Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Happy birthday, Mother, on your 90th

Penny, Clare, grand daughters June Elizabeth and Christa Marie, and I went to Louisville this past weekend for a family gathering, our first in two years.

The occasion was my mother's 90th birthday. The whole family, together with many friends gathered around tables in my sister Antoinette's lovely home on the outskirts of Cherokee Park. We enjoyed food and drink and told stories.

We looked at pictures, including ancient ones of my grandfather Michael Bodner's garage in South Louisville. Over the weekend, Mother talked about how strong her mother, Katie, was--how she managed a business and reared six children and took care of her husband following his stroke when he was still a relatively young man.

Being away from Louisville now for 25 years, I miss hearing the stories and that sense of family togetherness. I know many families are more distant, and not just geographically, than they are close and know that some families are more for feuding than deep fellowship.

But not ours. Even when my brother Ed and I are arguing politics--we called a cease-fire for this event--we still know we're bound by blood and shared history. He knows I spent a year praying for him to survive his tour of duty as a combat infantryman in Vietnam, where he was awarded both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.

I'm proud of my brother's service. And I'm glad Air Force ROTC at the University of Louisville protected me from the draft and from Vietnam until the risk of draft passed over me like that angel of death who passed over the Israelites in Egypt. I'm content to let Ed be our only war hero. And thankful he's a living one.

Happily, my mother is in great health for a woman of her many years. She still drives and does some occasional work for my sister, who owns a women's clothing business in Louisville. She still attends Mass--if not daily, then at least on Sundays. I'm a person of faith because of my mother's holy example.

How has my mother lived so long? Her faith is the first and immediate answer that comes to my mind.

Her hearty, indomitable Germanic temperament is another. Mother is a hard worker. I used to joke that cleaning was her hobby. As a boy, I hated Saturdays, which were spent cleaning the house and yard. During the fall, Mother ordered me to keep the leaves raked up. I used to think she expected me to stand beneath the maples and oaks and catch the leaves as they fell. Our yard was always perfect. Just as our house was. Her house is immaculate today.

A woman of an indomitable and positive spirit, Mother's a survivor--of two marriages to alcoholic husbands and two divorces, which put her on the outs with the Roman Church for a time. When it was uncommon, she managed being a single mother with sole responsibility for providing for her children. She got work where she could and sacrificed to make sure we had what we needed. We children never had a lot, but always had what we needed. I still remember how food was rationed; I craved more than one slice of brisket at supper.

And she made sure that my siblings and I attended Roman Catholic schools for our religious and intellectual formation. The church was important to her. And still is. It's her foundation, as it was for her Austrian and Swiss forebears. I used to lament my time at the all-boys St. Francis of DeSales High School--I longed for the freedom (and girls) of public schools--but now I'm glad for the education and the self-discipline that those Carmelites imparted to me.

I'm the person I am largely because of my mother. I'm glad she's still with me. I hope that she'll be with me for years to come and that her great grand daughters, June and Christa, will come to know and love her as much as I do.

Happy birthday, Mother.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Which way?

In Terrence Malick's new film, "The Tree of Life," the character of Mrs. O'Brien, played ethereally by Jessica Chastain, says there are two ways of living--the way of nature and the way of grace.

Mrs. O'Brien lives the way of grace--open, free, loving, accepting, even angelic--while her husband, played by Brad Pitt, lives the way of nature.

He is a driven perfectionist, frustrated that he never succeeded as a musician, but instead had to make do managing a plant in Waco, Texas. Mr. O'Brien, at times a brutal disciplinarian, takes out his frustration on his three young sons, especially on first-born Jack.

Malick's film, which earned the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, is imaginative, slightly autobiographical, certainly theological, but at times disjointed. It regularly departs from the conventional Hollywood narrative style of beginning, middle, and end--a point that a woman in the theatre noted when she said, "I just want t a story."

Amid stunning images from nature that tell the story of creation and shifts in time and perspective that tell the story of the O'Brien family, "The Tree of Life" raises important ultimate questions, including: Why is there evil? Is there a God? Does God care for creation?

(Malick, a graduate of Harvard, read philosophy at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.)

And at the heart of the film is the question: Is this universe governed by something transcendental--the way of grace--or by something more elemental and natural, the human struggle for survival in a hostile world?

His mother's voice echoing in his memory, Jack recalls his mother saying of the way of grace that the only true and lasting happiness is when we love. If only Mr. O'Brien had followed that same way.

For me, the question "The Tree of Life" raises is: Am I living the way of nature or the way of grace? The way of death? Or the way of life.

Frankly, some days I live the way of nature, when I let my fears and troubles dominate me, when I fail to trust Christ with my life. These are miserable days. Happily, they're becoming increasingly fewer.

In contrast, the days when I live the way of grace, as Mrs. O'Brien does, I feel like dancing in the sprinkler in the front yard. I feel like singing and laughing. I feel so light and free that I think I'll take flight and flutter off like a butterfly.

God makes humans for the way of grace, and I seek a life in which the days of grace greatly outnumber the days of nature.

When God and I dance in the sprinkler in the front yard. And neither of us cares who sees us.