The images of my childhood are of women. They are of women kneeling. They are beautiful, holy, consecrated memories of laughter and gossip and teasing. They are beautiful reminders that the best things in life are souls committed to being real with one another. In an effort to inspire you to beauty, I’d like to paint the pictures of my memories with you.
The church I grew up in was built in the late 1950s. It was a large sanctuary of mismatching items: mustard seats on the altar, jade green and white marble, puke brown carpeting, and white stone statues. Walking into the church could give you the hibbie jibbies. Almost all the windows in the building were stained glass, most of them with the stations of the cross. If you were to sit in this sanctuary, you would think that the congregants were the saddest sort of bunch. But downstairs, in an equally ugly space, there was community like you couldn’t imagine. Because downstairs were a steady stream of tough cookie women who were always brewing up some sort of gathering. Whether it be a soup kitchen to raise money for the struggling families in our communities, or a pancake breakfast to support the neighborhood watch program; whether it be to set up chairs for stay-at-home moms to come and gather and share their stories of rough marriages at the Mass for Moms, or to try to turn this dry, drab space into a banquet hall for kindergarteners to feel like they were graduating a prestigious university, these women, in their holiday inspired sweaters, khaki slacks, white gyms shoes, and identical curled and Aqua Net hairspray would come. Their laughter and good-hearted teasing rings through my ears at night as I long for women who will share in the little things of life with me like that one day.
But it wasn’t just the older women who worked in this beautiful communion. The moms of our church were in-and-out of our school, always bringing, always encouraging, always giving … something. Our teachers were their friends, and they knew how hard it was to deal with our lil’ old selves. And so, in this ranch style layout of painted tan bricks and speckled, sawdust-over-puke-smelly floors, the moms would come. They would create elaborate scenes for Christmas and Easter and Valentines day: Santa on a sleigh, holding a list of names that just so happened to have every child’s name in the school on it. They would sew quilts with every family in the parish having a square and a way to express themselves. They would volunteer as lunch moms to make sure our gym stayed clean for the class that would come and use it in the next period. They would bring flowers and sell candy bars. And it wasn’t to raise money. It was to provide an atmosphere where kids knew that there was more than just a mom and a dad behind them. There was a community — cheering them forward and helping them to make a difference — from the days of boy scouts, to having their own son, to raising up the next generation when they would be grandparents one day, too. They were laying a foundation, and it was on the backs of moms who gave what they had.
It was that call, in fact, to give what you have, that led my mother to break her long-term promise to me to send me to a prestigious Jesuit College Prep. Instead, she sent me 45 minutes away to a school I had never heard of, because, in her words, “she’d be sending me to a family.” How did she know? Well, because the mothers of this high school hand-baked cookies for the open house. Thousands and thousands of homemade, from scratch, you-can-smell-the-vanilla-in-every-hall cookies. And before you assume anything, these were not submissive women who thought their place was in the kitchen. These were moms who ruled the world — CEOs and lawyers and doctors — and they still knew how to take out the flour and sugar and create something warm for something else.
That visit day is as fresh in my mind today as any other day in my life. The gal touring us around the building boasted of their blue ribbon status and their AP classes, but that’s not what my mom focused on — even with her valedictorian daughter standing beside her. She looked at the other women. She watched their confidence and their strong love for their kids. She saw the pride in a school that was created to raise a generation, and in that moment, she taught me what to value in a school, in a community, and in partners. She could care less about the brand new computer lab. She saw women who walked with dignity and integrity, always looking behind them to make sure that no one was lost, no one was ignored, and no one was hurt. Not on their watch anyway.
When everyone moved out of the neighborhood and out of the suburbs surrounding those schools, I thought I’d never find those communities again. That is to say, communities of service and devotion — communities of character that really defined what that word is supposed to mean. And I can’t say that I haven’t been saddened when I think of what I was given and how my children don’t see those same things. But we have been able to glimpse pockets here and there. Grandmas who babysit children during a MOPS groups so that moms can share the burdens of raising kids in this generation. Homeschooling mommas, who are already pushing on all cylinders, who chose to take on my special needs kid so that I can have bible study like other mommas do (without worry). A couple who have spent 19 years of their life building an free, annual community Easter Egg hurt, complete with climbing walls and bouncy houses, so that underprivileged families without support nearby can have an exciting, memory building activity to go to on Easter morning. These women, these people are my heroes. The people who don’t necessarily have a whole church or school of volunteers behind them, but who create pockets of life anyway. They love. And they love. And they love.
And I want to be like them. Always.
These are my heroes. These are my women. These are the women who taught me what it was like to follow Jesus.