Maggie Van Ostrand
Bombeck once called guilt "the gift that keeps on giving." She was
so right. Guilt can be an extremely useful tool in every day living,
especially if you're a parent. And even more so if you're raising
a Catholic family. If applied wisely to the tender minds of children,
guilt can last a lifetime. If Al Gore is right, even icebergs up at
the North Pole can no longer make that statement.
Guilt is the state in which civilized people believe they've done
something wrong, or, conversely, we haven't done something we should've
done. It seems to affect everyone except politicians, big business,
Catholic mothers are the best guilt-inflictors in the business, bar
none. Jewish mothers used to be right up there sharing the Number
One spot, until Catholic mothers discovered the double header: guilt
plus shame equals lifetime control.
To avoid guilt herself, my Mom sent donations to charities, specifically,
Catholic charities. Sometimes they sent back a gift, usually a scapular,
one of those things made of felt with serrated edges and a paper picture
in the center of either Jesus or a heart with blood dripping. They
were prudent enough to enclose an envelope for her to use next time
she could scrape some money together from a meager household budget.
The sight of the new envelope just sitting on the desk waiting to
be filled, instead filled Mom with something even more subtle -- guilt
Mom would pin the scapular to the top of her bibbed apron if she was
praying for someone who got sick or died that day, or pin it inside
to the strap of her slip if she was secretly praying for her cheeky
younger daughter. Not that there's anything wrong with that. For all
I know, I'd be languishing in the cell next to disgraced former lobbyist
Jack Abramoff, or a bunch of Enron executives, if not for Mom's prayerful
vigilance. But I'll confide something to you: it was pretty scary
having your mom angry when she was wearing that picture of the dripping
heart, like it was my fault.
If she managed to send as much as $3.00, the Sacred Heart League mailed
back a small plastic figurine of a saint, or the Virgin Mary or even
of Jesus himself. When these figurines arrived, they were also accompanied
by several new donation envelopes. While Mom might run out of cash,
she could never run out of those self-addressed envelopes. We ate
a lot of cheapo Rachael Ray burgers so Mom could squeeze more quarters
out of her budget.
The white plastic figurines were chintzy looking, kind of like the
cheapest plastic forks you can find in the supermarket, the kind that
still have the little tabs which once attached them to each other
until a factory worker cut them apart. Not the kind of statue you'd
put on the dashboard of your car. They could make a Hummer look like
something rejected by a Mexican worker looking for a job outside the
Long after I had married and abandoned the perils of New York for
the perils of Hollywood, my sister phoned from back east to say that
Mom had died suddenly. After the shock wore off and the funeral was
over, my sister gave me a box containing some of Mom's memorabilia.
Inside the box were family photographs, a Stork Club swizzle stick,
and a dozen holy figurines. They must have been decades old, yet showed
not the slightest discoloration or wear, even the little tabs remained.
I'll bet if they made airplanes out of the same white plastic, the
plane would survive a crash.
My sister was unable to toss the statuettes into a Hefty Bag and put
it out on the curb, so she gave them to me. We call this guilt from
the grave. I didn't want them either. For one thing, even though I
had visited a Church occasionally, I had not practiced the Catholic
faith in many years. For another thing, the figurines were ugly.
Still, I felt guilty for the first time since childhood. I think I
even blushed, which is called Visible Guilt. The Catholic committee
that lives in my head came out in full force and debated for weeks
about what to do with these allegedly holy statuettes. Each time I
picked them up and walked toward the trash can, I became paralyzed
with guilt. What, I should simmer in Purgatory or burn in Hell? I
simply could not toss them into the trash. Not the lesser saints,
like St. Rita, Patron of Desperate Situations or St. Bartholomew,
Patron of Leather Workers and Plasterers, and certainly not Jesus
or his Mother. Even if I psyched myself up to throw them away, I'd
have to then face the shame of my actions.
I almost called Barbara Walters to ask if she had any advice, since
her two-hour special edition of 20/20 TV show on "Where Is Heaven
and How Do We Get There?" garnered such good ratings a couple of weeks
At last, the solution came. This was, after all, Hollywood, where
superstition runs strong and deep, especially during the months preceding
the Academy Awards. So I wrapped up the figurines and walked to a
Church frequented by pious celebrities. I went on a weekday afternoon
when nobody would be there and, ashamed I might be seen from a passing
car or a passing ghost of my mom, looked both ways before entering.
At the altar, I placed the figurines on the wide, wooden railing,
then turned and left.
Apparently, all Catholic moms are like mine because the figurines
are still there after two weeks. I peeked.
I've often wondered what churchgoers think about the sudden appearance
of these artifacts. A message? A mystery? A miracle? Would praying
to them achieve an Oscar for someone? Will a member of the congregation
take one and then feel guilty?
Guilt is as important as football, as easily applied as lipstick,
and, if we're lucky, it will force the government to finally fund
New Orleans for Katrina repairs.
In the end, it's somewhat comforting to know that I'm probably the
only one who remembers the things I feel guilty about.
Maggie Van Ostrand
"A Balloon In Cactus"
8, 2007 column