This inspiring and fascinating memoir, subtitled, “The Autobiography of the Legendary Catholic Social Activist,” The Long Loneliness is the late Dorothy Day’s compelling autobiographical testament to her life of social activism and her spiritual pilgrimage. A founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and longtime associate of Peter Maurin, Dorothy Day was eulogized in the New York Times as, “a nonviolent social radical of luminous personality.” The Long Loneliness recounts her remarkable journey from the Greenwich Village political and literary scene of the 1920s through her conversion to Catholicism and her lifelong struggle to help bring about “the kind of society where it is easier to be good.”
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When we were little children, my brothers and sister and I, we used to sit around the supper table at night and listen to our mother talk about "when I was a little girl." Our father worked nights on a morning newspaper, so we seldom saw him and our evening meals were leisurely. We never learned much about his family from mother except that he was from Cleveland, Tennessee, and that his people despised her because she was a Northerner.
Cleveland is a small town just over the border from Rome, Georgia, where my grandmother, Mary Mee, was born. She married Dr. Sam Houston Day who was a surgeon and served in the Confederate army. My mother's father, Napoleon Bonaparte Satterlee, was from Marlboro, New York, a chairmaker, who went to war very young, was taken prisoner and came home with tuberculosis of the larynx, which made him speak, the remaining years of his life, in a hoarse whisper. My mother recalls bringing him eggnog with whiskey and sipping it on the way, and he used to reward her for her service by gay flattery, calling her Graceful. Her name was Grace.
That house in Marlboro still stands on Route 9, and I have driven past it often and past the Episcopal church where my mother was baptized and the churchyard where doubtless my forebears are buried. If I wish to go back still further, on Charity Hummel's side (she was my mother's grandmother), I could go to the cemetery at New Paltz, and on the Washburn side to the Massachusetts branch of the family, since tradition has it that there were nine brothers, all of them captains of whalers, and all lost at sea save a Christian Washburnwho married Charity.
Tradition! How rich a word that is. To a thinking child it means a great deal. Children all love to hear stories of when their parents were young, and of their parents before them. It gives the child a sense of continuity.
Aunt Cassie, my mother's aunt, used to skate down the river from Poughkeepsie to Marlboro to bake a batch of bread and cookies and then skate back again. Was she in love then? And did love give strength to her limbs and wings to her feet? It was a sad love story, the story of her affair with one of the engineers who built the railroad bridge over the Hudson. But Aunt Del was a telegrapher in Baltimore, a Russellite or a Bible Christian, and helped support the family, and Anna, my grandmother, had enough. to do with her five children and her invalid husband. So Aunt Cassie had to stay unmarried to take care of her mother, Charity Hummel Washburn, who had been married herself at fourteen and borne eighteen children of whom only six lived.
Charity's husband had been captain of a whaler which sailed up the Hudson with a cargo of whale oil. He fell from a mast and cracked his head and was never quite right after that, running down Delafield Street in his night shirt and finally drowning in a brook.
How we loved to hear these stories and how welcome our warm house was as we heard of terrible winters with the Hudson freezing over so that skating and ice-boating were commonplace.
Tradition! We scarcely know the word any more. We are afraid to be either proud of our ancestors or ashamed of them. We scorn nobility in name and in fact. We cling to a bourgeois mediocrity which would make it appear we are all Americans, made in the image and likeness of George Washington, all of a pattern, all prospering if we are good, and going down in the world if we are bad. These are attitudes the Irish, the Italian, the Lithuanian, the Slovak and all races begin to acquire in school. So they change their names, forget their birthplace, their language, and no longer listen to their mothers when they say, "When I was a little girl in Russia, or Hungary, or Sicily." They lose their cult and their culture and their skills, and leave their faith and folk songs and costumes and handcrafts, and try to be something which they call "an American."
"Tradition," G. K. Chesterton says, "is democracy extended through time. Tradition means giving the vote to that most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. Tradition is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who are walking about."
I wonder if those stories of our ancestors took away the fear of death that comes to us all, or whether it mitigated it.
Aunt Cassie is by now united to her love. Grandfather Napoleon is now young and dashing once more and free from all pain. But their tragedy, their pain made their lives a rich and colorful tapestry for us to gaze at, a Berlioz requiem with its glory and mourning to listen to.
Did they believe? What did they believe? We never asked these questions. Do happy children ask these questions? Ecclesiastes said, "Only this I have found, that God made man right and he hath entangled himself with an infinity of questions."
We did not search for God when we were children. We took Him for granted. We were at some time taught to say our evening prayers. "Now I lay me," and "Bless my father and mother." This done, we prayed no more unless a thunderstorm made us hide our heads under the covers and propitiate the Deity by promising to be good.