Growing up, I was never particularly fond of the name Louise, though I did like its meaning, “Famous Warrior”. Named after my father, Louis, I felt trapped between my mother’s desire I be ‘a good girl’ and my father’s wish I be the second son he’d wanted.
I wanted to be Natasha. As in, a Russian Princess with black hair and piercing blue eyes and alabaster skin who wore rustling silk gowns and always got her way, and when she didn’t, threw tantrums and stomped her tiny slippered feet with impunity.
Or Rebekah. Grandmother to Joseph. In the photos of her in the big, red-leather-bound book with the words, The Catholic Bible embossed in gold on the front that sat in a dominant place in our living room, Rebekah had black hair and dark eyes, like me. She looked beautiful, like I imagined my father’s mother to be. I never met my father’s mother, but she too was Jewish, which seemed exotic to my childlike mind. We seldom spoke of her. She divorced my grandfather when he was a child. The story my father told was that she didn’t want him so sent him away from London, England to boarding school in Gravelbourg, Saskatchewan, when he was eight, while his sister stayed to live with her in London. Many years later I would learn that wasn’t the full story, but it was the story we grew up with.
I loved the story of Rebekah in the bible. How she cemented her place in history, used her feminine wiles and wits to create a dynasty and a place in history for her favourite son. In a house where my sisters and I used to joke about our brother that, “the sun rose and set on the son”, I liked how Rebekah knew exactly what she wanted and was committed to do what she needed to get it.
Rebekah’s path did not sit well with my mother. Women don’t behave like that she’d insist whenever I’d ask to read Rebekah’s story. It’s not ladylike to be so domineering, she’d say, before turning to a page she preferred we read.
Looking back, I can understand why my mother insisted we read only the stories that extolled the virtues she deemed to be ladylike. I wanted to be the things she did not admire in women. Independent, strong, willful even, like Rebekah, but was often told I was petulant and demanding, bratty even, like Natasha, my Russian wanna-be namesake.
For many years, I got lost somewhere between the pages of that red-bound-leather bible and the confusing messages of the world around me. “Be smart, but not too smart. Boys don’t like smart girls.” “Dream big, but not too big. Boys don’t like girls whose dreams are bigger than theirs.” “Be outspoken, but not too outspoken. Boys don’t like loud-mouthed girls.”
For my mother, there was never a question that being like Mary was the goal of every woman. Nor was there any question in her mind that I would ever attain such grace. I was just too flawed and imperfect to ever get there.
I didn’t particularly want to, ‘get there’. Yet still, I tried. And constantly failed. It felt like a set-up. By God. The Bible. The stories of men who dominated its volumes and its unrealistic expectations of women’s virtues. Society and its double standards. My body that, no matter how hard I wished it wouldn’t, kept turning into a body men desired.
I have long since come to terms with my name and nature and femininity. Time, and a whole lot of therapy, have given me perspective. But, as I began to write this piece I went back and read the stories of Rebekah and was transported back to those childhood days when my mother would take down the red-leather-bound bible from its perch and open it to a story she wanted to read.
In that memory I am reminded of the sacred nature of those moments. Of sitting close to my beautiful mother listening to her soft lilting voice, her hands fluttering in the air between us as she read the stories that meant so much to her. Of how each turn of a page revealed yet another stunning painting of a Biblical scene in living colour.
Sometimes, she’d read a story from one of the four Book of Saints that accompanied the red leather-bound bible.
The ones about the women saints, those who defied the odds, who did great things with great courage and even greater spirit ignited my imagination. I wouldn’t realize it then, but those are the stories that birthed the feminist in me.
I wanted to be like those saints. Not the pious part. That just wasn’t my gig. But the strong, committed, overcoming challenges and standing up to unrighteousness and corruption and wrong-doing in the world… now that part grabbed my dreams of who I wanted to be in the world. The challenge was always to find my path without having to be the ‘good little Catholic girl’ my mother dreamt I’d become.
It would take me many years, and buckets full of life experience, to find my own way.
And while as a child, I’d often rather have been out playing in the backyard, today, I am thankful for those times when I sat beside my mother as she read stories from the big red-leather-bound bible on her lap. I didn’t know it then, but in those quiet moments she was giving me many gifts. A love of beauty, of story, of art, of possibilities. And the courage to use my voice and gifts to create a better world today.
About the Art: After our mother passed away at 97 years of age last February 25th, I brought home the stack of prayer cards she used every night to say her prayers. For several months, I worked on an altered book art journal, incorporating her prayer cards into each page. The 2-page spread above is from the printed copy of the finished book which I created of the altered book art journal (I wanted to give both my sisters a copy so needed to have it printed). The 3 faces are my grandmother, mother and me. If you’d like to view the print-copy of the book, you can see it here.
For me, the book stands as a testament to the power of art to heal hearts and the past while inspiring beauty in the present day and awakening courage to create a more loving tomorrow.