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I Wish My Mother Were Here to See Pope Francis

The Pope’s first U.S. visit inspires the “SNL” alum to reflect on the most influential person in her life: her late mother, a woman who spent years reconciling her feminism with her Catholic faith.
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Pope Francis's  White House visit yesterday morning—part of his six-day Stateside tour—has made me reflect on my mother, who was Catholic, though she did not fit the mold of a Catholic woman of her day. She has been gone for some time now, but the farther away I move from the date of her death, the closer I feel to her and the more I miss her. After she died I found a sentence she’d scribbled on an index card: When will my daughters stop seeing me as a mother and accept me as friend? It broke my heart. To me she was an icon, but I never really accepted her outside the role of mother, even though I know now she earned that allowance. 

My mother, who was born in 1917, was beautiful and strong, both qualities that I admired. We both grew up in a man’s world, of course, but I had more than Eleanor Roosevelt and Katharine Hepburn to look to as examples of emancipated womanhood. She, on the other hand, deferred to men and was smitten with all of her sons, seemingly preferring them to her daughters. She had been the only girl in her own family. My mother was political, a longtime advocate for civil rights and racial integration. She appreciated why Black people revolted after Martin Luther King was assassinated, and if she were alive today, she would understand the outrage against police brutality 50 years later.

She was active her whole life, becoming the president of her senior center, though she hated the word “senior” (she felt it isolated older people). She lobbied for a city project that allowed a $25,000 acquisition to go for a painting to be hung in a public center and won it. The senior center got the acquisition and a beautiful work in oil graced their lobby. The center was not just a place for women to knit or for men to play pool. It became more politically active and less about lazing around. Though lazy was a word that could never describe my mother. My mother was my heroine.

I miss my mother, but never more than in an election season. My mother had a way of calling out bullshit, so I can only imagine what she’d make of today’s GOP.  She loved Jack Kennedy, not just for his looks, but for his message, and admired the First Lady for guiding us through the assassination and funeral and the abyss that came after. So she’d be torn, I think, between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

A nurse, my mother worked full time, which I understood as a necessity at the time, and later it informed my decision to earn my own money and forge my own way as an artist. She is the reason I’ve stood up for myself throughout my career. My mother would recount stories about opening her big mouth when she shouldn’t and I followed her lead.  She seemed fearless and I’m not sure where she got her temerity, coming from a pretty town just west of Chicago, with streets named Poplar and Maple, but she had it. I remember once while we were out walking, we saw a kid get hit by a car—within seconds my mother was administering aid and barking out orders.  

So you can imagine how I responded when an elite director was reading me for a role as a nurse. I wasn’t getting it right. The director said, “She’s a nurse, you know how nurses are. Play her like a whore with a heart of gold.” Right after giving the director a piece of my mind, he threw me out of the room.

My mother worked in obstetrics and went back to train in surgery. Eventually she ran the surgery department in a small inner city hospital. She confidently ran that operating room filled with daily demands of egotistical male surgeons, with a will the doctors had never before experienced. She knew her place alongside the operating table, and she commanded respect for it. But there is one story she loved to tell, about the time she refused to allow a peevish surgeon to sew up a patient because she insisted there was still something remaining inside the body. He insisted she was wrong. My mother stood her ground—and she found it. She pulled out a bloody syringe with a pair of forceps. Incidentally, my mother would tell this story at the dinner table.

Some of these doctors, however, became close family friends and would come to my parents’ parties in the 1960s and ’70s. I remember they’d also hosted liberal activist priests, a left-leaning feminist teacher, and even two brothers from Vietnam who spoke at our house about what was happening to their country.

As my mother matured, her conservative views on the Pill, premarital sex, and abortion mellowed and she became adamantly in favor of women’s rights.  Women’s Lib, as it was called back then, was something my father openly despised, but it resonated with my mother, even as she adored Pope John XXIII, who called an evangelical council. She became more aware of the limitations placed on women and eventually increasingly less interested in papal edicts. 

It was Women’s Lib, however, that moved my mother’s demand to be respected outside the operating room and into the rest of her life. Eventually she moved away from the confines of the Church, though culturally she remained a Catholic. She probably would have liked Pope Francis, though, the way I do—from a distance. She would have admired him for standing up for the poor, and calling out the wealthy who would covet their money above all else. She hated injustice, and so do I—unfairness galls me more than anything. In her later years, she became close friends with a lesbian couple I introduced her to, and when she discovered LGBT people were regarded as second-class citizens, she didn’t like that one bit. Any kind of discrimination infuriated her. She wasn’t too keen on capitalism either. So I think she would have recognized Francis as a trailblazer, and as a kind and truly humble person. But she’d also take him to task on more than a few issues. Not least of whom, women.

It took some time, but my mother eventually came around to defending a woman’s right to an abortion, especially if the woman’s life depended on it. The progression her views took seemed to come naturally over time, and so to find the things my mother came to realize as obvious truths set to test now by a national movement to turn the clock back, well that’s something hard for me to stomach. I feel the legacy of my mother slipping away in a world where women have become a political contrivance. We are expected to have careers. We are expected to have children. We are expected to have unrealistic muscle tone. Still we have little in the way of political clout or representation. Why must we define ourselves other than as female persons with equal rights to male persons? Are there any organized religions on the planet that even aspire to that notion?

Everything I learned from my mother, I learned from example. She was not one to give advice, not to me anyway. My older sisters, I know, got some they probably didn’t agree with. But my character really does come from her.  She married and had children and loved her husband. That’s what women did in her time.  She had a romantic, dreamy notion of how things in life would be and learned that life leads you in the direction it will. Perhaps those dreams lay quiescent in the feminine psyche even now. My mother became who she was by proxy. She would have little respect if she were here for anyone telling her what to do or what to think. The Women’s movement she knew and the one I experienced came out of writings by independent women, but the effect was internal.  It was a feeling that had been inside all of us all along. Women have always been strong and relevant, we just never got the credit for it.

After my mother died, at age 77 of a stroke, I felt a loss so huge it seemed there would never be room enough to deal with it. I wish I had more time with her as a friend.  There is so much more now to feel a part of as a woman, and to discuss. Pope Francis would certainly be among her favorite topics—she would have found him fascinating, but she would also have a lot of questions for him. Like, why he hasn’t weighed in on Black Lives Matter or the threat to defund Planned Parenthood, a cynical smack-down of poorer women who need prenatal care and birth control options. The Pope, as relevant as he now is and as important, has not waded in waters of great depth when it comes to specifics. Rape and the objectification of women I am sure would prick up my mother’s ears, and I suspect her take wouldn’t always be politically correct by today’s standards. She would never advise any of her daughters, for example, to free themselves and take a walk alone in a forest preserve. 

And I’m not sure my mother would have appreciated me saying that she evolved, but she did. She would have applauded, as I do, the Pope’s outspokenness on global warming, on debunking creationism. She would have seen in him as sparking the modern beginning of real change in Catholicism, and in faith itself. And if he does not stand up for women in a significant way, which he doesn’t, I think she’d agree that he at least for stands for much that we as women care about. The thing about my mom was, she made me understand that her opinion mattered. And thus my own. She stood up for me after my divorce. She knew about the abortion I’d had many years ago and never asked me to repent nor judged me for it. The Pope has announced that Catholic women can obtain simple absolution for having an abortion—but he never mentioned men in the equation. I bring that up because my mother would have.

She was a woman’s woman who moved confidently in a world she recognized was run by men. She was a woman who loved shoes, as I do, and in fact loved them so much so that she kept a pair in her closet for years that were too small to wear.  She reveled in her beauty. She loved to laugh, loved flowers and sang off key. All the time.  But she set a path for me, and I walked it. And now I wonder about her legacy. I feel that what she came to stand for and believe in is somehow getting away from us. I want to keep opening my big mouth. I really do.  She would have expected that of me. She was a friend—a great one. She was also a feminist.

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Nora Dunn is a Chicago native who started her career as a cast member of "Saturday Night Live" in 1984. She has performed for the past 30 years in film and television, written and performed two one-woman shows, and wrote a book of fictional tales titled "Nobody’s Rib," published by HarperCollins.
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