! - a strip of condoms.
It was meant to "shock" and "embarrass" the former nun - which worked perfectly - but it only served to peak my grandmother's curiosity. She had honestly never seen a condom before and, more to the point, had no idea about their use.
Well, with twenty pregnancies and twenty-two children, that really shouldn't come as a surprise.
When my grandmother asked what they were, my aunt's embarrassment deepened - to the howls of delight from the rest of the women in the room.
"They're balloons," my aunt said, sheepishly.
My grandmother, of course, didn't believe her, so she tore one open and started to blow it up. Like a balloon. The women in the room howled even louder.
At this point, my grandfather and uncles became curious and walked into the room to find out what was going on. They took one look at my grandmother, laboring over the inflated condom, huffing and puffing, and the room exploded in laughter.
My grandfather, however, was not amused. "What do you think you're doing?" he bellowed. My grandmother tried to explain what her daughter had told her.
Disgusted, he shot a stinging look at my aunt and then explained to my grandmother what condoms were and how they were used.
My grandmother looked at my grandfather, looked at the condom, then looked back at my grandfather and said, "Now? After 22 babies? Now you tell me?"
My aunt laughed and laughed as if the event had happened yesterday. And, I joined her in that laughter, hearing the memory of my grandmother's laughter dancing all around me.
My aunt also told me that she was diagnosed with breast cancer a few months back. "At 85!" she says, "Imagine!" She thought about it and prayed about it and has decided not to have surgery or chemo.
"The way I figure it, at my age, cancer grows more slowly. I have about three or four good years left. If I had the surgery and the chemo, maybe I'd have four or five years left, but they wouldn't necessarily be good ones."
"So, she says, "I'm going to take my chances. I mean, I'm 85. Imagine!"
Actually, I can't imagine my aunt at age 85, much less with breast cancer. I remember clearly when she and my mother were my age and my grandmother was her age.
I thought they were "ancient of days" then.
And I? I was going to be young forever. And, ever.
Don't we all? Indeed, I still am. And, intend to be. For as long as I can.
I look at my own children and my grandchildren and I wonder how they see me. I wonder what they will remember of these days of our lives.
I was sharing this story earlier in the day with a dear friend, talking about the food I had made in honor of my grandmother, and he said to me, "You know, you are slipping in the Portuguese into your family without them even knowing it." I laughed and had to admit that he was probably right.
"You really are becoming your grandmother," he said, which startled me at first.
Perhaps I am. I only hope that is true.
Christmas presents come and Christmas presents go, but the greatest Christmas present really is the way we remember each other and are present for and to each other, in whatever way we can.
Even if it's just a one hour phone call with an aged aunt, newly diagnosed with cancer.
But the greatest gift of these holidays is the memories we have and share with each other at Christmas.