“The Measure of a Mother’s Love”
A Sermon by Lisa Perry-Wood
Delivered on Sunday, May 13, 2018
At The First Parish in Bedford
by Mahmoud Darwish
I long for my mother’s bread
My mother’s coffee
Childhood memories grow up in me
Day after day
I must be worth my life
At the hour of my death
Worth the tears of my mother.
And if I come back one day
Take me as a veil to your eyelashes
Cover my bones with the grass
Blessed by your footsteps
Bind us together
With a lock of your hair
With a thread that trails from the back of your dress
I might become immortal
Become a God
If I touch the depths of your heart.
If I come back
Use me as wood to feed your fire
As the clothesline on the roof of your house
Without your blessing
I am too weak to stand.
I am old
Give me back the star maps of childhood
So that I
Along with the swallows
Can chart the path
Back to your waiting nest.
The Measure of a Mother’s Love
There’s an old joke in my family that goes like this:
A grandmother is walking on the beach with her grandson, when suddenly a big wave comes and carries him away. The grandmother looks up and cries out to the heavens: “Please, God, have mercy, I beg you, give me back my little boy!” Just then, another wave rushes in and deposits him at her feet. She looks down at the boy and then up toward the heavens again and cries out: “He had a hat!” That cry of outrage: “He had a hat!” has become metaphorical in our family for the heady mix of outrage, possessiveness, affection and disappointment that goes hand in hand with a mother’s love.
The thing is that a mother’s love is not just one thing. It’s something like a diamond; often flawed, not always perfect, but multi-faceted, beautiful and valuable, nonetheless. There are mothers who give up their own dreams for us, love us through all of our unlovableness, protect us with their words and acts, soothe our hurts and listen to our grievances. And there are also mothers who disappoint us, even some who physically or emotionally hurt us, don’t stand up for us, and burden us with their own disappointments and grievances. There are many kinds of mothers: fathers or other relatives who play that role; elected, chosen, or foster mothers; family friends who step in, as needed.
Yet somehow, in the midst of all of these versions of “mom”, most of us keep on trying to find our way to love and connection with our mothers. It is even said that many children who have been abused by their mother still want to be with her, if given the choice. Not everyone can have the poignant relationship with their mother of the poet Mahmoud Darwish, wishing to be a veil to her eyelashes, wood to feed her fire. But most of us remain hopeful, throughout our lives, about our mother’s love. How does that happen? How can we measure the power of a mother’s love?
It seems to me that a mother’s love has at least four facets: sacrifice, advocacy, nurturing, and compassion. Likely no mother does all of these aspects perfectly, but all mothers innately know that these are at least part of the “job description.” And I think that each mother stands out in at least one of these capacities – maybe not all the time, but in some shining moments. So, I want to talk a little about each aspect.
Sacrifice, for mothers, is, in some respects, a time-honored expectation – everything from a starving mother giving up her own bread so her child can eat, to Miriam sending the baby Moses down the Nile in a basket, hoping that Pharaoh’s daughter will rescue him. In my own family, I recently learned of the sacrifice my father’s mother made in World War II. Three of her sons had enlisted and the fourth, my father, had been declared unfit to serve in the military, due to a disability. He wanted to volunteer as an ambulance driver, but needed both of his parents’ permission, as he was under 18. I can only imagine what it must have been like for my grandmother to sign off to risk that fourth son, her youngest child, whom she could have kept at home. That’s sacrifice.
And then there’s Lorraine, the mother of our great niece, Samantha, who lived with us in Lexington till she went to college last Fall. Eight and half years ago, Lorraine sent Sam, age ten, 3,000 miles away from her California home, for a chance at a better life. We are really only related to them by the thinnest of threads – a marriage that no longer exists. Lorraine hardly even knew us, but, having lived homeless for a year, she realized that she could no longer support her family. She sent her little girl far away to relative strangers, in the hope that she would thrive. Sacrifice. And, in spite of many bumps in the road, Sam did thrive; she’s now a freshman at the University of San Diego.
So, there are a mother’s sacrifices, for sure. And then, there’s also advocacy. We’ve all heard about the “Tiger Mom”; the one who will fight anything that seems to threaten her children. My sister-in-law, Kim, has three severely autistic daughters, and she is an amazingly powerful example of this facet. Over the past eighteen years, she has researched and utilized every new therapy, and fought tirelessly for the girls’ full inclusion in school. She has also written books, and spoken out fiercely, despite her innate shyness, on talk shows and at conferences, on their behalf. As an advocate for her kids, Kim is, as they say, a force of nature – you do not want to tangle with her!
My own mom became a mom at 21 when I was born. 21! That seems very young. Though she was not much more than a child herself, she clearly did the best she knew how to do. One particular incident stays with me. At ten years old I was an avid comic book reader. Some of you might remember the ads they had in comic books when we were growing up about the money kids could make selling products? Mine was “Cloverine Salve”; I ordered ten tins of the stuff, to be sold at $2.50 each – the idea was to send the money back to the company and get a (now unmemorable) fabulous prize. Simple, right? Except that weeks went by and I had only gotten rid of one single tin. My grandmother, always a soft touch, bought one – that was it.
I was feeling pretty desperate, when I got an idea… My mother kept a glass jar in the kitchen cupboard, where she collected change and the occasional dollar bill. It was easy to slip into the kitchen when she was out of the house and empty that temptingly full jar. Of course, I was caught very quickly. As the oldest (and tallest) child, and not the shrewdest liar, I was easily nailed. But what happened next is what stayed with me. After some yelling and a spanking (yes, even good mothers spanked back then – remember, it was “Dr. Spock-approved”) and both of us crying, she did something I still find amazing. Taking all of the Cloverine Salve company information from me, she called them up and blasted them for taking advantage of her innocent child! Then she packed up the remaining tins of salve and sent them back – without the money! I will never forget her outrage at that sales tactic. It is one of the threads of her love I have held onto for years. Yes, moms can be fierce and tireless advocates – even when we may not fully deserve it!
Sacrifice, advocacy – moms are incredibly strong! And Moms are nurturers and healers too. Our first doctor and nurse; doing a motherly “triage” on their children’s wounds, applying band-aids, kissing booboos. Our family house on Cape Cod had a very splintery deck, and, over the years, I watched my mom as she removed many a splinter from a child’s foot (despite countless warnings of “No running in bare feet!”). I have Mom’s technique down now; I’ve inherited from her the role of “splinter pro.” I only gave up her slightly rusty and bent tweezers a couple of years ago – holding them in my hand, I feel my connection to my mother as healer, though she wouldn’t have thought of herself that way. She was “just being a mom.”
Sacrifice, advocacy, healing – all are the province of “mom.” And then, there is motherly compassion. This may well be the quintessential mothering quality we all are looking for. The mother who listens without trying to fix things, who cries with and for all of our hurts, who perpetually says “Aw, baby, that’s not right – you deserve better.” That mother. It’s tough for mothers to live up to this standard. My daughter, who has lived far away from her home state since the end of high school, once famously told me: “What every child really wants is for their mother to be sitting by the phone, just sipping a cup of tea, and waiting for them to call.” That picture is hard to come by these days!
Whether we unexpectedly become mothers at 16, like Samantha’s mom, or after years of trying, in our 40’s, like my daughter, whether by adoption, surrogacy, guardianship, “the old-fashioned way” or by scientifically engineered design, we are all just doing the best we know how to do. Compassion, after all, is not really something that can be learned. Some of us had warmer, more demonstrative mothers than others. And some of our mothers had more openly loving mothers than others. Some perfectly good mothers were just not up to meeting the emotional needs of the particular child they ended up with, while others, less than able or even seriously misguided, still did a halfway decent job of raising strong, independent human beings by simply loving them. All mothers do the best they can with what they have. They love deeply, they feel for our children’s hurts as they do their own, and, in the end we are all just human beings.
And it may be that some of us raised ourselves, in spite of the mothering we got. This whole child-rearing thing is a bit of a mystery. As the renowned scientist, Lord Martin Rees, said in an interview with Krista Tippett on the NPR show, On Being, “if good parenting were scientific, we wouldn’t have new theories every few years on how to do it. The problem is”, Rees said, “that it’s all about a wide variety of human interactions and they are just not predictable enough. There are just too many variables, too many moving parts.” Well, that’s for sure. “Too many moving parts” – many a mother can relate to that statement! There are, as Annie Lamott reminds us in her book about her journey into single motherhood, no “operating instructions.”
But this much I believe. Blaming our mothers and wishing for them to love us in better or different ways just isn’t useful – for us or for them. In order to move forward, to truly grow up, most of us have got to simply love the mother we were given. Unless she was openly abusive, (or, for some of us, even if she was), our mother was doing the best she could in each moment, using whatever skills and knowledge she had. Honoring our mother, loving her the best that we can, honors mothers everywhere: our sisters and aunts, wives and daughters, and for some of us, ourselves. All mothers deserve to be held in the light of the love they have given and received. We honor their sacrifices, their fierce advocacy, their nurturing and healing, their compassion, however that may have looked. May all mothers give and receive forgiveness from those they love and, most of all, from themselves. Blessed be and Amen.