Of Many Things

I’ve been reading about the brave hearts who stayed behind at Fukushima Daiichi—the nuclear power plant fatally crippled during the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan—knowing they are likely killing themselves, staying anyway to protect their families and their community. Their example is humbling and ennobling at the same time. I wonder how well I would hold up under such pressure. Would I have the courage and self-control to stay, comforted only by the faith that my sacrifice was for the greater good? It’s nice to think so, but....

The heroic act, the martyr’s death: What 11-year-old did not contemplate the doing of noble deeds or long for a memorable end? Reading of the many torments of one of the North American Jesuit martyrs, St. Isaac Jogues, did I not, fleetingly at least, wonder in what blaze of pious glory my light would likewise be extinguished?


There is enough of the childlike idealist left in me sometimes to wonder what my grand gesture might be, what sacrifice I will make to better the world or leave a lasting testimony to faith. I haven’t followed Isaac Jogues up the Hudson except on the Metro North, nor followed Albert Schweitzer into Africa. I have not pitched myself into the life of a Catholic Worker House. In short, I’ve come up pretty short in the suffering and sacrifice department. Too cowardly to follow Jogues into the red martyrdom, too co-opted for the white martyrdom of self-denial and service to others, too lazy for the green martyrdom of prayer and mortification behind monastery stones: What’s left for a middle-class schmoe in the suburbs? Is there such a thing as a gray-flannel martyrdom?

Pulling out of a country club parking lot where my firstborn is taking swimming lessons, I note its impressive array of glinting, late-model luxury cars awaiting their tennis-bag-toting owners. I climb into the unwashed family Odyssey, the poor thing itself dying the coward’s thousand deaths of bumper and fender dinks and scratches, and wonder about the journey I am on. “Nice little sports car,” I mutter as I follow a shiny Audi out of the lot.

“What’s a sports car?” number one son asks.

“It’s a small car that young men or old men like to buy,” I tell him. “They go very fast. I used to think I might own one someday.”

El Primero surveys the Audi. He’s incredulous. “You couldn’t get more than four people in that,” he says. “Papa, you need a car for six.”

“I’m aware of that,” I say. “Don’t worry; I won’t be getting a sports car.” Then, muttering in most unmanly fashion, I add, “I guess I missed my chance.”

He’s silent a moment, digesting that last juvenile morsel of regret. “If you had no family, you could get one,” he finally says. “If you were still single.” I’m jolted. Have I been talking in my sleep?

“You could get one if you had just one kid,” he adds, “even two.”

“But I’ve got four,” I say, turning the Odyssey slowly (the only way it knows how) out of the lot.

“You’ve got four,” he agrees.

“I’d rather have my four kids than a sports car any day,” I tell him, hoping he will feel the same way himself some day. “Four kids is much more fun.”

This is not to compare myself to Isaac Jogues or the heroic workers of Fukushima or real martyrs anywhere. I am not so deluded as to believe that passing up a sports car should earn me any hosannas. Let’s just call this a small reminder that he and she also serve and sacrifice, if gladly, who only clean up after the sick, get the kids fed and to bed and chauffeur the swimming lesson.

It is a kind of martyrdom that is not especially heroic or colorful, but it’s roomy and gets great gas mileage.

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7 years 12 months ago

I really don't want my name and address publicized, but I want to agree with Kevin Clarke. I hope you can pass this reminiscence on to him.

I started out wanting 12 children. When the oldest of six was in the sixth grade and the graduating brother of one of his friends received a car for graduation present (think it was a convertible - THE sports car for very young men) I said, wait a minute. If we stop now and start saving, we can give cars for graduation presents. About three minutes later, I thought, Nah, six more kids will be more fun.

Didn't make it to twelve, but with a total of eleven, Yes, it was fun. Now, looking back, the grown children say, You sacrificed so much for us! But I remember that it was so much fun!

And without much money, cooking was from scratch - we couldn't afford frozen dinners - and I think they're much healthier because of that. Reaching their teens and wanting more spending money, they soon acquired a work ethic. A daughter called last night and was reminiscing about the era of five girls in a triple bunk bed their father had built out of two by fours. The four boys slept in another room in another triple bunk. Somehow, after spending their childhood in spats, one involving a hair brush thrown from one room to another, they all want to get together as often as they can; we have a three day reunion every three years.

I am so very thankful for the pattern of my life. But, Kevin, I still would like a sports car - I've always hankered after the MG that Rock Hudson drove in the TV series "MacMillan and Wife".

Posted by: Sports Cars Aren't Only for Men!
ed gleason
7 years 12 months ago
Grandma Ginge and Kevin have got the fun part of the journey right, We can't be martyrs because the 'kids' are such good gifts that we keep enjoying., not at all times but at least in the memories that we seem to keep and enjoy as we age and survive. Wasn't that red MG with the leather strap over the hood the best. ?  But looking deeper into materialism,  that damn strap held down the lousy mechanics of the MG car.  
Monica Doyle
7 years 12 months ago

I picked up the most recent America magazine, still on the table with this weeks' mail, as I plopped on my couch after my 2nd consecutive 12 hour day at work. Was I going to flip the channels to hear more of the same about Kate and Will, or thumb through America?  I start at the very 1st page, and peruse throug Fukushima Daiichi,St. Isaac  Jogues, Dorothy Day, not knowing where this article is going, until I connect with midle-class schmoe in the suburbs. Connect even more when I learn you drive an unwashed Odyssey,I am driving an unwashed 9 year old Town and Country that has driven 4 kids to 3 colleges for the past 9 years, Cornell, Univ of Scranton, now 2 at Northeasern in Boston. (120,00 miles on the minvan)

And our youngest ( we have 5 children) also went to swimming lessons, basketball practices,& now Little League practices and games.

While I admire the martyrs throughout history, the day to day raising of what many consider a large family is , while not martyrdom, certainly counter-cultural.

I am e mailing your column to my four oldest children.  I will ask them if anything sounds familiar to them. I think you have described my husband's life.

David Smith
7 years 12 months ago
You don't choose martyrdom; it chooses you.

I imagine many parents have been martyrs.  Lucky parents may find parenting fun, but there are a great many for whom it's a long, hard pull, or worse.
7 years 11 months ago
Reading America while I wait for kid #3 to show up (due tomorrow)...I laughed at your essay and knew I needed to write.

Those of us who live in the 'burbs and ferry kids around often look at the shiny cars of others in the parking lot and wonder what we are doing in our minivans, and how the heck did we get here?

While the martyrdom of parents isn't grand and glorious to others, it is small and wonderful to our kids.  Well, I think, or hope it at least it will be in retrospect.  But parents do martyr themselves to their vocation (remember!  Our families are our vocation!!) in countless ways every day.  Every time a kid wails, and we offer our patience to them, and our impatience up to the Lord, we martyr ourselves.  Every time we try and control toddler OCD of one kind or another, let them jump in puddles and pick dandelions and rather much lollygag rather than getting on with a walk, we let a part of our adult selves die, not permanently, so that our children can live a child's life.  It is small, no one notices but us and God.  But it is still beautiful and mysterious.
C Walter Mattingly
7 years 11 months ago
Welcome to the No Sports Car of America Club.
To assuage your sense of disappointment, I assembled the bucks to buy an old 18o0S Volvo from an FBI agent who had it looking pretty good but, unbeknownst to a youth who valued appearances above all else, thoroughly worn out. After many repairs, the last of which was replacing the radiator after the fan came loose and blew a hole in it, I sold it cheap.
Not every sweet-looking thing is as sweet as it appears.
From the proud owner of a 1999 Toyota 4Runner with appropriate age marks and parent of 4 who is pleased to inform you the 6 grandkids are more than worth it.


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