Saturday, November 21, 2009

…. May the martyrs welcome you…

Today I sang a funeral for an Italian woman who had lived long and well. This was according to the eulogy read by the celebrant. It was a letter that was sent by her nephew and served as a tribute to her loving kindness extended to him throughout his life. The family decided that this would make the best eulogy and asked the priest to read it. At this point in the Mass the priest refers to the speech as “words of remembrance”. It is always amazing to observe the manner in which people remember their loved ones. Often they will read poetry or letters. At most funerals, the people who deliver these words have some degree of distance from the sting of the loss. But with the elderly; anything goes. I think because in their case, death makes sense.
Viola had lived through her eighties. One of eleven children, she had grown up in the Depression in Little Italy and had learned at an early age that sacrifice for family was most important. She lived her life giving her all to her husband and children, as she had learned to do in her home growing up. According to her nephew’s letter, she was last on her list. She suffered with health problems untended and lived much of her life in physical pain. Was she a martyr?
One day a friend said to me accusingly, “Why are you being such a martyr?” This was following an attempt to help her after the birth of her child. I had offered to bring dinner or diapers or something that I can’t even remember, and she shot back with those words. I processed this as a postpartum meltdown and tried to move past it, but the moment was hard to forget. I had reached out in a genuine fashion to a person with whom I was close. This should not have been controversial at all, but because of the conditions it was. Years later I laugh at the memory of being hurt and insulted by being called a martyr, not only because my friend, if not for the surge of hormones, would never do anything to hurt me, but because in my younger days I would rather be called anything than, long suffering and self-sacrificing. It was like taking an arrow to heart. In one shot, I was classified as something I had worked my whole life to never become: the women who raised me.
I grew up in a home where, in my view, my mother had bent and swayed in the winds of her choice to marry and have children. I thought certain I could detect the scent of dissatisfaction and I made decisions based on that impression. I had decided that if I were to marry at all, it would be to someone who would help me be me-whatever that was going to be. He would not be Italian for one, he WOULD wash dishes and he would let me go wherever singing would take me. I would not suffer, I would not up give too much of myself, I would not let him have anything that I did not get.
My mother had come from a long line of martyrs, starting with my great-grandmother who had been dragged from her homeland, on a boat, by my great-grand father, in pursuit of the American Dream; my grandmother, who according to family folklore did not marry the love of her life but rather married my grandfather, worked hard in her family business and in the end wound up with nothing because her brothers inherited everything, only to spend her later years caring, tirelessly, for her daughter with Multiple Sclerosis who could do nothing for herself; Then there was Aunt Josie. She was my grandfather’s unmarried sister who lived with my grandparents. The only daughter in a family of five boys, she gave up dreams of going to college to raise her brothers after the death of her mother when she was 17 years old. Aunt Josie, more than anyone, wore the emblem of martyrdom with pride. There was no other purpose for a woman’s life than to suffer at the feet of a man’s demands. Men were always right, women should simply want to make their dinner, wrap it in tin foil to keep it warm until they came home after fulfilling their purpose in life. That is what I understood, when she called my brother “The King” and would run through all the girls names until she finally hit the right one. Since she was my mother’s greatest help source, we were served, daily, a healthy serving of not only her food, but her philosophy on womanhood. As the eldest girl, I was taught (or rather required) to clean out my mother’s cluttered closets in order to prevent “spontaneous combustion”, bake bread and clean the bathroom tiles with a toothbrush. It was as if I was in the martyr-training-program; a human insurance policy that servitude would survive in the generations to come.
Years later I found myself standing at the threshold of love dressed from head to toe in armor. I was ready for duty, but I was certain that the disappointment that comes from self-sacrifice could not touch me. I had made my choices to ensure this would be true of my life. The thing that I could not have seen coming, was the shifting sands of time and wisdom that comes with its passage. Throughout my life, I had misunderstood so much. I had extracted what I wanted from the stories that were told and the things that I observed. What I think that I am learning now is that every life has its own reasons and with each year in love I am more flexible, more giving, more resilient, more myself, more peaceful, more willing, more like the women who raised me.
It has occurred to me that in modern day, we misuse the word martyr. It has become something that we say to describe a person whose level of giving makes us uncomfortable. The purity of their goals and priorities threatens our need to complicate our lives in the name of sophistication. It is easier to assign a label that infers goodness on some level, yet is swollen with depreciatory intent. It exonerates our self-focus and makes us more complacent in the decisions that we are unwilling to make. The martyrs, in the true sense of the word, suffered willingly for causes that were larger than themselves; things that mattered and mattered to everyone who would come after them-even if they did not know it.
Today I sang for the Viola the Hero, who died in old age without a prodigious career, a mansion or large bank account, but was sent off with a letter from a nephew who was better because she was part of his life. Who like Mom, Nana and Aunt Josie knew that nothing really mattered but taking care of those you love, a clean closet and some spaghetti with a warm loaf of bread.

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