Making Peace with My Mother’s Paradoxes.
You’re one of my angels now, nine years gone, cheering and challenging me from the spirit world after you blessed my renegade vocation in our last real talk, but I’m still trying to make sense of your paradoxical legacy as I, in my turn, approach elderhood.
Not only your legacy in my own life, but the legacy you left the nation through your writing and your contributions to the Heritage Foundation and Republican Party and the rest of your conservative causes.
I know you would never have wanted a man like the DT to become president — he would have horrified you — but his position as president is nevertheless the outcome of many of the things you supported devotedly in your life.
And I still, to this day, can’t figure out why.
Why someone so profoundly spiritual as yourself — I’m not talking about your conservative Catholicism, but your incredible, compassionate, visionary spirituality — could have fallen so completely for a party that waves its collective middle finger in the face of all the virtues you taught by your lifelong example: reverence for the natural world and all its beings; compassion for all regardless of color, nationality, creed; strength that did not deny your femininity.
I still remember when I came home from school crying because someone in my fourth-grade class had said I was communist, because we had family in Lithuania, then behind the Iron Curtain. I was raging, “I hate the Russians for what they’re doing to our people!” and you corrected me, saying that the Russians were victims of their government, and that it was the Soviets who were holding our people prisoner.
Thirty-some years later, I was asking your former parish priest, the saintly Father Tony Dranginis, of the Lithuanian community’s church, St. Alphonsus, to help a Russian refusenik friend to bring his wife and son to the U.S. He was appalled, demanding, “Do you know what the Russians did to our people?”
I quoted your words verbatim, and he had a change of heart, and sent me to the Lithuanian community’s immigration attorney. She made the same objection, I gave her the same response, and six months later, Sasha was welcoming Tatiana and Sergei to the U.S.
Your compassionate teachings had more of an effect than you probably ever knew. But for all your parenting wisdom and visionary writings, you could be just as righteous an essayist as your media favorites, William Buckley, George Will, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter. And here I find myself choking on Why? Why, always Why? How could you not see the hate, the arrogance, the meanness of these people?
I remember, years ago, when you told me, “When I was young, I was just as liberal as you are. Then somebody took me aside and told me how things really are.”
I’ve wondered for years who that person was, what sway they held over you, that they could turn you aside from the natural inclination of your own soul — the compassion to which you’ve returned since your passing, that shone out of you so many times as you cried over forests being razed and wrote impassioned letters to the editor about cruelty or neglect to animals.
The compassion that led you to feed the birds, squirrels, raccoons (“poor Mrs. Raccoon, having to be a single mother and raise her babies alone!”), foxes, possums, cats, dogs — any animal that came your way knew it would receive a meal.
Part of it, I believe, was the church in which you grew up — as Baltimore’s Lithuanian community church, St. Alphonsus was deeply imbued with anti-communist and conservative Catholic ideology; to this day it still celebrates the Tridentine (Latin) Mass, which you always said you preferred.
Part was surely generational trauma — your parents and sister Olga fled Lithuania for their lives, just ahead of the Soviets in 1919. How many anti-communist pamphlets did I unearth among your papers, your uncountable issues of The Voice of the Martyrs chronicling the horrors of life under Soviet Russia?
I vividly remember writing letters to my cousins in Lithuania, with you carefully schooling me to remove any references to Christian holidays because they could cause our family to be sent to the gulags.
I stumbled on an article the other day — The Red Scare and the Liturgy and Life Pamphlet Collection — that gave a deeper perspective: during the 50s and 60s, good Catholics couldn’t enter or exit their parish churches without being accosted by ranks of anti-communist literature.
And at St. Alphonsus, with its Lithuanian population still grieving families behind the Iron Curtain, that anticommunist message must have been particularly powerful.
And you seemed to swallow all the anticommunist rhetoric in your devoted loyalty to Nixon, Reagan, Oliver North, the Bushes, and your scorn for the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Democratic politicians across the board — “godless liberals.”
Your conviction that only incitement by malcontent leaders with malign intent could twist “Baltimore’s fine black families” to engage in protest against the conditions of their lives. And yet you lived just blocks away from poor black neighborhoods in your Depression/WWII young womanhood in Union Square; you must have seen those conditions at least in passing. Or was your ethnic childhood so insular?
If anything emerges from my browsing through your writings, it is your innocence, your naivete, your allegiance to the patriarchal establishment, so conditioned that you couldn’t see the fusion of church and corporate interests. Working for Standard Oil in your younger days, you would have been in the thick of that paradigm, the rise of Christian Libertarianism.
And surely there was an attraction to your hyper-literate conservative gurus; how many times did I hear you dreamily quoting William Buckley’s articles, savoring his turns of phrase like a fine wine?
You could have had no idea how it would all wind up; you died years before the rise of the Tea Party, when even Dad, staunch Republican that he was, abandoned the GOP and voted for Obama, not once but twice. “It’s a sin and a crime what the Republicans are doing,” he said.
But even in his dying days, my work for green businesses and the Earth was still anathema to him, your final blessing clearly a misinterpretation on my part.
But always, you and I shared a deeper understanding. And I am heart-glad that, despite our differences, you saw that I was still coming from that spiritual/mystic place we shared… that while we were heading in different directions, we came from the same point of origin.
Mom, as I read the writing you left behind — years of letters to and from Aunt Olga and Dad, carefully stapled and filed in a box with cheery 1970’s flowers on the cover… years of Op-Eds, articles, and Letters to the Editor, carefully pasted in on fragile pages in big leather scrapbooks — I’m seeing some of the forces that shaped you, but so much remains a mystery.
I’m glad that — even while you veered wildly between holding your political ground and cheering me on as a writer; borrowing books from your parish priest on bringing lost family members back to the Church and telling Dad that my husband’s and my Earth-based spirituality was no less real and valid than the fervent Catholicism you practiced — I never doubted your love for me.
However reactionary your political and religious positions, you framed them from a place of heart and spirit, and even while you argued fiercely for the default masculine pronoun and derided feminist ideology, you were never any less than proud of being a woman, nor did you expect anything less than that as a woman, I would be strong and hold my own in a man’s world.
For all our differences, Mom, you’ll always be one of my heroes.
Phila Hoopes, daughter of Helen Lukosevicius Rizzo, is a freelance copywriter for sustainable and restorative businesses, a Reiki Master, a permaculture student, and a herder of cats. She is shuttling between present and past, building her own life while sorting through 50+ years’ worth of memories from her parents’ home in Maryland.