Luke 2:15-19; Psalm 100:1-5
The Rev. Tom Herbek
May 8, 2016
The relationships between children and their mothers are not often easy. For most mothers, including Mary, there are times to be treasured and other times that are painful and difficult. And the same is true of children, no matter how close they are to their mothers. I recently found a story I had never heard before, told by Dr. Rachel Remen, about her mother:
My mother’s brand of femininity was distinctly her own, as were her ideas about adulthood. Everyone in her family was a service professional, and the unspoken mark of maturity was the courage to move society forward. Professionally, she herself was a maverick. As one of the early Henry Street nurses, she had been intimately involved at the start of Public Health Nursing in the U.S.
I believe I know the very moment that I became an adult, when my relationship to my mother as a child was complete. It happened in a public place, in the presence of a large number of people. Yet it was a completely personal moment witnessed by none of them.
I had been one of two women and several men invited to speak at a conference entitled “The Power of Imagination”, a pioneering day-long meeting on mind/body health. It was 1984, when such ideas were very new and poorly accepted by the medical profession. Of the thousand people in the audience, only a few were physicians.
At the time, my mother was elderly and very ill. Two days before the conference, a friend asked me if I planned to invite her. Surprised, I responded that I had not thought about it as she had no interest in mind/body health. My friend, who is Japanese and has a finer sense of such things than I, responded, “But of course not, Rachel. She has an interest in you.”
When I thought it over, I realized that my mother had never actually heard me speak publicly. I thought about the difficulty of getting her to the auditorium and what might happen if, sitting alone in this large audience, she had one of her frequent “heart spells” as I was speaking. It was a daunting thought, and I was tempted to dismiss my friend’s suggestion out of hand. Still, a simple fairness suggested that my assumption of her lack of interest might not be completely accurate, and so I asked her if she wanted to come. She accepted with enthusiasm.
We went to the hall two hours early. At that time, my mother’s heart was failing and she could not walk very far without resting. It took a while to get her seated in the empty auditorium. I settled her in the middle of the tenth row. As the auditorium filled and I sat on the stage with the others, I saw her reach into her purse for her nitroglycerin tablets. My heart sank.
When it was my turn to speak, I described the difference between curing and healing and the new technique of guided imagery that could further people’s own ability to heal. I shared my belief that a medicine that did not recognize this innate power in people failed them in a crucial way. These were radical ideas for the time, and I told story after story from my practice in support of them. As the hour drew to a close, I ventured a look at my mother. She was listening intently. She seemed to be all right. I was relieved.
When I finished speaking, there was complete silence.
I had expected this as only the previous week many of the physicians at the Kaiser San Francisco Hospital, offended by these same ideas, had walked out of the grand rounds I had given there well before the end of the hour. But this was not an audience of physicians. Suddenly people began to applaud and slowly many even stood up. I was stunned.
Only one person in the tenth row remained seated. Her arms were crossed and there was a very tiny smile on her face. As we continued to look at each other, her eyes narrowed and she nodded slowly, twice. No other acknowledgment I have ever received has equaled it. I draw strength from it still. And five months later, she died.
- My Grandfather’s Blessings
Mothers come in all shapes and sizes, physically, emotionally and spiritually, but what all children seek is that moment when we receive “the nod.” I think Dr. Remen is right. It is that moment that frees us from the entanglements of childhood and allows us to become adults in our own way. Maya Angelou says it this way: “I believe that one carries the shadows, the dreams, the fears and dragons of home under one’s skin.”
It is only when we receive “the nod” that we are able to leave home. A part of who we are is that vestige of childhood that remains with us our entire life. Even today, a part of my identity is still constructed around the fact that I was 8 weeks premature. In fact, I loved to visit the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in any hospital in which I worked, because there was a kinship there with those preemies.
One of the most wonderful gifts that a mother can give to her children is laughter. Maya Angelou says: “What child can resist a mother who laughs freely and often?” Laughter and humor are sometimes the only way to deal with the ups and downs of motherhood and childhood. Erma Bombeck describes her son’s take on this whole thing:
“Mom, parents and their kids aren’t supposed to communicate. It breaks down the hostility that we need to sustain our relationship. Remember how you and Dad were always on my case about my long hair?”
“We may have mentioned it a few times.”
“Mom! Every time you were supposed to give me the kiss of peace during Mass, you’d turn to me and say, ‘Get a haircut, Weirdo.’”
“Look, I didn’t go through thirty-six hours of’ labor to give birth to Sandra Dee,” I said. “And that disgusting beard.”
“Everyone had a beard: Merlin the Magician, Doc of the Seven Dwarfs . . . Santa Claus.”
“None of them had a mother,” I challenged. “The point is,” he said, “do you remember what happened when I got my hair cut and shaved off my beard?”
I remembered. We became strangers. Our relationship had always been built on a firm ground of criticism. His long hair and his beard brought us together. From the moment he entered the door until the moment he left, we had rapport . . . feelings. . . threats . . . and untold guilt.
I found myself planning our next encounter and thinking up creative ways to bring up the subject of his hair. I used to flash a picture of Dick Clark and say, “Now there’s a boy who enjoys rock ‘n’ roll and you can still see his ears.”
Once on a vacation, it was all we talked about from Gary, Indiana, to Salt Lake City, Utah. It really made the time fly.
And then one night he came in and his hair was cut short and his beard was gone. We had nothing to say to one another. Nothing to nag about. Nothing to criticize. Nothing to communicate. Finally, his father said, “So, why didn’t you tell us you were getting your hair cut?” We chewed on it for the rest of the evening. It was like old times.
- -Family – Ties That Bind…And Gag!
How lucky are the children of mothers who have a sense of humor, and who laugh and make them laugh. But sometimes the people that mother us are not the ones who are related to us, not the ones who birthed us. Joan Chittister once said: “There is a child in all of us who needs to be protected, nurtured, valued. Who takes care of the child in you – and whose soul child are you loving to life? Whoever it is, the soul child is really your family – regardless to whom you are legally related.”
At the end of this life, Jesus made sure– even as he was dying– that John would take care of Mary, and that Mary would be a mother for John. We all need people who mother us in ways that our own mothers cannot. If we are lucky, these mothers come into our lives and give us “the nod,” even when our own mothers cannot.
Cecile Gilmer wrote this:
I believe that families are not only blood relatives but sometimes just people that show up and love you when no one else will.
In May 1977, I lived in a Howard Johnsons motel off of Interstate 10 in Houston. My dad and I shared a room with two double beds and a bathroom way too small for a modest fifteen-year-old girl and her father.
Dad’s second marriage was in trouble, and my stepmother had kicked us both out of the house the previous week. Dad had no idea what to do with me. And that’s when my other family showed up.
Barbara and Roland Beach took me into their home because their only daughter, Su, my best friend, asked them to. I lived with them for the next seven years.
Barb starched my drill team skirts same as Su’s. She made sure I had lunch money, doctors’ appointments, help with homework, Jordache jeans, puka shell necklaces, and nightly hugs. Barbara and Roland attended every football game where Su and I marched, every drama performance I was in, even when I had no speaking lines. As far as I could tell, for the Beaches, there was no difference between Su and me: I was their daughter, too.
When Su and I left for rival colleges, they kept my room the same for the entire four years I attended school. Recently, Barb presented me with an insurance policy they bought when I first moved in with them and had continued to pay on for twenty-three years.
The Beaches knew all about me when they took me in. When I was seven, my mother died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound and from then on my father relied on other people to raise his kids. By the time I went to live with the Beaches, I believed that life was entirely unfair and that love was tenuous and untrustworthy. I believed that the only person who would take care of me was me.
Without the Beaches, I would have become a bitter, cynical woman. They gave me a home that allowed me to grow and change. They kept me from being paralyzed by my past, and they gave me the confidence to open my heart.
I believe in family. For me, it wasn’t the family that was there on the day I was born, but the one that was there for me when I was living in a Howard Johnsons on Interstate 10.
–This I Believe
No matter how old we are or what our relationship with our own mother is, we all need families who keep us from being paralyzed by our past, people whose laughter and love and acceptance of us as we are, allow us to become the people we can be.
So, on this Mother’s Day, may we not only celebrate our birth mothers, but also those who have given us “the nod,” who have changed our lives by their nurture, their love, and their acceptance of us as we are, and their belief in who we can become.