“The obviously well-kept secret of the ‘ordinary’ is that it is made to be a receptacle of the divine, a place where the life of God flows.”
Back when I was a mere adolescent, fully adorned with awkwardness and insecurity, on some of the worst days of teenage angst I found myself driving to my parish, St. Mark’s, so that I could attend daily Mass. The little chapel where it was celebrated was converted from a classroom that had been part of the old school before it closed. It was small but cozy and it was filled with mostly men and women who were quite aged. Although I recognized some of them from Sunday Mass, I didn’t know any of them personally. But that didn’t matter, because when this young, awkward, insecure teenage girl walked into the chapel, they collectively lit up and without saying a word communicated a sense of welcome and acceptance. Combined with receiving Jesus present in the Eucharist, I left those Masses feeling a sense of hope and strength to continue the particularly rocky leg of life’s journey on which I found myself, puberty.
When I embarked on my career in the Church, I found them once again. Different parish, new names and faces, but yet the same spirit. Though most were shrouded in wrinkles and an outward appearance that tells a story of arduous life, there emanated from within them a purity of love and kindness that is sweet to the soul. When my daughter began kindergarten at the school adjoining the parish where I worked, each Wednesday I attended School Mass. Seated towards the front of the church on those days were all the students and in the pews at the back, shining forth with that telltale light of Christ were the St. James daily communicants. This community of morning Mass people, consisting of widows and caregivers, the able-bodied and many with canes and walkers, they extended their web of support to include us naive school moms. We were filled with hopes and fears and dreams for our small children; they were filled with wisdom, lived experience and deep faith. One woman in particular quickly found her way into my heart and eventually into my soul. Her name is Marie.
The privilege of developing a deep friendship with Marie was due in part to the fact that she volunteered a few days of the week to work in the parish office. Gathering together for lunch on these days was something I always looked forward to doing. The simple kitchen table provided the place where our relationship flourished. On the outside, Marie seemed like an ordinary 80 something-year-old woman, the kind of person that doesn’t get much attention in a world that prefers shiny, new things and people. And yet if you took the time to notice, within her dwelled the most extraordinary and sacred presence of divine love. What impressed me the most was that even though Marie had tragically lost three of her four children much too early and more recently her husband, she possessed a peace that passes understanding, a joy that knows no bounds and enduring faith in her Savior. Not even the slightest trace of self-pity could be found within her.
Her life before marriage and raising her family hadn’t been easy either. She was born in 1924, the oldest child and only girl. Marie was the grandchild of German immigrants who settled in Wisconsin amongst the Native Americans. She regaled us with stories her grandparents told of sheltering indigenous peoples during one very harsh winter storm. To listen to her recall these experiences and those of her family weathering the Great Depression could be likened to stepping into the pages of a living history book. And she shared the great sadness of the day when her father left the family, leaving her mom to raise Marie and her brothers as a single mother at a time when encountering a family broken by divorce wasn’t a commonplace occurrence. We bonded over our shared experiences of being mercilessly teased as children for being chubby, as well as our shared love of butter. “Everything is better with butter!”, we would enthusiastically proclaim at the lunch table as we smeared a thick layer onto our favorite baguette from Panera. Even though we were born 55 years apart, we agreed matter-of-factly, we were soul sisters.
As a young mom in the throes of turbulent days raising a neurodiverse child, Marie stood for me as a beacon of light and strength in a chaotic world. She listened to my struggles and assured me of her prayers and her belief that Jesus would give me the grace to be the kind of mom my Sadie needed. She shared with me how back in the day before there were diagnoses such as ADHD and anxiety, she too fought for her son Jimmy, always seeing the good in him when others could not. For Sadie, she became an adopted grandma who regularly greeted my girl with slices of her daily apple to share with Sadie when she walked into the office after school. When she became a new altar server, serving at daily Mass, Marie would wait for her afterward to offer her a quick hug, a kind word and maybe a special prayer if there was a test that day before shooing her back to class. She was one of those special persons a parent hopes and prays will be in the village that it takes to successfully raise a child.
The day I began to suspect that I wasn’t just the only one who felt this way about Marie was the day she invited me to be her guest at a wedding reception in Chicago. The minute she walked into the banquet room, family members and friends, young and old streamed to her side. She was the matriarch in the room, her presence almost regal. To watch the way everyone greeted her and to listen to the words they spoke to her was to witness firsthand the abundant fruit of a life lived with great love for others. Every time I was in her presence, she had a way of making me feel as if I was her favorite, but that day it became clear that she had that way with every single person she loved.
Truth be told, Marie’s real favorites in this world were her grandchildren. Her three grandsons and her granddaughter kept her young and open-minded. She gathered them together at her table to play cards where she would most often win while learning of the challenges they faced in these contemporary times. I’ll never forget her telling me of a book, Modern Romance, which she read at the suggestion of her granddaughter Sarah who wanted her grandma to understand why dating in this day and age is so very difficult. Marie recalled to me that once she got past the f-bombs in the book, the message was very informative and she had a new appreciation for what her grandkids were facing. On her part, she resolved to do what she could do to remedy the situation and began to pray harder Sarah would find a good man with whom to spend her life. Not long after, Ben arrived on the scene. Sarah and Ben are to be married next month.
When Marie was diagnosed with lung cancer, it came as quite a shock to her because she was in amazing health, didn’t take any regular medications and felt nothing but a slight pain in her shoulder. After having watched so many of her friends suffer terrible sickness while undergoing chemotherapy, she decided she had lived a great life and would live whatever was left of it to the fullest without seeking any treatment. She made the most of every day, maintaining her very active life. She kept getting rides to Mass each day from her friends Yvonne and Pat, playing competitive hands of cards with her church ladies, keeping up with her regular hair appointment, faithfully fulfilling her First Saturday devotions with Confession, Mass, Communion, Rosary and always, always praying for everyone. As her family recalled, Marie’s prayer list had a place for anyone’s hopes, fears, dreams, and needs. She had a special pregnancy prayer list for those women trying to get pregnant or who had difficult pregnancies. I recall her excitement whenever a child was born to one of these women and her insistency to share the pictures of these babies with us all. But, hands down, the greatest joy was baby Alexandra, born to grandson Jason and his wife Marina, her very first great-granddaughter. She was over the moon that she had survived cancer long enough to embrace this delightful soul, a long-awaited and welcome addition to her family tree.
When it was time to begin hospice, I remember laughing out loud when she told me she didn’t have time for them to come and visit because she was too busy with life. She was right. Marie was too busy cherishing every day she had to live that she really didn’t have time to be about the business of dying. As cancer began to slowly take from her the ability to do the things she loved most, she offered a simple fiat and looked for the blessings that remained. When the day arrived when she was longer able to leave home, she praised the fact that she could still watch Mass on television and do her prayers while looking out of her picture windows at the beauty in the magical little forest of trees that surrounded her house. When her morning Mass community realized she could no longer attend Mass and receive Jesus in the Eucharist, they jumped at the chance to bring Jesus to her. They set up a schedule so that every single day someone would come to visit her and bring her communion. We all embraced every last minute we were given to spend with her. To be in her presence was to be with an ordinary, yet magnificent receptacle of the divine, a place where the life of God flowed in abundance.
The very place Marie visited every single day until she couldn’t, the church, ironically it was closed when she died on May 9, 2020. I often wonder why it is she left us at a time when her family and community of morning Mass friends couldn’t give her the big sendoff she deserved. But maybe an extraordinary celebration, with a church filled to the brim was our need, not hers. Perhaps what Marie most deeply longed for was exactly what her Savior generously supplied, the simple, ordinary embrace from her beloved John and her three children, Barbara, Beany and Jimmy, who welcomed her home at last after so many long years of being apart.
Today when I take a bite of a generous slice of bread, smeared with a thick layer of butter, it will be in gratitude for the sacred presence of extraordinary divine love Marie Josephine Kohler shared with my weary soul. Happy Anniversary, Marie! I miss you so very much, wrinkles and all!