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A Prudent Use of Guilt

by Maggie Van Ostrand
Maggie Van Ostrand
Guilt can be a wonderful thing, and very useful. That's why it's so popular in religion, especially the one I grew up in. Catholic. If applied wisely to the tender minds of children, guilt can last a lifetime. Even the Energizer Bunny can't make that statement.

It started with my Mother. She inflicted Catholic guilt on us kids all our growing-up years. She still does, even after death.

Whether she could afford it or not, Mom sent donations to Catholic charities, which sometimes sent a gift back, usually a scapular. They were prudent enough to enclose an envelope for her to use next time she could scrape some money together from her meager household budget. The sight of the new envelope just sitting on her desk waiting to be filled, was the beginning. Guilt by osmosis.

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 Martha Stewart's, if not for Mom's prayerful vigilance.

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 Jesus himself. When these figurines arrived, they were also accompanied by a new donation envelope. While Mom might run out of money, she could never run out of those envelopes. They just sat there, waiting to be filled. We ate a lot of meatloaf so she 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, the kind that still have the little tabs which once attached them to each other until a factory worker cuts them apart. Not the kind of thing you'd put on the dashboard of your car. If you had a car.

Years later, I was living full time in San Antonio Tlayacapan when the phone call came from my sister telling me that Mom had died. There was no funeral to return to New York for; Mom had wanted her body donated to Rutgers University. Perhaps they'd find the secret to her longevity.

Some time after that, I received a package from my sister containing memorabilia. And a dozen or so of those old figurines.

My sister didn't want them, but apparently found herself unable to throw them away. Guilt. So she sent them to me. Thanks, Tory.

I didn't want them either. For one thing, even though I had visited the Church in San Antonio on several occasions, I had not practiced the Catholic faith in many years. For another thing, these plastic figurines were tacky.

I felt guilty for the first time since childhood. This was "advance guilt," since I hadn't done anything yet except open the package.

The "Committee" that lives in my head came out in full force and debated for weeks about what to do with these 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.

Against my better judgment, I prayed for guidance.

Suddenly, the solution came. This was, after all, Mexico, where faith is strong and deep. So I wrapped all the figurines in a cloth, walked down to the Church and, ashamed I might be seen, looked both ways before entering.

I walked up to the altar and placed the figurines on a wooden table conveniently standing just outside the rail. The table had nothing on it except for a crisp white cloth. Was the table waiting to be filled, as once the envelopes had waited?

Epilogue: Two months later, I peeked inside the Church door. The figurines were still there.

I've often wondered what churchgoers thought about the sudden appearance of these artifacts. A message? A mystery? A miracle?

Whatever they thought, I know one thing. Guilt is hereditary, easily inflicted, and will be around as long as people have kids.
Copyright Maggie Van Ostrand
"A Balloon In Cactus"
August 3 , 2004 column
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