It’s been almost six years since mama died and it has taken me nearly twice that long to understand her beautiful, terrified heart.
By all accounts, Beverly was a loving wife and mother. To my father she was devoted and true, to her daughters, a constant presence of self-sacrifice. Life with mama was golden…
For most of my childhood, mom stayed home and made sure we had the best of meals, the cleanest of clothes and every toy our hearts desired and daddy’s hard-earned paycheck could provide. Every breakfast was hot (grits, always grits), all lunches were crafted to meet her finicky kids’ tastes and dinner each night was on the table shortly after daddy got home and scrubbed the iron shards from under his fingernails.
Growing up in the ‘70s, I had all the freedom I wanted to roam, especially in the summer, when there as never a shortage of ready-to-grab snacks (I can hardly believe that one of my faves was raw Oscar Meyer weiners…), face-freezing popsicles and a seemingly endless supply of Koolaide.
Mama and daddy got us to church every chance they had, including Sunday mornings and evenings, vacation bible school, Wednesday night suppers, youth group on Thursdays and even scraped up enough money to send me on my one and only youth group summer retreat to Panama City where I came back with a little bit more Jesus and a first kiss to boot!
But, mom and I had a few things working against us.
One, she suffered from severe, nearly debilitating hormonal fluctuations that in her day, the egregiously ignorant medical community would label and medicate as hysteria or hypochondria. Keeping up with mama’s mood swings was a tightrope act from which one could have their little umbrella snatched without warning.
Two, she was raised to believe that the bible was literally, factually true.
Three, and I imagine this will not shock y’all, but I was a teensy bit willful growing up. Just a smidge. Or maybe I was just my own person. Same same, eh?
There are scars to my psyche and body from those days as I stretched my downy wings and wound up on the wrong end of a searing switch more often than not.
In the late 80’s I was in my first year at UGA, hurling myself as far from her orbit as I could, and had to have my wisdom teeth out, she came to me, sat with me and served me heaps of KFC mashed potatoes with a warmth and love that I would not understand for a couple more decades.
Later she would tell me that college ruined me. She would tell me that the doctor put the wrong egg in her basket.
Like I said, rocky.
Looking back now, I understand that all mama truly wanted was a loving and hard-working husband (which she was blessed to have ’til the day she died), a respectable roof over our heads and daughters to snuggle, dress up and become her best friends when they grew up. She had every reason to believe that would come to pass because meemaw, my grandmother and her mother, was in fact her best friend and they talked on a beige, tethered-to-wall phone three times every day until the day meemaw suddenly died at what now seems like the very young age of 69.
As the years passed, I pulled away while I was trying to figure myself out. Once I did figure myself out, when I came out, rocky turned to intolerable.
She said every nasty thing a person could say to a child, and she spat it with such venom that I could not begin to perceive the desperate love masked by her abuse. She was mean, she was cruel and she hurt me in ways that are still tender if I poke at ‘em too much. She called me at all hours of the day and night to scream at me, she said it would be better if I were dead and she tried to turn my own little girl against me. Finally, as an act of self preservation, I had to withdraw all contact from her and my dad for nearly three years. We all cried a river of tears and I am still tossing buckets of regret overboard. Reconciliation did finally come one Easter morning, but that’s a story for another day.
What I have come to understand all these years later is that she harbored a fierce, savage, unhinged love, that unfortunately was egregiously misinformed by a lifetime of bad theology.
And it is because I am a mama (sometimes on the wrong side of the mama/daughter relationship) that I’m finally starting to live into compassion and forgiveness – for us both.
See, I would do anything to protect my own daughter. If she were in harm’s way, I would move heaven and earth, and even shred my own heart to save her from suffering.
Let’s say my little girl, Z was crossing a busy intersection. And let’s imagine that from where I stood, I could not see that she was safely in the crosswalks but that it appeared to me as if she was about to be smashed to smithereens by the onslaught of vehicles, and maybe a meteor or two. I can vividly imagine hurling myself into the fray, jeopardizing my own safety, grabbing her by her little arm and yanking her bird-like body to the security of the curb. I’d likely have bruised or broken her in the process. I would be devastated that I had caused her injury (hell, I wept when she got her immunizations), but I might also be sure I’d done the right thing to save her life.
Then I thought, hey Kimberly imagine you’re a mom who’s been indoctrinated into believing, with every fiber of your being, that your baby girl would suffer for all eternity because she “has been lured by satan” and is living a “homosexual lifestyle”. What would you do after having endless nightmares of your baby girl’s flesh searing and boiling in an eternal lake of fire. Would you feel terror in your heart, an animal-like desperation to save your baby? What lengths might I go to in order to save her from a fate that I truly (but wrongly) believe awaits her?
Today some might call mom’s behavior “tough love.” Or bigoted hatred. Or a borderline personality disorder flaring like an eruption on the sun. Perhaps it they’d say it was a bitter little cocktail of all of the above. I think now all I am qualified to call it is a mama’s naive mind twisted and distorted by a church that lines its collection plate with the currency of ignorance, fear and loathing. And looking back at photos of that young woman holding her infant in 1969, I also would call it love because I now know that no matter how grown I am, mama still saw her little girl playing dress-up.
Now I am not telling you all this to excuse her behavior or justify my own, just to share what I see differently now that I have applied the windex of compassion to my rearview mirror.
And it took me ’til my 40s, after giving birth to my own daughter, after a decade of prayer and study and discernment in community, and a vast network of wise, loving and LGBT affirming Christians, yep, Christians, to be able to zoom out and see the complexity of her and beautiful heart and terrified mind. She had been formed by a lifetime of beliefs that unequivocally, but wrongly, understood that homosexuality was horrific, deviant, sinful behavior that would lead to hell. What else was a mama to do?
So what’s is THIS mama to do with this new clarity? She’s to share with all who have ears to hear – parents, children, friends – that:
a. the teachings of the church about sexuality and gender identity are changing in response to reason and grace
b. we can and should reject leaders who tell us to abuse and abandon children who are living into the way God created them to love
c. my own experience, informed by a deep faith in the extravagant, radical love of Jesus, confirms for me on a daily basis, with a peace that surpasses understanding, that fear is the way of death and love and hope are the way of life.
Thanks be to God for the journey.