for Kay McKay
I wondered today how long it takes for someone to become an angel. Is it instantaneous? Now you’re dead, now you’re an angel? Is there a waiting period? A series of hoops and steps and paperwork to get desensitized from life and ready for death. Like an immigration process? A job interview? Is there a toll booth? Decontamination? An entry fee?
When Kay was alive, in the course of a few months, I would think, “I haven’t talked to Kay in a while, I need to give her a call.” And I would. And we would talk. Easy as that.
Today, I thought, “Can she hear me yet?” I looked up into the gorgeous Arizona sky, and said, “Kay?” wondering how long it takes.
Sure, I talk to the deceased. Don’t we all? In one way or another? Talk to the dead? People mostly, that is, though I suppose some talk to their dead pets or plants or stars.
Catholics call it praying. I can live with that. I typically don’t call the act of talking to those I have deemed angels as anything, really. I simply don’t talk about it. But “praying” works. In fact, it got me out of big trouble once.
You see, Catholics pray a lot. They name the deceased, who they really like and really miss, saints. There is a big job interview type process before you get to have a friend or family member become one. Then they attribute certain tasks to them. These tasks line the pages of prayer books that Catholics keep by their bedside or in their purse.
They also often have small statues of them that stand over the kitchen sink or march across mantle pieces. I learned of them, saints, from early on in my childhood home. And the home of the family I married into.
There is a host of saints upon whom Catholics rely. Those who help us find things, overcome tragedies, keep our travels safe, convert the infidels, reduce anxiety. A litany of problems and the saints who are the solvers, all available in toy-sized likenesses or full out sculpted artwork. Oodles of prayer cards are available, wallet size–like business cards–but better. They are almost ‘get out of jail free’ cards. There are bookmarks and now websites, too.
And you can wear them. There are the traditional engraved silver or gold metals that many Catholics wear on chains around their necks, or reminders printed onto small cloth scapular necklaces with an image of the saint on the other side. Donned in saints.
All of these things, that in today’s world of Disney or Hollywood or Nickelodeon, are considered marketing for profit; while in Catholicism, they are simply tools to remind us of who is out there to assist us in the difficulties life brings. You can visit “Holy Stores” to peruse the aisles of tools and trinkets. Think Disney store but no mice or wizards, just saints and spirits, and coffee cups or place mats.
I digress. We’ve moved into shopping. Very Catholic. But back to praying.
I suppose praying, as it is called, or talking to the dead, is what so many poems and songs and headstones and other assorted markers are doing really. They all portray a conversation with those on the other side. Or a way for the living to talk to each other about the dead. We keep the deceased alive somehow and for some reason. To spite them. Or ourselves. To honor them. Or ourselves. To find them or to ascertain that they are, indeed, dead. And it is a very holy and important thing to do, for Catholics especially.
When I first met my Mexican Catholic mother-in-law, she was pretty pleased that her wayward son had brought home the likes of me. A mere 23-year-old girl (I thought woman, ha!) with a degree, a job, a small savings. Score! I seemed stable. I spoke Spanish – a major plus, even if I spoke like a Gringa. And I was a baker (another big plus). I brought a bagful of scones and bagels, and a pie, I think, the first time I visited. Brown noser.
And I was raised a Catholic. So there I was, a good Irish Catholic girl (lots of throat clearing) who was a perfect match for the good Mexican Catholic son (oh, Mijo). Aida’s youngest. I’d help him. Finally settle him down.
But did I practice Catholicism? Was I a believer? Did I pray?
Having been raised Catholic is a foot in the door into someone else’s Catholic family, but it is not the whole enchilada of acceptance, to say the least. As the years passed, questions arose, but none were delivered with too much expectation of response, or they were presented with no expectation at all. Not really. Just conversation. Until we had children. And then my Catholicism, or lack thereof, became quite important.
My mother-in-law asked: Would we raise the girls Catholic? Did we attend church? Would they? Had we planned the baptism? Why hadn’t I changed my name when I got married? (You know, Mija, you’re not really married if you haven’t taken your husband’s name as your own.”) Did I go to confession?
“Do you pray?”
The day came when my mother-in-law introduced my little girls to all the family members by way of the dozens of dusty framed photographs that lined the dim shag carpeted stairway leading to the second floor at her house.
“This is your Great Grandpa Julian. This is your Uncle Nieto. Here’s Auntie Dalia, your namesake,” she said to Riana. “Here’s Grandma Chata when she was just a little girl.” And so on.
“Who’s this one?” Riana asked, pointing to a large ornately framed Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Yeah, well the proverbial ca-ca hit the fan.
My speaking Spanish quickly lost its glitter, even all my baked goods were suddenly crumbly and dry in the minds and appetites of my Mexican in-laws. Now there was serious question about whether I was fit to be in the family for I had obviously not done the job I was expected to do as the mother. Raise the girls as Catholics. Teach them about the picture of the guy with a blazing heart on his tunic. There was less, in fact almost no question about my husband’s work toward this effort. He was the Mexican male, he was the baby of his family, the only son, he was busy being the father. No it was my job, and I had failed.
It just wasn’t enough anymore being the kind, smart, hardworking and good parent that I was to these precious grandchildren, if I wasn’t going to be more Catholic. Not necessarily a church going, confession making, communion taking Catholic. It was okay if I eliminated a few of those more typical expectations from my list of being Catholic. But it was the believing. The having of faith. The accepting. With all of the almighties and each of the halloweds and every one of the highests and the rulers. “Don’t you believe, Mija? Don’t you pray?”
Oh, the guilt, the guilt, and then more guilt. No, I don’t believe or pray the way you do, I so wanted to say. To them. To my own family. To myself. I am not a NON believer, however, I just believe differently. I’ve done everything differently all my life, so, of course, I am going to do this differently. But I wasn’t certain yet how to live it, believe it, express it, or teach it to my kids, let alone explain it to the devout. Guilty and confused, I was, but mostly I just carried on in our lives until the next family event was scheduled. Then I’d consider the questioning that was sure to come my way. How would I avoid it? For starters, I’d bake another dozen cream cheese danish, some cupcakes. Chocolate.
And then the opening came, finally, and I was in. It was over. I had my place back. It went like this.
One day, Bridget’s first birthday celebration, I believe, and Grandma Chata (chata means pug nose, BTW, and it is a term of endearment, and Rafaela, my Grandma-in-law, certainly did have a lovely pug nose) questioned me again. I am uncertain how the topic came up, but it always did. And there it was. Ergh.
“But, Mija, don’t you pray? Don’t you believe in anything?” The girls’ Great Grandma asked me these questions with such profound hope and genuine sadness, her watery light brown eyes burrowing into me like a pointed finger, I could have crawled under the table and hid for hours.
I knew I had to give her something. Anything. Throw the old woman a god damned bone — nice, Anne Marie, nice — I told myself. And so I did.
“Grandma,” I explained to her. “I believe.”
“You do, Mija?” she asked with equally hesitating disbelief and anticipation. And another bite of chocolate cake. “What do you believe in?”
“Angels,” I said, casually, wiping a blob of chocolate cake from Bridget’s face and replacing her cake with a handful of Goldfish, and then cutting another piece of cake for Great Grandma. Putting it in front of her. And then I saw it.
Years and years of weighted worry and despair spent over me, this poor infidel daughter-in-law, rose from both her stout shoulder pads. Her bright suit turned from blood red to rose red. The room smelled better, like Spring. The girls looked up from their high chairs and from the Goldfish they were gumming or counting (Bridget gumming; Riana counting), and they looked from their Grandma Aida to their Great Grandma Chata to their Mama, me, expecting something exciting to happen as four generations of Catholics/nonCatholics celebrated birthdays. Maybe a balloon would pop.
“You believe in angels, Mija?” Grandma asked with such pure elation you would think I had just told her the Archangel Michael and I were pen pals. Or that a balloon had popped.
“Yes, I do.”
And I was back in – pop- that was all it took. A small act of believing in something extraordinary. Pick one, any one, of the many extaordinaries Catholicism offers, and my place as the “Good Irish Catholic” daughter-in-law (who also happens to speak Spanish, bake really tasty scones, pies, and cakes, and overall is a damned good parent) was regained.
So now, as all of this reflection comes to mind upon the death of my dear friend, my mentor, my other mom, Kay McKay, I go back to my original questions. I trust she became an instant angel, quick as a heavenly wink. They surely excused her from all the Pearly Gate rigmarole, and just gave her the damn wings. She probably insisted upon it.
I suppose I could have asked for her guidance — about pruning geraniums, making gazpacho, managing a tough moment in a relationship — in my head while she was alive. That conversation could have happened that way. But it was so much easier to call her.
Now, the same requests for guidance and counsel will happen, but only in my head, my heart, and my prayers.
Yes, Grandma Chata, I pray. To you, too, now. I pray to all of those who listened to me when they were alive, and to all those whose death did not reduce my need for their ears. They can still serve the role of listener.
In fact, I think they probably listen even better once they are dead. I assume less distraction on the other side. And lots and lots of cake.
Me? I can maintain my standing as a good, well, mediocre and trying, Catholic girl who makes tremendous pies and cakes.
And finally, in this very long read, a poem inspired by Kay McKay, when we met over the oranges in Safeway, and stayed there for an hour, smelling citrus, and figuring out life.
and we talk more
we talk again
and we talk over coffee
we talk over my life
we talk over yours
we talk over wine
and we talk over the oranges in Safeway
and we talk.
We talk over biscuits in my kitchen
we talk over polenta in yours
we talk over the noise in my head
we talk it all over again
we talk on the phone
we talk on email
we talk on and on
we talk over all the broken talk
and broken hearts, we talk
I love to talk
We talk or we don’t
we postpone talk or we hurry
we talk quick, we talk slow
we scream talk, we whisper
we talk long, we talk short
we talk words, we talk time
we talk history
we talk through tears
and you don’t mind.
I am healed by the talk
by your talk.
(Top photo from Robert Murray at unsplash.com, other photos found online.)