My mother rarely cried. Unlike her daughter, a veritable fountain on the verge for any occasion, Mom wasn’t given to showing sadness. Anger yes, sadness no.
It might be an Italian thing.
I was 12 years old making yet another trip from my bedroom to the kitchen for a snack after school when I heard my mom in tears at the front door speaking to a neighbor lady who was her good friend. In hushed voices there was only their mumble but I could make out my mother’s distress. Laverne said, “I’m so sorry, Ann. I’m so sorry.”
At 12 what does a kid do? I was afraid. I was curious. I was upset. I was in distress for Mom. I retreated to my room until the front door closed and the voices fell silent. I emerged to find Mom wiping her tears. I stuttered. I asked what happened.
She hesitated and didn’t want to tell. She was unable to quickly create a cover story for the incident and I think that’s the only reason she told the truth.
My grandmother was dying. She was diagnosed with an advanced and untreatable form of leukemia. In disclosing to me, my mother sagged and melted into tears again.
That was over 50 years ago yet I can see every detail in the rearview mirror. Of that day and those after until Fanny died in early December of 1964.
At school the next day I couldn’t concentrate and when lunchtime came, I told my teacher, a sweet, ancient, tiny nun. I described all that had happened the day before. I had some fearsome faith back in the day. I probably thought she could pull up some Catholic mojo and make my grandmother better. I could barely get the words out to explain what I knew, what would be the undoing of my little family. Fanny was the light at the center of everything.
She told me if I prayed hard enough and if I was good enough, God would save my grandmother. I pulled myself together to execute.
I was not only good. I was excellent. I spent hours praying. Days. Nights. I prayed to God. To Jesus. To Mary, His mother.
At school I made As on my lessons. At home I cared for my brothers and my dad so Mom could be with Grandma. I cooked (poorly) and cleaned the house (like a 12-year-old). My mama wept for her mama and I toiled and prayed some more.
Then, my grandmother died.
That first Christmas came three weeks after her death. I prayed even harder to the baby Jesus tucked in his tiny manger under the watchful eyes of His parents, nestled in the crisp white sheet at the bottom of our Christmas tree. With twinkling lights and shimmering tinsel, ornaments reflecting its surrounds, our tree stood tall and alone in the corner of our living room. Each evening in the quiet before bed I knelt before the tree. I prayed to atone for Fanny’s death. I hadn’t been good enough in God’s eyes to save her.
I didn’t realize until well into adulthood that I carried that memory deep within, that I operated believing I wasn’t good enough. The ultimate judgment had been rendered and a life was lost. I saw it all in the rearview mirror and was shocked by the depth of the belief, the decision made as young girl based on a teacher’s words.
I never told a soul. I was ashamed and guilty. To whom could I unburden myself and confess this murder? God already knew.
You know what I know now? Whether there is or isn’t a god doesn’t matter – children are always good enough. They’re born good. And if you tell them they’re good and lovable, even if sometimes they’re naughty, they will grow into good and loving adults.
Children are good. It’s immutable. Tell the children around you how lovable and good they are. Tell them every day.
I was good. I am good. And Fanny knew for sure.