Wednesday, August 09, 2017


Judy and Mary pull their weight!
Sib Train

One summer when I was in high school — maybe 1955 or so — my family, which always traveled by car across America for a month, decided to let me stay home — not quite alone but with my best friend from across the street.   I did not spend the summer writing a juvenile masterpiece about madness as young women do these days — didn’t even think of that because it wasn’t “done” unless you were Anne Frank.  The revelation of the summer came through that best friend, Judy.  

I have a short list of people (friends and relatives) whom I google now and then, because they inconsiderately die without telling me.  Just a day ago I searched for Judy, who is on that list though we had a snit-fit and haven’t make contact for years.  A website said she was single and Republican.  I happen to know she’s Croatian/Irish, VERY Catholic, so I could assume she wasn’t divorced, so maybe widowed.  

Partly I was thinking about her because I just watched “The Right Stuff” as part of my attempt to understand male heroism.  Judy’s father was a test pilot like Yeager, but had seven daughters, which caused his wife to make him find a safer occupation.  J. and I used to act out the little preoccupying scenario of bereaved wives that is so dear to Americans — something like the English having this “thing” for childbirth. (Both produced by WWII, I think.)  We played in the attic of Judy’s house and got so into the weeping and wailing one afternoon that I remember Mr. Dixon poking his head up at the head of the staircase, a horrified look on his face from what he expected to find.  Instead it was two flat-chested girls with black lace rags on their heads and tears streaming down their round cheeks.  Grinning sheepishly.

This time I just went ahead and called Judy (who is now Julia).  At least two male voices answered the phone on extensions (still a landline) and bellowed for Julia.  It took her maybe six beats to recognize my name — she’s not used to my married name YET.  (Only fifty years to learn it.)  Nor is she widowed.  But she came close to dying a while back, in a sort of clot storm that got into her heart and lungs.  Now she’s on oxygen but don’t imagine it holds her back.  She and some of her nine-child family (all grown and multiplying) were just about to leave for the beach.  

So that summer that we were “batching” in my house was the summer Judy (not yet Julia, but taking the first step) was sent to charm school.  What she learned, she passed on to me as homework.  Some of what she taught me was the proper use of deodorant, which came as a little pot of pads saturated with something.  There were the lipstick lessons — you needed a little brush.  And the proper use of tweezers and razors.  It took the proper equipment to achieve allure.  My generation is too modest to tell you what more there was.

She was dark with heavy hair falling to her shoulders.  I was a freckled redhead with hair like boiling foam.  It would be fashionable now if it hadn’t gotten thin and white.  It was the era of “torsolettes” (corsets lite), padded bras, latex Playtex girdles, and crinolines which we stiffened in sugar water rather than starch.  When WWII ended and Dior could get back into business, his “New Look” was to satisfy GI imaginations: tiny waists with big bosoms and near-hoop-skirts.  In fact, I did have a hoop skirt — pretty much a nuisance, but less sticky than a sugar-dipped crinoline.

Being Catholic meant that Judy was preparing to marry and to raise babies.  Nine of them by the end, though she was in real life widowed by the railroad her husband worked for, then remarried a widower with children.  Her second wedding was in St. Andrews, the cathedral church on Alberta Street in Portland, located there because in our childhood the neighborhood was occupied by immigrant artisans and shop-keepers, all Catholic.  It was two or three blocks from us so we heard its bells (real bells) and Judy went to parochial school there instead of at Vernon where I attended.

Father Bertram Griffin, the remarkably progressive priest, officiated at Judy’s second wedding and married all the kids to the family as well as the two adults.  The oldest boy and oldest girl were each asked to accept special responsibility.  I was Presbyterian with a pinched, arrogant, ambitious minister, so my model for ministry was Father Bertram.
His first act on being assigned to this parish, which by then had gone Black, was to sell the gold and silver Communion vessels and use the money to install a phone for poor people to use in emergencies and to search for work.  When I decided to go to seminary, I went to tell Father, who didn’t know me but blessed me anyway. 

So Judy’s preparation for marriage was not just beauty tricks, but a solid theological grounding which these days causes her to be an often indignant Republican.  I remember most vividly a summer day when we sat on my front steps and searched the concept of “Limbo” in terms of why babies who died before Christening would go there instead of Heaven.  She explained about Original Sin and Life After Death, and I would have none of it.  In fact, I resolved never to have ANY babies in order to save them from Limbo.  It seemed all I could do.  Later in life it was struggle enough to save myself from living Limbo.

But Judy’s influence came with me right through seminary, when the thought of Father Robert Schreiter, in a class at the Catholic Theological Seminary that was then part of the U of Chicago seminary cluster, became a foundation stone of my personal connection to sacred felt thought.  I am constitutionally unable to accept institutionalized anything, but “felt thought” is my guide for life.  Schreiter's belief was sort of Jungian — go deep enough and we will find the holy unity of humans in primal concepts.

It’s not that Judy and I are “in sync” about anything.  She’s conservative, maternal, and nurturing — quite capable of managing a relationship to the institution of the Holy Roman Catholic Church.  She keeps order and her lawn is green and short.  We can get frustrated with each other, which is why we gave it a rest for so long.  Her mother came to my mother’s graveside service.  

I doubt that Judy can really understand my life, because she has no experience with my kind of stuff: the vocabulary alone.  The thing is, it doesn’t matter.  I wouldn’t tolerate her life for more than half-an-hour.  But I understand the value and dignity of it.  I don’t reject it — just avoid it.  Watch from outside.

It’s almost twenty years since I chose a solitary and minimal life so I could write, but the kind of writing I do pushes the writer out to the edge of madness.  I wouldn’t have had the courage without my co-writer for the last ten years.  I didn’t intend to write with so much risk because I didn’t know it was there.  I thought I’d write novels about women who succeeded, sort of heroines but humble.  Wives of sculptors, friends of Blackfeet, walkers of the grassy prairie.

Instead, I’m exploring ideas that are so sci-fi that it’s hard to put them in human terms.  They are both crushing and dispersing — far beyond anything the nice middle-class UUA ever confronts.  And yet it’s a source of deep exaltation.  To someone not on that path, the whole thing sounds like madness or maybe a drug high or some claim to what shamans know.  This makes people rush to get at it, to get some for themselves, totally misunderstanding, which is why it’s a good idea to be solitary and hard to find.  Anyway, it takes concentrated energy.

But if Judy — I mean Julia — might die without telling me, I’d better break into my umbilical life and make contact.  So I did.  It was a good idea.  We’ll stay in touch now.
Julia, mother of the bride or maybe the groom
Anyway, pretty in pink

1 comment:

Whisky Prajer said...

You and your friend's put-on weeping-fit got a belly laugh from me, Mary. My older daughter is in college and the younger is getting ready for year 1, so memories of encountering this variety of drama are still quite fresh in my mind. On that score I can relate to the father.