What’s the best gift your mom gave you? Today I’m delighted to have Brett Hoover here to share his thoughts. Brett is a Paulist priest and visiting assistant professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He is the author of Comfort: An Atlas for the Body and Soul (which is a great read, by the way). Thanks, Brett!
On Returning Home and Divine Fedoras: My Mom and God
Brett C. Hoover, CSP
Like a lot of Americans, I left home at eighteen. I wanted to go away to college, and my parents wanted me to go. “It will be good for you,” my mom said. She was right. That was more than a quarter century ago.
My mom is now seventy-two, retired from her job as registrar at a Catholic school. In 2010 she had a mild stroke on Christmas Eve. There are the other health problems, enough that I can see the pain on her face sometimes. She bears it with a quiet strength. She jokes that her social life revolves around doctor visits, but she is being modest. She lunches with her fellow school retirees. She and a group of women friends, self-dubbed “the elders,” travel together annually. Last fall she and my dad went to southern Africa for three weeks. She came back alive with stories of a hippopotamus that lazed near their cabin on the water and of having tea in a tin shack in Soweto. Mom knows how to choose her words carefully in vividly recounting a story. No doubt the precocious vocabulary of my sister’s seven-year-old son is, in some way, related.
I am now forty-four years old myself. After living most of my adult life on the East Coast (with stints in the Midwest and Northern California), I moved back to Southern California in August, not far from where I was born. I don’t live with my parents. I’m a priest, and I teach at a Catholic university. I actually live about forty miles away from my mom and dad, but I see them frequently. We have lunch, celebrate birthdays and holidays. They came and visited the campus where I teach one Friday afternoon. This past semester, when I taught once a week at a remote campus in their county, we had a standing Tuesday lunch date.
Even though my parents are both quite self-sufficient, I worry about them—the inevitable role reversal of middle age. I expected this. The surprise has been the pleasant pattern of everyday companionship we have developed.
When I was a young man, naturally, my mom and I fought. Especially in college, I tried out new thoughts in a probably frustratingly scattershot manner, and she had her opinions about all that. Once on the telephone, I dismissed the desire of some women to be stay-at-home moms. My mom’s response to my careless sexism was appropriately sarcastic; after all, I had directly benefited from her years as a stay-at-home mom. But such is youth. Somehow I wanted to rebel and to please her. She wanted me to be my own person but to do so by following her advice.
All these years later, however, these ordinary parent-child tensions have disappeared. I no longer have much to prove to her. She, settled into her doting grandparental phase, has little need to restlessly self-examine her every parental move. So instead of fighting we laugh a lot. We gossip. We take pride in the roster of kind people we call family and friends. She and my dad ask about my work. I tease them about the incessant bickering that has arisen late in their fifty-year marriage. As with many couples, this is less a series of discrete arguments than a rehearsal of the same two or three lifelong disagreements. My mom tells me it is an odd gesture of love, a sign of continued interest in the other person after decades of coping with the differences between them.
Easter week, my oldest friend, his wife, and their daughter (like a second grandchild to my parents) visited from out of town. We drove down to my parents’ house for Easter Sunday dinner, sitting down together in what mom calls the “great room” of their downsized house. “Great” or not, the room definitely functions as social center of their home, including the necessary addition of a lanky, squeaky cat named Maya. Mom served a lovely dinner that afternoon, including a Persian dish made in honor of my friend’s wife, who grew up in Tehran. Another old friend, a social worker, showed up with her law-student daughter, who is lethally bright and quietly charming.
As everyone talked there in the “great room,” I had one of those moments where I fell out of the conversation. I felt that peculiar warmth that comes not from one’s own happiness but from observing the happiness of the people that you love most.
I often imagine, in moments like these, that God is another, half-invisible guest at dinner. In my whimsical imaginings, God sits at the table with a glass of red wine in his hand, a counterpart to my mom with her flute of sparkling wine. Other times, God has been seated at a restaurant bar, nursing a tumbler of scotch just like my grandfather used to drink. For some reason, I often picture God wearing a fedora, as if Divine Mystery somehow belonged to 1940s film noir.
A courteous Supreme Being, the hat-wearing God of my imagination always raises a glass. And then winks.