Cover story -- Variations on a Theme
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Issue Date:  October 21, 2005


Editor’s note: Here’s the first “variations on a theme” feature in which we ask readers to respond to a topic based on their personal experience. Thanks to all who wrote in.

I was once envious of Clayboy, the guy who sells “authentic Hawaiian shaved ice” in my neighborhood. He is a small-businessman. I am a nurse. He works outdoors from a pushcart in a plaza with a bookstore, a fountain and flowerbeds nearby. I work in an emergency department that is windowless, noisy and sometimes smelly. He offers frozen treats in 15 flavors, including lemonade and root beer. I give medications that are difficult to swallow and never taste like cherries or bubblegum, regardless of what the label claims. Children love him, running to him as if he were summer’s Santa Claus. Children are afraid of me, at least at first. He was the hero on the local television news after the county government unsuccessfully tried to not renew his food service license. I was once in a training film about preventing burnout among nurses -- a brief shot of me pushing a stretcher at the end of a 12-hour shift, while the narrator warned, “Don’t let this happen to you.”

So when the break room conversation turned to alternate careers, I said I wanted to be Clayboy, the snow-cone king. He seemed peaceful. He seemed happy.

One day I saw Clayboy at the bedside of one of my patients. It was his mother, and from her I learned a little more about him. The snow-cone business is a summer job. During the rest of the year he teaches physical education to children with special needs, a job that requires all of his patience, discipline and stamina. He helps support his mother, who has cancer. His given name is John. In light of this information, my envy melted.

I have not yet learned how John came to be known as “Clayboy.” I was never fond of any nickname I’d been given, but a patient of mine changed that. This patient was a homeless schizophrenic in need of assistance with his most basic needs. He bestowed upon each nurse a nickname that sounded like the names given to comic book superheroes. Quiet Nicole was the “Brown Hornet.” Gentle Steve was the “Northwest Nightmare.” And me, I was “Earth Mother.”

Clayboy loves his vocation. And I, an emergency-room Earth Mother, love mine.

Bethesda, Md.

* * *

My wonderful mother died 40 years ago. She was 57. I still miss her sometimes. Like one Saturday when I was taking a walk along Lake Geneva. Strolling in front of me were two women -- one very old and the other in late middle age. I imagined them to be a mother and daughter having a late summer date. I wanted them to be my mother and me. And one Sunday at Mass, I saw a woman gently guiding her elderly mother into the front pew. I imagined that they had a spiritual friendship. I wanted them to be my mother and me.

Then one day I stopped to visit a friend in a nursing home. I overheard a woman reminding her frail, senile mother that she was her daughter. That could have been my mother and me.

Williams Bay, Wis.

* * *

Let me tell you how Katrina turned my envy upside down and inside out.

Just seven days ago, I envied women who seemed to wake up beautiful, even middle-aged women like me. I envied people who didn’t have to live from paycheck to paycheck. I envied people who seemed to keep their houses clutter-free and clean with three children and a dog.

That was seven days ago. Today, I envy all of you who can wake up and get your children ready for school. I envy people sitting in a coffee shop in California or Iowa or Vermont who are reading their newspaper or watching TV about the disaster unfolding in New Orleans and beyond. I envy people who can go to their own parish church on Sunday or attend their pastoral council meetings or Little Rock Scripture Study, because I wonder how Mary Queen of Peace in Mandeville will ever be the same. I envy people living paycheck to paycheck because I’m not exactly sure what will happen to my paycheck in the coming months.

But let me tell you another thing about this envy of mine: It has to go. I pray constantly for relief from it, because I know my life is envied by thousands. Just the fact that I am sitting here typing in my sister’s air-conditioned home in Baton Rouge tells you a lot. I have my children, my husband, my sisters and my parents. For two months, at least, I have a paycheck.

I’ve seen the pictures from the Superdome and from places like Pass Christian, Miss., where my uncle lost his home. I know how tremendously blessed I am. I know that my home in Covington, La., across the lake from New Orleans, is fine. The pine trees that surround our neighborhood are scattered across the landscape like pick-up sticks. But my house and most in the neighborhood are high and dry and perfectly fine.

Yes, I long for my life of seven days ago. I loved that life. But God will lead me one day at a time away from my envy and into a different future.

Covington, La.

* * *

The memory of the G. family at Sunday Mass stirs my green-eyed monster. It was Steve’s casual arm across the shoulders of his teenage son, Luke. Or his hand resting a moment in daughter Stacey’s hair. Neither teen flinched, recoiled or frowned. In fact, they smiled.

Luke and Stacey are now grown and off to college. I picture the hugs their parents get when they visit or when the kids come home at Christmas.

My teens, on the other hand, stoically endure physical contact. At the handshake of peace, they stand like statues, allowing a hug but not responding much. They never smile.

Part of it is probably our personality differences. Steve is a warm, jovial guy with a smile and firm handshake for everyone. I’m sort of an introvert who’s anything but jovial.

I used to think children raised with lots of loving touch would respond in kind. No way. I remember when they were small. My daughter craved my lap. Sometimes at church I’d find both her arms encircling my waist while we stood for the preface. At night I’d read stories in our big bed, one child’s head on each shoulder.

Now, though, my daughter’s hugs are reserved for her friends, their mothers and some of my own adult friends.

I’m not placing blame. With dark skin that doesn’t match mine, my kids have issues to face undreamed of by Luke and Stacey. They’re good people making good choices in life so far. I’m proud of them. Plus I’m happy that they’re next to me at Mass. Many kids make a different choice.

Then, too, I see lots of families whose teens seem like mine. In fact, one Sunday I said something to my daughter and she rebuffed me. Later, a woman in the next pew who saw the small incident poured out a story about her own middle-school-age son and how he had rebuffed her. My shrugging it off helped her cope.

So I know all this is probably normal. Kids have to separate in order to be healthy adults, and that’s not easy. But still, whenever I remember the easy, intimate touching of the G. family, I feel that tug at my heart.

Lansing, Mich.

* * *

I had to have met Tom the first week or so of our freshman year in a big city university where we were both dayhops. He was everything I would have liked to have been and fantasized about being: a scholar athlete, a good dancer, popular with the ladies, an awesome beer drinker.

After graduation I took a job that that saw me living in “faraway places with strange- sounding names.” Whenever I adverted to Tom it was still more as my idol than my friend. We kept in touch mostly by Christmas cards. When I did get home, we would always have a good meal and a long talk mostly about the old days.

Tom had gotten a pretty good job, which he gradually turned into a dead-end job through lack of verve. He never married or learned to drive. He lived with his parents. When his mom died, he and his dad shared an apartment. His father died. The apartment house burned down. Tom moved into a rather seedy midtown hotel temporarily to be near work.

We’ve both been retired some time now. I live about 60 miles north of the big city in which we first met. Tom has been in the same seedy midtown hotel now for well over 30 years. On nice days he goes to the park to feed the squirrels. On bad days he goes to the movies.

A few weeks ago, my idol and my friend broke my heart. He told me that he was not living, but rather festering. He told me that he had always been envious of me.

Beacon, N.Y.

* * *

I was born on the cusp of the Great Depression and World War II. Living on a small country property, we were somewhat more fortunate than most folks. We had family cows, chickens and an abundance of local produce to feed us, as well as a nurturing extended family to give us loving support. The thought that we were poor and had fewer material goods than others did not occur to me until an afterschool visit to the home of a classmate opened my eyes.

In the process of showing me her room, Katie flung open the door to her closet, and there, amid a large array of lovely clothes, were five starched white school blouses. I considered my own tiny closet at home, which normally housed my school uniform, a Sunday church outfit and just one school blouse, the other being on the back porch waiting to be washed, run through the wringer and line-dried.

At that moment, I must have been guilty of the sin of envy, for I absolutely coveted Katie’s school blouses. I remember being discontented about other things too. I noticed that most of my town classmates were just a few blocks from the library, the movie theater and church. They could easily chalk up leads in the summer reading contests and attend Saturday matinees that boasted five cartoons, a serial and a main feature. Plus they could rack up mega points by daily visits to the Blessed Sacrament during Lenten “spiritual bouquet” frenzies. We country kids were distanced from such pleasures. Our 1941 Chevy sedan was used only for getting us to school in the mornings and church on Sunday -- nothing more.

One evening while in the barn milking Daisy, coping with a tail whisking my face and a possible hoof in the bucket, I was reflecting on the injustices of my state in life and was startled to hear my father laughing gently behind me, “Just remember, Nancy, one day you will treasure these moments.” (Indeed I do.)

Thirty years later, during a coffee klatch, my old school chum Katie confided in me: “You know, I don’t think you ever realized how much we all envied you living in the country as you did; to have your own horse and all those other animals ... and all that space! You were so blessed.”

Indeed I was.

Petaluma, Calif.

* * *

Envy is my first tangible memory as a human being. I was 4 years old, in kindergarten. Three or four us were sitting on the floor and we were asked to place blocks of wood, with holes in their centers, on a string. It was a contest to see who would finish first. I did not win, and I was envious of the girl who had more dexterity than the rest of us.

How sad! My first real memories of me, Michael, were those of envy spurred on by competition.

Oceanside, Calif.

* * *

For nine years my family has sat in the cry room. Our time of exile will soon be over -- our fourth child is 2. It is hard sitting in the cry room. I used to be envious of those who sit in the main church. I was envious of their stillness, their uninterrupted prayer, their quality sound system, but most important their community. Don’t get me wrong; there is a nice community of families that gather each week in the cry room. We dote on each other’s children, share an exuberant sign of peace and plan play dates together. But it’s always a bit messy in there: fidgety kids, random voices, and when only a few of us know the words to songs, it leaves you a little empty, hungering for more.

Last Sunday we were celebrating the baptismal rite at the beginning of Mass. The celebrant walked around the main church sprinkling parishioners. When he came to the back of the church, instead of entering the cry room to bless us, he sprinkled water on the window. I watched in disbelief as the droplets slowly traced their way down the glass like tears. I couldn’t help but see those droplets as God’s tears. I felt such a strong sense of God trying desperately to reach us: to reach past the glass walls, the unintended carelessness and the superficial separations.

I lost my envy for those in the main church. Rather, I felt sorry for them. In the cry room, we are young women, fathers, children: the future of the church, but we are the church now, too. And somehow, by tucking us away in a little corner, the whole church misses out on our exuberance, our voices, our children’s sincere praises.

I do not have the same longing to be out of the cry room. But we will be soon, and when we are, I will make sure to connect with those still inside.


* * *

One is not supposed to admit to harboring envy, one of the “deadly” or “capital” sins.

But even though I have left some of the other vices behind, this one seems to be sticking.

Being divorced for 31 years ought to have cured me -- but lest I think I am over it, my Gospel reading today brought the words of Christ directly to me: “Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” Why did I have to read these very words on what would have been the 40th anniversary of my marriage?

I had thought that marriage was to be forever. I liked having a husband. I am grateful to God for softening the divorce by blessing me with a child. Motherhood with wifehood might have been wonderful; motherhood sans spouse was still an awesome state. There is a poem that says that God does not leave us “comfortless.”

Alas, my husband and I could never fit the “happy” picture. Yes, I know about the high rate of divorce, as well as those who stay in the married state unhappily, and on and on, ad nauseam.

But every now and then, as I might notice a strain of beautiful music or a breathtaking sunset, I am aware of a happily married husband and wife. They exist. And this “capital, deadly sin,” envy, attacks!

Staten Island, N.Y.

* * *

My daughters and I climbed the stairs of the front porch and walked toward my grandmother, who was sitting on a white wicker rocker. I leaned over and put my arm around her frail shoulder. “Mimi, it’s me, Katie.”

She gave me a blank stare. My 5-year-old daughter Emma moved into her line of vision. Suddenly my grandmother’s eyes lit up. She said to Emma, “Oh Katie, darling, come over here closer to me.” Emma hesitated, then cautiously gave Mimi a hug.

My grandmother spotted my younger daughter, Sophia, on the other side of me and called her Christy, the name of my younger sister. I sat back against the railing while my grandmother visited with my children, thinking they were my sister and me at much younger ages. She smiled and laughed and stroked their hair as she had done to ours many times before.

I watched my grandmother enjoy this visit with children she believed were her granddaughters and felt a hot surge of anger arise within me. I was jealous and disappointed in myself. I wanted Mimi to see me, the adult I woman I was. I wanted to be the one she lavished attention on. I needed her. Knowing she was coming to the end of her life, I had so much more to ask and say.

My grandmother started looking tired. A nurse’s aide came out to take her back to her room. She said goodbye to my daughters, calling them by the names of my sister and me. They hugged and kissed her. She looked Emma in the eye and said, “I love you, Katie.” I whispered from my perch against the railing, “I love you too, Mimi.”

Two months later, my father sat at my kitchen table and told me that my grandmother had died. The day on the Georgian porch flooded back as I tried to hold onto that last day we almost spent together.

Columbia, Md.

* * *

“… couldn’t get first class to St. Martin’s on such short notice.”

“… six bedrooms just wasn’t enough for the three of us.”

This was standard conversation I’d overhear on the railroad going to work every morning. I’d silently wish these snobs would keep their upper-crust worries to themselves.

No Caribbean getaways or extra bedrooms for us. I could barely keep a roof over my family, get our bills paid or even pay out the monthly railroad ticket to get to and from work. We had it rough. Shame on these people for reminding me just how much better their lives were than mine!

One day I got on the subway at Penn Station and encountered a horrible stench. Everyone was crammed over to one side of the car. With a handkerchief over my nose and mouth, I looked around and discovered the source: a homeless elderly man, wearing layer upon layer of dirty clothes. Months of filth covered his entire person. He was shouting at us all -- how we should be ashamed of ourselves while we went to our “cushy, white-bread jobs” when there were so many like him who couldn’t even get enough to eat. We all ignored him and pretended to read our papers until he stumbled out of the subway car at Chambers Street. I never saw him again.

I stopped paying as much attention to my fellow commuters on the railroad after that day. Now I take time each morning and evening to thank the Lord for my beautiful family, for putting a roof over our heads and food in our stomachs, for giving me steady work to go to every day.

Levittown, N.Y.

Upcoming topics

Topic                     Due
Excuses                 Oct. 15
Inspiration               Nov. 15
Getting fired            Jan. 15

National Catholic Reporter, October 21, 2005

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