a black and white collage of Catherine Doherty filing papers, sweeping snow, sorting buttons and weaving

Roots Deep and Strong

by Catherine Doherty

 “God’s peace be upon you…and may it abide in you too.

How familiar to me, and how beloved, is the memory of this greeting, heard so many times in my childhood and youth!

Just last night, I was travelling down the road to my Russian yesterdays. My present surroundings vanished and I was back in our immense apartment in St. Petersburg.

It was evening. Dinner was over, the table cleaned. A fire burned cheerily in the big fireplace of our dining room, the favorite room in the house. My brother and I had finished our homework. He was busy drawing some very special pictures of his own. I was sitting on the floor, sewing.

Mother was embroidering, and Father was reading the Gospel for the next day’s Mass, pausing now and then to explain some obscure passage.

All around the table were the servants, each engaged in some work such as whittling, carving, sewing, embroidering, knitting. Yet all their attention was on what Father was reading and expounding. Now and then someone would ask a question or nod wisely and understandingly.

There was oneness in the group. The oneness of love and belonging.

Home? Home was several places to me. One was this big apartment in town where we spent our winters. There were fourteen servants to keep it clean, to attend to the great deal of entertainment that went with my father’s job, and to minister to our wants, which was the smallest part of their work.

Notwithstanding this big labor force, I was not allowed by any manner of means, to live the life of the “idle rich.”

On the contrary, I had to help the servants to serve and, in the process, to learn every household task they performed. It was not that my parents thought their daughter should be a household drudge or confine herself to the kitchen.

Far from it. Their concept of Christian life included that of the dignity of work. All kinds of work. All workers. It also embraced all vocations [then] open to a woman.

According to their concept, marriage, the religious life, or remaining single—at home or in a career—each would benefit and be enhanced by a factual knowledge of household tasks and other manual labors suited to the strength and ability of a woman.

I think that always before their eyes was the life of Mary, “She who gave birth to God,” the Queen of Heaven, who cooked and wove and washed and scrubbed, yet was learned in Holy Scriptures and wise with the wisdom of both God and man.

Yes, even as other parents in Russia, they wanted to give their daughter the heritage of knowledge, many types of knowledge.

First was the knowledge of God; then, according to one’s state of life, academic schooling and the like, the arts, which included music, and handicrafts, especially needlecraft.

Then the art of making and managing a home, prudently, efficiently, graciously, and in the spirit of Christ and His Beloved Mother.

So my life was a full one with going to school, and learning a thousand things outside of its scope; not out of books, but by doing them over and over again.

The procedure was a simple one. First, I had to take care of my own room and things. Then I “filled-in” on the day off of every female domestic except the cook. And slowly I was being made ready even for that.

Thus it was that I learned, at firsthand, how to launder fine table linens, starch them just so, and iron them slowly until nary a wrinkle showed; and how to fold them then, meticulously and uniformly, as well as beautifully.

By the sweat of my brow, and through a thousand aches and pains, I found out how to keep kitchen utensils clean, knives sharp, and floors and tables scrubbed until their white pine wood rivalled snow.

A day came when I truly enjoyed the sight of clean and evenly cut vegetables, all ready, in their cold-water bath, for the stove and dinner to come, adding color and sunshine to the drab mornings while they waited to be cooked.

It even became a game for me to prepare vegetables for the big dinners, when many of them had to be cut in fancy shapes, and carrots and turnips became roses and a variety of other flowers under my now expert ministrations.

So did the butter. I delighted in molding it into a thousand fancy shapes.

Painfully came the lessons of mending and darning. It seems as if the holes in the stockings and socks were alive with perversity. They just would not become the neatly mended, almost invisible rewoven squares my mother demanded.

Patches on linen towels, sheets, napkins, and tablecloths were sheer penances to me. But eventually I mastered this art of keeping things repaired. It even came to pass that I began to like the eternal struggle between me and the disruptive ways of time.

Minding my baby brother on nurse’s day off was another joy, and this was like entering a universe of diapers, baths, baby foods, and milk bottles that had to be warmed up just right.

Yes, taking the place of waitress, kitchen or scullery maid, baby’s nurse, governess, seamstress, and laundress, on their days off, was an education which I would not have missed for the world. It taught me every branch of house management, by doing them.

It served me well, this training, when, penniless, I came to this new world. But it did more. It gave me a living, a start. It built self-assurance in me and confidence. I needed both desperately. It also brought me the deep and profound understanding of the dignity of all work and all workers.

It made me see that in a Christian home, in a Christian family, in a Christian state, all things go together.

Home? Home was also our big estate—the farm on which we spent the springs and summers and early falls.

I loved its old sprawling house, its herb room and workroom, its milk cellars and pantries, its old barns, and its orchards and fields.

In these surroundings, other duties came to me. Mother was a splendid practical nurse. Twice a week she went into the villages to nurse the sick and the poor. I was her assistant.

I would like to have a penny for every mile I walked, carrying a heavy knapsack containing medicines and first-aid needs, for the floors, windows, and doors I scrubbed, for the beds I made in sickrooms.

Early in my childhood, the truth that Christ is in my neighbor was shown to me by my parents’ example and words.

No one was ever turned from our doors, bum or beggar, woman of the streets or thief. The men were welcomed by my father. He himself drew bathwater for them; Mother would do it for the women; then they would be given clothing if they needed it.

They would be served by Mother and Father and by us children—if we had been good through the week, and thus worthy of serving Christ in the poor.

It is thus that we children learned the precious lesson of loving our neighbor as ourselves and to prove, through serving them, our love to God.

But studying, working, helping and serving the poor was not all our life. There was so much gaiety, so much joy in our lives, that somehow it brings tears to my eyes when I behold my own inability to transmit even a little bit of it to the youth of today.

How I wish I could! For it would bring so much happiness, so much peace into their lives, into the lives of their parents, into their communities, and—who can tell?—into the whole world!

Our joys, our gladness, our fun came from within. They sprang from that sense of security, love, and belonging, which our parents gave us so lavishly.

They came too, from the sense of Order. I spell it deliberately with a capital “O” because it stems from the great and tranquil order of God himself.

When the life of an individual or a family is rooted in that great tranquillity of God’s order, when its ends are Christocentric, and Faith is an essential part of it, then joy, true laughter, and real gaiety flower abundantly in that individual’s or that family’s life.

Then children grow up in an atmosphere of love and tenderness. Where love is, God is.

And so our fun was simple. Oh, the anguishing moments we experienced in writing plays and producing them, we and our neighbors’ children. And the pride of achievement when our parents and friends really liked both script and production.

Have you ever danced under the stars on the threshing floor of a big, open barn to the tune of old violins?…Or played charades?…No?…I’m sorry you missed all that.

Our home was not only a place of work, it also was the natural abode of peace and laughter and love.

And who can say that all this did not come from the constant greeting that was exchanged by so many, so often in our home—“God’s peace be upon you…and may it abide in you too.

Mother of Christ,

Keeper of St. Joseph’s house,

Heart of all hearths,

Patroness of all wives and mothers,

Give me the grace

To make a home

Wherever I am.

Amen.

Excerpted from My Russian Yesterdays, (1990), pp. 7-14, available from MH Publications