Let me say it starkly – I had two mothers. None of my brothers would have a notion what I mean. The December sun had to remind me of the truth this morning.
When my twin brother and I were born, our mother had already been the owner for fifteen years of a mantle set of Roseville Pottery. The cornucopia vase on the left in the cabinet is an example of what antique dealers identify as the blue apple blossom pattern. No water or flower ever touched this or its companion vase. A wedding present, they were display pieces in my parents’ home, resting on a pair of gilded sconces flanking a framed sofa mirror.
House pride was a besetting sin of my mother. She purchased a mahogany dining room set and breakfront when I was in high school. No meal was ever eaten on that table until one of my nieces inherited the set five years ago. My eye, meanwhile, had been on the Roseville Pottery, nothing extravagantly valuable these days but evocative for me of an era of dark woodwork and sheer curtain panels pulled taut over glass-paned doors.
How we looked, how we sounded when my mother told stories of my brothers and me to relatives and visitors and hospital nurses and emergency room doctors mattered to her.
When my mother reached her late fifties, I entered seminary (a good story for her to tell to lots of people). What my mother did not realize was that a woman even older than she would begin to pay me a particular kind of attention.
Eighty years old, Katie had been a member of a religious congregation for fifty years when I met her. Meeting at Mass sometimes, we enjoyed the kind of conversations we kept having. It became a custom to arrange an occasional afternoon over convent china and to sit across from one another on cane-back furniture. She asked about my family and my training, about my experience with daily prayer and retreats. We would sometimes walk under the crepe-myrtle trees lining the walkways on the convent grounds. I heard about her family in Columbus, Ohio, and the discernment that had led her to convert and to embark upon her long, productive years in the convent.
When her sister died and her Ohio home was sold, Katie was sent some early photographs of herself. The pictures show a Katie before she entered religious life – earnest, soulful, intelligent. In a comment she had written to a family member on the back of one of the pictures, she poked fun at the seriousness of her expression.
One day Katie gave me two of those photographs. They would end up lost in the province archives if they were still in her room at her death, she confided in me. Katie seemed to want to acknowledge the kind of friendship we had enjoyed. They have gone with me wherever I have lived for the past thirty-five years.
The sun this morning hit the cabinet in my apartment as I sat reading the opening chapters of The Red and the Black. On this day off from work at the end of a momentous year, I was ready for the different world of bourgeois society in post-Napoleonic France.
Alert to the look of my home and alert to the transforming power of good questions, I was ready to nod in gratitude to my two mothers as well.