Ave Maria

I don’t often have the pang to go to church.

My relationship with religion is rocky, an unrequited-love story that goes back to my adolescence. I stopped trying to get what I needed from church — big “c” and small — some years ago, but the impulse to crack open those dark doors still floats up, bringing the longing, the childhood associations that still cause confusion and pain.

Today, not surprisingly, I woke with the hymn “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” reverberating in my head. I watched a YouTube video  

so I could remember it accurately, and now I am flung back into memory.

While both of my parents took us to church, and my father remains a devout Catholic, it is my mother whose presence dominates my memory of religion. She took Catholicism and her responsibility to raise us in the Church very seriously, a holy calling as sure as that of any man who was compelled to the priesthood. This was the fabric of her childhood; the parish expressed the boundaries of her imagination, the sacred music she sang in her gorgeous soprano conferred the soundtrack, her classmates and family and attendant nuns and priests providing the color and texture of her world. Her existence was defined by her Church, and being Irish was a subset of that worldview.

It was against her father, the strict pragmatist, that her artistic and musical spirit rebelled, but the Church held her devotion and adoration until the day she died.

So when I wake on Easter Sunday, I am taken back to Easter with my mother, whose sunny but defeated beauty rallied in its brightest form on this holiday. I don’t remember her wearing special Easter clothes, but she always wore a beautiful hat, and she would proudly pin the corsage my father bought her, cool from the refrigerator, onto her coat just as we left for Church. There was always a picture on the lawn, the cold Chicago wind lashing our clothes around as we tried desperately to keep our hats from flying away.

Church was where my mother’s love shone the strongest. She was so proud of her brood, the five of us lined up next to her in the pew, brushed and polished within an inch of our lives. We smelled like the vigorous spit bath Dad had given us just before we left the house. She’d lean her tiny frame against the pew in front of us and sing better than anyone in the whole church, turning heads every single Sunday. Especially on Easter, though, when the music resonated in her core. When she opened her mouth, it was, in fact, her heart that came pouring out, and it was stunning.

In retrospect, I am certain now that the reason I started playing piano was an effort to be close to her. I would return from Church, go to the keyboard and try to replicate the hymns we had just sung. She saw my interest and immediately got me into piano lessons.

I broke from the Church several years ago, a severance I haven’t sorted out yet. I tried non-denominational churches, but the music has all left me cold, the hollow wish of a melody striving to express the joy and fervor my mother sang into existence every Sunday.

My distance from my mother happened many years before, but I went to Church for many years every Sunday, in my parish 300 miles from where she lived, in an effort to regain some connection to her. I would sing her songs, my heart full not of the joy she felt for her faith and devotion, but longing, a desire to once again have her beaming in the pew next to me.

Church and my own faith is a facet of my life I’ve determined to sort out this year. But it will be ever entwined with my mother, her voice rising to the rafters. Singing was, she insisted, praying twice. Today I won’t be going to Church, conflicted as I am about both the faith in which I was raised and the structure of the Catholic Church as it stands today. But I will sing, in my feeble impersonation of my mother’s voice, and lift my voice to the sky in the hopes that she might hear me.


Mom and Tom

PS–I am aware Ave Maria is not an Easter hymn, but it will always be my mother’s; she made a recording of this song (back when making a recording was a big deal) when she was a young woman.

PPS–I listened to Josh Groban singing Panis Angelicus (also not Easter, I know) and Ave Maria as I wrote this. His voice brings me the closest to the experience of listening to my mother in Church. So if you want the full experience, put those songs on repeat.


I’ve been working on a longterm project that requires a sewing machine. I was using a borrowed machine, but the lender needed it back to make a Halloween costume, so I’ve been looking for other ways to get this project moving. I could sew by hand, borrow another one, rent space at one of several local craft cooperatives (oh WOW do I love Portland!), or wait until I could afford to buy a new one. My options were bleak, so I turned to my beloved Craigslist.

The other day, I purchased a used sewing machine. The seller had inherited it from her beloved grandmother, but didn’t know how to sew.  The machine had moved with the seller several times, and now, as she prepared to move again, she decided it was time to sell.

The 70s-era machine works very well; it has more settings than I will ever need, and the ability to sew decorative stitches and embroidery I’m unlikely to use. I chose this machine over another one in part because of the accessories this seller advertised in her post; her grandmother’s notions and sewing equipment would be included in the price.

I had expected a little box of thread and bobbins, but instead, the seller presented me with a trunk full of lovingly organized sewing gadgets. Like many people obsess over kitchen gadgets, the uni-taskers I typically eschew, this granny had accummulated sewing toys. Five rolls of tissue tape for sewing delicate fabrics. Fifty invisible-zipper presser feet, for installing the fifty invisible zippers, also included. Fine gauge elastic and elastic thread. So many varieties of fusible interfacing I don’t know what they’re all for. Pocket turners. Pattern marking equipment. Slide-rule gauges for determining buttonholes and seams. A metal template for installing a double-welt pocket. And everything still had the instructions, neatly folded and marked.

Learn to Sew

There’s a lovely brochure included titled “Learn to Sew,” from 1946. It answers some of my more vexing questions in very plain language, better than other sewing manuals I’ve seen. It also describes some techniques that modern people never have to consider, because technology has taken us so far. For instance, before you sew any material, you should wash it first, but in this booklet, written before washing machines and dryers were in every home, the instructions state “run material through a wringer.” Man, am I glad I don’t have to do that.

My favorite items in the bunch, however, are the instruction booklets with notes in the margins, and the slips of paper with handwriting common in women from a different era, writing detailing techniques and tips for streamlining frequent tasks. There’s so much ephemera, so personal in nature, I contacted the seller to ask for her grandmother’s name, so I could attach an identity to the personality evident among the belongings.

Her name was Genevieve, and she was known as Jenny.

I think all of us wish we had a guide, someone to help us understand the world, a mentor who can calm us down when we’re freaking out because life doesn’t make much sense. I lost that when my mom died. I’ve been looking for it ever since. My mom was good at that, at helping me identify the source of confusion, showing me a path over or around a problem, or just listening when I complained about how much adulthood sucked. Life and illness interfered with our ability to sustain that relationship, so I only had her influence for a couple of years before she died. I’ve felt her absence keenly.

But seeing Genevieve’s writing, the notes that explain sewing jargon, the receipt indicating the date her beloved machine was delivered (my birthday, 1974), the highlighted and circled definitions that helped her manage the complex tool she was using — it comforts me. It’s a guide, a light for a dark path, encouragement in knowing that once upon a time, things didn’t make sense to her either, but *she* figured it out, and now she would help me.

Yes, this is just sewing equipment. It’s not life lessons. But in this little corner of my world, where mentors and mothers are nowhere to be seen, hearing that voice in my ear saying “it’s okay, dear, you’ll figure this out” is bracing, fortifying. Like so many before me, I will get past this little hesitation, this moment of not knowing, this time in my life when pieces don’t automatically fit together. Like them, with time and patience, I’ll get there.

And I think I’ll call my sewing machine “Genevieve.”