When my mother passed away 18 months ago we undertook that sad task of dividing her possessions and dispensing of those we didn’t want. She didn’t have much left, frankly, having downsized to a room in a nursing home a year earlier.
Jewelry, photograph albums, trinkets, a few paintings.
And a big old brown urn that she’d had in her home since I was a kid.
As we were going through the old photos and jewelry, my youngest daughter Fielding asked if she could have the urn. No one else wanted it, so of course we agreed.
On our way to the car with the few items we’d retained from my mother’s long life, I asked my daughter why she wanted the urn. I mean, it’s not the most appealing object I’ve seen. I couldn’t imagine why a young woman would want it in her home.
“You don’t know the meaning behind this urn?” Fielding replied.
“There’s a meaning behind it?” I asked, baffled.
When I reflected on it, every time my mother moved house, from our large family home, to a smaller seaside home after my father died, to an even smaller mobile home, to a room in a nursing home, that urn made the transition with her. Of all the vases, bric-a-brac, and keepsakes that had disappeared over the years, that ceramic urn travelled the whole journey with her.
Years earlier, my mother had told Fielding the story of the brown urn that graced her home for 40 years. And now Fielding was telling it to me.
In the 1960s, after my brother and sister and I had started school, my mother had grown bored of being a stay-at-home mother when there were no kids at home during school hours.
She wanted a job. She wanted companionship and purpose. Not necessarily a career. Just a part-time job. A chance to contribute to the household. A modicum of independence.
A friend of hers had started working the lunch shift at a local diner, the Hobble Gobble, making sandwiches and coffees, wiping down tables. It wasn’t much, but the hours allowed her to see her kids off to school and be there when they got home.
Her friend said they were hiring. She’d put in a good word for her.
When my father heard he hit the roof.
He told her it was shameful enough to have a working wife, but one who made sandwiches at the Hobble Gobble?? Perish the thought. He was putting his foot down. He simply wouldn’t allow it!
It was the mid-60s, remember. Think Don and Betty Draper, subservient wives, and domineering husbands.
And my father was an imposing figure, not easy to defy. He reminded her that his own mother had been a single woman who’d raised him during the Depression, working several menial jobs to make ends meet. He’d vowed that the mother of his children would never have to do that.
But she ignored his demands.
In an act of defiance, for her own sanity, my mother took a job serving lunch to truck drivers and motor mechanics at the ludicrously named Hobble Gobble.
My father’s recourse was to sullenly tell her that not one cent of her pay-packet would go toward the family budget. He was the family’s provider and he could do that without any assistance from her. When she asked him what she should do with the money she earned, he told her she could flush it down the toilet for all he cared.
My dear mother told Fielding that when she collected her first paycheck she had no idea what to do with the money. She ended up at the local department store where she saw the urn for sale. It was expensive. Her whole week’s pay. So she bought it on a whim.
She placed that big ass urn in the most prominent position in our living room, a symbol to my father of her newfound independence.
But I was oblivious to all that.
I remember where it sat in our family home. I’d seen it make the move to each of my mother’s homes since. It was always there. I just never knew how much it meant to her.
There all kinds of important symbols of the women’s movement. Images like Rosie the Riveter, the Venus symbol, and the Women’s Power symbol. Or that iconic 1971 photograph in Esquire magazine of Dorothy Pitman-Hughes and Gloria Steinem raising their fists in solidarity.
My mother was no fist-raiser. I’m not even sure if she would have called herself a feminist. But her granddaughter, Fielding identifies as one. And in my family that brown urn is as powerful a symbol of women’s rights as any.
Gloria Steinem once said a feminist is “anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.” On that definition I’m a feminist then. But the reason I’m a feminist isn’t only in this urn. I’m a Christian. And even though some Christian traditions have seen women as inferior and restricted to certain roles, I don’t see Christianity and feminism in opposition. My faith shapes my belief in the equal rights and equal value of all human beings.
I understand the Christian faith to be about liberation and new life. I think the church can dust off its patriarchal reputation and be an ally of women’s rights.
After all, as the great Dorothy Sayers pointed out, Jesus was a feminist:
“Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man—there never has been another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them as ‘The women, God help us!’ or ‘The ladies, God bless them!’; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unselfconscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything ‘funny’ about woman’s nature.”
It’s because of Jesus’ example that I think Christians should challenge the structural injustice of sexism and be firm in our commitment to liberating and empowering women, learning from female theologians and scholars, welcoming their perspectives, submitting to their insight and wisdom, and encouraging men and women to serve alongside each other in leadership.
As Sarah Bessey, author of Jesus Feminist writes, “I look forward to the day when women with leadership and insight, gifts and talents, callings and prophetic leanings are called out and celebrated as Deborah, instead of silenced as Jezebel.”
I think that every time I look at my dear mother’s tradition-defying brown ceramic urn.