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Reprinted from The (New York) Jewish Week with permission of the author.
Sept. 21, 2007
On a hot and muggy Shabbat morning this summer, my husband and I went to church together.
I listened to him recite prayers he'd memorized decades ago, watched him kneel and witnessed as he went up to the altar to take Communion, the wafer that is supposed to be the body of Christ.
With the exception of visiting cathedrals on a vacation to France six years ago, it was the first time we'd ever been inside a church together. In fact, it was the first time since we'd married that Joe had attended Catholic services.
Our trip to St. Joseph's, Joe's childhood church in New Hampshire didn't signify a new embrace of Christianity. Instead, we were attending his mother's funeral. We'd been expecting this, as she was in poor health for many years, but it was nonetheless jarring.
Jarring to adjust to her sudden absence and figure out how to explain death to our 4-year-old daughter, who knew Grammy was sick but assumed a homemade get-well card would ensure her quick recovery. But also jarring to be reminded that my husband, who I often quip “out-Jews” many of our Jewish friends with his familiarity with Hebrew terms, comes from a different place than I do.
At the funeral Joe cringed on my behalf when the priest mentioned Jesus, when our nieces lay a crucifix on the coffin and when almost everyone knelt but me. The taste of the wafer still on his tongue, he apologized for taking Communion, worrying that he had made me feel uncomfortable--but he felt torn, fearful that avoiding the ritual would have seemed disrespectful toward his mother.
In truth, the whole experience did make me feel awkward, but not terribly so. And I hardly begrudged Joe--I married him knowing he was Catholic and that his mother, Margaret, was a practicing Catholic.
The thing is, while we see Joe's family twice a year and have adopted some traditions from his childhood--in particular, vacationing on Lake Damariscotta in southern Maine, where Joe's late Aunt Elaine had a house--we see my family more often. Plus, while Joe's family certainly never seemed Jewish to me, I didn't see a lot of their Catholic side. A wooden crucifix hung over Margaret's bed, but most of the objects in her home were more secular: framed family photos, pewter knickknacks, the stuffed bears she collected. I knew she attended church every week, but I rarely heard about it--I did not meet her priest or see the inside of the gray stone church until the funeral.
Perhaps she downplayed her Catholicism around me out of a desire to make me feel welcome. She never seemed to object to the fact that I was Jewish, or that mine and Joe's children are. I used to joke that it was because Joe was her youngest, that by the time he got married she figured she already had plenty of Catholic grandkids and could thus donate a few to the Jews.
At the funeral, the Margaret the priest described--“a woman of faith,” he said, emphasizing her belief in Jesus--was different than the woman I remembered, who always seemed far more buoyed by her gardening and her grandchildren than by spirituality or dogma.
That is not to say she didn't exude a strong moral presence. She single-handedly put her seven kids through college (Joe's father died more than 30 years ago) and instilled in all of them a fierce work ethic. In recent years, even when her emphysema kept her tethered to her oxygen tank and sent her on frequent trips to the hospital, she remained stoic, cheerful and remarkably focused on other people. Hallmark's dream customer, she was meticulous about sending punctual birthday greetings and gifts to her children, grandchildren and children-in-law, mailing out cards and gifts for a variety of other holidays as well.
This past spring, she asked Joe whether she should send our girls some sort of gift for Passover--she felt bad, she said, because she always sent Easter baskets to her other grandchildren and she didn't want to neglect our children. We assured her no gift was necessary, but after she persisted we allowed that she could send candy for Purim if she really wanted to.
The Passover question was just one of many ways she tried to accommodate my Jewishness. When we visited at Christmas, she always made sure our gifts were wrapped in Chanukah paper. One year she gave us a brass menorah. When we married, she did not question our decision to have a rabbi officiate at the wedding; instead, she seemed excited by the opportunity to witness a Jewish ceremony.
This year as I'm sitting in synagogue for Yom Kippur, I'll be thinking of my mother-in-law. Perhaps, as her priest suggested, she's in some kind of Heaven. But when I think of her afterlife, I don't see the harps and angels of Christian lore. Instead, I prefer to imagine it the way my sister-in-law Kathy described it in her eulogy this summer: in a lawn chair by Lake Damariscotta on a cool summer night, shooing away the mosquitoes as she drinks spiked ginger ale and chats with her sister Elaine.