I always thought of my babcia as very religious. On her wall, she kept Jesus on the cross and a Madonna in a gilded frame. Her expressions of faith tended toward the mystical. She believed in miracles and blessings. She prayed on the rosary. She blessed my friend Kara’s baby daughter the first time she held her. She must have been about 90 then.

A bad photo, but one of the few I have of Babcia's apartment on Riverside Drive, showing her Madonna in a gilded frame.

A bad photo, but one of the few I have of Babcia’s apartment on Riverside Drive, showing her Madonna in a gilded frame.

And yet, she never took me to a church service. I wonder if any of my brothers or cousins remember going to church with her?

My mother used to say Babcia was “more Catholic than the Pope.” I don’t think mom appreciated such public expressions of faith. Sometime after 1985, Babcia moved to an assisted living facility in Flushing. It had mostly Jewish residents including many Holocaust survivors. It may have even been run by a Jewish service organization. I’m pretty sure one of our Jewish relatives helped her get a place there, though of course at the time no one told me anything about that. Babcia did not like living there. Doubtless, much of it had to do with her declining health that made it impossible to stay independent in her old apartment, but she also seemed disdainful of the other residents. She flaunted her Catholicism and rebuffed their attempts to befriend her. I don’t think the managers cared much for Babcia, either. When her health declined to the point she couldn’t take care of herself, they said they have no place for her in their more advanced care facilities. She moved for the last time to a nursing home back in Manhattan, around the corner from St. John the Devine Cathedral. Babcia spent most of her life denying her Jewish heritage. I suspect it was too uncomfortable for her to be surrounded by Jews in a Jewish-identified institution.

When my mom talked about her Catholic faith, she essentially did so in the past tense. She was very devout as a child, and wanted to become a nun. When she was fifteen, she went to a boarding school in Belgium run by nuns. One story she told me about living there was that her mother sent her a box of chocolates. She gave them all away, believing that kind of self-sacrifice was an expression of her faith. Then, that night she cried herself to sleep because she wanted one so bad.

Mama liked to sit in churches, but she didn’t go to services. Or if she did go, she didn’t take communion. She said it’s because she doesn’t go to confession. When I asked her why not, she said everything she experienced during and after the war made her grow distant from the church. Mama’s temple was our backyard. She called herself a pantheist, and said that when she wants to pray she just goes outside and meditates. Her mantra was “ocean.” For as long as she could, mama had a chair she would move around the yard depending on the sun and which flowers were in bloom. Thanks to Krystyna, she still gets out into her garden most days.

Mama in the garden

Mama in the garden

My brothers and I weren’t even baptized. Mama said it was because my dad didn’t want Catholic kids, and she didn’t stand up to him. Rather, she wanted to let us make our own decision about religion when we grew up. Was this odd? At the time I didn’t think so. My dad was an atheist. He had the mind of a scientist and just couldn’t take the leap of faith that, well, faith requires. Later in life, he tried. Maybe it was because his best friend Max became a believer. He read Thomas Merton, and even bought me one of his books. But he simply couldn’t overcome his skepticism. Instead, after retiring, he studied philosophy. My son seems to have inherited this skepticism; at the age of seven he decided God does not exist; he hasn’t changed his mind yet.

I still wonder, though, what could have turned Mama away from the church. Maybe witnessing the destruction of war made her question the existence of God. At least the Christian God, because she remained deeply attuned to God in nature. I think she said it had something to do with her injuries, the long series of failed surgeries, the scars they left behind, and then the final straw, getting tuberculosis and losing a year of her life at a TB hospital in Denver. I also wonder if it had something to do with her Jewish heritage and her failed love affair with a priest. But I’ll leave that story for another post.