Things are seldom what they seem,
Skim milk masquerades as cream;
Highlows pass as patent leathers;
Jackdaws strut in peacock’s feathers.
–H.M. S. Pinafore, Gilbert and Sullivan
For most of my young adulthood, I hated her. I really hated her, but I could never say it out loud, for if I did someone would be sure to say, “How could you hate Sylvia? She is so good. So wonderful. No one knows how she does it.” So I just seethed quietly and watched my husband’s cousin play the role of a saint.
Charlie’s large extended family deceived me at first. I had grown up in a Waspish patriarchy; when I wandered off the reservation and married into a family of Italian descent and watched the swagger and independence of the men, I assumed I was just seeing another patriarchy – different and louder – yet still a men’s kingdom. I was wrong. Not only was my new Italian clan a matriarchy, it wasn’t even ruled by the oldest woman. It was dominated by a woman just a little older than myself.
Her name was Sylvia, and I abhorred her almost immediately. For you see, Sylvia was perfect. With her black glossy curls, she looked adorable even straight out of the shower. She had three kids, an alcoholic husband, and a mother who was whiny and helpless. Yet Sylvia seemed to think that she had a perfect life. And she wanted everyone else to share her joy. She gave huge family parties for which she did most of the cooking herself; she ferried elderly relatives to the doctor; she always stayed after baptism or first communion parties to help wash the dishes. Sylvia was the first one to arrive lugging flowers and biscotti when anyone landed in the hospital. She was endlessly cheerful and kind in the face of schedules and obligations which sent me to bed with a migraine. I grew to hate the family parties. I arrived late and left early and couldn’t believe anyone could take that much aggravation and noise for six or seven hours straight. But Sylvia could smile through it all and then stay behind to clean up.
And on top of all that, Sylvia went to Mass every single morning of her life. At first, I wondered if there was some dark sin that Sylvia had that she was atoning for, but the longer I knew her, the unlikelier this seemed to be. She was always either offering to pray for you or telling you that she just had. She prayed about our illnesses and pregnancies, for our husbands to get jobs and for the bank to give us that mortgage. And Sylvia prayed pre-emptively against all the woes that might befall any of God’s creatures. We all firmly believed that the Lord listened to her, because – God knows – none of us were ever able to say no to Sylvia.
In fact, one place that I found it interesting to watch Sylvia was at Mass. I wasn’t Catholic, so could only partake as an observer, but there was plenty of opportunity for that given funerals, weddings, christenings, confirmations, and first communions in my husband’s extended clan. Sylvia just seemed to zone out when the priest started chanting the ritual. If one didn’t know that Sylvia went out of her way to get to Mass every morning at an ungodly hour (no pun intended), one would have thought she was just mentally absenting herself. But, that seemed hardly likely. Was she having mystical experiences? Was she floating on another plane as she waiting for the Eucharist? It was impossible to tell.
Needless to say, I had none of Sylvia’s wonderful character traits. While Sylvia drank socially, she never got drunk. If I had more than one, there were always apologies to be made. Sylvia listened to the medical tales of the old ladies for hours; I excused myself after three and a half minutes. Sylvia never yelled at her kids at family gatherings; she never had to. I yelled and it never did any good. I never learned how to make decent sauce or biscotti, but refused to take up Sylvia on her offer to give me a hand. When my mother-in-law suggested more than once that I could learn something from her niece, I glowered.
This is how my conversations with Sylvia went:
Sylvia (making a positive strike in order to put me in the position of having to thank her): Look at you! Your hair looks terrific like that! [In a ponytail?] But you always look great!
Me (knowing I postponed my shower until too late while trying to get the kids ready for a party with their cousins, and I neither looked nor smelled “terrific”): Thanks. You look good too. And the food smells great.
Sylvia: Well, we did most of the food for the Boy Scout dinner last night, so it’s really only hamburgers and hot dogs. I made some macaroni though. And a cake for Jody’s birthday.
Me: Don’t know how you do it!
Sylvia: Well, I don’t work full time like you do. (She smiles so I won’t be able to interpret this as a sly critique.] It’s really nothing. I have to be doing something. [Smiles again and sips on the gin and tonic that is going to last her all afternoon.) You’re empty. Shall I get you another drink?
And so it went. I silently raged, smiled, and listened to everyone tell me how wonderful Sylvia was and I had absolutely no grounds to argue. There was no chink in the armor to even pick at. Believe me, I looked for one.
I held out against succumbing to Sylvia for many years. Even when I was desperate for a sitter, when I had to go to work for a big meeting and one of the kids was sick and couldn’t go to daycare, I never called Sylvia – the one stay-at-home mother in my orbit. And I knew Sylvia would have helped in an instant. I did not want to be beholden in any way. My husband and I had all manner of spats about whether to attend all his family’s functions. I never could quite tell him what the problem was. He and the kids loved to go. And what could you say against Sylvia? So we went. And every time I drank a little more to get through it.
It was the drinking that brought my relationship with Sylvia to a head one hot Fourth of July evening. One could argue about whether I had a drinking problem – and Charlie and I did on a regular basis – but the family get-togethers were the only place it got out of hand. A certain level of inebriation was necessary (so I told Charlie when the kids were out of earshot) to get through these frequent family fiestas. That afternoon I had followed by usual pattern. I started with beer, moved to gin and tonics, and then moved back to beer when no one would bring me another drink. The beer were in a barrel of ice in the backyard and hard for my keepers (i.e. my husband and mother-in-law) to monitor. I was plastered by the time the sparklers were brought out. Charlie was disgusted and gathered up the two kids and left, telling me (publicly) that I could get a ride home or not – he really didn’t care. Everyone was avoiding looking at me, and as much as I wanted to leave I didn’t want to ask anyone for a favor.
But kind, saintly Sylvia came over to sit next to me. She offered to make me a cup of coffee and said she would drive me home when I was ready. With her eyes alone, she warned off anyone else from making an attack on my drunken, hapless self.
Having no choice, I drank the coffee, accepted the ride, and that was how Sylvia and I ended up sitting in my driveway in the dark, listening to far away fireworks explode in the humid air.
“I’m sorry,” I sniffled.
“No problem,” murmured Sylvia as she took my hand. “My Ralph gets just as drunk all the time, but he just locks himself in the bedroom. Everyone knows though. I wish he’d get help. Do you do this a lot?”
“Just at your house.” My drunken persona was very honest indeed.
Sylvia sat in silence for a while holding my hand. “Why don’t you like me? Did I insult sometime when I didn’t mean to?”
I shook my head. “You’re too perfect,” I sniffled. “The perfect little Italian wife, the Madonna. No one even thinks you ever even take a crap. I don’t know how you do it. Religion I suppose. A regular little nun with a husband, a rescue dog, and three kids. I’ve tried to figure you out, you know. How in hell do you do it?”
Sylvia laughed. “Sometimes I don’t know how I do whatever I do. What did you figure out?”
“Jesus. I guess it’s why you go to Mass every morning. You pray and light candles and it carries you along like some kind of holy angel or something.”
Sylvia let go of my hand and covered her face. “I don’t believe in any of that. I wish I did. I started the morning mass thing thinking if I acted like I believed, it would come. Now it’s just a habit, a way to be quiet and get my bearings every day. But I don’t believe any of it. Not a word. I wish I did.”
“Don’t believe… what? Jesus, Mary, the resurrection?”
“None of it. Right after I married Ralph, I realized I had made a huge mistake. Life sucked. And then my mother started acting like an eight-year-old, I got pregnant, and Ralph started drinking. I was sure that there was no one watching over me. What had I done to deserve that? Went through a few tough years. All I could think of was driving the car off the bridge or maybe a few too many pills while everyone was out of the day. Finally, I decided that if I couldn’t believe what I was supposed to believe, I had to believe something or give it all up. ”
“Sounds good to me,” I said, looking at the dark house and wondering if Charlie was sitting there in the dark waiting to pounce on me when I stumbled in. “So why are you still here?” As I muttered my question I realized it was ambiguous – here in my driveway or here in the land of the living?
Sylvia shook her head. “I’m a good little Catholic girl. I had to believe in something. So I just decided that if there was no one up there looking out for us, I would look out for everyone the best I could. Upside down. God doesn’t take care of us so we have to do it for him. It gave me a sense of purpose. But not faith. I know I’m not going to heaven; there is no heaven and this can be hell much of the time. All I’m doing is giving myself a reason not to go off the bridge. Someday it might not work.”
I took all this in while I looked through my bag for house keys.
“But you pray for other people,” I countered. I couldn’t count the times Sylvia had said she would pray for me.
“Makes people feel good. And in my way I do. Pray that I can figure out what I can do to help make life more bearable for them. And for me.”
“Let me try to get this straight.” I still hadn’t found my keys and it was unlikely I was going to get anything straight at this point. “You don’t think there’s a God or Mother Mary or anyone looking after the people you care about, so you are just going to do it yourself? You are going to be the fucking God?”
When Sylvia went into a fit of laughing over this, I forgave her everything. I even admired her and occasionally tried her attitude on for size. In the long run, it didn’t work. But I was young and didn’t have much staying power. I eventually divorced Charlie and his Italian clan and lost touch with Sylvia. But I often think about her. My kids tell me she is still going strong, although Ralph died a few years ago. I would love to ask her if she ever got her faith back. You would have to ask her because you could never tell just by watching her. I still think of her as “Sylvia the Saint,” but with affection and curiosity, rather than with jealousy and resentment. And I wonder. Who is the bigger saint – someone who believes absolutely or someone who carries on anyway?