All My Life's a Circle - Happy Birthday, Lara Marie

Lara at her sixth birthday party
Thirty years ago, right about this time (5am) after being awake most of the night, I left my two little boys with a sitter in our one-bedroom, roach-infested apartment in Crofton. Then I drove myself to Prince Georges Hospital for a planned C-section.  I was 24 years old. My life was a mess.

I got married two-months out of high school and had adolescent hopes for a bright future. All I wanted to be was a wife and mother.  I had my first baby at nineteen and my second one at 21. The road got bumpy. The marriage went bad. Our lives fell apart.  My husband left me when my boys were three and four years old.  And though I didn't tell him ... I knew when he left that I was pregnant. 

The night before Lara was born I had all the usual worries. Would the boys be okay with the sitter?  Did I buy enough food? Would Danny cry at night while I was gone? What was plan B if I have complications with the surgery?

Then those logistical worries turned into that awful nighttime visitor...obsession over the pending doom I can't control.  Everything turns to black in the middle of the night - especially our thoughts.  Over and over I turned these worries ...

How could I manage on my own with three kids? I could barely make ends meet with two.  How would I pay a babysitter while I was working?  Who was going to keep an infant? What would I do when the apartment complex found out I had three children when the law requires three bedrooms for three kids? I'd already convinced them to rent me a one-bedroom and den, promising I'd keep my bed in the living room and give the children the bedroom. What if I got evicted? What if I couldn't work?  What if I lost my kids?

My grandmother told me that she said the rosary every night so that she wouldn't worry.  She gave her worries to the Blessed Mother, and saying the rosary took her mind off things. I followed her advice when my obsessive thoughts took over, and I usually fell asleep.  But the night before I left to have my third child was a particularly black night.  My sense of hopelessness was palpable.

But it all washed away at about 11 am that next morning when a nurse handed me the most beautiful little girl I'd ever seen.

Lara was perfect.  While most newborns are trying to get their eyes open and adjust to this cold world, Lara Marie looked right at me with her giant eyes and stared.  As those navy blue eyes held me, I remember wondering how I could be so lucky.  That moment between us a few minutes after she was born was the beginning of a great partnership. It was then that Lara attached herself to me with her mind, body and soul, and we've never let each other go.

When I brought her home to her brothers and laid her in the crib (which was in the living room by my bed) we were a family - the four of us. Lara never cried. The boys loved her, and over the next few grueling years of trial, we held each other up. And I said a lot of rosaries.   

Lara on her first birthday

Lara could sing before she could talk. She had this amazing ability to mimic words from songs. I carried Lara with me on Tupperware deliveries, and she'd sit in her car seat and sing along with the cassette tapes that I played in the car.  She could sing the entire chorus of "All My Life's a Circle" by the Limeliters when she was two.... on pitch!

All my life's a circle
Sunrise and sundown
The moon rolls through the nighttime
As the daybreak comes around
All my life's a circle
But I can't tell you why
Seasons spinning round again
The years keep rolling by

Lara on her 2nd birthday when I bought her a pony

She never got in trouble at school, rarely misbehaved, and never got spanked.  The biggest discipline problem I had with her was cussing - at THREE YEARS OLD. I did the soap-in-the-mouth thing more than once before she cut that crap out. I wonder where she got her potty mouth? 

What a strange child to have never tested me, never be pulled by her peers to break the rules. I always thought it was because Lara couldn't stand to be separated from me - and that included emotionally.  She couldn't take the tension.

So we were joined at the hip, Lara and me, and she's still on my mind - every day. She was a rare blessing at a time when I had no choice but to believe that things would work out okay even though the odds were against us. When having Lara should have been the last straw that finally broke my back, she became a surprising ray of hope. I couldn't stay discouraged because one smile from her instantly lifted my spirits.

She was my joy.

Lara's 7th birthday

And just as the song lyrics tell us, all my life is a circle.  When I witnessed Lara give birth to her son Tristan, I watched the magic happen. That love at first sight we shared the first time I held her was resurrected. It circled around us.  In an instant she was transformed, and the threads that bound Lara and me on July 25, 1984 reached right out and wove Tristan into that web of a mother's love.

Lara had become what I was. But she was still who she was.  And somehow that made crazy sense.

If I were to cast my life's pain, disappointment and struggles into a bin and pile on top all of my mad worries for today and tomorrow, they would fade into a boring beige background when I held them up to the single blessing that is Lara - or any of my children.  They are the vibrant colors of hope in my life. The moments with them are the stuff we live for.  

Lara with Rosie
My little girl turns thirty today and it's mornings like these that mothers count their memories.

So Lara, today I remember our first meeting when I thought that you were the image of perfection.  I remember you singing in the car and loving jewelry, make up, dresses and tea parties. I remember the first time you noticed the Lupines in our garden, and how you believed me when I said I'd come back as a bluebird after I died.  I remember you crawling into my bed every single night of your life until you were twelve (I'm being generous here), and my asking you what we were going to tell your husband when we had to disclose that you always sleep with your Mama - and you saying, "Hopefully, I'll be over this by the time I get married."

Tea at the Willard Hotel - Washington DC
 I remember you being afraid of the Easter Bunny and loving Santa Claus. And taking you to Tea at the Willard Hotel and the National Gallery of Art where we sat on the bench in front of Renoir's Little Girl with the Watering Can and remarked about how she glowed, and that she was probably some rich guy's kid. I remember you were mesmerized by the Rockettes at the Christmas Show at Radio City Music Hall, and how we saw Les Miserable on Broadway three times and talked about how I probably should have named you Cozette.

Ninth birthday party - National Gallery of Art
I remember you being afraid of the book Boney Legs and the statue of St. Rose of Lima. And how you cried one day at nursery school and I never made you go back. I remember how you loved every single wrapped gift you ever got and how you finally gave up sucking your fingers when I let the nail technician paint a palm tree on one of them. I remember finding various empty liquor bottles under your bed and you telling me that you were saving them for your friends because you all were going to "make something out of them."

First car - Subaru Impreza

I remember how excited you were when you got your first car and how beautiful you were at on your  wedding day.  And then .... how fun our drive to California was when we camped in the Smokey Mountains, shared beignets at CafĂ© du Monde in New Orleans, walked through the historic homes in Natchez, Mississippi, and counted thousands of blue bonnets on a 700 mile Texas highway.  

I remember how I thought it might kill me to be so overcome with love when they put Tristan in your arms for the first time.

Happy birthday, Lara Marie.  Here's to another 30 years when hopefully we'll all be together - me 85, you 60 and little Rosie will be your age, and maybe she'll have a mother's story to tell by then. We'll mix all of our memories together in a fabulous cocktail of love and drink to life as it continues to circle around us.

You are a gift, my darling. You always have been.  You've become such a beautiful woman inside and out...a good wife, a loving mother and one of my best friends.

I love you so.

Happy St. Anthony Day - Why Do We Pray to These Saints?

My Internet J-card is missing and I'm praying to St. Anthony to help me find it.  It always works.  I think about my lost article and then utter those words that Sister Andrew Marie taught me in second grade ... "Good Saint Anthony, please come around. Something is lost and can't be found."

I'm relatively certain I'll have that J-card in my hand before the day's end, and I've already searched everywhere for it. But when I've tried my best and still can't find it, I call in the big guns --- St. Anthony of Padua.

Is it St. Anthony helping me from some mystical dimension, or is it a superstition?  Some of my colleagues would say that the prayer triggers my own psychic abilities to dig up where I actually left said lost article from the recesses of my subconscious mind.  Maybe.

It's probably a little of both.  But don't sell St. Anthony of Padua short.  He is a spirit guide - one who reaches past the veil that separates this world from the eternal world and connects with us when we ask.  He's always been a guide for me.  I have the icon pictured above sitting on my dresser. I have another image of him hanging over my desk and still another hanging in my living room.  Then there's my St. Anthony statue in my columbine garden.  St. Anthony obsessed?  Perhaps.  But these holy reminders of him around my house help me make that spiritual connection.

But I digress...  back to why we pray to the Saints.

If you don't believe in God or a higher power or a Divine Creator, then this won't mean much to you.  But if you think there's more to this world than what we "physically" see, then think about an eternal world the lies just behind this one.  It's all around us - present to us ... we just can't see it.  In that world are guides who can help us along our path in this world.  These guides can be angels, or saints or the spirits of our ancestors.  These guides sit in the presence of the Divine Creator many of us refer to as God.  They join their intentions / prayers with ours, but because they are already in that eternal world, they make our prayers stronger.  In simple terms, they help us from heaven.
The Saints are like stars. Christ conceals them in a hidden place so that they might not shine before their time. But they're always there, ready to do so.  ~St. Anthony of Padua

That's why we pray to the saints. They aren't a replacement for God or Goddess or whatever you perceive the Diving Creator to be. They are helpers, guides, spiritual friends. And St. Anthony of Padua is one of the worlds most popular saints. So evidently, he delivers.

St. Anthony's Bascilica in Padua - 5 Million pilgrims a year visit
St. Anthony of Padua was born in Lisbon around 1195 and he joined the Franciscan Order in 1220 when St. Francis of Assisi was running the order.  Anthony showed talent for preaching and teaching, but the Franciscans called to"public service" not preaching.  In order to best use Anthony's oratory talents, St. Francis sent him off to Bologna to teach theology to the Brothers there.  His ability to publicly speak with passion and persuasion became legendary.  There is even an old story that tells of creatures in the sea coming to surface of the water to hear the golden words of Anthony.  

The birds are like saints who fly to heaven on the wings of contemplation, who are so removed from the world that they have no business on earth.  ~St. Anthony of Padua

I talk to St. Anthony when I need a friend, a confessor, when I have to make a tough decision.  And it may sound crazy, but in my heart I can hear him answer back... always leading me, challenging me.  He's a soul friend... an Anam Cara.  I usually talk to St. Anthony before I write something I think is important.  I have this quote from one of his sermons taped on to my computer to remind me that everything I write should be written with care - that all writing matters because it becomes a permanent creation as soon as the letters hit the page. 
Be like the sun. Shed light, but also warmth.  
Interesting that the Feast of St. Anthony also falls on the birthday of the Irish writer and poet William Butler Yeats.  Two inspiring men when it comes to writing.  I wonder if Yeats ever works as a spirit guide?

Remembering Mama - And All Women Making Hard Choices

Anita Granados
Fifty five years ago today, a young widow left her three little children with her sister and traveled to Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland to have a baby that only a few people in her large family knew about.  That baby was me.

My mother, Anita was born into a wonderful clan made up mostly of Spaniards - very Catholic and very engaged in St. Bernard's Church and the Riverdale community.  In 1959, having a baby out of wedlock was a serious scandal that shamed the family.  Having a baby out of wedlock when the father was married to another woman and had children of his own, was barely speakable.

I guess there is no adjective for having met said married father in your choir - he was a tenor, you were an alto.  Suffice it to say, my grandparents were beside themselves with worry about the potential shame this pregnancy would bring to my mother and their family. 

They hounded her about this shame while she was pregnant.  It was a sign of the times, and I've learned to reflect on these situations and the people in them taking "the times" into account. This makes me admire my mother for being a woman of her time who did the unthinkable out of love.

My grandparents insisted she give me up for adoption and tell no one of the pregnancy.  She had no other support - so she had no other options. How alone she must have felt.  She'd given up a baby before --- my brother, John.  She had a teen pregnancy and my grandparents sent her away to St. Vincent DePaul's in Baltimore.  She gave birth to him there and named him "John."  John's adoptive parents kept that name, and he grew up to be a great guy, a wonderful husband and father, and a successful businessman.  We met him later when he reached out to find Mama.

My mother married the love of her life when she was eighteen and had three children by the time she was twenty-two.  There was no happier couple than they, I'm told.  Tragically, her husband was killed in the line duty as a DC Fireman just six years after they were married.  He was 29 and she 26. She never got over that blow. She managed to settle herself in a community near her parents, and gradually got out again and started to make friends.  She went back to the church choir, and she and my father had a wild affair. She loved him.  In the few conversations I ever had with my mother about my father she said only three things.  He was very handsome. He was so much fun.  He had the most beautiful singing voice she'd ever heard.

When I got to know my father, I found these things to be so true.  Handsome he was.  And he was virtual party.  The first time I heard him sing was at the Holiday Inn restaurant in Waterloo when he spontaneously (in public) broke out into "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the kind of Cre- aaaaaa- tion" as if he were Luciano Pavarotti at the Met. Though I was mortified at the time - as most adolescents would be, I remember thinking, "Wow! What a voice."

I never asked my mother if she expected my father to leave his wife and family and marry her once she discovered she was pregnant.  I suspect that she wouldn't have answered that question. What she told me and what he told me were the same well-crafted story.  They both decided that the best thing for me was to give me up for adoption. Although, my father added the "I had no idea she would go back and get you" footnote to his version.

No one will ever know the back-story to that love affair and how they dealt with a baby coming into the picture.  It doesn't really matter anyway because it's the oldest story in the world lived by many married men and the women who loved them.  I do know that my father loved his wife, deeply. He not only told me, but I could hear it in his voice when he talked about his life.  My parents' entanglement was one of those love affairs that occurs, and then ends when the unthinkable happens and everyone comes to their senses... and the woman - who is now the mother - is left to deal with consequences. 

My mother told me how she had to have labor induced so that she could schedule the birth.  She couldn't risk going into labor because there was no one to support her, to take her to the hospital, to tend the children.  She couldn't even see the family doctor because he was everyone's family doctor. She had to travel outside the community for medical care in order to keep her horrible secret from dripping shame into her family's insular world.  So she confided in her sister Chi-chi and asked her to come stay with kids.  Chi-chi was her sole support - and her soul support.  When Chi-chi arrived by bus from Texas, my mother said good-bye and drove herself to Bethesda to have labor induced the next day.

I was born on April 26, 1959.  My mother got to hold me and feed me for two days before the Daughters of Charity came to take me away.  She told me how she cried from the time I was born until she left the hospital saying, "I can't believe I had that many tears."  She did it all alone, because that's what women did in those days.  They were the brunt of everyone's judgement -- and people wielded judgements freely.  

I was shuttled off by the Sisters to St. Ann's Infant and Maternity home, and Mama went back to her home in Riverdale without a baby. During the months when the Sisters were trying to find adoptive parents, my mother went to St. Ann's every Sunday to visit me. She told me that the nuns wouldn't let her hold me, but that she could look at me through the glass.  It was during these visits that she noticed they'd assigned my care to one of the young unwed mothers waiting to deliver there.  That unwed mother started calling me "Mindy" and the rest of St. Ann's staff followed suit.   Baby names at St. Ann's were temporary because adoptive parents would choose a permanent name for each child.

Mama gave me the name Maryanne when I was born.  She told me that she'd named me after the two most blessed mothers who ever lived - Jesus' mother and his grandmother. She said, "I prayed to them before you were born and told them that I would name you after them if they would always take care of you."  Maryanne was my birth name, but for my time at St. Ann's I was Mindy.

When I was about four months old, St. Ann's found adoptive parents.  My mother was devastated.  My Aunt Chi-chi convinced my mother to follow her heart and not sign the papers yielding her rights.  Chi-chi assured my mother that they'd come up with some kind of plan to bring me home.  They did.  They crafted a story about how I was the baby of an American GI and German woman that Chi-chi and her husband knew when stationed in Germany.  The mother died in childbirth and the father couldn't take care of a little baby.  Chi-chi told my Mama about me.  Mama said she'd adopt me.  So Chi-chi and her husband brought me to America and I legally became Mama's adopted "German" child.  (I'm laughing as I type this.)

Crazy as it sounds, that's the story they told the family, and it stuck.  Mama retrieved me from St. Ann's when I was about six months old (according to her).  She had this picture taken of me at Woodward and Lothrop's shortly after she brought me home.  She told me it reminded her of how happy she was to finally have me back.  It hung on the living room wall in our house in Riverdale until she finally sold it when I was in my forties (the house - not the picture). Now it hangs in my bedroom as a reminder of Mama and me and the strength of a mother's love.

Eventually, my grandparents lightened up and forgot all about the scandal.  I'm pretty sure my mother's four brothers believed the adoption story at least for a time. I had to set one of them straight just a few years ago who still believed it.

Since I was used to the name Mindy, Mama let that stick.  It's not my legal name, but it's what I've always been called since that unwed mother at St. Ann's gave me the name. When I asked the normal "how did I come into the world" questions that other kids ask their mothers, Mama told me "I picked you out of a bunch of babies.  There was a big room, full of babies and I walked around and around until I saw the prettiest one - and that was you.  And you were the one I took home."

Perhaps I'd have had a better life with adoptive parents.  I might have had more opportunities, finished college, made more money, had a few letters after my name, been less a hog for attention and not so much an over-achiever. But I wouldn't trade one minute of life in this crazy clan for any other family.  And I wouldn't have chosen another mother.  She found a way to to keep me with her, to rise above the shame and scandal and to make it all seem like a magical beginning to me... from picking me out of a slew of babies to the "coming home" picture, to how I got my name.

Every year around this time I think about our beginning together  - Mama and me. I think about what it must have been like for her to go through nine months of pregnancy alone with no man to stand beside her, with her parents ashamed, no friends to confide in.  I imagine her driving to a hospital in another county -- passing all of the cherry blossoms and Redbuds as the landscape budded new life. But she had to be ashamed of herself and the new life she was bringing into the world.  The  mother-child bond shamed us both.  The only absolution for the sin of adultery was to sever the tie.

What I can't seem to imagine is the agony of birthing a child, drawing her to yourself, holding her and feeding her all under a pall of shame. No visitors, no happy family rallying around this miraculous birth - no one to help you count the fingers and toes and say who she looks like, no joy, no celebration --- and then doing the unthinkable.  Handing that helpless little part of yourself over to strangers knowing you'll never see her again.

Here's to Mama who did the hard thing and kept her baby in a time when unwed mothers who gave into maternal instincts were judged harshly and deemed selfish. Mama gave me the wonderful gift of my true family. And here's to all women who have singularly shouldered the responsibility, shame and consequences of out-of-wedlock pregnancies.  And kudos to the Daughters of Charity and the St. Ann's staff who have been picking up the broken pieces of shattered lives and reshaping them into new beginnings and happy endings since they opened Washington DC's first foundling home in 1860. 

And praise for those who the give the comfort and support of soul friendship to these women who are so harshly judged, especially my Aunt Chi-chi who was there for my mother to lean on, who convinced her to follow her heart, and who helped her find a way to do what she was meant to do.

And a good word for my Daddy, who did the best he could in his time, was always kind to me, loved me and made me laugh.   My mother never spoke an ill word about him.

I can't imagine having different parents.  I was a musician most of my life and rested on the talent of my ancestors.  I come from a long line of musicians, music teachers, and pastoral ministers, and spent over 20 years in music ministry.  Though I moved away from Riverdale when I was fifteen, my very first job as a choir director brought me back to St. Bernard's where my parents met.  I returned to direct the same choir they were in. It was 30 years later, and there were two singers left in the choir who were there when my parents were members.  They had no idea.

I didn't tell them.