The ages between the time I was five and the time I was 8 were absolutely crucial to my development. I was positively obsessed with religion. I read my Bible every day, got up and went straight to my knees before I woke up and before I fell asleep. I was asking every question I could think of about every topic imaginable (I still don't have a good answer about where rocks come from). If there was any one person that left an indelible impression on me at that point, it was my mother.
(Every good drama requires good characters, its share of villains and heros. But I've found that in the best dramas and certainly the performance that is my life that the characters have never been that clean. The icons and scoundrels in my life aren't: they are just people, trying to find their way as well. Most will be briefly introduced but in this puzzle that is my life a few will need to have solid introductions. They are the corners and edges that let the rest of the puzzle take shape.)
Anyway, the great characters of my early life are my grandparents, my great grand parents, and my mother. My mother, the giver of life, looms larger than it every memory.
Now undoubtedly the relationship between any of us and our parents is at best complicated. If our parents our only goddesses or only monsters, our thinking is simple if not simplistic. My mother was a goddess. She cooked, she cleaned, she cared. God's plan was simple for hers and all of our lives. We accepted grace for all of our sins and then dedicated our lives entirely to the service of God. I bought this hook, line and sinker. I was plagued by thoughts of how to even brush my teeth to the glory of God (in case you too are wondering the answer, it does require flossing).
I have no memories of my mother ever spanking me, of her ever having yelled at me while knowing both events occurred. This is perhaps because the perennial discipline with her was more like an occupation. She was a travel agent…for guilt trips. Any time I did anything short of desired at school or at home, she showed her disappointment and not infrequently questioned me on what God would think of this. Disappointing her became the fear of my life and pleasing her the goal. This may still be true. For most of my religious life, this has also been true. Some people dream of heaven and fear hell and this keeps their behavior in check. My mother was my first image of the deity and I don't fear damnation and have never been that excited about paradise. But the idea that God was smiling or crying in reaction to my behavior; oh yeah, that kept me in line.
In fact my behaviors and choices were often an attempt at pleasing both God and the goddess of my life simultaneously. While I'd like to believe otherwise, I'm not sure that I decided/discovered that God wanted me to be a preacher at that age for any other reasons. I am no longer a preacher but every once in a while these days I take a speaking invitation. I am unclear as to whether I do it because of what I have to say or so that I can tell my mother that I'm speaking somewhere.
Her redeeming qualities unsurprisingly abound. She is generous and graceful in her approach to people; elegant and immaculate in regards to anything of substance. She is resilient and had many leadership qualities. Her strong belief that everything happens for a reason made her look for a reason in everything (in case you're wondering why this is a strength, it's what shaped my need to question things). She raised three good young men. I used to say in my flattering but unsophisticated kind of way that all my positive attributes were because of her and the rest because of me. Like a believer in a fundamentalist God, I could for most of my young life attribute no faults to her.
My mother, of course, also has her faults. She tries to be too controlling; she thinks she's right at the cost of everyone else being wrong and her diplomacy about this is notably lacking; she's religious to the point of a fault (the last two character traits may be synonymous); she talks disproportionably to her position in any circle; she doesn't put into perspective that some things are more dramatic than others, that not every problem or challenge is the end of the world; and she's so uncomfortable in her own skin that self-awareness is painful. Who knew that all of these traits were genetic and that one son would inherit them all?
My mother had her own reasons for being this way, her own story. She too had parentage that shaped her, and most of her life in a country where strong women like her were even more of a problem than they are in America. (The work environment rarely finds in any place a good place for strong women to thrive. Perhaps, that's why we find so many of them in church.) She made some poor choices regarding men and lifestyle in her youth (it's hard to not contemplate that my conception was one of them) and needed grace to regain strength. Thank God she found it.
No one can choose the circumstances of their birth or their parents. But in the end, my mother was and is still a goddess in my view, perhaps like the ancient goddesses which had faults but goddesses none the less. So she was the giver and sustainer of my life, the author of my faith. Could anyone ask more from a mother?
There was a time where a friend and I were dreaming about our futures. I went as far ahead as my 50th wedding anniversary and what a great party it would be. How everyone would come, my friends, and my family and my mother… and then I realized in all likelihood that my mother wouldn't be alive. It never occurred to me my mother would die before then. And I wept. In the past, in the present, in the distant future, I can't imagine my life without her presence.