Tuesday, January 24, 2012

As with a Mother's Tender Hand

were she still living, my mother would have celebrated her 94th birtday a few days ago. she died of pancreatic cancer almost twenty years ago, but i had a vivid dream recently that she was still living, and when i awakened and recalled the dream, i was so grateful for it. as i reflected on what i should write for my next post, memories of my mother were foremost in my mind, and i determined to describe her and some of what i learned from her.

as if thought more, i began to wonder why my mother, my two grandmothers, and my mother's grandmother made such a great impression on me, while my father and grandfathers seem passing figures in my mind. i wonder if other men have this same experience. how universal is this reverence for the women who shaped us and this distance from the male family members that preceeded us? maybe that's a subject for another post.

one of my earliest recollections of my mother is from the time she was expecting my sister. i recall vividly seeing her in the maternity outfits that women wore in the mid-1950s. my parents had not discussed the impending birth of another child into our family with me. i already had one sibling, a brother who is five years younger than me. at the time my mother was carrying my sister, i was nine. one evening as my parents returned home--i don't remember where they'd been--i ran from the house and grabbed my mother's hand. i looked up at her and said, "you look like you're going to have a baby." she chuckled and looked down at me, then she confimed that i was right. this was the first time she had spoken to me at all about the coming birth of another child into our family. to this day, i'm still somewhat angry that there was no discussion with me about this new addition to the family. perhaps, my parents didn't bring it up because they didn't want to have to answers the questions a nine-year-old boy would have about the "facts of life." i knew that, since i was the one to bring up the subject, that no questions should be asked, and so that was the end of any discussion about the matter.

i remember how beautiful my mother looked to me that night and when i think of her, she is always beautiful. i don't recall ever seeing her when her hair was not styled--she never looked as if she had just gotten up. one of my treasures is a small framed picture of my mother and me when i was five. it was taken by a professional photographer. one of the features of my childhood was the periodic trip to see mrs. price, a photographer in a nearby town who took wonderful pictures of children, and my childhood was documented by a collection of pictures taken by mrs. price. in the picture that is my favorite, only the torsos of my mother and me are visible. i am snuggled up next to her, and my face has an expression of both delight and peace; it is easy to see that i was completely confident about my place in my mother's heart. her expression is identical to mine, and, despite the difference in our ages, gender, and even hair color, we appear to be one unit rather than two distinct individuals.

two other impressions of my mother that i must speak of is her gentle but consistent discipline and her voracious reading. she was a very tolerant person, always permitting me to be my own person, never insisting that i conform to any preconceived notion of what she wanted me to be. yet, she expected that i behave and learn when it was appropriate to be a rowdy, lively little boy and when it was appropriate to exercise self-control. i don't remember her ever striking me, but a "stop that" was all i needed to know that my behavior was not acceptable, and the offending behavior immediately stopped.

my mother worked hard at home. we were prosperous enough to have a "cleaning woman" come in a couple of days each week, but even with that help, keeping our home running with two, later three, small children was a big job. we didn't have a washer or dryer, and in those days there were no disposable diapers. i remember huge pots of boiling water filled with cloth diapers sitting on the cook stove in our kitchen with my mother standing over them, pushing the diapers around with a large wooden spoon to make certain they were completely sterilized. this was in the days before air conditioning was common, and meal preparation was a hot job. Diaper sterilization was all but intolerable, especially in the summer. Despite her arduous labors to keep the house clean, meals prepared, and clothes washed, my mother still found time to read book after book. whenever she could find a quiet moment in her day, she had a book in her hand, and she instilled in me the joy of reading.

one of the last things my mother said to me as she lay dying in the hospital was that she had only one regret in her life. that was her failure to see so many of the world's wonders about which she had read. i can still hear her tell me and my wife, "go when you have the chance. see everything you can while you are able, because you never know when you will lose the opportunity." this is a lesson we have taken to heart. we spend much of our time either traveling or planning the next trip. even when we can't afford it, we find the money somewhere and we go.

my prayer this morning is that each of us has someone in our memory like my mother, one who is eternally beautiful, kind, and wise, one who is the embodiment of everything that is best about humanity, and that we take a few moments each day to honor and reverence that person by holding in our hearts a deep gratitude for how that person shaped our lives.

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