Cradle to Grave

How my mother’s rebirth in recovery planted the seeds for my own rebirth in baptism

by Susan Palwick
Terri Scott

I’ve been an Episcopalian since 1998, but the first Episcopal church I ever entered was in the New Jersey town where I grew up in the 1960s. No one in my family was religious, but every Thursday evening, my mother attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in the basement of that church. Beginning when I was nine or so, I often went with her.

When my mother explained to me that she was alcoholic and told me about the meetings she went to every week, she asked if I wanted to come to one to see what it was like. She had been frightened to tell me about her illness, afraid that her own daughter would look down on her. I think she wanted me to see that the other people at the meeting were regular folks, including some close family friends. She thought I’d come to one meeting and be bored.

Instead, I loved it. These were open meetings, which anyone could attend and where speakers got up and told their stories. I loved those stories; they were better than TV. Some were funny and some were sad, but they all had happy endings, and they were all true. Even when my mother and her friends grumbled about a long-winded speaker’s “drunkologue,” I sat rapt, entranced. The facts that my mother’s friends were very kind to me and that meetings always featured heaping platters of cookies and cake didn’t hurt either. AA people were family, and every meeting was a birthday party, celebrating new life.

To this day, I can’t smell that universal church-basement scent a—mixture of coffee and mildew—without being transported back to those Thursday evening meetings.

Part of the reason I started going to church in my late thirties was that I yearned for the kind of fellowship AA had offered my mother. Part of what broke down my intellectual resistance to Christian faith was realizing that of course I believed in resurrection. Sitting on a metal folding chair in a church basement, I’d listened to stories about it every Thursday evening for years of my childhood. Resurrection was what AA was about. How could I not believe it, when my own mother—fully expected to die of her drinking—had instead returned to life and remained sober for the 46 years until her death?

By the time she died, across the country from where I now live, I was a baptized, confirmed Episcopalian, a licensed lay preacher, and a spiritual-care volunteer in a hospital. All of this made me both “the black sheep of the family”—as a cousin once told me cheerfully—and the person relatives turned to for help planning funerals. My mother’s death was no different; she’d died in Philadelphia, but her ashes would be buried in a family plot two hours north, in my old hometown. It fell to me, Funeral Girl, to find someone to preside over the small graveside service.

By now, I knew no one in town. I called the spiritual care department of the local hospital and left a message for the chaplain. Then, on a hunch, I called the Episcopal church where Mom’s AA group had met and left another message.

A pastoral associate from the church called me back. He was very sorry that he wasn’t free on the day of my mother’s service; he’d be attending a clergy conference. But he asked me questions about Mom, and I told him that we’d gone to AA meetings at that church, and from his voice, I could tell that his face had lit up. “Oh! I’m in AA too! How wonderful! Tell me more about your mother!”

I did. He listened. He told me again how sorry he was about the clergy conference, and wished me luck finding someone else.

An hour later, the phone rang. It was my new friend, saying that he’d decided not to go to the clergy conference after all. He wanted to perform my mother’s funeral service.

He did a wonderful job, especially considering that he knew none of us and that I’d given him daunting instructions. “I’m an Episcopalian, but the rest of your congregation includes several lapsed Quakers, a lapsed Unitarian, and some polite atheists. We’d like a very short funeral with some traditional language, but it’s probably best if you don’t mention Jesus, or even God.” (Later that year, when a cousin died in Arizona, another Episcopal priest responded in outrage to these instructions and refused to be involved, although I finally found someone else who laughed and said, “Families! They’re always a challenge!”)

The service was tiny: immediate family, a few of my New York friends who’d shown up for moral support. And then my sister and I saw a small, beautifully dressed figure making her way to the graveside, and we both rushed to hug her. It was one of my mother’s oldest AA friends. I’d sat next to her on many of those Thursday evenings; I’d heard her speak. She’d come to all of my mother’s Christmas parties, and her daughters and I had ridden ponies together during summer visits to the farm of another AA friend, long since dead. She was a vital part of my childhood.

A priest I know says that most people come to the church seeking healing; that’s certainly why my mother went to AA. Mom’s rebirth in recovery planted the seeds, it now seems to me, for my own rebirth in baptism. Both of us found faith communities that became family. And although my mother stopped attending meetings years before she died, members of that family came to bear witness, and to send her off, when her time came to go elsewhere.

My mother scoffed at the idea of heaven, or any afterlife. But were I to imagine one for her, it would be a church basement smelling of coffee and mildew, filled with metal folding chairs and laughter and the loving voices of friends.

This article won the 2014 Award of Merit for Devotional/Inspirational: Short Form by Associated Church Press.

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