Monday, October 18, 2010
Judith, That Which We Call a Rose
“No one spoke ill of her, for she feared God with great devotion”
For me the story of Judith is multilayered. When visiting The Art Institute of Chicago, I was struck by the Jan Sanders van Hemessen’s painting of Judith. Most Flemish Renaissance painters utilize movement, juxtapose light and shadows, and emphasize sensuality. Not only was the depiction of a nude, fair, beautiful, and muscular woman wielding a sword striking, but also, the illuminated head of a large male was ghastly. Judith’s face is depicted as serene for such a gruesome act. I didn’t know the story behind the picture and was intrigued—after all, my mother’s name was Judith. Returning home, I began to research the story and was even more surprised to find it was a Biblical story. The story of Judith isn’t a part of the cannon of my Protestant faith tradition. After the death of my mother and when I was deciding to name my own daughter, I revisited the story. My daughter is named Judith in honor of both remarkable women.
As I began to read Judith, I was impressed by the similarities between my mother and the character. Both are unmarried women who draw on inner strength, wit, bravery, and faith to defeat giants. Both suffered loss—while the biblical Judith was a widow, my mother was divorced and decided to never remarry. Judith courageously faced the brutal Holofernes; described in Judith 3:7-8 as “… he demolished all their shrines and cut down their sacred groves.” In contrast, righteous Judith is praised, “Today is not the first time your wisdom has been shown…for your heart’s disposition is right” (Judith 8:29). My mother too embodied a simple, ageless wisdom. For example, Appalachian colloquialisms were so much a part of her vernacular that when I read “Like a dog that returns to its vomit is a fool who reverts to his folly” I was amazed to learn this was Biblical and not just another one of her sayings (Proverbs 26:11). As I will detail, my mother faced her own tests and bullies. Lastly, their beauty and charm opened up doors of opportunity. When friends remember her they always mention her piercing blue eyes and full body laughter. The verse “When the mend heard her words and observed her face—she was in their eyes marvelously beautiful” eloquently describes both. In summary, the Bible Gallery emphasizes, “Her story is a variant on the David and Goliath story, where a seemingly weak person overcomes a person of superior strength by calling on God's help and using cunning and intelligence.”
Judith Bright Litz too was a self-sacrificing warrior. Family stories of my mother’s childhood reflect a light-hearted nature, gregarious disposition, and love of dance—an everyday Shirley Temple. However, the woman I know carried many burdens and I only saw glimpses of her radiance. As an adult, her main attribute and job title was a single parent raising two children. Like Judith, she preferred peace but refused to acquiesce, especially when her family was at risk. My parent’s idea of “talking about the kids” usually happened in front of a judge. Instead of helping my mother pay the basic bills, when he found out the temperature inside the house was 62 degrees; he saw that as an opportunity to call children’s services. When the bank began foreclosure proceedings, she begged her father to cover the mortgage at 7% interest.
More than once, she referenced men as “chauvinist pigs.” Although I do not agree, I can sympathize--especially since the males who were the central figures in her life are also in mine. The only way her father exercised control over her strong-willed, high-spirited mother was with physical force. Lastly, my philandering father and their short lived marriage cemented her negative view of men.
In order to survive, she became resourceful, hardworking, and faithful. After her divorce at 26, my mother began working at Dayton Tire and Rubber, loading tires by hand and forklift onto semi-trucks. It was a man’s job, but it was also a man’s wage. Around the home, she tackled the more masculine chores, such as changing the oil in the car, painting the house, and minor plumbing repairs. Although not as pious as Judith, she still could be characterized, “Many desired to marry her, but she gave herself to no man all the days of her life after her husband” (Judith 16:22). The impact of the mid1970s recession, hit our home especially hard when my mother was unemployed for over a year. She began to seek comfort in two things, ice cream and bedcovers.
Thankfully, she reached a turning point and started attending church regularly. Once I confronted her about the real issues behind her weight gain, she admitted that not only did her appearance discourage men’s advances, but the food was a comfort and socially accepted by our religious community. Church wasn’t only about religious teachings, but it was also our main source of entertainment and social events—and lastly, it was free. Being Pentecostal, I indeed saw my mother, going “before all the people in the dance” and heard many prayers that resembled:
“For your strength does not depend on numbers, nor your might on the powerful. But you are the God of the lowly, helper of the oppressed, upholder of the weak, protector of the forsaken, saviour of those without hope. Please, please, …Lord of heaven and earth, Creator of the waters, King of all your creation, hear my prayer!’” (Judith 14:13,911-12).
Eventually, she attended Sinclair Community College and began working as a secretary and data entry—but the pay never met basic needs. Frequently, she would use the colloquialisms of “Robbing Peter to pay Paul” and “A day late and a dollar short” to describe our financial situation. She would go without having a tooth filled or a new outfit, so that we could attend a school dance. I was forced to grow up fast--built a fire, housecleaning, and cooking—and I was angry about our circumstances. Unfortunately, my mother was my main target for that angst. On the other hand, my brother looked like and had more of my mother’s gentle nature. At the age of ten, he was diagnosed with Chron’s disease and so my mother had a tendency to protect and over-protect him. With my brother’s illness and my independent spirit, she had her hands more than full with a fulltime job, childrearing, and endless bills.
As my brother and I began building our own lives, my mother’s depression worsened. For twenty years, her life was our life. During my sophomore year of college, she was diagnosed and treated for cervical cancer. She seemed to be making a full recovery, when four years later she began complaining of back pain. After several “brush offs” by her gynecologist (and a prescription for Valium), it was discovered that she had terminal lymphoma and was only given weeks to live. She decided to not take chemotherapy and instead strive for short term quality of life. When people would ask if there was anything they could do for her, my mother would say, “Please pray for my children.” Once again, like the biblical Judith she “dedicated to God” her most valuable assets—her children. She lived through the summer and died on September 14, 1994-- a beautiful fall day with a sky as blue as her eyes.
Art Insitute of Chicago Retrieved from http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/4575
BIBLE ART GALLERY Retrieved from http://www.bible-art.info/Judith.htm
Ed. Michael D. Coogan et al. The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New Revised Standard Version, with the Apocrypha. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.