Sin and Prayer

My parents were like black and white, oil and water, sin and prayer. My father, not one to boil over, married a kettle of emotions. If he could’ve loosened his grip and if my mother hadn’t completely unraveled, perhaps my childhood would’ve have been different. But it was what it was. We all have moments of grace and we all have things happen, I just happened to be inoculated early.

I got the best of Carl and the worst of Babe: I inherited his frame and posture, her moles and droopy eyelids. I possess his sense of rightness, fairness, and goodness, which get me through, her vanity, stinginess, and mouthiness, which get me in trouble. I have his common sense, his work ethic, and reliability—her foolishness, her self-absorption, her pride. I have his manners, conduct, and character—her resentment, entitlement, and disdain. I inherited Daddy’s sociability, Mom’s sarcasm, his loyalty, her indifference, his modesty, her arrogance. I carry his confidence and am weighed down with her self-doubt. I am also his good intentions and her unattended sorrows.

Until I’d met some Chatfield cousins at a reunion, I’d never come across anybody that cared for my mother (well, except my brother, but he couldn’t stand her cigarette smoking). My cousins remembered Mom from when she was young, and thoroughly liked her. They thought she was honest, humorous, and hip. They told me she held her own on just about any subject, was well-read in history and well-versed in sports, and could rattle off team stats with the best of them. Now that I write this, I think it’s not true. I only know four people that disliked Mom: my father and three sisters. They were the ones who had issues with her, though I think Claudia went along just for the ride. Even my brothers-in-law liked my mother. I was glad to find that Babe had people in her court. Maybe she wasn’t as “out there” as I thought. She was just like the rest of her family—who, compared to my father’s family—were all a little out there. It’s all relative.

My sisters and I are much like mom, in that whatever flies into our minds is likely to fall out of our mouths. I’m also hardheaded like my grandmothers, Barbara Clemens and Nellie Chatfield, who were two peas of the same pod. I live in that pod too, that place of rules and righteousness, of stubbornness and inflexibility. I also appreciate that I possess our flip side: our willingness and determination, our trust and persistence.

Cathy and Mom, Hawaii, June 1958. This is the only picture I have of the two of us. I left shortly after to live with my sister.

Cathy and Mom, Hawaii, June 1958. This is the only picture I have of the two of us. I left shortly after to live with my sister.

Babe was not the mother I wanted, but she was the one I got. Was she a good mother? No. Did I love her? No, I can’t say I did; I’m not that big. But as life would have it, having her as a mother ended up to be in my best interest. Although she may not have been “good enough” I turned out as well as I have because stand-ins appeared throughout my life: sisters and friends and lovers who filled that mothering gap for me. It pays to be adoptable.

I survived my childhood. I raised two sons as a single mom (I got by with a little help from my friends). I’ve gone from welfare to two successful businesses and a longtime career in real estate. I learned to dance, no small feat for someone with two left ones, and I wrote this book. I thank God I’m a hardheaded woman. I’m not so sure my sons agree, but they’re entitled to my opinion, too.

I imagine my Mother only wanted the same things that I want: to be seen and to be heard. Writing this book did that, for both of us.

Catherine Sevenau
(original version from BEHIND THESE DOOR: A FAMILY MEMOIR)

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  1. What exquisitely chiseled details about your dad and your mom and yourself. Now I’m thinking more about what parts of my parents I carry ~ my blonde hair is from my mom’s lineage, for sure, and my body stature is mostly my dad’s, except for my neck and shoulders. I also really liked the discovery that there were other family memories with a different picture of your mom. Something similar happened with me and it caused me pain at first. xo Carole

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