Out of Respect

Mary Lou Edwards

I’ve had my share of culture shock as I traipsed through Europe, the Americas and the Middle East but nothing could have prepared me for my first encounter with a burqua clad woman on a flight from Rome to Beirut. Not pictures, not books, not stories—nothing could have prepared me for the searing image of the ghostly apparition.

A fastidiously groomed man in a Savile Row suit, Gucci loafers and a Rolex guided the ethereal shroud to its seat. Swathed head to ankle in a voluminous black cover replete with a plastic Darth Vader-like screen masking its face, it seemed like a character in “Night of the Living Dead.”

When the meal was served, her gloved hands flipped part of her veil forward creating a mini-tent under which she ate. Except for her feet, you would never have known it was a person—no skin, no arms nor legs, no voice.

I was simultaneously fascinated and repulsed though I’m not sure which part of the scene prompted my visceral reaction. After all, growing up with nuns exposed me to some very unusual attire and I was steeped in a religion which routinely vilified women as “occasions of sin” so it wasn’t as though misogyny was exactly foreign to me.

Maybe it was the proud, pristine peacock steering the faceless, formless figure down the aisle. Maybe it was the innocent faces of their children who would soon learn that, at puberty, the boys would become men and the girls would disappear. Maybe it was the realization that a change in geography could make any woman, myself included, an erasable nonentity. Maybe it was the neon jelly slippers that peeked from beneath the capacious black robe. Whatever it was, it overwhelmed my heart.

In Beirut, I shared the encounter with my Egyptian friend, Mohsen. “Ah,” he explained, “we Arabs respect virtuous women—that is why we require the burqua.”

Oh. My. God.

Years later, my daughter told me about helping to plan a Take Back the Night rally on campus.
“Hundreds of students,” she explained, “will protest violence against women. We’re going to chant ‘Yes means yes! No means no! However we dress, Wherever we go!’ It’s about victimization,” she declared, “about empowerment, too. But really, Mom, I think it’s about respect, don’t you?”

“Yes, Lia, it is about respect,” I replied, flashing back to the image tattooed on my soul so long ago. “Americans don’t always get it right, but we do keep trying.”

MLSE 11/08

Elephants in Limbo

Mary Lou Edwards

Long before learning to read books, I learned to read people. Having a father with a mercurial temperament was the catalyst, no doubt. Being on hyper-alert for glaring eyes, exasperated sighs, raised voices—the phonics of dysfunction—often, but not always, kept one out of harm’s way.

A subskill necessary for people-reading fluency was learning not to ask questions. Way before ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ became a part of America’s political lexicon, I’d been trained in ‘Don’t You Dare Ask’—a skill I so perfected a mere raised eyebrow, a simple sideward glance was enough to stop. right. there.
The list of verboten topics was endless encompassing everything from family history to current events. Further complicating the problem was the fact that no map existed showing where the land mines lay and an innocuous inquiry often detonated an explosion of confusion that neither education nor therapy could heal.

“Dad,” I asked as I knelt at the family plot in Mt. Carmel Cemetery, “why are Little Nonna and your brother and sisters buried here while Grandpa is all by himself at Oak Ridge Cemetery which isn’t even Catholic?”

“You’re supposed to be praying for the dead not asking nosy questions that are none of your business,” he said in his usual you-are-such-a-pain-in-the-neck voice as he tried to shimmy the old gravestone the years had pushed off center.

“Mom, why doesn’t Daddy talk to Uncle Joe?” I asked, after observing at a family wedding reception that some of my favorite relatives were seated at tables at the opposite end of the banquet hall.

“If you were supposed to know, Miss Nosy Pants, we’d tell you,” she answered, staring straight ahead.
Once I was peering through our venetian blinds watching the public school kids walk by on their way to class. My brother, sister and I had the day off in honor of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. “Why do mostly colored kids go to Ward School and only white kids go to St. Jerome’s?” I wondered aloud.

“I suppose because they’re not Catholic,” my Mother said in a tone of voice suggesting I should be on my hands and knees helping her wax the kitchen floor instead of staring out the window.

Ignoring the hint, I persisted. “Aren’t they worried about going to Hell?”
“I guess not. Go do something useful.”

“What’s in a CONDEMNED movie that makes it bad?” I asked my friend, Janice, as I searched The Motion Picture Ratings in The New World, the Catholic weekly newspaper, hoping to find a movie my parents would let us see. "Don't even look at the Condemneds," she warned, "or we'll be in big trouble." Then she added, with cantaloupe-sized eyes, "We're not even supposed to be talking about this stuff, but my aunt said Baby Doll is a dirty movie and that's why it's a C."

After years of “don’t be so nosy” and “mind your own business," hundreds of grimaces and rolling eyeballs, I came to believe that not only our living room, but everywhere I roamed, was a veritable elephant graveyard.

Would I never know why Uncle Salvatore lived in a hospital, what Uncle Gio died from or why colored people lived two blocks away but never crossed Wentworth Avenue? Even Nancy Drew, my favorite girl detective, would have been hard-pressed to solve these mysteries with every question stonewalled.

Years later, I could really relate to the rabbi who prayed at the Wailing Wall for a half century with no reward. “What does it feel like to pray for peace at the Wailing Wall for fifty years only to have your country in constant conflict?” he was asked. “It feels like I’m talking to a fucking wall,” he said.

I sympathized with the rabbi, but at least he’d never been subjected to the Sister Adorers of the Most Precious Blood. Trained as human walls to not recognize a straight answer, they specialized in teaching a unique blend of God’s Word and bizarre folktale.
As a student, I tried very hard to restrict my questioning to only those issues which truly baffled me since these harridans had no compunction about playing the ‘God will send you to Hell’ card to keep kids in line. There were times, though, when I just really had to take the risk and at least try to get some of this straightened out. I knew I couldn't get to the bottom of everything at once lest I be expelled as a "troublemaker" and shipped to the public school so I'd judiciously drop a question here and there.
“Sister,” I asked when she was not on the warpath, “why would God punish a baby and send it to Limbo forever just because she died before she was baptized?”
"God knows what is best for us," Sister said.

“Sister, if your body must be buried in a consecrated cemetery in order to go to heaven, what happens to people who burn in fires? What happens if someone dies in the forest and an animal eats him? Does he go to Hell?”
"Finish your assignment instead of worrying about animals in the forest."

“Sister, what happened to the Christian martyrs who were eaten alive by the lions in Rome? What if the lions left an arm or a leg? Would the arm and leg get buried? Would just the arm and leg go to heaven? Would God say, 'I know all things and I know who you are even without your head. Come on in anyway.'”
"You are making Jesus very sad with all of your silly questions," Sister hissed.

But I couldn't stop wondering and worrying--not just about the Coliseum and the Limbo babies and the forest.
What about my friend Catherine's mother who was getting divorced and going to Hell? Catherine said her mother told her it was better to go to Hell than stay married to Catherine's father. How could anyone, in her right mind, deliberately antagonize God with a statement like that? I could just hear God say, "Lady, you are toast!" I said a novena for her hoping to mitigate God's anger, but boy, she sure was asking for it.
And then there was the boy across the street who was killed in a car crash the very same Sunday he slept through Mass. All the busybodies said his mother set the alarm clock for him but he'd turned it off. Did he turn it off deliberately and say, "The heck with it. I don't feel like going to Mass today." or did he turn it off thinking he'd just lie there an extra five minutes and accidentally fall asleep? Big difference. If he intended to slap God in the face, he was burning for all eternity. If it was just a stupid mistake, God might have shown him some mercy and he'd just have to make a stop in Purgatory before going to Heaven. How long would he be stuck in Purgatory? Oh, no. I hoped God didn't take that the wrong way--I mean, I didn't really mean stuck. I knew Purgatory was a lucky detour around Hell--no one cared if it took a little longer to get to heaven.
I prayed God understood I wasn't trying to be a smart-aleck. I just really needed more answers, but I was getting the message, albeit slowly, that asking made things even more complicated. Maybe I was supposed to stop with the questions and mind my own business. Maybe there were some things I wasn't smart enough to understand. Maybe it was true that if it was in my best interests , they'd tell me.
I asked the priest about it in Confession but all he said was, "Bless you, my child, just believe," but believe what?
Did Father not realize I wanted to believe, but I was having trouble with some things that just weren't adding up?
Then slowly, as I grew up, I noticed more inconsistencies, many contradictions, even some big fat lies and no one said a word.
Why did priests, who took the vow of poverty, drive luxury cars and get new ones every year? Why were our nuns paid $8.00 a month? What happened to indulgences that were supposed to get me into heaven sooner? How was it that the wealthy got annulments while the divorced who had no financial resources were banned from the Sacraments? Why did exorcism vanish? Abortion is killing, but war, well, that depends? What happened to the $4 million dollars that the National Council of Bishops lost when Chicago's Cardinal Cody was treasurer? Why, for over 25 years did the Cardinal's divorced cousin with 2 kids always live across the street from him no matter where he was assigned?
The questions kept coming and they ranged from the ridiculous to the scandalous.
Cardinal George announced at a press conference that the Pope had declared Limbo a thing of the past. “From now on,” he proclaimed, “Limbo will no longer be taught.”
“Does that mean,” an obviously pagan reporter had the nerve to ask, “that Limbo no longer exists?”

“I didn’t say that,” said the tap-dancing Leader of the Flock, “I said the Papal directive states it will no longer be taught.”
Nice turn of phrase--world-class parsing that would make Bill Clinton envious, but, let's be honest, Limbo is so last millenium the Faithful consider George's proclamation white noise.
Let's save our energy, some said, for things that really matter. Does a Holocaust denier qualify?
"In the interests of unity in the Church..." the Pope recently UNexcommunicated a bishop who loudly proclaims that no Jews were gassed in Nazi death camps. After a disastrous two weeks of international outrage, the Pope backpedaled insisting no one told him--the German Pontiff--about this hate monger's horrendous reputation.
Could it be that the world's premier Christian asked one of his sycophants and was not given a straight answer? Or could it be he did not hear the answer because of the trumpeting of elephants chained in the Vatican's dungeon of Dogma?
I'll bet at least two of those Papal bulls, Hypocrisy and Pedophilia, are making quite a racket these days and the College of Cardinals better pray that Complicity does not rear his ugly head too.

MLE 10/08

The Torture Hour

Mary Lou Edwards

The dinner hour started in its usual manner with warnings of don’t touch, it’s hot, be careful. Mom placed a Pyrex platter on the table guaranteed to jump start every salivary gland on the planet. Wisps of steam rose from the bubbly gravy and stringy mozzarella smothered yet another culinary masterpiece. It was hard to believe that such an auspicious beginning, replete with the heavenly aroma of basil and olive oil, could turn into a meal from hell, but we’d been through the drill often enough to know the inevitable conclusion.

The minute my father opened the cedar-lined closet doors the drama began. Just hearing the creaky wheels of the cart that held the behemoth Magnavox reel-to-reel tape recorder roll over the slick wood floor would be enough to start the nervous snickers and stage whispers to mom.

“Please, Mom,” my brother begged, “don’t let him ruin our dinner again.”

“You know you hate it too,” I’d hiss. “Be honest, Mom, and make him stop.”

“I’m not hungry anymore,” my sister would whine.

“You kids had better be quiet,” Mom would warn, giving us a take-no-prisoners look. “Don’t make trouble and get him angry!”

By then Dad had threaded the huge circular wheels with the magic music recently captured on magnetic tape and was taking his seat at the head of the table. As we bowed our heads for the requisite murmuring “Bless us, O Lord, for these Thy gifts…” we knew the amen would signal the beginning of the torture hour also known as the music appreciation lesson. In reality, it was the precursor to waterboarding.

Even the heaping plates of fabulous food could not anesthetize us from the musical cacophony that was to ensue.

With the loud click of the PLAY button, the air was filled with Lawrence Welk leading his band of acoustic terrorists with “Ana one, ana two, ana three…” in a nauseating version of the Beer Barrel Polka or his Champagne Lady of Music warbling “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.”

By the end of the first stanza, the deterioration of the family dinner had begun.

With each grating, offensive squeak of the string assassins, my brother would grimace and clutch his heart as though being attacked, my sister would knock over a glass of milk hoping to get sent to her room, our dog Skipper would skitter off suddenly remembering a prior engagement and my martyr mother would be looking heavenward as though begging God to strike her deaf immediately. My father’s steely-eyed glares of disgust at this contemptible conduct elicited more wisecracks and uncontrollable laughter inevitably resulting in the family sin worthy of capital punishment—milk-pouring-from-someone’s- nose-who-was-acting-silly!

“It is sinful to waste milk and revolting,” Dad would intone and, at this point, the simple dysfunctional family dinner would turn into an event guaranteed to provide full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder.

Snapping the STOP button, he would launch into tirades about rudeness, ingratitude and stupidity interspersed with “You kids don’t know good music.” His tongue lashing about our being unteachable was rather paradoxical since it was Mr. Welk who would declare, “Myron and I will now do a solo together.” After all, we’d know the difference between the Roman numeral I and a capital I on a cue card and wouldn’t announce, “And now for a song from World War Eye.” but we were the idiots? The irony was knee deep but totally wasted on my dad who’d pontificate, “They don’t write songs like this anymore...” as “Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey…” blared in the background.

Actually my father’s harangues were more palatable than Welk’s prototype elevator muzak. Somehow our digestive tracts had become accustomed to my dad’s force feedings of ridicule and shame, but our lower GI’s never quite adjusted to the diabetic inducing renditions of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
MLE 09/08

Always Have a Plan

Mary Lou Edwards

“Park your car, Doc! Right here, Doc! Park your car, Doc!”

Those sing-song words meant the White Sox were at Comiskey and my brother and his buddies were making money.

Never being included in the action bothered me so I went to tattle-tale to my dad. I found him tuned to his transistor radio. “Dad,” I asked, “Anthony gets an allowance like me so why is he parking cars for money?”

“It’s always better to make your own money,” he answered, “then you can be independent and take care of yourself.”

The seed was planted.

“When I get bigger, I’m going to park cars and make money to take care of you and Mom,” I promised.

“Girls can’t park cars,” he said, just as Bob Elson announced strike three. But the Sox were winning and he wasn't ticked off so he didn't shoo me away. “It’s harder for women to make money because there are a lot of jobs they can’t do.”
“So that means I get an allowance forever?”

“No, it means someday you'll marry a man who’ll take care of you and you'll get a good education just in case something happens to him.”

“What if I can’t find a man who wants me,” I worried, thinking of Angelina down the street who never married.

“Well, you’ll have your education to fall back on so you can be independent and take care of yourself. Go play with your sister. The Sox are up to bat,” he said, as he turned his attention back to the game.

Did he just say, I wondered, that I could only be independent if something happened to my husband or if I didn’t get married? If you were someone's wife, you couldn’t be independent? But what if a woman’s husband said she could be independent?
I had more questions, but I knew better than to keep bugging Dad when he was listening to baseball. Why couldn’t girls park cars? Why were the boys telling men where to park—they didn’t own the street. Why did so many doctors go to the ballgame?

There was no asking my brother. He’d tell me to quit sticking my nose where it didn’t belong. Besides, even though boys thought they knew it all, they really didn’t. He probably wouldn’t know why it was harder for women to make money or how I could find a rich man to take care of me.

Luckily I had a good brain, even my brother said I was smart for a girl. I’d figure this out for myself plus get an education just in case no man wanted to marry me. And if no one wanted to marry me, that wouldn’t be so terrible; boys didn’t impress me. I mean, God didn’t even trust them to have babies. If I stayed on the honor roll, maybe I could even skip the marriage part and jump right in to taking care of myself.

True, Dad handed over his paycheck to Mom every Friday but was it really hers? She didn’t go to work every day and earn it. I almost never saw her buy anything for herself. Did she figure she was lucky not to have a job so she was happy to stay home and just cook, clean, mop, sew, bake, grocery shop, wash windows, iron, do laundry, scrub floors, take care of us kids, drag around the Electro-Lux and drink coffee? Was she glad she didn't drive and that Daddy took her everywhere it was too far to walk?
She was dependent with a capital D. For years she’d wanted to move out of the old neighborhood. She'd say, "Jim, let's buy a house,." but he'd always say, “Mary, now is not the time. We’ve got three kids to put through college.” Couldn't they vote on some things? But voting probably wouldn't make any difference because it would be a tie and Dad was always the tie-breaker. Sometimes she could say what she thought but she really couldn't change anything. He was the boss.

Long before I’d heard the perverse version of the Golden Rule, “He who has the gold, rules.” I figured dependency was not a good thing so I just watched how it all worked and finally decided that I'd have to make my own rules. One day after school I made my list based on things my Mom did or didn't do and which I thought would make a difference.
1. Make a plan.
2. Go to college.
3. Drive a car.
4. Get a good job.
5. Save my money.
6. Dye my hair.
7. Smoke cigarettes and wear lipstick.
8. Don’t listen to men.
9. Don’t let a husband boss me around.
10. Make my own decisions.

I found my Mother in the kitchen slaving over the ironing board.
“Mom,” I asked, "could you read these and tell me what you think? I made some rules so I can be independent when I grow up."
She put the iron on its little metal resting plate, picked up my notebook and began reading. Her first "hmmmm..." sounded like she was thinking "OK, not bad" but her next "hmmmm...", as she neared the bottom of the page, sounded like "Really now? Is that so?"
She was quiet for a minute as she placed my notes on the table and retrieved her still hot iron. Finally she gave me one of those what-am-I-going-to-do-with-you smiles, and said, "What you wrote is very interesting. In fact, the first five ideas are excellent, but I thought you hated rules."
"Mom, I don't hate all rules," I informed her, "just stupid rules like only taking ten books out of the library at one time. These rules are different. They're my rules. They're for when I grow up.".
"So you decide which rules are stupid and which are important?" she probed.
"Yes, didn't you read number ten?" I responded in a voice like Sister Mary Perpetua, my teacher. " I'll make my own decisions. I decide if something is stupid. I'll use my own brain to decide if something is important," I ranted, wanting to add, "And I already decided that ironing is a waste of time," but I bit my tongue. Instead I continued, "Number nine says no husband will boss me around. Did you read the rules carefully, Momma?"
She probably was thinking, "Oh, God, this girl is never going to get married. She'll be way too much trouble," but instead she said, “Well, Honey, going to college, getting a good job and saving money should help you take charge of your own life, but why on earth would you want to smoke cigarettes and dye your hair?"
I didn't want to tell her that Red-Headed Ann, a very glamorous woman who lived on the next block and smoked Viceroys always seemed like she was having a good time. She dyed her hair (my girlfriend Donna said you could tell because it was almost orange) and drove a convertible; I was impressed. I was embarrassed to say that not only did I plan to be independent but I wanted to be glamorous and have fun too. I just knew Red-Headed Ann wouldn't waste a minute ironing sheets and pillowcases.
As if reading my mind, Momma said, while maneuvering the hot metal point of the iron into the corner of my father's shirt collar, "You probably think smoking and dyed hair are glamourous. Well, let me tell you something. Smoking is bad for your lungs and dyeing your hair is expensive and turns your hair into straw so you'd better find out what you're getting into first." Then holding the iron down on the shirt for so long I thought she was going to scorch it, she added, "You have a lot to learn, Missy."
I thought she might be getting irritated with me, and then I was sure of it when she gave me a fake smile and said, "Just wait and see what happens when you fall in love and get married, Miss Smarty Pants.”

I knew by the way she smirked “Miss Smarty Pants” she was telling me there were things I was too young to understand and that, even with a plan, life doesn't always go your way.
I wondered if she’d had a plan that changed when she got married. I wanted to ask, but I thought she might feel bad if that was what had happened. The thought of that made me very sad so I changed the subject. "You're the world's best Mother! I love you so much. I just wish you had time for a little fun," I said.
In my head, though, I said, "It’s going to be different for me, Momma. You just wait and see."

MLSE / 8/14/08

Bionic-Footed Mom

Mary Lou Edwards

The logic behind an obese woman torturing herself in a girdle to look five pounds thinner always escaped me, but my reasoning skills totally vanished when it came to shoes. At 5’1’’ I counted on platforms to give me that long, lean look.

As newlyweds, we traveled to Central and South America with my shoe wardrobe consisting solely of platform espadrilles and high-heeled sandals. Not a pragmatic choice, but, of course, looking good is ever so important when crawling through ruins, and crawl I did. Had it not been for an eighty-three year old Yale professor lending me a hand as we trudged to Machu Picchu, I’d have been limping on my own.

After delivering his umpteenth “I do not understand your insistence on wearing those freaking shoes…” lecture, my 6’2” sanctimonious and sensibly shod spouse time and again left me in the dust. His admonitions only stopped when he became weak from altitude sickness (a big problem for tall people) and I transformed into the little pack mule lugging our bags through Peru and Colombia.

By the time we returned to the States I was ready for orthopedic boots, but I am a slow learner. I continued prancing in bound-feet type shoes for many more years until surgery and titanium foot rods brought my platform fetish to a halt.

I was delighted that my daughter sprouted past me as an adolescent. When she carried flip-flops to her prom “just in case,” I knew I had raised a practical fashionista capable of standing on her own two feet and in comfort no less. She would define beauty on her own terms. Her feet would would probably never trigger airport security.

MLE 07/14/08

Not a Permanent Solution

Mary Lou Edwards

I wonder, if in the Land of Make Believe, these baby dolls have flashbacks about their first permanent wave. I know mine was seared into my brain. I was about to start first grade. Apparently neither the nightly ritual of winding endless banana curls on my fidgety noggin nor my non-stop whining about stupid boys yanking on my braids was appealing to my mother so her cousin Della the beautician’s suggestion of a hot perm seemed like the perfect solution.

Though I viewed the horrendous contraption with its black wire tentacles and gleaming steel curler clamps with great trepidation, my mom said I’d be too busy reading books to waste time on the nightly hair-setting ritual. This permanent, she promised, would end my hairy tales of woe; I’d be permanently beautiful.

It took hours to section my massive mane into appropriate sized chunks for the electric curlers. Only the promise of a fuchsia hair ribbon forced me to sit still atop two giant Chicago telephone directories. Finally a disgusting permanent wave solution was applied to each curler and Della threw the switch.

Immediately my head started hissing and steaming like a pot of boiling ravioli. With her eyes as big as the giant meatballs my Nonna fried on Sunday morning, my mother asked, “Della, is her head supposed to smoke like that?”

“That’s only steam,” said Della, “If her hair was burning, we’d smell it—singed hair smells disgusting.”

Looking at my mother’s popping eyeballs and smelling the stinking fumes sent me into orbit. My sotto sobs erupted into what would have been hair raising shrieks had not my head been so wired.
“This is an electric chair!” I screamed. “I’m turning into Frankenstein!”

My mother grabbed the telephone book highchair.

“Sit still,” she hissed. “If you fall off those phone books, you’ll be scalped like an Indian and you’ll have to wear a babuschka to school. Besides," she grinned, "You told me you wanted to be beautiful!”

That was true. I did want to be beautiful. I settled down.

A few minutes later the wires were disconnected, the hair unwound and a nauseating “neutralizer” was sloshed through my ringlets. Then my locks were twisted into pin curls and I was placed under a giant steel helmet for another hour to dry.

At last my tresses were combed out with the coveted fuchsia bow planted in the massive eagle’s nest of curls.

I was beautiful.

Two weeks later my hair was stick straight. The beauty maven said the “hot wave” didn’t take; she would give me a “cold wave.”

“No, no,” I told my mother, "No, thanks! No more torture. Being beautiful is way too much trouble.” And so it was and it is…

MLSE 06/27/08