A Breakup with the Convent, then a Gay Husband, and *Still* She Believed

My mother’s life was complicated and sad — and she was the most faithful person I ever met.

When people ask me where my strong sense of faith comes from, my answer is forever the same: “My mom.”

My mother was the most faithful person I’ve ever met. When things were at their darkest, she didn’t give up. Instead, she prayed harder, believed with a greater passion. That’s because when things were darkest, she believed with all her might things were about to become light.

Achieving and maintaining a sense of unwavering faith is an extraordinary feat for any person. It’s especially extraordinary when one considers my mother’s complicated and extremely sad life.

Entering a control-obsessed, cruel convent

My mother entered the world in the heart of the Great Depression, August 1935. The oldest of six children born to a devout and cash-strapped Indiana couple, Anne Diener was forever giving to others: clothes, records, books — even blankets and food — so that younger siblings were provided for. Sacrifice was a way of life.

From the beginning, my mother’s faith sustained her. Weekly trips to Mass and praying the rosary at night brought her closer not only to God, but also to her devout father — a brilliant and kind man she adored.

That devotion prompted her to think long and hard about how she could make a positive mark in the world. In high school, she became active in the school newspaper and student government, which earned her an invitation to meet with President Truman in the White House’s Rose Garden. While she was intrigued by the notion of putting an end to the Cold War, she was even more intrigued by the idea of helping those in need. And so, just three months after graduating from college, she entered the convent in Oldenburg, Indiana.

Her time as a Catholic nun turned out to be one of the most difficult periods of her life. Ironically, in pursuing a path she thought would be filled with light and love, my mother found darkness and despair.

Young sisters in the 1950s were not only expected to give up all of their worldly possessions upon entering the convent, but also to give up their names (my mother was forced to trade in Anne for a new name of the supervising nuns’ choosing — Sister Aurelia Mary). My mother’s every move was watched not by a supportive, nurturing group of supervising nuns, but by a control-obsessed, and often cruel, lot who withheld mail (many letters intended for my mother were intercepted, read, and destroyed), and, worse, food and medical care.

Long periods of fasting were the norm. Sisters like my mother, who had been plagued by low blood sugar difficulties since she was a child, were deemed unfaithful when they passed out from hunger. “Pray harder!” my mother was told. When she complained about a series of abdominal pains that left her doubled over in agony, she was told the same. For months, she was denied medical care, which some of her old nun friends would later tell me was typical of their convent at the time.

“Sisters who reported any medical problems were considered either liars or not devoted enough,” one told me. It took a kindly priest’s intervention to get my mother the medical care — immediate surgery — she desperately needed.

Soon after the medical intervention, some eight years into her time as a nun, my mother left the convent. She exited in the dark of night. Forbidden to say goodbye to anyone (that was a no-no at the time), and stripped of the enormous habit that she’d worn for nearly a decade, she was given ill-fitting rags and a pair of mismatched shoes to wear for her 4 a.m. exit. (This was typical, I was later told).

Keeping the faith even as a marriage implodes

While she left her habit behind, she never left the Church. If anything, her faith grew ever stronger. Letters to family and friends, including the priest who had worked to get her medical care when no one else would, show a fierce determination to continue to believe.

“It’s not God that let me down,” she would later tell me. “It was the people.”

She continued to attend Mass every day, determined, like so many nuns who left the convent in the 1960s, to find a way to lead a prayerful life — sans habit.

She thought she’d found the ultimate way — becoming a wife and mother — when she married my father in November 1968.

But nearly a decade into the marriage, her faith was tested mightily again, when my father revealed himself to be gay.

My mother was devastated. Her life in the convent had imploded. Now her marriage to my father had, too. While some women would have used the curveballs life threw as excuses to become embittered, angry, hard, my mother did the opposite. She used the experiences to dig deeper, to work to become ever more compassionate.

When my father, despondent and hospitalized after a suicide attempt in the late 1970s, was having a difficult time accepting his sexuality, it was my mother who, heartbroken though she was, intervened.

Pushing aside her hurt, she reached for his hand. “If I can accept who you are, why can’t you?” she asked my father.

“It was one of the kindest things anyone has ever said to me,” my father would tell me years later, tears in his eyes.

The divorce that followed was devastating to my mother. She had failed, she believed, on so many levels — at least in the eyes of a rigid Church. Many parishioners in our small town — a town in which divorce was taboo and many believed nobody was gay — concurred and began to hold her at arm’s length. A mental breakdown followed. She went away for not one summer, but two.

But still, her faith sustained. Still, she made her weekly — often daily — trips to Mass.

And most astonishingly, still she loved. Without fear. Without a hint of bitterness. She loved with her whole heart, her whole soul, just as the Bible had long told her to. She loved not only my brother and me (she was a tremendously affectionate mother who never began or ended a day without a great big hug and declaration of her love for each of us), but also her young students. An early childhood teacher, she devoted her later years to trying desperately to reach her young charges who fell on the autistic spectrum. Trips to her classroom were always joyful experiences for her students and their parents, who found warm hugs and support waiting for them.

“She always made people feel special, less alone,” one mother would later tell me.

Most impressively, she loved without expecting anything in return.

Loving despite depression and compulsive hoarding

That’s not to say that the difficulties of life — all of the loss, the pain, the humiliation — did not take a toll. The last three decades of her life were an exercise in trying to overcome that awful beast known as chronic depression. It forever nipped at her heels. For a time, she sought psychiatric care, paying visits to a local psychiatrist after work. But the depression was undeterred. Eventually, it seeped into our home, resulting in compulsive hoarding.

But while the stacks of stuff blocked my mother’s ability to walk through her home unfettered, it never impeded her ability to love. Even as the mail stacked up, the appliances broke and then sat, the stacks of stuff, stuff, and more stuff grew, she found a way to love.

I once asked her how she could continue to love after a lifetime of loss, how she could continue to believe so faithfully after all the loss she’d endured.

She stood at the foot of my bed in my childhood bedroom, thinking long and hard and then said at last words I will never forget. “You ask how I can believe. I ask — how can I not?”

My mother forever appreciated the miracles in life: the wonder of a great, big, fat bumble bee flying through the air, defying the laws of gravity. The beauty of a humongous, grapefruit-sized peony blossom springing, unbelievably, from a bud no bigger than a pea. And even when things were at their darkest, she marveled at the majesty of a thunderhead cloud, the sound of a child laughing delightedly at mastering a new skill — turning a somersault, tying a shoe.

“The miracle of life,” she always said, “is not in the big things. It’s in all of the little things, too many to count.”

And so now, as a full-time working mom of four, when I have one of *those* days when the roof leaks and a little one has a temper tantrum — or when the news of the day is just too devastating to bear, times when I have had to cover the horror of a school shooting or the aftermath of a devastating earthquake or hurricane — I think of my mom.

“How can you believe so much?” some cynical colleagues ask, who have long resigned themselves to be non-believers.

“Simple,” I tell them. “My mom. My extraordinary mom.”

For more, read the author’s recent book, White Dresses: A Memoir of Love and Secrets, Mothers and Daughters.

Images courtesy of Mary Pflum Peterson.

Mary Pflum Peterson
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