By Rev. Kit Ketcham, May 9, 2010
Sing with me: “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, sometimes I feel like a motherless child, sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from home, a long way from home.”
It’s taken me a long time since my mother’s death in 1994 to understand better my relationship with her, a relationship that often made me feel guilty that I wasn’t more patient with her, that I didn’t come to visit her more often, that I couldn’t be with her as she was dying.
And yet it was also a relationship of great joy, times spent walking down country roads in the Klickitat River valley while gazing at Mount Adams in the distance and smelling the sagebrush, times spent with her and my son on a long crosscountry trip through Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, intense Scrabble and Boggle games when she would chortle gleefully over her phenomenal scores—and my pitiful ones.
As we aged, she into health crises of major significance and I into single parenthood and career changes, our roles shifted. Her caretaking of me over my lifetime morphed from the normal Mom duties of wiping noses, administering kaopectate, mopping up tears, reassuring teenage angst, and comforting a newly-single, once-married daughter; eventually her caretaking was evidenced more in her willingness to weed my Denver gardens, vacuum my dusty floors, clean my grimy kitchen, pray for my return to the Baptist fold.
My relationship with her moved from dependence on her mothering to impatience with her lack of understanding of my life, of my religious changes, of my parenting techniques, and of my fondness for one boyfriend or another, for she never felt they were worthy of me.
It also eventually became a relationship which required me to take care of her the best I could from my faraway home in Colorado. Impatience with her became fear of losing her, a sense of obligation that I must do what I could to be present for her---and for my family members upon whose shoulders her care eventually fell. I needed to make amends to her for many lapses in my daughterly duties: that familiar impatience, resentment of her pleas that I return to my childhood faith, my own efforts to make HER see the light of truth and reason.
My relationship with my mother probably has many of the same characteristics of your relationship with your mother, whether your mother is alive or not. I invite you, for a moment or two in silence, to consider the trajectory of your relationship with your mother or the mother figure in your life, whether a biological relationship exists or not. (silence)
Mother’s Day is one of those tough holidays during the church year that causes a preacher to dig deep for a new way of observing it, for it is a holiday that has been commercialized way beyond its original meaning, a meaning stated so eloquently in our antiphonal reading of Julia Ward Howe’s Mothers’ Day Proclamation.
In addition, some of us have had wonderful experiences with our mothers and others of us have had very painful years because of a mother who was unable to fulfill her role well.
We depend so much on those who mother us! We depend on them for all the tasks that accompany children and youths: the feeding, clothing, cleaning up, teaching, encouraging, nurturing, training, accompanying, shaping, guarding, approving, disapproving. Though others share these tasks---thank you to big sisters, big brothers, fathers, and other adults---mothers are often the ones who do the most. And, of course, pregnancy and birth are one-woman jobs, though usually with a lot of help.
When we move into those mothering roles ourselves, whether as birth mothers, adoptive mothers, foster mothers, all those female roles of nurture and shaping, we tend to mother the way our mothers mothered us. Even men who take on nurturing roles often find themselves behaving like their own mothers on occasion.
I remember one time, when my son was small and being annoying in that sort-of-innocent little-boy way, my yelling at him, the way my mother sometimes had yelled at me, “you ornery whelp! I’m going to rip off your leg and beat you over the head with the bloody stump!” Astonished, he puddled up and began to cry a little bit, not knowing that I was joking, in the way my mother used to joke when she was fed to the gills with our rambunctiousness and needed to say something shocking but entirely impossible.
To young Mike, HIS mom, I, was completely capable of ripping off his leg, at least in fantasy! Oh boy, did I ever have to backpedal! And now I wouldn’t be surprised if he is in the same situation, of needing something emphatic to get his kids’ attention and make them laugh at the same time.
It has occurred to me to wonder where MY mother got that memorable and shocking phrase! It didn’t come out of her brain, I expect, as she was about 5 feet tall, slim, and gentle, and I knew she couldn’t possibly rip off anyone’s leg! When I heard it, I knew I was safe from her, but my own son wasn’t sure! Aaaaah!
But what happens when we approach our mothering job after having been raised by a mother who really couldn’t do the tasks of motherhood, whether from illness or a rotten upbringing herself or addictions or any number of the plagues of human living?
We may have been lucky enough to have a different mother figure to learn from or we may have turned to our father for the nurture our mother couldn’t give. And we stumbled along as best we could, using our own negative experiences as guideposts for what NOT to do.
In the movie “Precious”, the actress Mo’nique portrayed the abusive mother of the title character Precious Jones in such a violent and terrifying way that my stomach was absolutely in turmoil. And during that performance, we got a glimpse of the kind of neediness that creates a mother like Mary Jones, whose physical and emotional abuse toward her daughter stemmed from her own lifetime of poverty and mistreatment.
Some of us have been pretty angry with our mothers; we may have told them so or we may have kept it inside, only sharing the positive feelings we had or withdrawing so that we wouldn’t express our hurt. Some of us have used our mothers’ behavior to learn new ways of being in relationship with children, unwilling to risk making the same mistakes. Some of us have been leery of motherhood and not sure we should take on the role. Some of us mother other people’s children, sometimes in addition to our own. Some of us would love to be mothers but have not yet had that chance.
Most of us, probably, can name the many gifts our mothers gave us, both the positive ones and the negative ones. For a gift’s meaning depends on how we use it. In the movie, the teenage girl Precious learned hard lessons from her mother’s abuse but she was determined to change the trajectory of her life and not let her mother’s behavior become her own behavior. And she was aided in this by other loving adult women she encountered.
Our mothers teach us self-sufficiency in many areas and many ways; some of those are the traditional roles of womanhood---housekeeping, nurturing children, dealing with relationships with men, with other women, with siblings. Some of her ways were helpful and others were not.
We learn from their example, both the good example and the bad. We may find ourselves living out our mother’s foibles and catch ourselves just in time to avoid the behaviors we deplored in her. Or not!
What have been the gifts our mothers gave us? I invite you again into a time of silence to think about the gifts our mothers offered, the gifts we received joyfully, the gifts we rejected because they were inappropriate, the gifts we have transformed from something negative into something positive. (silence)
As I think about the gifts my mother gave me, I am most struck by the gift of JOY, her firm belief that life was good, that there was plenty of love to go around, and that happiness was a natural state of being. She also gave me the gift of scolding me for saying I was bored and teaching me to look inside myself and at the world outside myself to find interesting things to see and experience. She gave me the negative gift of being deeply, continuously disappointed in my choice of religious beliefs, and I learned how important it is to respect others’ religious paths.
Just for a moment, I’d like to give you a chance to say your mother’s gift aloud. Just call out the name of the gift, whether it was an attitude, a material gift, a deed, a skill, whatever it was. If the gift was negative, see if you can find the silver lining there. Go ahead----say it! And it doesn’t matter if you say the same things or if you say them at the same time. It is a way of honoring our mothers and their gifts.
Many of us are lucky enough to have mothers living, even living with us or close by and experiencing an entirely different kind of relationship than we did when we lived together as a young family. There is something appropriate about that cycle of living, in which the caretaker becomes the taken-care-of and the child becomes the caretaker. It’s often not a comfortable place to be, for either person, and yet great joy is available in that changed relationship.
When my mother was living in a retirement facility and then in assisted living in Longview WA, we had a chance to see her in a different way. My siblings and I wondered how she would survive the challenges of institutional living after being independent for so many years and we worried about her ability to communicate after several small strokes left her mostly wordless.
But despite her aphasia, her inability to utter intelligible speech, she found other ways of communicating. She immediately found friends at the assisted living facility, she expressed herself with hugs and touches, smiles, tears. She miraculously could remember and sing lustily all the words to the old hymns and carols, even adding her strong alto part at the Christmas concert the care facility put on.
We saw her then in a whole new way, this woman who had survived so many of life’s challenges and great sorrows: the loss of her mother at an early age, her father’s painful death from cancer, the loss of two stillborn babies before I came along, the chronic illness of her beloved husband, my father, my heretical religious beliefs and commitments, the failed marriages of all three of her children, loneliness and pain and ill health.
We saw her make joy out of almost nothing. We saw her continue to love---to love us and our children, to love her new companions also at the far edges of their lives, to love music and singing and visiting favorite places. We saw her give thanks continuously---to her God, whom she saw as close by and accessible, to us for our love and care, to the nurses and staff members who cared for her, to the friends who visited and took her to church and made sure she was not lonely. What an example for us to follow!
And then she died. Not unexpectedly, not in great pain, but one day she was awake and responsive, the next day unconscious, almost the next day, gone.
The death of our mother is one of the greatest losses we humans endure. Whether she was a good or a notsogood parent, whether she gave us what we needed from her or failed us badly, whether she was joyous or depressed, thankful or ungrateful, nurturing or needy, her death creates a hole in our lives.
A familiar relationship, a long-lived pattern has ended, at least in physical form. How do we deal with that loss? How do we make it as meaningful as possible? How do we cope with the fact that so much still needs to be repaired or acknowledged between us, though time has run out?
I invite us to take another few moments of silence to consider this important moment in all of our lives. For some of us it has occurred; for others, it is yet to be. And before the silence, let me offer these ideas:
If there is pain because of unresolved issues, if there is relief at her release from illness and old age, if there is fear about the future, if there is joy about her life, if there is a desire to make things better, let these feelings and thoughts come to mind, acknowledge them, and let them go, for the present. You can come back to them later.
If there is guilt because we were not the best possible sons and daughters, if there is satisfaction because we know we did the best we could, if there is anger, if there is grief, if there is hope for reconciliation, let these feelings and thoughts come to mind, acknowledge them and let them go, for the present. You can come back to them later.
Let us be still together as we consider the loss of our mothers. (Silence)
We are who we are, in great part, because of our mothers, because of who they were and who their mothers were. We are who we are because of who our mothers chose to be our fathers; we are who we are because of the genetic makeup we inherited, the family constellation in which we grew up, the communities we inhabited.
We do with our own true natures what we have learned from our mothers and fathers. And where those lessons were negative, we have the ability to turn those dark times into silver linings.
As Sara and I were talking, in preparation for this service, we shared what it had felt like since our mothers died, and she used the word “anchorless”. “She’s our connection to the beginning of our lives”, Sara said. And I thought of the stories my mother had told me of my birth and early childhood, things I could not remember without her help.
I no longer have my mother’s presence, but I have my mother’s spirit deeply embedded in my heart. She influences my behavior even now, as I understand how hard it is to parent an adult child without impinging upon his selfhood as a father, husband, and friend.
And I have become the anchor for myself, for my son, and for others who need me to be that anchor. I look to some of you for anchoring as well, those of you whose years or experience are greater than mine, whose lives reflect wisdom and strength received over all the years of your lives. Thank you for that contribution.
Let me speak to you as an anchor-person myself now: if there are unresolved issues between you and your living mother, do what you can to resolve them, kindly and with the understanding gained from your years of experience. For she will not always be alive but she will always be part of your life.
If she is already gone, consider writing her a letter, perhaps forgiving her lapses, perhaps accepting the gifts she was able to give, perhaps apologizing for your own mistakes and reassuring her and yourself of your love for each other. Then keep that letter and reread it occasionally to remind yourself of the many gifts of the life she gave you.
These actions can bring peace if your heart is troubled by your relationship with your mother; you will have done what you can do and then you can let go of some of that sorrow. It may be worth the effort.
In closing, I’d like to share with you an ode to motherhood that expresses some of the gifts our mothers bestowed. It appeared in my email, so be forewarned. We’ve been awfully serious this morning; let’s laugh.
GIFTS FROM MY MOTHERMy mother taught me TO APPRECIATE A JOB WELL DONE .
"If you're going to kill each other, do it outside. I just finished cleaning."
My mother taught me RELIGION. "You better pray that will come out of the carpet."
My mother taught me LOGIC. " Because I said so, that's why."
My mother taught me ADVANCED LOGIC . "If you fall out of that swing and break your neck, you're not going to the store with me."
My mother taught me FORESIGHT. "Make sure you wear clean underwear, in case you're in an accident."
My mother taught me about CONTORTIONISM. "Will you look at that dirt on the back of your neck?
My mother taught me about GARDENING.
“You could grow potatoes in those ears of yours!”
My mother taught me about WEATHER. "This room of yours looks as if a tornado went through it."
My mother taught me about HYPERBOLE. "If I told you once, I've told you a million times. Don't exaggerate!"
My mother taught me about ANTICIPATION. "Just wait until we get home."
My mother taught me about RECEIVING . "You are going to get it when you get home!"
My mother taught me OPHTHALMOLOGY. "If you don't stop crossing your eyes, they are going to get stuck that way."
My mother taught me HOW TO BECOME AN ADULT . "If you don't eat your vegetables, you'll never grow up."
My mother taught me GENETICS. "You're just like your father."
My mother taught me about my ROOTS. "Shut that door behind you. Do you think you were born in a barn?"
My mother taught me WISDOM. "When you get to be my age, you'll understand."
And finally, my mother taught me about JUSTICE.
"Honey," she said, "you deserve that kid."
Let’s pause for a time of silent laughter and remembrance!
BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering our mothers with love and forgiveness, remembering our own efforts to offer mothering to those who need it and forgiving ourselves our lapses. Let us remember as well the many women and men who want children of their own and do not yet have them. May their hearts be eased. May we find joy and growth in the lessons learned
from our many, many mothers and may we give our own gifts to the children in our lives. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.