To Tango With a Galloping Horse: A Convert's Story
Our mother was born on an Arkansas farm in 1918.
There was no electricity, no indoor plumbing and no Catholics for a hundred miles in any direction. But there was a simple, almost primitive Christian presence in the Taylor household that upheld, celebrated and lived by the same truths the Church has honored for 2,000 years.
When she was 18 she had had enough of Depression-era farm life and struck out on her own to the seemingly endless possibilities embodied in Los Angeles.
She didn't strike out completely on her own, mind you.
After all, this was the 1930s, and proper young ladies did not just move off the farm and go to the big city completely on their own.
One of her older brothers was already in Los Angeles and able to keep an eye on her. She stayed in a small hotel on Friar Street in the suburb of Van Nuys in the San Fernando Valley that catered to proper young women. She lived with an elderly lady roommate to further secure propriety.
My mom met a man, a co-worker of her brother's in a grocery store in the San Fernando Valley, a place that was then just a few small towns connected by fewer main roadways. Details of their courtship are lost in the ether of untold tales, but they didn't know each other long before they knew they wanted to get married.
Our dad came from a strong Catholic family that traced its lineage straight back to the “Holy Land” (see: Ireland). And our mom came forth out of under-churched Southern Baptists. Not exactly the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy, but again, this was the 1930s and our dad was probably the first Catholic our mother ever met in person.
Needless to say, feathers were ruffled on both sides of the Mason-Dixon. There was a story about a letter being written by my mother's father and sent to our dad with regard to my grandfather's opinion about Catholics. It was less than enthusiastic.
The “good” Catholics on our dad's line of the division were also worried about the concept of a “mixed marriage.” But despite the difficulties, a little more than a year before Hitler decided to take a left turn into Poland, in a U.S. economy that was still on its knees even after almost eight years of New Deal attempts to fix it, living in a world filled with uncertainty and even danger, our parents were married.
When our mom accepted our dad as her husband she also decided to accept his faith as well. She took instruction in the faith from both the pastor of our church, the same church we 10 children were all baptized in, as well as instruction from one of our dad's older brothers, Father John.
We 10, the issue of this marriage, came to the Church by accidents of birth. Our mom came into the Church by an act of will and an act of love for our father.
She did not always have it easy being a convert. I know she at times felt like an outsider as more “authentic” members of the Church from my dad's side of the family made subtle and at times overt jibes about her Southern roots.
She was too tough and stubborn to let that stuff bother her for long, and she received some measure of justice in the fact it was she who took care of our dad's parents in their old age. The Southern Baptist girl showed not a few of our “good” Catholic relatives the meaning of family love, sacrifice and giving.
And no matter how often we teased her about her “convert” status as opposed to our “official,” out-of-the-shoot Catholic status, one thing was clear: Our mom would be Catholic for longer than any of her 10 children.
She took the foundation her parents built and constructed a home on it within the bosom of the Church. She was as dedicated to the Blessed Mother and the rosary as any woman coming off a boat at Ellis Island from County Kerry ever could be. Her embrace of the faith was a conscious act, and I believe to this day it continues to have a residual effect on her children's journey of faith, even if at times we don't all always have a total understanding of it.
There were more than a few adages and pet sayings she used with reckless abandon around our household.
One of her little gems was, “It takes two to tango.” This social commentary usually followed the breaking up of some kind of fight.
But I think it also applied to our mother, even if she didn't know it. It took two people living within the embrace of the sacrament of matrimony to say Yes to God when it comes to children.
Our mom would bear the lion's (or in her case, the lioness’) share of this burden as she willingly and joyfully carried to term 10 babies and endured the pain and sorrow of losing an 11th baby before life could secure a firmer grasp. And she did the best she could as those 10 babies grew up and at various times loved her, hurt her, needed her, comforted her and were comforted by her.
And she did this all with dignity, whether she was driving a country squire station wagon well past its prime, patching the worn-out knees of our school uniform corduroys or stuffing the hole at the bottom of our “school” shoes with pieces of cardboard.
And if we ever complained about these less-than-perfect amenities, she would just keep moving and let us have it right between the eyes with her most famous saying, “It'll never be noticed on a galloping horse, and that's the kind we ride.”
There were more important things in this world than the right car, the right clothes or the right footwear.
They were family and love of the Church, and that was a gift our mother bequeathed to us all.
Los Angeles writer Robert Brennan will continue this series in future issues.
- January 18-24, 2004