Mighty Widows, Grandma Peacock & Dorothy Day

My Grandmother Peacock found herself a widow at just 42 years of age. To support her two young boys, she worked as a bookkeeper at Skinker Brothers & Co. – way up on Connecticut Avenue. It was basically a full-service gas station with a mechanic on duty and tires for sale.

To make ends meet, Grandma Peacock also ran a boarding house, of sorts. She rented to a roommate, but family often too were non-paying guests.

And when I got my turn to board there,  it was absolute heaven to me.

I am one of six Peacock sisters and brothers. Grandma’s Anacostia row house was safe harbor – a refuge away from the scary house, in which we actually lived. Once a month or so, each  of us got a chance to go on the equivalent of a Club Med vacation — a weekend at Grandma’s — a chance to be an only child.

Grandma’s Anacostia home was a fairy tale castle. There was a bathroom with an enormous footed tub and a telephone closet on the first floor. There was a dining room AND a breakfast room. Downstairs was the best. There was an upright piano – painted bright red and a workshop with all kinds of gadgets and tools and little jars filled with all kinds of widgets and screws.

In my tea-totaling grandmother’s house there was a built- in bar with a brass rail and swizzle sticks.  The downstairs shower had four showerheads! (Who knows what went on down there in the Roaring Twenties?!)

When you stayed over at Grandma’s there was always plenty of food. She was no great cook — she was big on cornflakes and Cool Whip as condiments. You could fault her on her cooking — but never on her generosity.

On Saturday night we’d go to a film at National Geographic. On Sunday we would go to Saint Theresa’s for 8 o’clock Mass.

For ninety-six years Grandma Peacock (It seems disrespectful to call her Agnes — even now) made room — enormous room.

In the seventies, Grandma downsized and moved to an apartment. Still her welcome mat was always out.

In our rebellious years, we regularly showed up on her doorstep uninvited. She’d be ready to feed us in a heartbeat from whatever she might find in her fridge. We caused all kinds of trouble in our adolescence — which I will not embarrass myself with here.  No matter what we did, though, Grandma never turned us out.

I never heard her speak ill of anybody although I’m sure she did entertain some not so nice thoughts. At least in my hearing — she never let them out.

Grandma’s apartment was a shrine of Catholic kitsch: plastic statues of Mary and the Infant of Prague and pictures of the Pope back to John XXIII. Rosary beads draped over her bed post and an Ave Maria playing music box hung on her wall. It all meant something real to her.

Faith was not just just something she believed. Faith was something she did.

Grandma Peacock kept faith with us in so many ways — she was my salvation. For three short days I would be loved the way all God’s children should be loved — all the time.

She was a mighty widow, an icon of the poor woman in the parable of the Widow’s Mite.

Her generosity came out of her very meager means. Generous with us to a fault, Grandma Peacock was a skinflint when it came to herself. She wore the same wardrobe as long as I could remember. The towels in her bathroom were threadbare and scratchy. And she would eat the leftovers of the leftovers of everything until every little scrap was gone!


So, who else comes to mind? Who else might you name or claim as a mighty widow – an icon of God’s grace?

A more famous one, you may have heard of is the Blessed Dorothy Day. She died more than thirty years ago, a remarkable single mother who hit her stride in the 1930’s during the Great Depression She was a radical journalist who launched a newspaper, The Catholic Worker, with just $57. The paper sold for just a penny a piece.

In her columns, she often wrote how Jesus would identify with the down and out:

It is cheering to remember that Jesus Christ wandered this earth with no home of his own. ‘The foxes have holes and the birds of the air their nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’  And when we consider our fly by night existence, our uncertainty, we remember that the disciples wandered through cornfields picking ears from the stalks wherewith to make their frugal meals.

Dorothy founded Houses of Hospitality for workers and the unemployed.  The very first Hospitality House was her very own apartment on East 15thSt in New York. From the Catholic Worker’s fledgling proceeds, she opened another: St Charles House in Greenwich Village. It had room for staff, workers, and guests: a meeting place, an office, a kitchen and a free clothing room.

Dorothy’s biographer writes:

The Worker way of life seemed to be one of permanent crisis, mostly because of daily collisions among troubled humans (like us all) living under the same roof: fights over food, injuries, sickness, breakdowns, drunkenness, clashing personalities, empty bank accounts, theft of other people’s stuff, fires, evictions….  A day without at least one crisis was rare.

(Doesn’t  this sound a bit familiar, maybe? Maybe like some of the houses in which you have lived?)

Dorothy Day challenged everyday Christians to set aside a Christ Room to welcome those in need.

Every house should have one.  It is you yourself who must perform the works of mercy not some agency. Maybe you can only give enough money for a meager meal or a cheap hotel. Or maybe you can literally take off a garment to warm some shivering person.  But we must act personally and make a personal sacrifice.

 The amount does not matter but generosity does.

Jesus sat down opposite the treasury and watched the crowd putting money in. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.

 Then Jesus called to his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’

 There are genuine mighty widows among us. We may know some. We may be one or want to be one – regardless of gender or marital status, regardless of means.

Might we inventory our bounty – whatever that might be?

Open up our hearts, pocketbooks, homes – to those who are not as mighty as we? The least of these, Jesus calls them in Matthew 25.

Hospitality —  not the Martha Stewart kind but this biblical kind — is messy and uncomfortable and often hard. But it also comes with real blessings, a genuine kind of riches not easy to find.

Mighty widows, you know,  might just be  — entertaining angels unawares.


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