Bless This Mess

Cathy Clemens 1st Holy Communion

Cathy Clemens, 1st Holy Communion

I’m hard-wired for formal prayer. I find myself reciting the Our Father when an earthquake hits, and oftentimes at night as I go to sleep. “How weird,” I think, stopping in the middle, but then a Hail Mary (a woman about whom I hold equally wobbly beliefs), arises to take its place. I surrender, then move on to blessing my family, my friends, and then the people who irritate me. Some nights I just cut to the chase and bless the ones I seriously want to smack upside the head. So much for being spiritual.

1st Holy Communion Remembrance Card

1st Holy Communion
Remembrance Card

Both of my grandmothers were Catholic, stubborn, and right. I’m very much like them, though I don’t know why I still refer to myself as Catholic. I’m addicted to being right (a first cousin to being perfect), both which have a tendency to be corrosive in relationships. Resentment is in our DNA, our cellular memory, creeping through generations, across lines, round the corners and back again, much like my Grandma Nellie Chatfield, who, the higher she stood on her moral ground, the lower her family descended. When Grandpa Charlie (who had the propensity to err) died, the only thing she had to say was: “serves the damn fool right,” then she buried him in an unmarked grave in the non-Catholic section of the cemetery. Now that’s mad.

It’s hard to restore family grace if there wasn’t much there to begin with, though it does make for good storytelling. C’mon, who is going to captivated by the tales of Catholic farmers with a passel of kids, worked the same land for generations, and never broke the rules? They lend stability via my Clemens’ side (for which I’m exceedingly grateful), but offer little of interest to write about. Fiction is too complicated for me to create, and really, why bother when my Chatfield, Hoy, and Chamberlin lines teem with an overabundance of characters who supply me with endless material. I’m fascinated by these folks (while at the same time rather appalled at their bad behavior) and couldn’t make some of this stuff up if I tried: I have missing mothers, though they do generally reappear (of note: there are four generations of mothers in my direct line who, with infants or young children in tow, left their husbands; I am the last of that tradition. Actually, my mother didn’t leave with her children, she just took her coat and two suitcases. I’ve stories that make for compelling page turners: drugs, pills, prison, murder, kidnapping, rape, abortions, child abuse, molestation, neglect, asylums, shock treatments, and suicides. I also have murders, poisonings, cattle thieves, liars, embezzlers, bookies, bettors, bootleggers, moonshiners, and drunks. I have a grandfather who gambled away the ranch (that’s one of the reasons Grandpa Nellie never forgave Grandpa). I have gay elopements (in May of 1889, Ora Chatfield (age 15), ran off with her cousin Clara Deitrich (age 28), the postmistress and general storekeeper of Emma, Colorado… you can look it up), multiple marriages, numerous divorces and a boatload of annulments.  I have racism (you’d be horrified; I am), a John Bircher, and a Scientologist. I have an Arcturian, flying saucer abductions, tea leaf reader, spirits, voodoo, and ghosts. And that’s just on my mother’s side—though I notice that several of us have married into similar lines—cementing our proclivity to chaos. I don’t have to ponder what to write about; I have to ponder what NOT to write about.

Most of the hurts siblings nurse against one another stem from when we were little kids. LITTLE KIDS! Little kids who were just being little brats. Those are the wars I wonder about, how things that happened when we were younger than five or six years old can ruin a relationship for life. Really? Like when my sister Liz was dying, she forbade her husband and children to allow Claudia, another sister, to attend the family get-together after her passing. When Claudia found out, you know what her response was? “It’s okay. Liz never did like me, ever since we were kids.” REALLY??? I bear generations of resentments handed down: siblings suing each other, daughters dancing on graves, parents cutting children out of the will. We like to hang on to things. For whatever reason, there are more than a few of us who don’t speak to one another, or if we do, we tread lightly—but that’s been going on for years. It’s how we keep the home fires burning.

What can I do in the family to counteract our genetic umbrage? Exposing light on it—though writing about certain things tends to irk some when it’s too close to home. I can do my part to not perpetuate conflict. I know how hard it is though: I so often want to slap the other cheek, and I‘m not about to easily turn mine. I can counteract it by not living as if we’re not connected, and by holding the possibility that things can change. I can choose not to take sides. I can keep an eye on what I’m up to. I can make amends to those my shiv has wounded; “I’m sorry” goes a long way.

I believe in the ineffable power of prayer, though it’s presumptuous of me to suppose that I can decipher—in the grand scheme of things—to pray for what I think is best. Some say prayers can move mountains; however, that’s where my critical thinking raises its hairy head, seeking evidence.

“If you pray for rain long enough, it eventually does fall. If you pray for floodwaters to abate, they eventually do. The same happens in the absence of prayers.” —Steve Allen (1921 – 2000).

Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson 8-31-1992

Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson 8-31-1992

The best I can do is to still my rattling mind, to sit in wonder, silence, and gratitude. To continue to silently recite as a reminder and a comfort: forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against—the sacred version of let it go, let it go, let it go—sometimes out of habit, other times with intention. Forgiving someone doesn’t mean forgetting what was done, it just means being able to stop pointing fingers and move on. We don’t have to have lunch together.

“If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.” ―Meister Eckhart (1260 – 1328)

Amen.

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Comments

  1. Richard Sinay says:

    Catherine, Well done and bravo for capturing the essence of family history. Your stories are universal. I was raised Catholic as well and your words resonate. So do your feelings about it. “As we forgive those who trespass against us” is the part of Our Father that I don’t agree with entirely. There are unforgivable sins as when, as Hawthorne put it, “there has been a violation of the sanctity of the heart.” I do see the genetic transference of behaviors that are damaging to the souls that inherit them. I am sure that people do not realize how much DNA impacts their lives. So many are not consciously aware of that. These “issues” go traveling down the line like unstoppable bowling balls and rumble through the pins of life.

  2. Cindy Craig says:

    What a roller coaster ride THAT was! Just as I caught my breath on one family turn, the train dropped out beneath me and I had to hang on tight for the next one. By the end, I could feel my energies shaking from being whipped about. You have multiple page-turners of crazed, depraved and saved sinners… with nary a saint in sight. Oh, they’re there; but, as you note, they aren’t nearly as interesting to read about.

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