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  Texas : Features : Humor : Column - "A Balloon In Cactus"


by Maggie Van Ostrand
Maggie Van Ostrand
Erma 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, and psychopaths.

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 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 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 Home Depot.

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 ago.

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.
Copyright Maggie Van Ostrand
"A Balloon In Cactus" >
January 8, 2007 column
Email: maggie@maggievanostrand.com
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