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In Mother Mary’s Kitchen

18 May 2010 7 Comments

Pillar of Peace: Interfaith Dialogue
Commentary by Mary Liston Liepold, Editor-in-Chief

For Catholics, May is Mary’s month. I went to Catholic school in the 1950s, when Mary was the default name for Catholic girls. We were Mary Margarets, Mary Elizabeths, Mary Kates, Mary Janes and Mary Joans, the rather daring Mary Michael, and me, Mary Ann. I was sure mine was the plainest vanilla of them all.

I read in Sunday’s Washington Post that in 2009 the name Mary―reportedly “the most popular name in the history of the English language”―fell out of the top 100 baby names in the US for the first time since the Social Security Administration began keeping track.

My guess is that Mary is slipping down the charts not just because parents want something that’s distinctive as well as safe (“I’m unique like everyone else”) but also because more and more of us have seriously mixed feelings about the model of femininity that the Virgin Mary is seen to represent.

Feminist scholars identify marianismo as the complement to machismo, as the acquiescence in patriarchy that keeps dominance systems flourishing in cultures around the world. It instructs women to accept their lesser lot and to return good for evil. It even glorifies their suffering, in the same way the Church celebrates the Seven Sorrows of Mary. Yet without the cult of the Virgin the history of the western world would have been more of a bloody bucket than it already is.

That plaster statue with the folded hands and the upturned eyes represents a woman who dared to say Yes to the unknown. Because of that Yes she was an unwed mother and a refugee. Her only child was a political prisoner, a condemned criminal, and a victim of torture. Mary and her sorrows connect us to the powerless. In a sexist, male-dominated church whose mainstream tradition opts for and safeguards its own power and glory, she embodies the preferential option for the poor.

Marianismo promotes passive acceptance of suffering, joyless “purity” (How some of us Catholic girls came to loathe that word!), and a confining devotion to home and family. But the larger Marian tradition puts the quasi-divine feminine alongside the all-male Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Church fathers take pains to explain that we pray to Jesus through Mary, partly in defense against the Protestant charge of mariolatry. That doctrinal point was largely lost on my mother, as on countless other women who need the aid of a heavenly mother to bear their earthly lot.

Mom chose my name to honor both the Virgin Mary and Mary’s mother Ann. Mom’s own mother died when she was three. Her father hired a housekeeper, Alma, to care for small Bernice and her smaller brother. Then, to stop the gossip and save the wages, he married her. Mom didn’t tell horror stories, but the little she did say put Alma squarely in the storybook tradition of the wicked stepmother. And when Alma was old and frail, Mom brought her to our house and nursed her until she died.

This morning I remembered something that happened during Mom’s last illness. She had lost interest in living and was praying to die. Still a good girl at 86, she made an effort to spoon up what was put in front of her, but she said food didn’t taste good anymore, and she could seldom manage more than a few bites. One day, while I was sitting by her hospital bed, she dozed off and woke up with a blissful expression on her face. “I dreamed I was in Mother Mary’s kitchen, and she was cooking for me, and everything tasted delicious!”

The tradition celebrates Seven Joys of Mary as well as Seven Sorrows. Because divinity became humanity in Mary’s womb, the Church promulgated the dogma of the Assumption in 1950, when I was in first grade with the other Marys. It says that this human woman rose body and soul to the throne of God, where she sits beside her divine and human Son. And she delivers miracles: rivers and streams of grace that defy the mathematics of our limited imaginations.

Do I believe in miracles? Yes, Ma’am. Would I sign on for a pilgrimage to Fatima or Lourdes, or cross the street to see the next local apparition? Probably not. But I count on everyday miracles to get from Monday into Tuesday. And this reluctant consumer, who usually gravitates to earthy browns, greens, and golds in assembling her yard-sale wardrobe, was somehow levitated into a store yesterday to pay full price for a blouse of Mary’s-mantle blue.

Right now my sister Judy is desperately ill. I am not praying for a miraculous healing. I’m asking to know what to do and when to do it for myself and my other sister, our brother, and Judy’s husband and daughters. And I want her to feel your presence, Mary, the way Mom did, or in her own way. I expect to see them both in your kitchen.

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About the Author

Mary Liepold is the Editor-in-Chief at Peace X Peace. To reach Dr. Liepold, email
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7 Comments to “In Mother Mary’s Kitchen”
  1. Anne Moratto says:

    This is such a beautiful post. Thank you very much.

  2. Touching, authentic, poetic, spiritual. A blessing to read. Thank you for sharing.. .
    Dr. Dorree

  3. Diana Durall says:

    Brought tears to my eyes.

  4. Claudia Booth says:

    Your sentiment is blessed, and profound, thank you. Perhaps both Mary’s were married. They say that at that time, a good Jew could not avoid having a family ie Joseph and Jesus. I have read that ‘virgin’ meant something different then. Both Mary’s may have been trained in the Temples of Egypt and may have been very strong women. I beleive it is the Church who have used a very patriarchal view with which to paint woman. Jesus did not feel as the Church has taught for so long. Some say it was Paul who started the segragation of women within the Church.

    It is so few years since we won the right to vote. My grandmother was part of that fight and my daughters are now old enough to vote. That is only 4 generations, less than a hundred years. In my 60′s now I have given myself permission to be clearer about my needs but more especially I have given myself permission to smile at strangers in the street, understanding that this may make their day a little warmer.

    I do not feel the need to fight to have my needs met or even to have to talk about it, it is simply a decision I have made and I take care of my needs myself now. I do not wait to have them met even when no one knew what they were. So quitely and stolidly I stand straigher everyday because I have decided to give myself permission to do so.

    with lots of love and light to you all.

  5. Liora says:

    I had a friend in high school named Mary Lyn and she was Jewish!

  6. jessica swartz amezcua says:

    What a lovely, inspiring, thoughtful post. Thank you for sharing this. I’m sorry to hear about your sister; she is in my prayers.

  7. Brigitte Pichot says:

    Such a beautiful heart opening essay! Thank you so very much. May Mary cradle your sister, you, and your family in her love and compassion.

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