James Ishmael Ford
My childhood memories don’t really feature my mother very much. The dominant figures within the family throughout my growing up were my father and my mother’s mother. My father was handsome, smart and troubled, an alcoholic and a schemer always looking for the main chance, and always bungling it. I guess my most positive illustration of him would be George Clooney’s Ulysses Everett McGill in Oh Brother, Wherefore Art Thou, without the happy ending. My grandmother was our anchor and spiritual center, a prayer warrior, who I admit in my highly polished memory, is Jane Darwell’s Ma Joad in the Grapes of Wrath.
My mother, if I’m going to continue to use film analogies is probably a lot like Oliva de Havilland’s Melanie Hamilton Wilkes in Gone With the Wind, without, need I add, any of the social advantages. In our family drama, she was the victim. She had a hand in it, but ultimately she was buffeted by circumstances beyond her control, she nearly always was acted upon, rather than the actor.
I loved her, deeply, but I did not respect her.
Some twenty years ago when I accepted the call to my first parish in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Jan and I moved my mother and auntie in with us. They brought a small and rapidly dwindling bank account, which gave us the down payment on our first home. We took responsibility for everything else. It worked, it had its rough moments, but it worked. And we lived together until 1997 when following a recurrence of breast cancer my mother died.
That last week I was out of town at a conference. But before it was over Jan called and said that I needed to get home, and quickly. I booked a flight that day and returned. When I got to the house and walked into her bedroom where she now slept and lived in a recliner chair, she took my hand and said, “I waited for you.”
She died later that day.
I’ve sat with that, I’ve reflected upon it, and my life, and what she meant for me. And, I found while there are few stick out stories, what it was that she did, and really did, was that she was always there. Through thick and thin, and most of it thin until the last years of her life, she was always there for us, for me. For me, never a word of judgment, never a word of criticism. And, and, and, whenever I needed her, she was there.
Presence. Loving presence. Over the years I’ve come to realize ever more deeply how important her part was in giving me a life.
And, how grateful I am.
Happy mother’s day…