Many faded photos of women in horn-rimmed glasses and puffy hair are popping up on social networking sites: “My precious mother” or “My gone-but-not-forgotten dear mother.” As I have aged I continue to see that the connection to one’s mother is the singular most defining relationship that shapes another human’s life, for better or worse.
My heart goes out to those women whose hearts will ache this Sunday when mothers are hailed, doted upon, and held up as saviors and saints. I’m sorry for the pain that will inflict upon the countless women who have languished for motherhood, but never realized it.
Everyone who lives and breathes on this earth has had a mother. Some people lost their mothers too soon and have grown up forever remembering a ghost and longing for someone they can’t quite reach. Others have had mothers who were cruel, neglectful, and abusive. No halos for her — ‘She ruined my life,’ some might say. Not everyone has had a good mother. And for those who haven’t, Mother’s Day is disorienting. There are the mothers who did their best, but whose children have turned away from them anyway. Sad stories are also part of the narrative of motherhood.
My own mother died six years ago and my thoughts of her on this Mother’s Day have long been reckoned with. I have other thoughts this day. I myself enter the ranks of the aging mothers whose lives once towered in the landscape of raising children, in my case, three sons. No more. They are the towering ones now.
I have accomplished things in my life — I am neither ashamed nor preening about it. Where there has been accomplishment I am grateful and where there has been failure I am sorrowful. Regardless, I recognize now that wherever “the changes and chances of this mortal life” have brought me and yet may take me, being a mother has been for me the lodestar where upon every changing scene must converge. Being a mother is more who I am than anything I will ever do or have done, or even anyone I might ever love or have loved. Part of me wishes it wasn’t so — if only being a mother was simply another “phase” — stakes which can be pulled up when the time has come to move on. Alas, those stakes are permanently planted. Only the configuration of the soil changes.
Early on, when my children were young, the soil was fertile, fresh, filled with possibility only later to be rendered stiffer and harder as they grew up. The soil in the end, silently changed, hardening and drying up while, in any case, the stakes held firm. Until at last the soil turns to flesh. In a moment, all that remains is your heart, stakes firmly planted therein, like nails. You learn to find a way to have a beating heart around them, or they kill you.
Where it all leads and even where it has been — meaning “motherhood” — becomes impossible to say. You don’t know if you were a good mother. You don’t know if your children have been somehow harmed by you — or if they will feel as if they have been harmed by you. You hope they haven’t. You think you loved them aright and did right by them, but who knows such things? Who can truly measure what is good about one’s childhood?
All that is left are formless prayers–sometimes yelps–wherein you cry that if you harmed them in any way that God would forgive you and strike the memory from the landscape of their precious souls. May I have done right by them, this is your prayer. This will be the last thought you entertain in the final moment of this mortal life: May they carry something of me with them after I have gone from here.
This stage of life is that other place where as a mother you must go. To that hidden landscape of later life where they don’t remember who you were and who they were when they were yours. They forget the details of that intimate bond that only you and they shared, silent moments of pulling down shades before tucking them in for the night, combing wet hair, following them up the stairs where, when they’ve climbed into bed, you sit along side and they speak to you of little things. You pull up their covers and kiss them — do they remember how easy it was?
You are now in that hidden landscape of remembering what they have long forgotten. Those memories are yours alone. No one else holds them and, at best, your children may yet carry a sense of them. That, too, is your prayer, that “the sense” of those moments will surround them in the passing of days and will come back to them in the fullness of time.
You believe it will. But you’ve accepted that seeing this will not be your reward. The reward, whatever it might be, lies elsewhere. When they take hold of that moment when they see it all — when they remember (and when, though you are gone, they turn and find you) — they will hear your voice from afar reminding them that they need not fear. Everything will be all right. It has always been all right. Nothing can change who you are and who they are and who you and they are, together, destined to be. They will perceive that it is all right and that you are their mom. No — that you are Mom. All is well. You and they are remembered.
Until that time, as you live out these late days inside your memory, you see yourself again pulling down the shades, brushing back their hair, pulling up the covers. They roll over to their sides and shut their eyes and you turn out the light. You shut the door. You walk away.