A Mother For All

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When I was a wee lass, my grandma came to stay with our family for what seemed to me to be an extended period of time. It may have been in reality only a week or two, but to my fuzzy childhood memory, it was longer than usual. And yet, it felt excruciatingly too short.

When she stayed with us, it meant there was a smiling, warm face to greet me after an arduous half-day of kindergarten. My loving parents were hard-working Catholic school teachers trying to carve out a meager living, so they dealt with childcare by entrusting us kids with the heavy responsibility. My brothers were tasked with unlocking the door and not burning down the house until my parents returned a couple hours later. But as the youngest, they wisely thought it best I should spend my after-school time with adult supervision. It was arranged for me to stay with a neighbor mom who had a daughter my age. While we lived only two doors down from each other and attended the same school, our families were very different. My “little” playmate was at least twice my size and a physical and emotional brute. Today she’d probably be characterized by that popular buzzword, “bully,” but I didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate it back then. To add insult to injury, this mean girl’s mom was pretty mentally checked out and had a knack for turning a blind eye to her daughter’s mean-spirited mischief. She even mocked me when I complained. So I learned to quietly suffer through those seemingly interminable four hours, day after day.

But when my beloved Italian Grandma Pippa came to stay—well, you can imagine my extreme joy. She was the antidote to all that ailed me. Affectionate, loving, doting, she showered me with unconditional attention and kindness. I reveled in all the sensations that accompanied her presence. When I close my eyes I can smell the fresh bread baking that welcomed me as I crossed the threshold. I recall expectantly watching as she dollopped generous pads of butter on the top of the loaf and how it oozed into the crust… and the taste of that melt-in-the-mouth goodness that seemed to permeate my whole being on the dreariest of Cleveland days. Life was so good with my grandma around. She could practically do no wrong to my adoring eyes.

But there was a rare misstep that I considered at the time to be almost unforgivable.

My little neighborhood “frenemy” came over to play with me one day while my grandmother was babysitting. Strangely, I didn’t mind allowing her into my safe haven. In fact, I was more than happy for the chance to show off the amazing woman I was related to. My grandma was the picture of sweet, maternal love and actually lit up when she was around small children. She listened with delight to all our silly stories with a magical twinkle in her eye. It was as if she were committing it all to memory so as to later dazzle the whole adult world with our incredible cuteness. And best of all, this lady belonged to me!

I can think of no reason I would ever pass on the chance to gloat to my 5-year-old oppressor. I wanted her to envy my wonderful grandma. I wanted her to recognize the deficiencies in her own family. I wanted her to know and feel that my family was superior to her wretched home life.

What I didn’t anticipate was that this boundlessly gracious grandma had more than enough love for the both of us. I was absolutely fine with my playmate being the recipient of delicious baked goods and gentle supervision, but I didn’t count on her being on the receiving end of an equal amount of affection and care. That was unthinkable. So, when Grandma Pippa invited my mini-nemesis to call her grandma too, she had crossed a line. I was livid and distraught. The injustice of it all…

“But you’re not her grandma!” I insisted. “You’re my grandma,” to which she chuckled and marveled at my pouty possessiveness. I was not about to share my greatest gift with someone so obviously undeserving. All that goodness I intended to hoard.

In the shadow of two important Marian feasts this Advent season, my reminiscing has taken on new meaning. The liturgical calendar recently marked the Immaculate Conception and Our Lady’s appearance at Guadalupe within the span of a few days. Needless to say, Mary has been on my mind, not accidental on the part of the Church, I’m sure.

I’ve been pondering how amazing it is that Christ willingly shared His perfect mother with us. Yet I have been so consistently wretchedly, sinfully, undeserving. We can all probably see a little of ourselves in my childish self, the little girl who wants to guard and protect all that is good by not sharing with anyone. But in complete contrast to our human inclination to covet and hoard all that is good, Christ recklessly opens His arms and presents his own saintly, immaculate mother to us that we might enjoy her limitless love as He does. Though we don’t merit it, we get to share in that amazing gift. He models for us how to give until it literally hurts. Advent is a time of such hope!

Over the years, I lost touch with that neighborhood girl who was the source of so much strife in my youth. I’d like to think I’ve completely forgiven her. I wonder if she even remembers my now deceased grandma. I’m hopeful that despite my efforts to withhold my sweet grandma’s affection from her, that in the end love overcame my obstruction and that it actually touched and changed her. My experience on this earth informs me that people don’t interface with that kind of maternal love without experiencing some transformation, assuming their hearts are open to it.  And what of a heavenly mother’s perfect love? My goal for the rest of Advent is to have a receptive heart, to receive Mary’s intense healing love through the power of her son. But more importantly, that I might have the grace to share and to give that love freely, especially when it hurts. Blessed Mother, pray for us!

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