I’ve probably written and delivered a thousand sermons since
stumbling through my first at the tender age of eighteen. To the best
of my recollection, only three or four of those sermons had to do with
mothers or Mothers Day. Why is that? I hear you ask. Because I
can’t think of a topic more fraught with pitfalls.
One of the places to fall is the pit of sentimentality and ballyhoo.
Motherhood, babies, apple pie, the flag. Breathes there a politician
with soul so dead who hasn’t slid down that oratorical Chute? A
candidate for mayor of a city in which I once ministered went so far
as to hand out small apple pies — made, he said, by his dear mother
— with little flags stuck all over them. I’m happy to say, he
lost the election.
Songwriters and singers, poets and preachers from every time and place
have sugared and treacled about mothers to their own good fortune and
little good to mothers. “My Yiddisher Mama,” was sung on the
borsht circuit by every upstart from Georgie Jessel to Milton Berle.
Al Jolson, mindlessly blackfaced, dropped on one knee, spread his arms
and sang, “Mammy.” “Mother Macree” topped the
repertoire of every Killarney and Dublin tenor. And, for years, you
hadn’t been to a party until you’d stood around the piano,
tears streaming, beery-eyed, singing “M is For the Million Things
She Gave Me.”
The greeting card platitude that fuels the fortunes of Hallmark is not
at all what Julia Ward Howe had in mind by a Mothers Day — which was
nothing short of a revolution for peace. And, on this Mother’s
Day, thousands of mothers have left home and hearthside and are
gathering and marching in state capitols and in the nation’s
capitol to press their demand for gun control.
How, then, to do justice to so holy a calling as motherhood without
falling headlong into a pit of long-over-ripe drivel?
The other pitfall has concerned me more. Mothers Day, obviously, is
the time to say good things about mothers, motherhood, happy childhood
memories. If one writes, orates, preaches or warbles, it is assumed
that one cannot go wrong extolling the virtues of two groups —
mothers and the dead.
It is thought that the one deserves only praise by virtue of having
given birth and the other by virtue of having died. One does not speak
ill of the dead or of blessed motherhood. But I am always more than a
little nervous when I’m called upon to preside at the Memorial
Service of someone I didn’t know. I’ve learned from long
experience that death does not raise to sainthood every soul whose
family, in this life, is well rid of him. I once spoke at a funeral of
the good heart, open hand and ready smile of a man I didn’t know
at all. Those present began to smile, then to giggle uncontrollably.
Given what they knew of the deceased, they thought I must be joking.
The word “Mother” does not warm the heart of everyone who
hears it. Some never knew his or her mother. Some others are none the
better for having known her. Not every child identifies with a Norman
Rockwell painting of sweet rosy-cheeked young mother rocking baby snug
and safe by the fire. The mothering instinct to care for and nurture
the newborn and to protect, to teach and to lead the young into
maturity is probably more universal in the animal kingdom than in the
human species. The complications of being human are such that personal
demons can drive out the love that nurtures a child. Giving birth does
not create a mother. Mothering for the long haul has realities that
will not be found on any greeting card.
Parenting a daughter can be especially difficult in this era. Mary
Pipher, the author of “Reviving Ophelia,” who happens to be
a Unitarian Universalist, writes of how girls are forced to choose in
today’s sex culture between being popular and being their true
selves. Most yield to incredible pressure and choose to be popular.
They then vent their rage at the loss of self either on their own
bodies, through eating disorders or self-mutilation, — or they punish
Shirley Kaufman wrote a poem about her struggles with such a daughter:
hard for me to read. I have three daughters. Our family could have
written the poem. And so, perhaps, could yours.
Through every night we hate,
Preparing the next day’s war.
She bangs the door.
Her face laps up my own despair
–the sour, brown eyes, the heavy hair she won’t tie back.
She’s cruel, as if by private meanness
found a way to punish us.
We gnaw at each other’s skulls.
Give me what’s mine.
I’d haul her back, choking myself in her, herself in me. …
Her stringy figure in the windowed room
shares its thin bones with no one.
Only her shadow on the glass waits like an older sister.
Now she stalks, leans forward,
concentrates merely on getting from here to there.
Her feet are bare.
I hear her breathe where I can’t get in.
If I break through to her, she will drive nails into my tongue.
There is another pitfall for the Mothers Day preacher — particularly
the male: there is the danger that he will venture something about
what mothering is — as if he knew. As if he could possibly know. My
own response to our family trial with a society’s child was for
awhile an anger rolling out of absolute helplessness. Then came the
typical, futile male urge to fix it — as if her drive belt could be
replaced or perhaps all she needed was a little oil. Why is it so hard
to fix a broken child? Maybe because we try to fix the behavior when,
sometimes, it is the spirit that is broken.
My wife, her mother, went another way, eventually healing us all (what
was it: instinct? personal experience? that was so
different?). She loved and waited. Listened and waited: remained
what the late Michael Dorris called “A Yellow Raft in Blue
Water.” Easy to find should the thrashing child begin to drown.
They say sons are easier. I wouldn’t know, having been surrounded,
for forty years, with females of the specie. For mothers, I
understand, the worst of it is that, when sons leave, they seem to
leave more completely than daughters. If a male is to successfully
“differentiate,” it is necessary to separate so absolutely
from the woman. That’s what they say in the books I’ve read.
Daughters, of course, will ideally settle their identities in
relationship with their mothers. My wife’s mother had her
daughter: and also two sons. All the family were sailors, so Meme
would know firsthand what Maude Meehan writes in her poem:
My two young sons move with assurance
through the maze of ropes and sails,
steer out of turbulence to calmer seas, drop anchor.
They climb the mast;
my body tenses with past apprehension.
Suddenly one dives, I plummet with him,
breathe again when he emerges.
The small boat pitches as he hoists aboard.
I glance up swiftly to the swaying crossbeam
where his brother perches, confident.
As heavy mist rolls in, they guide the light craft back to
and like my hands old maps, lie folded in my lap.
Reaching the laddered dock,
they stretch strong arms to steady me.
When did this turnabout occur?
I have become a passenger on their journey.
Anything at all a man knows about mothering, of course, he has learned
— for better or for worse — from his mother. My mother — who will
be eighty-seven this fall — still reflects the beauty of the young
woman. She was tall, slim and raven-haired. One had to look closely to
see the effects of childhood malnutrition and lack of medical care.
Broken bones that were not set. She was one of her mother’s
seventeen birthings. Her mother and two of her sisters were killed
during the depression. They were loading government surplus food into
the back of an old pickup when a drunk driver plowed into them.
After the war — during which she was drafted into factory work — my
mother worked for awhile as an elevator operator. I would occasionally
go to the Lewis’s Department Store to have lunch with her at the
cafeteria counter. She wore a uniform of brown, tan and gold. She
introduced me to everyone. “This is my son,” she would say,
proudly. I was very proud to be with her.
My mother didn’t have much of a childhood — not that she has
spoken of. She left school long before high school to work in the shoe
factories. But she seems to be tolerating her later years reasonably
well. She lives in the same small mobile home on Cape Cod. She has
lived there for thirty years or so. Her home is on the same property
as a nursing home. Once or twice a week, a nurse’s aid will call
in sick and my mother — all 87 years of her — will go over to fill
in. She can get impatient with what she calls “the old
people” there, some of whom are a decade younger than she. Last
year, they built a Wal-Mart a mile down the road and advertised for
help. She walked down and filled out an application.
What did I learn from my mother? Perhaps the usual lessons survivors
like her have to teach. Tough it out. Crying won’t change
anything. Nobody ever said it would be easy. I have dreamlike memories
of wailing sirens and of my mother lifting me from my bed and carrying
me to the back of my grandmother’s garden and down into the dark
damp of the air-raid shelter. I don’t know if it ever occurred to
her that she might not make it from the house to the shelter. Knowing
her, I know it would have been a pointless thought for her. She taught
me, long before Nike was ever thought of, to “just do it.” I
said she was one of seventeen birthings. Those that survived infancy
are all gone. She’s the lone survivor.
Not everything we learned at our mother’s knee is as useful for us
in our lives as it might have been for mother in hers. I’ve had to
unlearn as much as I can of what I learned by my mother’s example
— about being self-sufficient, strong, independent,
never-let-them-see-your-lip-quiver. Even now, when I’m not feeling
up to par and someone asks “do you need anything?” I have to
think to myself “Like what?” Neither of my parents modeled
physical affection. I learned to keep a certain distance — why,
I’m not sure. Perhaps it was so that I would become a man who
could live in the kind of world, they had come to take for granted,
was a world to be survived.
My wife’s mother came from a different world. A world of
considerably more privilege. It should have spoiled her. Instead, even
after the wealth went over the side with the Crash, she became the
model mother of three children who thought only of them and of others.
She had difficulty dying — had a hard time leaving — because of the
sadness her death will cause her children. She lived for others. To a
fault. Definitely to a fault. She should have taken more for herself,
expected more, demanded more.
Still, no woman has been loved by so wide a following. A whole town
grieved her passing. No mother evoked such devotion. In one of her
final days, she evicted everyone from her room but my wife. She wanted
to confess to her only daughter her shortcomings as a mother. If there
is to be a record kept, her daughter felt, it should be honest and
true. And so, she too, confessed her shortcomings, as a daughter.
“Have we absolved each other?” asked High Church mother. Oh,
yes, says the daughter. “Oh good. Then perhaps, some day, people
will say to you that you are just like your mother.” “That
will be lovely to hear,” says the daughter.
We have done the right thing for our mothers. We have trembled to
hear, “Wait ?til I tell your mother.” We have sworn to the
truth by mother or on her grave. I once read that a woman said of
Adolph Hitler, “Where was that man’s mother when he was doing
all those terrible things?”
Male or female, whatever capacity we have for love came in its more
unconditional form mostly from our mothers or from someone who, sooner
or later, succeeded in mothering us. I end with one more poem. It was
written for an African-American single mother, by her twenty-nine year
old daughter. Audra’s mother, Margaret, raised her, alone, in some
of the nation’s toughest cities: Chicago. Los Angeles. Audra says
her mother’s biggest quote was — after she had told her something
she couldn’t do — “I refuse to let the streets have
The poem is called Mother Margaret.
Words could never describe what that woman has done for me.
How she begged, cried and almost died
all just to make sure that in my youth,
I’d hold a book, and not a baby,
that… I’d embrace a pen and not a gun,
that…. I’d appreciate the life God gave me
and the way he saved me.
And she did this alone — by herself.
“Single parenthood,” however you choose to call it.
It’ll still never change the fact
that That lady’s tears kept me clean,
her eyes saw through me,
her arms embraced me, her hands kept me straight,
and her heart gave me faith,
and her life gave me life,
all, so that one day I’d make others see, her love through me.
“Perhaps, some day, people will say you are just like your
mother.” I sincerely hope that, for each of you, that will be a
lovely thing to hear. If not, I sincerely hope that someone, some
mothering person, embodied for you all that a mother gives that we
need to have to mother ourselves, our children, each other, and to
mother our world into a future worth having.