Mother is the name for God on the lips and hearts of all children. Do you understand?
Our childhoods aren’t over when we realize we’re going to die, contrary to what The Crow would have us think. Childhood is over when we realize that there is nobody who can protect us from everything. For some folks that happens really young; for others, they die without ever learning that truth. For me, it happened when I was in my mid-30s, when my mother died.
This time of year gets to me. I admit it. This series of cards (one has a cussword in it) really got my attention and made me remember a lot of stuff that happened with my own mother.
My mom wasn’t perfect at all, but if I do say so myself, she did a damned fine job with what she had. I grew up very poor–breathtakingly so, in squalor sometimes–but it worked out because there was always at least one person in my corner that I could absolutely count on to be there for me. I could tell you stories all day long about how great she was–all at her own expense–and as we travel together no doubt you’ll hear about it, when I can do it without losing my shit. Until then, here is how my mom reacted to me becoming a roleplayer, and what she did when I moved briefly to Japan. She was also a brilliant cook, able to adapt at a moment’s notice (here’s proof of it).
I cannot imagine her pain when I went Pentecostal. Catholicism was a huge part of her identity as a person, and I rejected that to go my own way. She let me do it. It wouldn’t even have occurred to me that she’d stop me. In her own family, the “black sheep” was an uncle of hers who became a Protestant of the mild mainstream variety (my memory keeps saying “Episcopalian” but don’t hold me to that); I liked him, but I knew that the rest of the connection didn’t approve at all. Well, I’d climbed up past Uncle Henny to the diving-board above him and executed a perfect swan-dive into the Pool of Utter Heresy. I couldn’t have done better to shock people and still stayed Christian. But they loved family more than they loved religion, and they didn’t comment at all. Not even my aunt the nun said anything. Nor has anybody said a single word to me even though I’m clearly not Christian at all; in my quiet German family, people don’t talk about that sort of thing. They’d sooner ask me about my masturbatory habits than get into a deep conversation about personal religious beliefs. I’m not exaggerating.
I lost my mother to cancer a long time ago–fifteen years almost, now. It still hurts. Probably always will. Maybe someday I’ll get through a week without second-guessing my decisions and actions in her last tortured days; maybe someday I’ll remember her without feeling gut-punched. Clearly that time hasn’t come yet. I’m not asking for advice or condolences; the Great and Benevolent Brotherhood of Them What Have Lost Someone is the largest fraternal order there is in the world. I’m not special because I lost a parent. Lots of people have lost a parent or parental figure. And if you haven’t yet, hang in there, because your time is likely coming. You’ll know the second you step into our brotherhood’s hallowed halls that you’re in the right place. No one will need to teach you the secret handshake.
Nobody can protect you from such a huge loss, either. If you live long enough, you’re going to lose people you love, and nothing will be able to stop it or protect you from it. For a while I thought a god could do that, but I was wrong. No one can, and it’s just part of the human experience for us that we have to learn to deal with loss on our own. I’m just glad that I eventually realized my beliefs were wrong; I don’t think I was doing myself any favors by living in denial of obvious reality. I’d rather have honest grief than comforting self-delusion. And I can’t imagine a more important topic to be honest about than family.
“Mother” is a serious word to me, one that encompasses care, love, sacrifice, courage, hard work, dedication, support, and so much more. When I hear about terrible mothers, about abusive mothers, about cold and uncaring mothers, part of me wants to shower these women’s children with my mother. I’d be on safe ground if I did. That was her style. She adopted my friends even into my adulthood–she insisted on meeting them when she visited even if she had only a few precious hours to spend in town before she had to go. She sent them care packages of food and gifts like she sent me, and remembered them at Christmas. Whatever I loved, she loved with ferocious maternal devotion or at least encouraged me in loving. That’s why it was such a privilege to care for her in her last days, and to run interference between her and those who’d peddle pseudoscience at her or scold her for not doing whatever it was her friends thought she should be doing right then. People get a little silly when faced with something as horrifying as cancer; I didn’t hold it against them and neither did she.
I didn’t even know how many little lost ducklings she’d taken under her wing till after her death, when one by one they approached me before, during, and after her funeral to hesitantly tell me stories of how she’d loved them all up and helped them and made them whole in her stoic, stolid way of accepting and nurturing anything small that wandered into her path that looked like it needed loving up.
And now, in some small way, in some very, very small way, now she is yours too, if you need love or a template for love.
Nurture and love the small things that wander into your path. That’s all I’m saying. See the important stuff and set it free. Bite back impatience for just one moment. Trust people to make mistakes and then to learn from them. Listen without preparing a brilliant return story in your head to rattle off the second the other person stops talking for two seconds. Be the safe harbor.
I hope with all my heart that my mother found something after this life to make the sacrifices she’d made worth the doing. If anybody ever deserved a do-over or an eternity of bliss, she did. I really don’t know what happens after we die, and I truly hesitate to guess. Chances are she just died and that’s it. And if that’s all that happens, then at least she saw an end to her lifelong struggles.
Fifty years after you and I die, not a single living human being alive will remember the sound of our voices, but maybe someone in those future days will remember the important stuff about us. Immortality isn’t about some magic fairyland in the sky with improbable roads and sumptuous feasts prepared by divine hands; it’s how we are remembered by those we love and by our communities, and what we did to improve the world and to prepare those who are coming after us for the challenges they’ll face.
You don’t need to be a snazzy scientist or an award-winning novelist to be remembered. Love can make all the difference in the world to a little lost duckling. Love can make you immortal.
I’m going to share with you one of the things she sent in her care packages: her world-famous Mango Bread. I’m sure it’s just a riff on banana bread; we lived in my earliest childhood in Hawaii, you know, so we got about as many mangoes as we could hold. The smell of this bread made everything good and right again in my little world–I’d ten times rather have just one loaf of this humble fare than all the heavenly feasts in the world. Some years ago I was still figuring out cooking and couldn’t bake for beans, and she knew it, so when I told her once I missed it, she not only made a batch and mailed it next day air to me, she sent my best friend a batch too, which is when I learned that she’d adopted a friend of mine who she’d never actually even met in person.
If at the end of this roller-coaster we call life I’ve learned half as much as my mother knew about showing love, then I’ll be able to consider myself a success.
If the people we love are stolen from us, the way to have them live on is to never stop loving them. Buildings burn, people die, but real love is forever.
Captain Cassidy’s Mom’s World-Famous Mango Bread
1. Preheat oven to 350; grease two cake pans or bread pans with butter.
2. Sift together in a large bowl: 2 cups flour, 2 tsp baking soda, 1 tsp baking powder, 2 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp salt, and 1-1/2 cups sugar. Make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients.
3. Mix together in a medium bowl: 1/2 cup vegetable oil, 1/2 cup melted butter, 1 tsp vanilla, 2 cups mashed ripe fresh mangoes with whatever juice they give off, and 3 beaten eggs. Pour this into the well you made in the dry ingredients. If you like them, also pour in 1/4 cup chopped walnuts and/or 1 cup chopped raisins, dates, or sultanas. Mix the whole shebang just barely till blended. Pour into the prepared pans.
4. Bake for one hour or until a toothpick test comes out clean. Let sit in the pans on racks to cool. Serve from the pans. You could probably serve this with whipped cream or something, or get all fancy and dust it with powdered sugar or a glaze of some kind, but I just like it plain with coffee or hot tea. This is one lily that doesn’t need a lot of gilding.