My mother, however, found Grandma’s definition of everything as being God’s holy will to be yet another justification for her own bitterness. As far as she was concerned, Grandma’s refusal to deal realistically with the hardships placed before her was a sign of a delusional mind. My mother would often yell sarcastically at my grandmother, “If the damned house caught on fire, you’d be more likely sit in the middle of it and pray than call the fire department!”
As a child I couldn’t understand just how hollow and even hurtful my grandmother’s biblical chides sounded to my mother. But Grandma stayed true to herself and her faith, even as her grandchildren cried with hunger or the electricity was turned off because of an unpaid bill. By necessity, my mother became the head of the household. She became the financial manager, the disciplinarian, and decision-maker. She must have felt very lonely shouldering all the decisions and problems.
Meanwhile, my brother and I, our grandmother, some neighbors, and even our local parish priest, dismissed our mother as being all but the antichrist due to her lack of trust in God. Anything my mother did or said in resistance to our grandmother’s wishes was viewed by my brother and me as being mean and selfish. We saw Grandma as the consummate saint and our mother as the consummate sinner. To us she was always “missing the mark” like Thomas had in doubting Jesus.
Well into our adulthood, my older brother and I saw our mother as mean, cruel, and petty, while remembering our grandmother as sweet, meek, and loving. We blamed our mother for the way Grandma slinked around the house, acting like a victim to our mother’s mean tongue. Today, I can only imagine that my grandmother’s passive-aggressive behavior must have been what incited at least part of my mother’s perpetual anger. After all, who can ever defend themselves against the “righteous?” And who can defend the “irreligious?”
Once, during a holiday season, my grandmother tried to talk my mother into having a homeless couple over for Christmas dinner, despite the fact that the only food we would have would be what was brought to us in a Salvation Army basket. Sometimes, when we were chosen, we would receive a fresh turkey from some business that donated food.
“Veronica,” Grandma began in a sweet, cajoling tone of voice, “On Sunday after mass, Father Mulligan said that the Allen’s don’t got any food for Christmas dinner. I was kind of thinking maybe we could have them over and share ours with them.”
Mother’s voice sounded like she was talking to a child as she spoke with the same weary impatience she always used on me, “Mother, you know we’re only going to have enough food for our own family.” She paused and then continued, “Besides that, there’s no room for them to sit.”
My grandmother’s voice became even calmer, anchored as it was in her certainty that she was defending the Lord’s own place at our table. “Now you know, Veronica, that I’ll just eat my usual cottage cheese and you can give them my part of the food basket.” Without hesitation, she began to quote the Bible: “If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered.”
“For Christ sake, Mother, we are the poor.” Without pausing for a breath, my mother yelled at me, “Dawn, stop biting your damn fingernails.”