The Personalist Project

Once in a while, my weekly deadline finds me floundering around, vainly trying to wrestle some complex metaphysical truth down to 800 words or so.  This time it was a centuries-old misunderstanding about the hypostatic union.  I was having about as much success as you might expect.

Well, the hypostatic union will have to wait.  Having remembered Mother’s Day, and what a personalist mother I have, I’ve decided to write about her instead (here she is in the green shirt, with my father and their eight children).

On the one hand, my mother is the kind of traditional, hardworking, devoted housewife who just about everybody agrees is good for children.  Even many who theoretically disapprove of her secretly wish they’d been raised by her.  She had supper on the table at 5:30 every night for a good forty or fifty years, and it would always have a meat, a starch, and a vegetable, too. 

This was all the more striking given her hearty and sustained dislike of cooking.  I think we moved eleven times by the time I was thirteen, and we changed religions four or five times, too, but somehow my parents transmitted stability.

On the other hand, she was always writing articles, designing curricula, studying cosmology, refuting neodarwinism, or pioneering chastity education or homeschooling or Jewish-Catholic relations

She certainly wasn’t trying to be edifying, or model intellectual curiosity for the children, or prove her feminist credentials.  The result would have been sufficient to satisfy the most zealous advocate of women engaging in non-domestic pursuits, but that wasn’t the point.  She just had a lot of interesting interests.

She taught us not to judge as the world judges. We’d come home from school and there at the kitchen table would be the epilectic lady from down the block, or the guy from the home for mentally disabled adults next door.  She was never phony or condescending to anybody.  If she tended to reverse snobbery (and passed it on to us), once she recognized it she also explained to us what was wrong with it and set about trying to change.

She never made a show of feeling offended about anything.  She didn’t want us to spend our money on presents for her birthday or Mother’s Day, and if we did anyway, she wasn’t interested in how much.  If there was anything that needed correcting about the way we dressed or talked or treated each other, she was going to correct it because it was stupid or evil, not because it reflected badly on her self-image.  It was part of a theme that ran through our childhood: Take truth seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously.

All mothers give advice, but when I had my first baby she gave me some that was so good I’ve given it to almost every new mother I’ve ever met. 

  • First: Don’t pay attention to thoughts you have when you’re very tired.  (Don’t think, "Oh, what a terrible mother I must be to think such a thing" but rather, "Oh, it seems that way to me now because I’m very tired.")
  • Second: Don’t forget to enjoy the baby.  (In the throes of your efforts  to keep the baby fed and clean and alive, it's surprisingly easy to forget this, but if you can remember, it makes things far more pleasant for you both.)
  • Bonus: Most things go away by themselves

She came to motherhood not only very young but also at the height of Dr. Spock, and the idea that parents had no business acting as authority figures.  She didn't feel old enough to be one anyhow.  Yet she won our respect in the end.  Even before we had children of our own, we had our suspicions that other people's mothers dreaded their kids' company at the end of the school day, didn't read Flannery O'Connor aloud to them,

and didn't have very passionate opinions, or any opinions at all, about random quantum fluctuations and the existence of God.  We suspected our mother was an authority worthy of respect long before we noticed we thought so.  

My mother came to the Faith late, after a long, stranger-than-fiction story which you can read about here, in the chapter entitled “Sh’ma Yisrael to Hare Krishna to Ave Maria.” 

The whole adventure was hardly easy, but one of the most frustrating parts of all may well have been trying to transmit the Faith to us, her eye-rolling adolescent children.  She’d be up all night praying and crying, in fear that it was all too good and too beautiful to be true.  Then she'd sit us down to communicate it to us, whose heaviest burden was our doubt about whether she'd include that day's lesson on the quiz. (Even our modernist priest was so impressed with her self-taught doctrinal expertise that he put her in charge of our religious instruction.)  When I decided, in my thirteen-year-old wisdom, that I was not going to change religions one more time just because my mother was, she didn't pressure me, manipulate me, or try to make me feel guilty about being an obstacle to famiy unity.  She held back, kept teaching, and prayed hard and, sure enough, a year later I came around.

So Happy Mother's Day, Ima!  Your children (and husband, and granchildren, too)

rise up and call you blessed.

Comments (2)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, May 13, 2013 5:31pm

What a beautiful tribute!

I read an article many years ago by your mother, I think. (I mean I think it was by her.) It has stayed with me.  She described sitting at a restaurant table with two worldly-minded women (was it her mother and sister?), and feeling a little frumpy and awkward and out of place.  The other women were admiring each other's jewelry.  The author blurted out, "I too have many precious gems. My children."

Devra Torres

#2, May 15, 2013 7:22pm

Well...I think it must have been somebody else.  It sounds like a different style than my mother's.  Also, my mother read the piece and thanked me for "making up all those nice virtues" for her.  It is true that my father would make pizza every Sunday night, so she didn't actually make a home-cooked meal every single day for fifty years, but the pizza had starch, vegetables and meat on it, so I figure that falls under poetic license.  

She did respect us all as persons in a way I gradually realized was very unusual.  I had friends whose parents let them express their freedom any way they wanted, because (in some ways) that was simpler for the grownups. I had other friends whose parents believed in objective right and wrong but micromanaged their lives and tastes down to the last detail.  I'm sure my mother would disagree, but I think she managed a good balancing act.

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