Our grace has a genealogy. Passed from the Moore family to their great friends, my great-grandparents, the Davises, the verse has wandered through generations, presiding over everything from elaborate holiday feasts to store-bought pizza.
I guess you could say that ours is a secular house. Raised Presbyterian, but with the imprint of eight years of parochial school, I became confirmed as a Catholic during college. That was a different era of Catholicism. Vatican II still rested fresh in most minds; my cradle-Catholic, Polish-American grandmother told stories of masses in Latin, fish every Friday, and entire days of fasting during Lent. Mine had been a Catholic education with guitar masses and softball playing nuns teaching evolution. Abortion, birth-control, pre-marital sex, and homosexuality were still big church no-no’s, but the lines seemed less stark, and one sensed that if the church could make the radical shift to female altar-servers, other changes would come in time.
In a big church wedding with a full Mass, I married a Lutheran-baptized, secular, rationalist with the promise that other than for weddings and funerals, I would never again force him into the pews. My own church attendance – always spotty – began to fade after the birth of our first child, and when the baptism questions began. At first, “when are you going to get her baptized” seemed reasonable, and there was no conscious procrastination on our part. Life had simply become complicated, there were diapers, more laundry, and I spent approximately 20 hours of every day with something attached to my breast. But, gradually, the questions became intrusive, demanding, and resented. This was our choice, and really, what was the rush? Other than occasionally testing her newly emerging teeth on inappropriate surfaces, I failed to see what evil Caitlin could be harboring.
Years pass, more children are born, and a new pope is elected. Somewhere in the decade, either the Church, or my views toward it, has shifted. Strictures that once seemed eccentrically stodgy reveal themselves to me as cruel bigotry. I can’t see taking my children to listen to homilies that preach values completely opposite to those we attempt to instill at home. Catholicism and I have parted ways. I’m somewhat drawn to the more liberal Episcopal Churches, or perhaps Unitarian Universalism, but haven’t yet mustered the impetus to explore either denomination. So, our lives exist more or less independently of organized religion. We teach the children that religion is a human means of understanding the universe, and that all religions are equally valid attempts to reach that understanding. At this point, I suspect my older kids know more Hebrew songs by heart than they do Christian hymns. At times, this free-ranging ecumenicism has had its drawbacks. Caitlin, currently obsessed with all things ancient (and particularly Greek), wound up in an unfortunate confrontation with a classmate last year. When told by the classmate that the Greek gods were not real, and that God was the only true god, Caitlin retorted that maybe God wasn’t real and that the Greek gods were. This prompted a discussion at home about respecting the beliefs of others. Caitlin’s response? “Doesn’t he have to respect my beliefs?” In the midst of trying to explain that the Greek pantheon is no longer widely worshiped, I wondered, ‘who am I to tell her that some gods are myths while others are real?’
The only daily sign of Christian faith in our house is grace. Here, I refer to the pre-meal blessing rather than a spiritual or mental state. The more uplifted meaning of the word fluctuates in our lives by the minute. Grace is, to me, not only a thank you note to God, but it is a connection to those around me, my family, my companions, and those who have gone.
God is great. God is good. Let us thank Him for our food. Amen. The everyday blessing of my childhood evokes memories of muttered arguments of whose “turn” it was, and the surreptitious kicking of shins by the sister who felt that her turn had been usurped. This was the grace of weekday meals, chanted in a singsong by either my sister or myself with eyes closed and hands tightly clasped in laps – when they weren’t poised to grab the biggest piece of pizza.
Bless us, O Lord for these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive. FromThybountythroughChristourLordAmen. In the name of theFatherSonandHolySpiritAmen. My knees still feel the brush of polyester pleats, and the wood rim of my desk chair pressed into their backs. With these words I smell chalk, rain-soaked coats, and bologna. This was the pre-lunch blessing, said in a rush designed to enable each class to get to the cafeteria before the garlic bread was gone on rigatoni day. My thoughts were usually less occupied with gratitude to God, and more concerned with the fear of explaining to my peers yet another atypical lunch (Calamari sandwiches, anyone?) and wondering if I could convince the yard duty teacher to let me go outside for recess without finishing every last crust of bread. I held the record for World’s Slowest Eater until Aidan came along to take the title.
Oh, the Lord’s been good to me. And so I thank the Lord, for giving me the things I need – the sun, and the rain, and the appleseed. Oh, the Lord’s been good to meeeee. GORP, instant oatmeal, hot dogs, and pocket stews – these are the foods that accompany my fingers as they type Johnny Appleseed’s song in rhythm. This was the blessing of Girl Scout campouts and family camping trips. Of the graces of my childhood, this is one of two that I have carried into my children’s world. This is the grace of trees and mountains, of woodsmoke and the cries of bluejays. This is the grace sung of freedom: the freedom to explore and to get dirty.
For these and all Thy gifts of love, we give Thee thanks and praise. Look down our Father from above and bless us all our days. For Jesus’ sake, Amen. Written down, the verse seems simple, the words easy, yet this is the grace that has challenged many. I remember, and I suspect this to be true for my sister, a sense of mild triumph when I finally memorized “the family grace.” I have seen this same triumph in my children, manifesting in the display of superiority by the elder two over Sierra who still mumbles “fordesandallygiftsabove…” This grace took my genius (I mean that literally, not sarcastically. He really is a genius; it’s quite discouraging.) husband several years of family holidays to memorize. Mike and I have been married over 14 years; about a year and a half ago, my mother-in-law announced that she had finally memorized the grace.
I can only attribute the confusion to the complex and rich heritage of our family grace. Join hands and close your eyes.
For these – the grace came from Mr. and Mrs. Moore, dear friends of my dad’s maternal grandparents.
And all Thy gifts – the Moore’s son Eddie had died young, leaving widowed a woman named Gloria.
Of love – Gloria’s sister Ginny came out to California, to visit her sibling, and to look for a new life.
We give Thee thanks – Grandma and Grandpa Davis’s daughter Sylvia had died of cancer, leaving a husband and young son, my father.
And praise – Grandma Ginny always claimed that she fell in love with the towheaded child before she succumbed to the charms of his father Carl, my Grandpa Bligh.
Look down our Father – Heads bow – around a turkey, a ham, platters of sides, a prime rib, a rack of lamb, enchiladas, pork chops and sauerkraut – the foods were many, varied, and meaningful in their ability to bring a family together. Generations depart and enter. Rich, the blond boy, grew up and married Jean – another only child. They produced me, and then my sister. Our holidays and birthdays joined in an endless circle of grandparents, great-grandmother, great-aunts and uncles, hands joined in unison.
From above – Grandpa Davis died when I was a toddler. Uncle Mac, my Aunt Glo’s second husband, and Grandma Davis passed while I was in high school. But my grandparents all saw the entry of the next generation. Grandma Ginny lived hold her first two great-grandchildren, and Mom’s father, my Grandpa Mac got to know not only Caitlin, but Aidan, the great-grandson who resembles him not only in red-hair, but moral certainty. Grandpa Bligh knew all three, and was able to hear Caitlin and Aidan sing “his cowboy song” and to see the infant Sierra before his death. Grandma Doris, my maternal grandmother, knew all of her great-grandchildren, and though the pictures they colored must have been only blurs and though time and memory floated in hazy clouds, her face lit whenever they walked into the room. Fittingly perhaps, the last of my grandparents passed away just before grace on Christmas Day. While eulogizing his mother-in-law, Dad commented that it was characteristic of Grandma Doris to time her transition to that moment when everyone was busy with other things, to not be a ‘bother’. I think that it was fitting that she depart just as we prepared to join hands in the blessing that connects our family’s past to its present and future.
And bless us all our days. Our days are full. Sometimes weeks pass before my sister and I can end our games of ‘voicemail tag.’ My children see their grandparents more often than many of their peers, but less frequently than any of us would like. Some nights gathering five people around a table and enforcing a few seconds of what I envision as joyful reflection and my children see as rote nonsense seems too much bother. Some nights, we pull out another family staple. Everyone yells, “Yay, God!” and digs in. But, when we stop, join hands (or in Sierra’s younger days, ears), and say the words, my family is present – in body and in spirit.
For Jesus’ sake, Amen. I still don’t know which window into the universe provides the clearest view. For all I know, Caitlin’s subversive worship of a pantheon of capricious and flawed deities may be correct; it’s certainly a more fun idea than that of a single, perfect deity. Maybe my Jewish friends are right, and Jesus was a nice guy, but not the Messiah. Does it matter? Religions are human constructs, and whatever one’s faith, humans are very small dots in a very large universe. So, let’s all join hands, close our eyes, and appreciate our dysfunctional human family. Pass the bread, please.