The Divine Hours

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Age-Old Questions for a New Year

Written By Phyllis Tickle

The following reflection first appeared in January 2010 as part of  First Sundays with Phyllis Tickle, a series of monthly blogs written by Tickle and posted on explorefaith from 2008 to 2010.

When I was growing up, grandmothers were in short supply in our family. Grandmother Alexander, my father’s mother, had died when he was scarcely more than a toddler himself. Grandmother Porter, on the other hand, lived a long, full life, but she lived it in California. Being a genuinely brilliant and enterprising woman, she had moved there “to take advantage of the opportunities,” or so I was told as a child. Whatever the reasons may have been, the operative truth of the thing in the nineteen-thirties and forties was that she might just as well have been on the moon as far as accessibility and hands-on affection were concerned. This dearth of grandmotherly instruction and care were compensated for, however, by Aunt Mattie.

Aunt Mattie, like many another late nineteenth and early twentieth century female, had been the oldest girl in the Alexander family when Grandmother died; and it was, of course and in accord with social custom,  Mattie who stepped into the breech, assuming the role of housekeeper, domestic administrator, and mother to seven younger siblings. In effect, any hope of marriage and a family of her own died for Mattie with Grandmother, yet she not only did her job well, she did it with panache and more style than most certified grandmas. I loved her.

I loved everything about her … loved her house, which is where we went every year when we went “home for the holidays” … loved the way she smelled of vanilla and Coty face powder … loved the little river town where she lived, and the neighbors who came and went around her all day long … loved the dry goods store where she clerked and had clerked for as long as there had been a dry goods store at all … I loved her, in other words, in all her piece and parts, but with one exception.

Every year in the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and nearer to New Year’s than to Christmas, I got roaringly sick. Every year. Without fail. We would go to Aunt Mattie’s in the summer and some times in the fall, and all was well. It was Christmas/New Year’s that was my annual Waterloo. Or at least it was until I was about seven or eight when, miraculously and according to my mother, I “outgrew” my malady.

We never knew, during those years of my affliction, what the cause was. My parents offered various explanations like overeating or overeating sweets or too much time under the house chasing the frightened and beleaguered chickens who seemed never to lay well while I was around. Now, seventy years later and with far more medical knowledge available to us, I suspect my vicious diarrhea would be laid to a more likely cause like poor refrigeration in an over-burdened kitchen or too casual a handling of rich feasts left over from one meal to the next. Whatever the reason, hell hath no fury like the misery that would come upon me.

The bathroom at Aunt Mattie’s had been a late addition, having been stuck on just outside the kitchen door and in conjunction with a back porch that made the whole thing less obvious from the street and more acceptable aesthetically. It was as cold as Alaska in there in December, and spending hours parked on its facility required a coat and heavy stockings and sometimes a cap, if one were not to pass of pneumonia prior to dying of the cramps and trots. I doubt, in other words, that any child has ever been more miserable than I was, clinging to the rim of a commode that was too big for my small bottom and praying I would die momentarily. It is the praying that I remember in detail.

Like every Christian child in those days, I had been taught to pray from before I was old enough to say the word itself. Evening prayers were a sacred ritual in our house, and nobody slept until they were said. My parents both prayed consistently and openly in my presence and that of one another. Grace preceded every meal, and Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting was understood as a holy obligation. It was just that going through those motions, I discovered in Aunt Mattie’s bathroom, was just exactly that: going through the motions. Praying in agony and when there is no other help is neither idle motion nor good religious training. It is dead serious and intimate with an intensity that one never forgets, even after one has forgotten the feel of the pain and the heft of the illness.

And what I remember about those prayer-filled hours of illness was crying out to God for the reason … not the reason for my being sick, oddly enough, but the reason for my even being here at all. Specifically, I can remember asking God over and over again why my mother had wanted me. Years later, when I first met Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” and read  his lines about not in entire forgetfulness do we come, but trailing clouds of glory, from God, Who is our eternal home, I had that kind of startling epiphany that happens only once or twice in this life. I understood. I read those words and remembered the hours and hours of Christmas-to-New Year’s illness at Aunt Mattie’s, and I understood. Wordsworth was right. We do come into childhood remembering faintly that we were before we came into time and place. We remember. And when we are small and sick, we ask why we were so untimely ripped from that good beingness into this one.

Of course, when I was five and six and seven, I blamed my mother for my presence in this world of cramps and agony. Some part of me just assumed that, being mother, she was the generative force involved in my presence on earth. As I grew up, I finally figured out that, while she was happy to have me, it was my father who had wanted me with very specific earnestness; but that bit of insight was lost on me in my Christmas/New Year bouts with God and salmonella.

I tell you this long, long tale just now for two reasons. First of all, as of two and a half days ago, I have just survived another Christmas-to-New Year’s holiday without being sick; and that annually is an accomplishment for which I am conspicuously grateful. That is, even all these seventy years later, I never come unscathed to New Year’s without remembering when things were not always so, and without being grateful … overtly and articulatedly grateful.

The second reason is the question. That is, every New Year’s I ask my question, not out of any sense of holy obligation or religious fetish, but out of a remembrance that still is etched too deeply to be denied. I’m not much of one for New Year’s resolutions. In fact, they always seem to me to be a little pretentious and a lot self-condemning, but I do believe in my question and I do ask it every year, not of my mother, of course, but of my Father: Why did You want me?  I still don’t know the answer, but I do know one thing—the asking grows sweeter every year.

Copyright © 2010 Phyllis Tickle