“Those Who Mothered Us”
A Sermon for Mother’s Day by Rev. Megan Lynes
Delivered on Sunday, May 11, 2014
At The First Parish in Bedford
Thoughts to Ponder at the Beginning:
No one is more sentimentalized in America than mothers on Mother’s Day, but no one is more often blamed for the culture’s bad people and behavior. ~ Anne Lamott
Yes, Mother. I can see you are flawed. You have not hidden it. That is your greatest gift to me.
~ Alice Walker
Grown don’t mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. They get bigger, older, but grown? What’s that suppose to mean? In my heart it don’t mean a thing. ~ Toni Morrison
My mother gives me her recipe
By Marge Piercy
Take some flour. Oh, I don’t know,
like two-three cups, and you cut
in the butter. Now some women
they make it with shortening,
but I say butter, even though
that means you had to have fish, see?
You cut up some apples. Not those
stupid sweet ones. Apples for the cake,
they have to have some bite, you know?
A little sour in the sweet, like love.
You slice them into little moons.
No, no! Like half or crescent
moons. You aren’t listening.
You mix sugar and cinnamon and cloves,
some women use allspice, till it’s dark
and you stir in the apples. You coat
every little moon. Did I say you add
milk? Oh, just till it feels right.
Use your hands. Milk in the cake part!
Then you pat it into a pan, I like
round ones, but who cares?
I forgot to say you add baking powder.
Did I forget a little lemon on the apples?
Then you just bake it. Well, till it’s done
of course. Did I remember you place
the apples in rows? You can make
a pattern, like a weave. It’s pretty
that way. I like things pretty.
It’s just a simple cake.
Any fool can make it
except your aunt. I
gave her the recipe
but she never
got it right.
To My Mother
by Wendell Berry
I was your rebellious son,
do you remember? Sometimes
I wonder if you do remember,
so complete has your forgiveness been.
So complete has your forgiveness been
I wonder sometimes if it did not
precede my wrong, and I erred,
safe found, within your love,
prepared ahead of me, the way home,
or my bed at night, so that almost
I should forgive you, who perhaps
foresaw the worst that I might do,
and forgave before I could act,
causing me to smile now, looking back,
to see how paltry was my worst,
compared to your forgiveness of it
already given. And this, then,
is the vision of that Heaven of which
we have heard, where those who love
each other have forgiven each other,
where, for that, the leaves are green,
the light a music in the air,
and all is unentangled,
and all is undismayed.
Song for a Daughter
by Ursula Le Guin
Mother of my granddaughter,
listen to my song:
A mother can’t do right,
a daughter can’t be wrong.
I have no claim whatever
on amnesty from you;
nor will she forgive you
for anything you do.
So are we knit together
by force of opposites,
the daughter that unravels
the skein the mother knits.
One must be divided
so that one be whole,
and this is the duplicity
alleged of woman’s soul.
To be that heavy mother
who weighs in every thing
is to be the daughter
whose footstep is the Spring.
Granddaughter of my mother,
listen to my song:
Nothing you do will ever be right,
nothing you do is wrong.
John and I chose something to read at the same time this morning for our two First Parish services. People at Ferry Beach are sitting in a circle on a lawn right now, and we are sitting here in our cozy meeting house, and yet we are not divided in spirit. This grouchy little piece was written by Anne Lamott a few years ago, and she says that she wrote it as a “rejoinder to the really sickening national approach to Mother’s Day.” She added: “P.S. I miss my mom like crazy.”
“I did not raise my son, Sam, to celebrate Mother’s Day. I didn’t want him to feel some obligation to buy me pricey lunches or flowers, some annual display of gratitude that you have to grit your teeth and endure. Perhaps Mother’s Day will come to mean something to me as I grow even dottier in my dotage, and I will find myself bitter and distressed when Sam dutifully ignores the holiday. Then he will feel ambushed by my expectations, and he will retaliate by putting me away even sooner than he was planning to — which, come to think of it, would be even more reason to hate Mother’s Day.
I hate the way the holiday makes all non-mothers, and the daughters of dead mothers, and the mothers of dead or severely damaged children, feel the deepest kind of grief and failure. The non-mothers must sit in their churches, temples, mosques, recovery rooms and pretend to feel good about the day while they are excluded from a holiday that benefits no one but Hallmark and See’s. There is no refuge — not at the horse races, movies, malls, museums. It should go without saying that I also hate Valentine’s Day.
Mothering has been the richest experience of my life, but I am still opposed to Mother’s Day. It perpetuates the dangerous idea that all parents are somehow superior to non-parents.
Don’t get me wrong: There were times I could have literally died of love for my son, and I’ve felt stoned on his rich, desperate love for me. But I bristle at the whispered lie that you can know this level of love and self-sacrifice only if you are a parent. We talk about “loving one’s child” as if a child were a mystical unicorn. Ninety-eight percent of American parents secretly feel that if you have not had and raised a child, your capacity for love is somehow diminished. Ninety-eight percent of American parents secretly believe that non-parents cannot possibly know what it is to love unconditionally, to be selfless, to put yourself at risk for the gravest loss. But in my experience, it’s parents who are prone to exhibit terrible self-satisfaction and selfishness, who can raise children as adjuncts, like rooms added on in a remodel. Their children’s value and achievements in the world are reflected glory, necessary for these parents’ self-esteem, and sometimes, for the family’s survival. This is how children’s souls are destroyed.
But my main gripe about Mother’s Day is that it feels incomplete and imprecise. The main thing that ever helped mothers was other people mothering them; a chain of mothering that keeps the whole shebang afloat. I am the woman I grew to be partly in spite of my mother, and partly because of the extraordinary love of her best friends, and my own best friends’ mothers, and from surrogates, many of whom were not women at all but gay men. I have loved them my entire life, even after their passing.
No one is more sentimentalized in America than mothers on Mother’s Day, but no one is more often blamed for the culture’s bad people and behavior. You want to give me chocolate and flowers? That would be great. I love them both. I just don’t want them out of guilt, and I don’t want them if you’re not going to give them to all the people who helped mother our children.
But if you are going to include everyone, then make mine something like M&M’s, and maybe flowers you picked yourself, even from my own garden, the cut stems wrapped in wet paper towels, then tin foil and a waxed-paper bag from my kitchen drawers. I don’t want something special. I want something beautifully plain. Like everything else, it can fill me only if it is ordinary and available to all.”
Thank you Anne.
After reading this piece earlier this week I started thinking of course about my own mother, and at the risk of sentimentalizing the relationship, I will tell you three things I like about her. The first thing you need to know about my mom is that she’s British, so I call her Mummy. She was raised in Malaysia, as a “seen and not heard” little girl. She was taught to be SO good. Humbleness was a core value, and accepting praise was tantamount to stealing. So one thing I have grown to understand about my mom is that every piece of self-worth she managed to sort out for herself, or tried to pass along to her kids came as if by climbing a mountain with her teeth. My mom taught me that feeling worthy is not the same thing as showing off. Something else I love about my mom is that if you meet her she will ask you about your family or your people, and she’ll plant her feet and stay there while you answer even if one or both of you feel awkward, and this is the best way to get to know someone, to stay longer than you are comfortable, and keep trying to connect. Lastly, I love her subtlety. One summer when I was 12 she taped the French verb TO BE and all its conjugations to my wall by my bed.
I was about to start middle school in a new town and was sure to be behind in everything: academic content, friendships, knowledge of the town and the way school worked. I’ve never told her this, but that French verb list became my mantra as I trudged down the halls of seventh grade hell. Je suis, tu es, il ou elle est, nous sommes, vous etes, ils sont. It was a message about existence. “I am!” I told myself in my magic language, the only class in which I could excel. Two years later when I got to high school the first thing I noticed was a huge metal sculpture on the lawn. “We Are” it declared. It had been made using the words of a poem written by a student who had taken her own life. When I saw those two words I knew right away how much better that concept was than just “I am.” But I wouldn’t have found community there if I hadn’t found self-acceptance first, and my mom had done what she could to teach that to me by rote.
Maybe you had a mother you could turn to, or who was fierce, or one who wasn’t even biologically related to you. All these mothers count, as Anne Lamott said. But not everyone has a simple or happy relationship with their mother. Many of us were raised or nurtured through the years by surrogates. They are birth mothers, adoptive mothers, foster mothers, mentors and Mothers of Invention. There are the ones who guided, comforted, and challenged us, and they lived next door, or across the country. Some families have no women as parents, and others have only women as parents. Some of us have lost our mothers years ago, or ties are strained or severed, and that loss is greater than words. We honor that reality too. Today is a day to reflect on mothers of all kinds, lovely and imperfect, and consider who has been a mothering presence for you in your life.
I wonder who in your life has been a mothering presence for you? Was there a moment that you needed someone badly and your own mother or someone else helped you along the way?
Mothering is the teacher who says I know you can do better, and I won’t accept any less from you. Or the teacher who dumps out your desk and gives you a giant fresh start, erasing the backlog of old assignments to turn in.
Mothering is the Resident Assistant in a dorm who knocks on the freshman’s door at two am because from out in the hall the argument inside starts to sound steely and mean. “Can you just leave now…?” the freshman says to her guest, and the RA stands there until that happens.
Mothering the way an elder speaks the truth without blame to her young friend whose business has failed. And suddenly he hears that this loss is not his whole life. This too shall pass she tells him. And it does.
Sometimes I look back on my own journey towards becoming a minister. I didn’t know when I entered divinity school if I was going to be able to be parish minister or a chaplain, or something else entirely. The person who most shaped me throughout the process, told me straightforwardly she wanted to see me in a parish, required me to stand up and shake but stand up tall, was Diane Teichert. Many of you know her because she was the Assistant Minister here for a year just before I arrived. She was also my supervisor in Canton, MA, where I did my internship and where she served for ten years before coming here and then to Paint Branch, Maryland. I remember her keen eyes as we sat in supervision and how patient she was as she asked me questions for which there was no answer but my own truth. I would try to figure out what she wanted me to say, but that was not of interest to her, and certainly that was not the point of theological reflection. She taught me to stay put in the dessert and dig in one spot until I could find water. She taught me that no matter what sermon you preach, Job, the suffering one, is always in the room, and if you don’t make space in the service somehow for that person, you have as good as closed the door in their face. She taught me that prayers change people, and people change people, and so even spiritual humanists like herself can pray. One day I caught sight of her notepad upon which she’d written categories of tasks and goals for herself. There were ten sections. Each section had subtitles. Under one section, in one subtitled spot was simply “supervise intern.” What a huge impact she had on me every single day, and yet I occupied only one tiny aspect of her ministry. I admired her for her clear expression of thought, and her ability to lead in a way that made others want to join in. And she has a wonderful wit. You never know who will make you laugh at yourself, and this I know is true: those are people to keep around.
Along with all of you I was shocked to hear that Diane, who’s only 62, went in to the office three weeks ago and had a major hemorrhagic stroke that paralyzed the left side of her body. Though her thinking is unharmed, talking is difficult and much is exhausting. Her family has been keeping everyone updated using an online site called Caring Pages, and I thought I’d share with you a recent post from there.
This was written by Diane’s husband Don, on May 8th. A Day of New Milestones
By Don Milton — May 8, 2014 7:40pm
Diane’s day started early with Occupational Therapy at 6:30 AM. Diane is learning how to swallow and in the coming weeks will need to learn how to walk again. She has made remarkable progress, but faces significant challenges ahead. The therapist, with help from other staff, enabled Diane to wash her hair for the first time in 3 weeks. The warm water felt great! Later, Diane connected with her Recreational Therapist for one of Diane’s favorite pastimes, a game of scrabble. Diane says it “was challenging to see opportunities on the left side of the board,” and it was harder to make words that read across from left to right than to make ones that read down the board. Diane can see on the left just fine — the problem is one of being aware of, of perceiving what is on the left. Later, the Speech Therapist gave Diane permission to eat a peppermint patty, “It tasted like heaven.” Diane also comments that in general, “The food here tastes a little bit like what you think you ordered.”
Thanks for helping us laugh Diane. We all need more of that. “Life,” Rumi says, “you will know it by it’s seriousness, give me your hand.” I’m going to bring a card for Diane to coffee hour this week and next, and anyone who’d like to sign it is welcome to. She has just been moved to a great rehab with huge windows looking at trees, and I hear that cards line the sill. Let’s be a part of that web of support.
In our families and close relationships, the natural cycles of life invite us to care for one another in changing ways through the years. Healthy friendships have a give and take to them in which each mothers the other, taking turns. Reciprocity allows for this.
Part of the reason that mothering young children feels so hard at times is that the reciprocity can take years to even out. A mother carries a child, in middle age they perhaps are peers, in old age, the child can find him or herself caring for the mother. Sometimes it really hard to have these caregiver roles flipped. Other times it is a gift. With permission, I share with you what Linda Pollitz told me about her changing relationship with her own mother through the years.
My folks divorced when I was young, and Mom never remarried. As the youngest child it was only Mom and me in the house once my older sibs had flown the nest. I recall in high school if we wanted a treat we’d go out for Chinese food. We’d pour over the menu, deciding which new thing we’d try while sipping our green tea. One evening, looking around the restaurant at the other diners, Mom surprised me by making up stories about the lives of the other diners. “See that couple over there? She just left her high powered job as a partner in a downtown Cleveland law firm and is now building gardens in the inner city. She how dirty her fingernails are? It’s a dead giveaway!”
At first I thought she was serious (although for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how an English teacher would know who the partners of the big Cleveland law firms were….). I asked “REALLY?” She just looked at me and smirked, and I discovered a wickedly funny, creative side of my mom I never knew existed. And so I jumped on the bandwagon and began to make up stories, too. We had a wonderful time that night –the Chinese food never tasted so good as when it was sprinkled with a spicy story!
My mom has Alzheimer’s now, Linda continues. In these early stages she can still communicate, enjoy a good story, and is in many ways still “herself.” While she doesn’t always retain the long articles in The New Yorker, she always enjoys the cartoons. We’ll often sit together and go through old issues and chortle out loud, sharing cartoons back and forth. The stories she would make up for me in high school are the hearthstone of the ones I tell for her now. What we’ve held onto is our laughter and our friendship through the years, and for this I am grateful.”
When you think about people you’ve taken time to nurture and care for, what faces come to mind? Is there anyone you’d like to reach out to whom you haven’t talked to or seen in a while? What is in your way? Knowing that there is no perfect mother, and no ideal way of mothering may give you a little more wiggle room.
In the spirit of Mother’s Day, I bring you one last poem by Sharon Olds.
The Summer-Camp Bus Pulls Away from the Curb
Whatever he needs, he has or doesn’t
have by now.
Whatever the world is going to do to him
it has started to do. With a pencil and two
Hardy Boys and a peanut butter sandwich and
grapes he is on his way, there is nothing
more we can do for him. Whatever is
stored in his heart, he can use, now.
Whatever he has laid up in his mind
he can call on. What he does not have
he can lack. The bus gets smaller and smaller, as one
folds a flag at the end of a ceremony,
onto itself, and onto itself, until
only a heavy wedge remains.
Whatever his exuberant soul
can do for him, it is doing right now.
Whatever his arrogance can do
it is doing to him. Everything
that’s been done to him, he will now do.
Everything that’s been placed in him
will come out, now, the contents of a trunk
unpacked and lined up on a bunk in the underpine light.
What you have been given is what you carry within as a light. And it is enough. What you are able to give away becomes yours to keep.
Life, Rumi say, you will know it by its seriousness. Give me your hand.
Happy Mother’s Day.