When people ask me what religion I was raised in, I usually say, “Hippie Catholic.”
The main adult influences of my childhood were my mother and my maternal grandmother, Gammie. The latter had converted from Southern Baptist to Catholic – to her parents’ dismay – when she married my grandfather, whose parents had emigrated from Sicily. Although my grandfather never seemed devout, Gammie embraced Catholicism whole hog, as they say in the South.
Her youngest daughter, my mom, was a devout Catholic girl, devoted to the point of creating a shrine to the Blessed Mother in her bedroom and considering the convent. This would not last.
As I understand it, the first burst of rock and roll, and James Dean, changed everything for my mom, or at least put my mother on a path that swiftly led her away from the cathedral as a place for her devotional energies. I envision her in a convertible Cadillac, car radio blasting “Heartbreak Hotel,” “That’ll Be the Day,” and “Tutti Frutti” as she caromed away from the steeples and stained glass toward a wide open field of tall grass, a stage in the far distance, sounds of overheated amplifiers, sitars, and laughing twenty-somethings beckoning. Heavy church incense replaced with sage and weed and cigarettes.
Nevertheless, my brother and I were baptized – he in 1964, me in 1965 – perhaps just to cover all the bases, and to appease my potentially febrile grandmother. Maybe there were gifts involved.
My mother divorced my dad not long after that, and fled for real – not in a convertible Cadillac, sadly – into single motherhood and, fiscally speaking, poverty. She brought the classic albums of the day into the house – Beatles, Dylan, Janis, Mamas & the Papas, Simon & Garfunkel, for starters – so we were certainly rich in music. The bookshelves filled with items like the Upanishads, Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit, JD Salinger, Oscar Wilde, copies of Time magazine, et al. A bigger-than-life black-and-white poster of atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell adorned a wall, and once Nixon fell a clipping of the headline “Nixon Resigns” went above our kitchen sink and would stay there ‘til we moved in 1982.
All of my mother’s devotional energy – the same impulses that had led her to build that shrine to her namesake Mary, and to consider a nunnery – went full bore into the counterculture. In many ways, this is one of the greatest things to ever happen to me.
“Mom says she’s a hippie,” I told Gammie sometime in the early Seventies. I liked the word, and was testing out its power. Plus, I had asked my mom, who was then working in advertising, and she’d said she was indeed a hippie, which I found cool.
My grandmother was not happy.
“I never hit my girls,” she said, fuming. “But if I heard your mama say that, I’d put her over my knee and spank her with a hairbrush!”
I’d never heard Gammie say anything like that – so intense and venal. The vision of my grown mom getting hit with a hairbrush upset me. Now, as I’d hoped, I knew what kind of power the word “hippie” carried in my grandmother’s world, a world receding, while another encroached. While I would still depend on Gammie for much, and while the stories of Jesus would forever resonate in a place I would need decades to fully understand, I preferred the hippies. I would, as we now say, lean in.
I would let my hair grow, which of course Mom encouraged and Gammie hated, and dressed like a half-pint hippie. I would find spiritual sustenance – although I did not yet have the vocabulary to call it such – in the rock music I loved, my mother’s beautiful books, the people who came and went, comfortable in and celebratory of their bodies. I would subconsciously recognize in their fierce opposition to Vietnam and racism and sexism a distinctive bravery that would be needed to make the world more hippie going forward.
For a few decades it seemed perhaps they’d got it wrong, the hippies. Now, in the estimation of this hippie Catholic, it’s ever clearer they were right.