I remember sitting at our kitchen table, nine of us, Dad anchored at one end, Mom leaping up to serve.The evening meal was a sacred rite, of family, of structure, of who we were then.Meatloaf and thick mashed potatoes. Thin slivers of raw carrots and celery. Usually one of us exploded with a version of, “I do not eat green peas!” Roasted chicken, baked potato and steamed corn. Pork chops, onions, applesauce. Spaghetti and meat sauce. Hot dogs, toasted brown bread and baked beans on Saturday. Ice water (I can still hear Dad chewing the ice). Light Jell-O with heavy cream. The aroma of Mom and Dad’s coffee.
I remember the clang of stacked dishes, the clink of stainless forks and our loud voices competing to report daily snippets. One or 2 of us would sing, whistle, or thrum fingers as if playing drums. Some of us riffed, pretended with fake French accents to be Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau. Others, bereft about school or friends, cried.Giggles, tears; all was possible. The only sure things were spilt milk, mom’s solid cooking and scattered crumbs sticking to the floor. Nightly; 5:30; ritual.
My mind often forgets those repetitive moments; my cells remember how they formed me. Less frequently, guests came. My mother’s Aunt Rebecca, a sister of the Presentation of Mary: she looked like her brother, my mother’s father. Even under her starched white headpiece and black habit, I could see she had my Pepere’s nose. Rosary Beads hung from her thick black belt. In 4th grade, I wrote a bunch of poems which Aunt Rebecca typed up on her Smith-Corona and made me a book of them. She pastel-illustrated each page, adding a representation of The Cross here and there. That image made the poems mean more to me. Still observant or not, many of us resonate with the numinous symbols of our first religious trainings. They inform who we become.
Many meatloaves, pork chops and roasted chickens later, Aunt Rebecca came to dinner when, at dusk one wild night, I told her my secret: I was engaged to my Jewish boyfriend. With her sly grin and wink, she turned to my now fiancé, and flashed the gold band on her left finger. She twirled that ring around and said, referring to her being wed to Christ, “I too married a Jew.”
My eyes widened, my mouth gaped. I couldn’t speak. But now, decades later when my meals look more like brown rice and kale, I honor those early spiritual stories. As a young mother, with Auntie’s Roman Catholic Rosary beads in my nightstand, I felt Mary, a Jew, next to me. We were both mothers of sons who shook things up, took roads not well traveled, rebelled against the status quo. I related to Mary and, even now, in some unexplainable way, assume the Mary of my childhood relates to me. The beads still comfort, “Mom, you are not alone.”
For birthdays, Aunt Rebecca gave all seven of us holy water fonts, insisted that we nail them to the entry of our bedrooms. We had statues of Jesus, pictures of saints. As chaotic as supper was at our house—even with Sunday night Angelone’s pizza— prayer beads, shrines, small fonts, and large crosses helped my mother cope. I am sure of it. Seven kids is a lot.
I remember from spring-time processions in parochial school that May is Mary’s month. As I now eat my tofu, when I recall full-of-Grace Mary, full-of-mischief Aunt Rebecca and all those full-of-blessings Rosaries I said, I feel grounded spiritually. The sacred in us, the rituals we play out every day, make a difference. Old, new, rejected, forgotten, the holy symbols matter. We may leave them , but in some fundamental way, like memories of yesteryear’s dinners, they don’t leave us. There is no real logic, no science to these recollections and representations, even as they support our spirits and hearts. As spiritual teachers say, “not everything that counts can be counted.” Symbols hint at magic. They invite glimpses into mystery. They can feed our souls and nourish our beings, right along with meatless Friday fish sticks and French fries.