Take & Read

Translated by Harold Bordwell

My mother’s conversion was that of a mystic. Love makes each one of our lives an exceptional life. In mine, my mother was the person who meant the most. She gave me the most. The most-that is to say, everything: love of life, even in its smallest ironic details, the wish to understand, to learn, the love of books, tolerance, especially tolerance. Finally, she cradled me in the Gospel, as a child would be cradled in heaven. In all this, I owe everything to her.

Yet, however personal our love might have been, I don’t remember a single kiss. In her large gray shawl she would hold me to her, and nothing in the world matched the sound of her heart next to mine. For her I took the place of Charles-Edouard, one of my older brothers, too early gone, and her favorite brother, William, dead at scarcely nineteen. But she had also placed all her dreams in me. I believe I did my utmost to make them come true.

I was born into the American Episcopal Church. My mother, who was deeply attached to her faith, as soon as possible brought me up in a daily reading of the Bible and I have kept up this habit to this day. In a general way, almost all the teaching I received from her was centered in Jesus as a human person. It seems to me that even in the rhythms of the Our Father, which she made me say with my head on her shoulder, she allowed me to feel the supernatural tenderness of her faith and communicated something of it to me. In my child’s imagination it was possible for her to touch Christ by the hand, though he remained invisible to me, but, as far as I remember, I said nothing. She always insisted on the love that he had for me and on his unceasing protection. I inherited this love from her, and it was a kind of legacy worthy of the wisest theologies. My road toward the Catholic faith was such that its basic beliefs were always hidden from me.

My mother died on December 27, 1914, at the Villa du Lac, our home then, in Vésinet. In accordance with the custom of many Protestants, she was left to lie alone on her bed. Each of us stayed in his room and the house was plunged into a silence that seemed terrible to me. I decided to shut myself up in a room on the fourth floor, but soon I wanted to slip out quietly and I went down the staircase a few steps, then began looking at the door of the room where she lay, retracing my steps in a flux of fear and curiosity. Finally, I made up my mind and walked straight to the bed.

My surprise was great. I expected to discover a face distorted by suffering, while my mother presented the look of someone shrouded in a profound meditation. Never had I seen her so mysteriously thoughtful. Her beauty shocked me even more. All the lines of age had disappeared and her smooth skin tried to imitate youth. With a constricted heart I told her that I loved her and I said it again to be sure that I had really heard my own voice, but I felt unable to stay any longer and I fled.

The moments afterward elude me. Only the horrors of an interment in the country come back to me and, in particular, the service at the Protestant church of Vésinet and the words of the pastor, all sounding alike, tumbling about a catafalque under which I had to believe my mother lay. Then, all of a sudden, I sensed her as real and present, not at all the woman who would have been able to touch Christ by the hand, not at all the sleeping woman beautiful as a statue with smooth cheeks, but as my mama with all her wrinkles, as she always was, she whom I loved, she now under the black cloth.... And my heart broke, but I didn’t weep.

On our return home, a sadness close to despair began to weigh on all of us like a silent storm. My father pulled himself together with difficulty. I tried to continue reading the Bible and to say my prayers as before, but there was in my solitude an emptiness I couldn’t accept. On days off from school I kept myself busy writing a history of France, in my room that had been my mother’s, my bed now being the one in which she had died. I was left in peace.

One afternoon in the fall of 1915, a curious event took place. My pen was skimming over the paper when I was sure that I was no longer alone: someone, at that moment, was standing beside me. I felt no fear. It wasn’t a matter of optical illusions, simply of the supernatural presence of my mother. I had recognized her at once, as you recognize a voice, a look, and I waited, for I had understood that she wanted to draw my attention to something.

Without a word she directed me to the small room nearby where my father used to get dressed in the morning. There, in a small, open dresser where he kept his shirts, I found a book, The Faith of Our Fathers by Cardinal Gibbons.

The book was an exposition of the Catholic faith and I began to read it with an all-consuming eagerness. It taught me in fact a great number of things that my mother had never mentioned and I was ready to accept it all. Page after page went by and I believed everything. I was insatiable for the whole truth. The whole day passed by, and I said nothing about my secret reading. When I came to the sacraments and the Real Presence in the Eucharist, I thought of my mother and I was deeply moved. The next day my reading was finished, and then? What should I do now that everything had changed? I wanted to be a Catholic. To whom should I reveal such a secret? Toward whom should I turn if not my father, who I knew was patient? He listened to me, nodded, and simply said: Some months ago, in England, I myself became a Catholic. Startling news. My father’s conversion would merit a story by itself, for it took him so far that he died in 1927 wearing the habit of a Third Order Franciscan, but let’s return to my mother, she who died faithful to her Protestant community.

Read and reread zealously, the Gospel again and again made her cry out with love. In time she had to admit to herself that she was in love with the Savior. Day after day the book told her the same thing, but each time in a different way. She believed that with each new reading, the book changed: a clarity beyond human language shone behind these pages however familiar they were. In reality, the book didn’t change, it was my mother who was becoming another person.

Death revealed everything to those who saw her forever asleep. Her radiant face told of a secret conversion. If she had been able to see her own face, she would have understood. She had, then, only one wish: To pass on her conversion to her much-loved son. Here begins the mystery whose sense clearly appears if you analyze the facts. My father, in England, must have read the book that I have in my hands today. Back in France, he slipped The Faith of Our Fathers under his shirts where no one would look for it and where my mother made me find it. The dead have resources we know nothing about.

What did this book tell me? It revealed to me, alone in the world, that Christ had come to save me. And it was the same for each one of us. Why? For what reason? Out of love. God is love. When you have said that you have said everything. And, to return to what I owe my mother, she gave me life, and then gave it to me again.

Published in the 2007-12-21 issue: 

Harold Bordwell is a retired editor living in Evanston, Illinois.

Also by this author
A Beggar to the End

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