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!

Advent Life Hacks to Help Your Family Grow in Holiness

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It turns out, for most of my life I’ve had Advent all wrong. Caught up in the whirring consumer machine, I often couldn’t wait to kick start the celebration of Christmas. I’d barely make it to the end of the Thanksgiving meal and I was breaking out the decorations, singing the songs and scrounging at the stores. December 1st signaled the beginning of that most magical time of the year known as Christmas, right? Actually…

(Insert record scratch here.)

Advent is not party time. It’s prep time. What helped me to better understand and explain to my kids was this analogy: Lent is to Easter as Advent is to Christmas. You wouldn’t plan to party it up during Holy Week. (Those of you thinking, why not?… allow me to direct you to some great agnostic sites.) The minute Lent begins, we don’t start celebrating Christ’s glorious resurrection. We work on our spiritual lives. We train in order to get our souls in shape. Then on Easter, it’s the big reveal, the greatly anticipated end to all that work. He is risen! OFFICIAL party time. Now pass the doughnuts!

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I Don’t Need Anything

“I don’t need anything.” That was the standard response my dad would supply every year when asked what he wanted for Christmas. If I was insistent, “C’mon, Dad!” He’d usually follow up with, “Just love one another…” No doubt he truly desired that my brothers and I got along, but he just wasn’t getting it. For goodness sake, I was looking for something to spend my money on. I was a successful babysitter with cash burning a hole in my Jordache jeans pocket. I wanted to feel a part of the whirring consumer machine at the mall like everybody else. I planned to prove my love for family with a dazzling gadget or name brand clothing item. As much as I’d like to blame it on being a silly 15-year-old who coveted her subscription to Seventeen Magazine more than her Catholic school education, I still feel that pull to commercialize Christmas today. More than 3 decades later it’s just as strong—that allure to buy the perfect hostess gift that will make everyone at the party oooh and aaah, or find the greatest new anti-aging skin care product for a friend which makes me more influential than Oprah.

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