I remember my grandmother, Memere, and her small beach cottage. We, “the kids,” would jump out of our Mercury wagon and she’d offer us half chocolate/half vanilla ice cream cups. Lots of her grandchildren –my siblings and cousins–gathered there. Big families mattered.
We spilled the melted treat all over ourselves. Memere would wash our sticky hands “before you touch anything.” Cleanliness mattered. Memere had loved her job sorting paper in the Mill. “It was very clean,” she said. “I was lucky to have a neat, clean work space, where I wouldn’t get dirty. Once I learned to do that, I did it well with no mistakes.” No mistakes mattered.
Her mother, too, was always neat and orderly. Memere said, “There were eleven children and the house was always spotless, of course.”
Of course, spotlessness mattered. I remember Memere’s immaculate homes, her cleaning them, her shushing us from her kitchen after we ate grilled red skin hot dogs doused with ketchup. I’m the oldest and had been trained in helping, (often with “you should know better”) so I’d offer to wash or dry dishes, by hand then. She’d say, “No. Go home. I can do a better job myself.”
Mostly being “a good Catholic” mattered. Crucifixes hung on her walls. She gifted us with Rosary beads, Mass cards and holy water fonts for our First Holy Communions and Confirmations. Copies of “Church World” covered her tables. Memere went to Mass most mornings and volunteered twice weekly in the Church Thrift Shop. As a teenager, my mother did not want to go to that Catholic boarding school in New Hampshire. Her mother scolded, “You’re going. The nuns know best.”
When I told her that I didn’t always know what to do or how to make decisions, Memere said, “Pray. I feel bad for people who don’t have God. Life can be hard. When you have troubles, ask the Virgin Mary for advice. The Blessed Mother always helps me.”
Memere was a strict Catholic, fully involved, fully invested. And yet, in her eighties and nineties when her religion meant more and more to her, her mind and heart also broadened. When I told her that I planned to marry a Jew, she said, “In years past, I would not have been allowed to come to your wedding. The Church was wrong about that.”
In her decisive action to attend her first ever Jewish wedding, she helped me see how we can mature toward kindness, toward inclusivity.
When I told her that my son was gay, she spoke firmly, “If he came here to tell me that, I would say ‘that’s ok. The Pope is wrong about that.’ Jesus taught love. The sermons should preach not about sin but about love.”
Hearing her words, spoken twenty years ago, I sensed what I’d hoped might signal a shift toward doing this life differently.
I remember Memere these days when so many people cling to worn-out beliefs. I think, if she could change, we can change. I recall when country clubs blackballed Jews and women were forbidden to vote, when signs said, “Only whites,” or “no gays served here.” And I think we should know better. It’s time, beyond time, to take the advice of the late Georgia Representative, John Lewis, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.”
My devout grandmother, who nevertheless spotted injustice and grew in wisdom until she died at age 101, would agree.