Oh Tidings of Discomfort

Holidailies 2005December 23, 2005

Today is Festivus (the holiday for the rest of us!), that bit of pop culture that comes to us from a 1997 episode of Seinfeld. Supposedly it has its roots in a Scandinavian observance of the winter day between the Present with its tensions and unfinished business and the bright Future full of hope and promise. A feature of Festivus (the Seinfeld version, anyway) is “the airing of grievances.”

Which of us does not have grievances to air, especially regarding unfinished business from the past? Here’s one of mine.

In 2000 I noted in my annual letter that Lynn had been confirmed at Tree of Life Lutheran Church. Most people who know me know that I was brought up Catholic. From the time I was in college until about 1980 (when I was in my early thirties) I professed no faith at all. If pressed, I would identify myself as an agnostic rather than an atheist. Then I had a spiritual awakening and, through a process too complicated to recount here, reclaimed my heritage as a Christian. At first I joined with a congregation of the United Church of Christ whose pastor was my mentor during my conversion. Eventually, again for complicated reasons related to my spiritual growth, I joined a Lutheran congregation. Lynn was in first grade then and so has little memory of anything else. Ron remains a practicing Catholic. Raising Lynn as a Lutheran, however, has never caused a conflict.

Also in 2000 I wrote a brief memoir of my childhood Christmases. Here Are Poinsettias: A Child’s Christmas in Harrisburg, ran to some 5000 words. I printed it as a booklet and gave a copy to (some would say foisted one upon) everyone who came to my party. I also sent it along with the end-of-year letter to those whom I hadn’t seen. Many of my correspondents had shared the experiences with me, or at least had similar ones.

One person who received that letter and booklet in 2000 is a cousin who lives in California. She is six years older than I am, and since she’s lived on the west coast for more than thirty years, I don’t see her often. Her mother and my mother were sisters, and our families were close during my growing up years.

Where my mother could be brittle and controlling and motivated by a grim world view, my aunt seemed more relaxed, more open, more interested in letting her children follow their bliss than my mother was. My cousin calls her upbringing “haphazard.” I remember thinking it was perfect.

This cousin wrote to me in early January of 2001. She made a few comments about the memoir, giving her perspective on some of the experiences we’d shared. While I remember our families as close (perhaps because her brother and I were classmates and shared many friends and activities while she was out on her own before I entered high school), she remembers that we “didn’t intersect very much.” She acknowledges that she thinks she and I “didn’t know each other very well,” yet she goes on to make this observation regarding the present conduct of my spiritual life:

” . . . no matter what you pretend to yourself, you are very much a Catholic. It sounds like our Lutheran cousins have wonderful things to share. But you are still a Catholic among them.”

She might have reached her arm across 3000 miles and struck me, so stinging was that pronouncement. I actually sat down and cried that day.

As I said, I have never responded, but I’m about to. I don’t know if she reads my online work. I suspect she does not. But I include the addresses of my various blogs and online journals in my holiday letter every year, and this year I’ll call attention to the chronicle of my trip to Wyoming, so it’s possible she’ll be dipping into this space. This is probably something I should have said five years ago, but I didn’t, and something I should say directly, but I can’t. So I’ll say it here:

“What you said in response to reading of my participation in a Lutheran congregation hurt me very much. You know nothing about my spiritual life, about my beliefs, about the reasons why I have chosen not to practice as a Catholic. In fact, you know very little about me. You might remember the little girl and the teenager that I was, but you don’t know the woman I have become because you have never made it a point to. You don’t know my wonderful husband and my splendid daughter, you don’t know the love and the joy that inform our lives. You just judge, and slap me with words because I am not what you think I should be. In this regard you are more like my mother than your own. Nevertheless, I continue to keep you in my prayers, even if you think they avail nothing.”

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