Every so often I experience what I call “a perspective shift.” That is a moment when I discover that all my struggles for equality and acceptance in my role as a priest pale in comparison with what some women have endured at the hands of cultural traditions. Women in Mid-Eastern countries, for instance, have suffered physical brutality as well as emotional and psychological damage in a society that still practices inhuman discrimination against women. My “sufferings” take on a whole new perspective.
Then, every so often, I experience a shift in the opposite direction. I find women who have lived in the male-oriented society of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s in this country, have stayed “in their place” as “the little woman” – the ideal every young girl aspired to from adolescence until that moment when they achieved what they had learned was the ultimate in womanhood – the wedding ring.
These women lived in a world where two working parents was unheard of, where single-parent families were rare as widowed women tended to find another protective and supporting mate quickly, and where the “woman of the house” was just that – she stayed home and “kept house” for her breadwinner and her children. I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s and my mother was not one of those women and neither was her mother – they both worked outside the home but my mom worked with my Dad so he didn’t have to hire another employee and she was almost always home when we came from from school.
Here’s what I’m getting at – there are many women who suffered discriminating practices by overbearing husbands and a traditionally male society, but they either didn’t notice or elegantly and proudly rose above it. A month or so ago, I went to Sanford, Maine where I attended a memorial service for just such a remarkable woman. Her name was Bea Fluet and she was my brother-in-law’s mother. She was many things during her long life. She was a Christian – a good Catholic but that was not what everyone remembered about her – in fact, the funeral was not in a church, there was no Catholic priest present – her church affiliation was not even mentioned because what was important was not what church she attended but whom she chose to follow and serve and emulate – she was the most pure example of a Christian I know – she loved everyone just the way Jesus loved her.
She was also a mother – actually, an adoptive mother – a long-time widow – a grandmother – great-grandmother. The family gathered in from all over – Northern Virginia, Delmar NY, Massachusetts – friends of hers, friends of Joe, family – all of us came to pay tribute to this woman who was raised in one of the poorest families in town – who worked her whole life until arthritis took over – who was widowed early and still raised one of the finest men I’ve ever known. During those years, she lived with Joe, helping to raise his children and in later years, she lived with both him and my sister, his new wife, helping to raise their children.
As I sat and listened to all of them – from her 66-year-old son to her 7-year-old great-grandson – all they spoke of was how she loved – how she loved her husband – an unlikely love for an abusive alcoholic – she loved her son with the fierce, unselfish, giving – almost blind love of an adoptive parent – how she loved their friends – how she loved all of them – his children – their children – and when her son got married, she loved his new family – all of us, even his new wife’s sister (that’s me) who couldn’t seem to get her name right. (She was French and the French word for grandmother is Memere – which everyone called her. I came from a place where grandmothers were called Nana, Sweet Pea, and Meemaw, so I heard Memere as Mimi and for the first few years that’s what I called her – until she told me if I didn’t get her name right, she wouldn’t answer me.) When her son went searching for and found his birth family – she loved them too – she even dubbed Joe’s new half-brother “Son #2.” She loved them all and on this day – they all talked about just how much.
In all of their stories, they never spoke of how sweet she was or how she coddled or spoiled them. They told of her “tough love” – how she got them to do what she wanted by telling them that “The Man” said so. She told them as potty-training toddlers, “The Man said I can’t buy diapers anymore.” She told them the same thing whenever they questioned why they had to do what she said – “because The Man said so.”
They told us how she constantly threatened them when they misbehaved – with her good-natured “I’ll give you back to the Indians” and how they knew she wasn’t serious – that she would never do that – but that she was serious about their behavior. They told us about how she extended her love to their friends with chocolate cake at the kitchen table after school and with her burnt cookies and other culinary specialties which spoke so loudly of how much she loved them even if they weren’t the best treats in town because there was always enough for all of them – and always leftovers.
One of her great-grandsons told us through his tears about how she would tell him when he got too smart-alecky that his little brother was the Boss and then “the Boss” told us through his tears that she called him “the Boss” to make him feel better.
The love of this wonderful woman was the love that even the hardships she bore as a woman in those days couldn’t destroy. Memere was – in her own words, “an old broad” – “a Frenchman” (and always said, up til the very end – “you can’t kill a Frenchman”). She was a “tell-it-like-is” with no holds barred person – and if you had asked her, I’m sure she would have said that she wasn’t much of a success. But her granddaughter, Jenny said that if we had been burying the Pope, there couldn’t have been a more powerful tribute paid. Because she loved and loved and loved – everybody and anybody – with no favorites – everybody got what they deserved – love! She was always there – always caring – always giving – always loving and, as far as I could tell, she cared about the opinions of only two men – God’s Son and her son.
For all her sufferings at the hands of an abusive man and in a world of “stay in your place” thinking, I think if I had asked her how she felt about being treated so poorly, she would have looked at me as if I had three heads and said something like, “I don’t pay any attention to all that – the Boss will take care of them!” What a strong woman!
Susan Bowman, is an ordained Episcopal Priest, a Grandmother, and a Professional Writer. She was ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1986 and has a story to tell that will speak to all women who are functioning in a traditionally male role. She has written a memoir about her experiences of discrimination within the church’s ordination process and in the parishes she served. Sign up at the bottom of this page and you will get a notice when the book is back in publication. Please indicate if you are interested in purchasing a copy of “Lady Father.”