Today, I want to share a bracing view, courtesy of my mother. She converted to Catholicism (from Protestantism) when she married my dad, but she wasn’t much of a church-goer. When my dad suggested she should accompany him to mass on Sundays, she had a telling rejoinder:
You worry about your soul — I’ll worry about mine.
Excellent advice. Mom had a way of speaking that cut to the chase.
When it comes to religion, too many Americans seek to push their beliefs on others. And often there’s some guilt or a veiled threat in the push. “A good person goes to church.” “These are holy days of obligation.” “You should go to set a good example for the kids.” “Don’t forget judgment day — God is looking down on you right now.”
My mom was having none of that. She also didn’t need church to do the right thing. She was kind and generous and, in my opinion, followed the example of the Gospel without making airs about it.
When it comes to religion, few people want to be pushed into attending “mandatory” practices. Indeed, I’ve always liked Christ’s teachings on praying to God in private, rather than standing on a street corner and shouting your beliefs to the masses. Speaking of which, I once witnessed a man doing exactly that in Oxford, England, shouting on the street, proclaiming the good news. When someone complained, he cited a Biblical passage that enjoined him to proclaim his faith in a loud voice so that others might follow in his footsteps.
That’s a problem with the Bible: So many passages, so many messages, so many interpretations.
Still, I persist in believing in my mother’s aphorism: Focus on the health of your own soul and its relationship to whatever higher power or higher ideals you believe in. Don’t focus on the souls and the beliefs and practices of others.
Or, as Christ put it, “Judge not — lest you be judged.”
This Memorial Day, let’s remember and learn from our heroes who are gone from us. For me, my heroes are my parents, both of whom grew up in single-parent families during the Great Depression. Let’s start with my Mom. Our concept of “hero” today often works against moms; our culture tends to glorify our troops and other people of action: police, firefighters, and other risk-takers who help others. But to me my Mom was a hero. As a young woman, she worked long hours in a factory to help support her mother. She married at twenty-seven and quickly had four children in five years (I came along a few years later, the beneficiary of the “rhythm method” of Catholic birth control). As a full-time homemaker, she raised five children in a working-class neighborhood while struggling with intense family issues (an older son, my brother, struggled with schizophrenia, a mental disease little understood in the early 1970s).
Despite these burdens and more, my Mom was always upbeat and giving: traits that didn’t change even when she was diagnosed with cancer. She struggled against the ravages of that disease for five long years before succumbing to it in 1980. Cancer took her life but not her spirit. I never heard her once complain about the painful chemotherapy and cobalt treatments she endured.
My father too had a difficult life. He had to quit high school after the tenth grade and find a paying job to support the family. At the age of eighteen, he entered the Civilian Conservation Corps and fought forest fires in Oregon; factory work followed (where he met my Mom) until that was interrupted by the draft and service in the Army during World War II. After more factory work in the latter half of the 1940s, my Dad got on the local firefighting force, serving with distinction for more than thirty years until his retirement. He died in 2003 after a heart attack and surgery, from which he never fully recovered.
America’s heroes are women and men like my Mom and Dad: the factory workers, the homemakers, the blue-collar doers and givers. And as I think about my Mom and Dad, I recall both their loving natures and their toughness. They had few illusions, and they knew how to get a tough job done, without complaint.
There’s so much we can learn from women and men like them. Personally, I’m so sick of our media and our government telling us how scared we should be — whether of violent crime or violent tornadoes or bogeyman terrorists overseas. My parents recognized the hard-won wisdom of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
But today our government prefers to abridge our rights (see the latest extension of the so-called Patriot Act) in the name of keeping us safe and less fearful, a bargain for those who exercise power, but not for tough-minded people working hard to scrape a living for their children (thanks again, Mom and Dad).
My parents weren’t worried about threats emerging from left field. They had real — and much more immediate — challenges to deal with right at home. In this spirit, I still recall my Dad talking somewhat heretically about the Cold War and the Soviet threat. His opinion: if the Americans and Soviets are stupid enough to nuke one another, a billion Chinese will pick up the slack of human civilization. No bomb shelters or ducking and covering for him. It was back to work to support the family by putting out fires in our neck of the woods.
And that’s what we need to do today as a country. We need to put fear aside and band together to put out fires in our neck of the woods. Together we can make a better country. In so doing, we’ll honor the heroic sacrifices of our families and ancestors: people like my Mom and Dad.
God bless you, Mom, Dad, and all the other quiet and unsung heroes of America.