Saturday, August 8, 2015

Remembering a Friend on His Birthday: Holiness in Ordinary

I didn't actually say I wouldn't post this weekend, did I? :)

What prompts me to do so today is that today's the birthday (in 1916) of a remarkable person who, along with his wife, had a great deal of influence on Steve's and my life over many years, and I feel prompted to share with you some memories of these friends. Two nights ago, I dreamt of them, and yesterday when I thought about the dream, I did a bit of googling and discovered that today is my friend's birthday. Abner died in 2003 and his wife in 2005, not long after she and the other elderly residents of the care home in which she was living were evacuated from New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. 

As I think I've shared on this blog in the past, a number of months before Katrina happened, I had a very vivid dream that New Orleans was flooding and I was watching it happen. Much of that dream was set on the street on which my friends lived. When Katrina hit New Orleans some months later, I saw on the news a segment featuring that very street, with scenes very much like the ones that had unfolded in my dream.

I say that my friend's name was Abner, but that was a nickname. His given name was, in fact, Wendolen. Early in his life, because he was large and muscular (a champion weight-lifter in his younger years), he was nicknamed Abner, after the character in the funny pages.

Our friends Abner and Kathleen were in many ways "typical" Mid-City New Orleanians — middle-class, Catholic, devout. They raised five sons and a daughter. Abner was descended from Swiss and German immigrants to New Orleans who had once had dairy farms in what's called the Riverbend area of the city, where St. Charles Avenue turns into Carrollton. Kathleen grew up in Mid-City in a clannish Irish family that, she often said, felt so stifling to her that when she married, she vowed she'd move away from them.

And she did: she and Abner moved about four blocks from where she grew up in a row of houses occupied by her matriarchal, dictatorial Irish-American grandmother, her policeman uncle, and her mother along with Kathleen and Kathleen's brother. Any time she ever wanted to step out with a young man in her teen years, that young man had to be brought to the house of both her grandmother and the policeman uncle and introduced to them, and the date did not take place if he did not pass muster.

Abner was a marvelous cook, whose Swiss-American mother had actually been a cook for an "old" Creole family in New Orleans. She had taught him to cook fabulous Creole dishes that seldom appear on tables in restaurants, but were the mainstay of Creole households. From him, Steve and I learned to cook many of these dishes, and we have kitchen implements (a French chopping knife, a garlic press) that he gave us, and which make me think of him any time I use them. 

Kathleen detested cooking. She'd do anything in the world to avoid it, or any kind of housework, for that matter. And so Abner made the groceries, as New Orleanians say, and did the cooking, outstandingly so, while Kathleen, who was a brilliant woman with a head for figures, kept the household books, devised budgets, and so forth.

I've said that these were "typical" middle-class New Orleanians of the Mid-City section of the city. But there was, in fact, nothing at all typical about them. Both Abner and Kathleen were people with questing spirits and an extraordinary commitment to living what they believed. Early in their marriage, they decided to become Benedictine oblates, and as a result, they and their children spent quite a bit of time at the Benedictine abbey across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans — where Abner and Kathleen are now buried.

The Benedictine connection led them to be closely tied to one abbot, in particular, who was their fast friend for many years, and with whom they several times took trips to a slew of Benedictine monasteries in the U.S. and Canada. Kathleen, who was a proto-feminist, a feminist before the word was popularized, had hilarious, grim stories to tell about one Canadian monastery, in particular, that put her out in a little cottage — it was in a forest full of wolves, she swore on stacks of holy cards — while Abner and the abbot were entertained in style inside the monastery.

Because she was a woman and couldn't enter the monastery . . . . 

This Benedictine connection and some association with a noted Civil Rights activist at Xavier University, where I would begin my teaching career in the mid-1980s, led them to take a decisive step in the 1960s: they invited into their home, in their all-white and not racially enlightened Mid-City neighborhood, an African student from Xavier to live. This decision got them into all sorts of hot water, including threats from neighbors and shunning in their social circles.

Abner was a customs inspector, and never received a promotion for which he was due because of their Civil Rights activism. His workplace would give parties that were widely publicized — "Y'all come!" — to which they were pointedly not invited.

All the while that this was happening — in all the years Steve and I knew her up to her retirement — Kathleen was working 9 to 5, five days a week, as a secretary-administrative assistant at the Dominican priory up the street from their house. For no pay. 

She did this work as volunteer work, as part of her vocation to give to the church. As a result, she had a portfolio full of wickedly funny, dead-on stories to tell about the friars whose homilies and academic papers she typed (and helped write, and critiqued and challenged). I doubt seriously that there was any point in her life when she had any kind of adulation of the clergy (or, for that matter, nuns). She was Irish, after all, and had a healthy streak a mile long of Irish anti-clericalism.

But if she had ever been tempted to idolize the clergy, her years of working for the Dominicans — of, let's be honest, being exploited and disrespected by the Dominicans to whom she donated her time and considerable talents — had long since vanquished that temptation. Her stories about her priory experiences were hilarious, profane, laced with Irish wit and Irish curse words, and I miss them more than I know how to tell you. The friar who consorted with the movie stars ("Oh, that was Loretta Young on the phone; she's such a mess!"), who was far too good to mingle with common people, who haughtily informed her that the charism of poverty was for those Franciscans: she could make you roll on the ground with laughter telling you about him.

These were good people, saintly, exceptional Catholics who happened to believe what they professed to believe, and to practice what they preached. They were also far from unthinking, uncritical, pray, pay, obey Catholics. 

In fact, they made waves. Not long after Steve and I met Kathleen and Abner, through the charismatic prayer meetings that began at our university, Loyola, in the early 1970s, Abner decided to study to become a deacon. He was in the first class of deacons ordained for the archdiocese of New Orleans.

In typical fashion (I've told you, haven't I, that Kathleen was a proto-feminist?), Kathleen insisted on going to the seminary and taking the classes Abner took, sitting alongside him for each class — the only woman in sight. At this point, she always said, she discovered that she had a new charism she had never known she had: the charism of invisibility.

When Abner was ordained and Archbishop Hannan threw a big shindig for the new deacons, the invitation he sent out invited the deacons. Not the deacons and their wives. The deacons.

Abner and Kathleen wrote him a polite letter informing him that they had made a decision years since to attend social events together, as a married couple, and so they were grateful for the invitation but wouldn't be attending. Fuss ensued. Hannan eventually decided that he had no option except to invite the deacons' wives to the party, and this changed history: as far as I know, from this point forward, the party celebrating the ordination of a new bunch of deacons in New Orleans has now included deacons and their wives.

Kathleen heard through the grapevine that, as Hannan got into his limousine to be chauffered to this ordination party, he was still muttering under his breath about "that goddamned Kathleen F." When a stubborn Irish-American archbishop crosses swords with a stubborn, fiery, brilliant Irish-American woman, the archbishop often loses.

I miss these friends more than I know how to say. Tears keep clutching at the back of my throat as I write this remembrance. One of the highlights of my life was a trip Steve and I took to Ireland with Abner and Kathleen, so that Kathleen could visit her relatives in County Louth and see the house from which her grandfather (or was it her great-grandfather?) left Ireland in the 1830s to go to New Orleans. She and I shared the Irish connection to New Orleans (I felt from the first moment I met Kathleen as if she was a member of my own family), since my mother's Irish-born grandmother and her parents came to New Orleans in the early 1850s, though they moved quickly on to Mississippi and then to Arkansas, where they bought farm land, while Kathleen's lace-curtain Irish ancestors came earlier and had more resources than the Famine Irish of whose migration my family were a part. 

That trip to Ireland was memorable, in part, because we visited the mother and brother of a nun I had taught at Loyola's Institute for Ministry, who died suddenly as I was teaching her. She was diagnosed with lung cancer and died within weeks of the diagnosis — with Kathleen and Abner as the chaplains in Mercy Hospital who tended to her. (I haven't mentioned that both Abner and Kathleen obtained credentials to do hospital chaplaincy work after Abner's diaconate ordination, have I, and that both did this work full-time following his retirement from the U.S. Customs and hers from the Dominican priory?)

Our visit to the family of my nun-student in County Wexford was quite an experience, since we all quickly became roaringly drunk — something that has happened to me only a few times in my life, and which I detest — due to the lavish, unrelenting hospitality of the marvelous family who welcomed us to their farmhouse, and wanted to hear our memories of their daughter and sister. Whiskey was poured. 

As soon as any of us had sipped a sip from our glass, it was immediately filled all over again, as if by magic. "Fill the doctor's glass," I can recall the elderly mother telling her son in the few moments early in the day in which I had any lucidity at all. 

I got up to find the restroom, which was up a flight of stairs. The doorway to the stairwell vexatiously kept moving back and forth as I approached it. I somehow made my way back downstairs and was delirously happy to hear talk of tea.

A lavish tea was served, with delicious ham sandwiches and cups of tea strong enough to trot a mouse on. And then our host brewed a pot of coffee, poured whiskey into cups followed by coffee and whipped cream, and the cup-filling resumed.

I have never known how the four of us managed to drive our way back to our b-and-b over in County Kilkenny, where we were searching for my family's roots. We laughed for days about the experience, and talked about it for years afterward.

Wonderful human beings who were holy in the most ordinary, which is to say, the most extraordinary, way possible, our friends Abner and Kathleen. May both of them rest in the peace they richly deserve.

As I noted back in March 2012, the detail from a tombstone (at the head of the posting) is from a photo I've taken of the tombstone one of my great-great-grandfathers, William H. Snead, who's buried in Clearwater Cemetery in Franklin County, Texas. A rose of remembrance . . . . 

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