Use of Guilt
Maggie Van Ostrand
can be a wonderful thing, and very useful. That's why it's so popular
in religion, especially the one I grew up in. Catholic. If applied
wisely to the tender minds of children, guilt can last a lifetime.
Even the Energizer Bunny can't make that statement.
It started with my Mother. She inflicted Catholic guilt on us kids
all our growing-up years. She still does, even after death.
Whether she could afford it or not, Mom sent donations to Catholic
charities, which sometimes sent a gift back, usually a scapular. They
were prudent enough to enclose an envelope for her to use next time
she could scrape some money together from her meager household budget.
The sight of the new envelope just sitting on her desk waiting to
be filled, was the beginning. Guilt by osmosis.
Mom would pin the scapular to the top of her bibbed apron if she was
praying for someone who got sick or died that day, or pin it inside
to the strap of her slip if she was secretly praying for her cheeky
younger daughter. Not that there's anything wrong with that. For all
I know, I'd be languishing in the cell next to Martha Stewart's, if
not for Mom's prayerful vigilance.
If she managed to send as much as $3.00, the Sacred Heart League mailed
back a small plastic figurine of a saint, or the Virgin Mary or even
Jesus himself. When these figurines arrived, they were also accompanied
by a new donation envelope. While Mom might run out of money, she
could never run out of those envelopes. They just sat there, waiting
to be filled. We ate a lot of meatloaf so she could squeeze more quarters
out of her budget.
The white plastic figurines were chintzy looking, kind of like the
cheapest plastic forks you can find, the kind that still have the
little tabs which once attached them to each other until a factory
worker cuts them apart. Not the kind of thing you'd put on the dashboard
of your car. If you had a car.
Years later, I was living full time in San Antonio Tlayacapan when
the phone call came from my sister telling me that Mom had died. There
was no funeral to return to New York for; Mom had wanted her body
donated to Rutgers University. Perhaps they'd find the secret to her
Some time after that, I received a package from my sister containing
memorabilia. And a dozen or so of those old figurines.
My sister didn't want them, but apparently found herself unable to
throw them away. Guilt. So she sent them to me. Thanks, Tory.
I didn't want them either. For one thing, even though I had visited
the Church in San Antonio on several occasions, I had not practiced
the Catholic faith in many years. For another thing, these plastic
figurines were tacky.
I felt guilty for the first time since childhood. This was "advance
guilt," since I hadn't done anything yet except open the package.
The "Committee" that lives in my head came out in full force and debated
for weeks about what to do with these statuettes. Each time I picked
them up and walked toward the trash can, I became paralyzed with guilt.
What, I should simmer in Purgatory or burn in Hell? I simply could
not toss them into the trash. Not the lesser saints, like St. Rita,
Patron of Desperate Situations or St. Bartholomew, Patron of Leather
Workers and Plasterers, and certainly not Jesus or his Mother.
Against my better judgment, I prayed for guidance.
Suddenly, the solution came. This was, after all, Mexico, where faith
is strong and deep. So I wrapped all the figurines in a cloth, walked
down to the Church and, ashamed I might be seen, looked both ways
I walked up to the altar and placed the figurines on a wooden table
conveniently standing just outside the rail. The table had nothing
on it except for a crisp white cloth. Was the table waiting to be
filled, as once the envelopes had waited?
Epilogue: Two months later, I peeked inside the Church door. The figurines
were still there.
I've often wondered what churchgoers thought about the sudden appearance
of these artifacts. A message? A mystery? A miracle?
Whatever they thought, I know one thing. Guilt is hereditary, easily
inflicted, and will be around as long as people have kids.