Mother May I?
This Mother’s Day there is a peculiar attitude among my UU colleagues. Many of them are not preaching on the holiday and some are not even acknowledging it in their services. It’s as if we’ve suddenly discovered that its history was tainted by the slave trade or something.
I am curious as to why my colleagues are turned off, but I continue with enthusiasm. It is complicated, but it has always been complicated. Some people, like myself, are not equipped by their bodies to be mothers, and many women have not been mothers through choice or circumstances. So the experience of being a mother is not universal and sometimes the whole question of being a mother can be accompanied with great sadness.
Yet the experience of having a mother is well-nigh universal. And that’s what I want to talk about today. It’s not that everyone was raised by their biological mother; many related to step-parents more strongly than biological ones. What I am interested in are the people you related to as parents. What did they do and say to make you who you are today? And if they have died, to what extent are they still with you.
In my Easter sermons in April, I explored the notion of a natural immortality, of ways a person could live on after death without actually rising from the dead. I talked about how our words and actions in life were like a stone dropped into a pond, creating ripples which continued to spread outward even after death.
We had a beautiful memorial service here yesterday for Denis Meacham, and person after person got up and told about Denis’s acts of caring and compassion. It seemed that a lot of what Denis was about is what many of we other ministers and lay people aspire to, to embrace the world with love. It was clear to me that his love, embodied in his psychotherapy practice, his addictions ministry, his singing ministry, continues to ripple outward in Cape Cod since his death.
Last week we celebrated the 100th birthday of Pete Seeger, a man who devoted his life to spreading love through the power of song. You may remember that the cover fo the order of service did not have a picture of Pete, but rather of two women at a demonstration holding signs. In the rush of things, I forgot to explain what that picture was about.
In February of 2014, I had just gone on sabbatical and there was a major protest march scheduled for that first Saturday in February in Raleigh, NC, growing out of the Moral Monday protests which had been organized for a year by Rev. William Barber, the closest thing we have to Martin Luther King in the present age. I had been dithering on whether to go, but as my time was suddenly my own and my wife out of town, I decided on Friday at 1 pm in Boston to attend a rally which started in Raleigh NC at 10 am the next day. I drove down I-95 and snagged a few hours of sleep in a motel. When I got to the rally, I saw two women carrying one sign each. Pete Seeger had died a few days before. One of the signs reads "Pete Seeger would be here." The other reads "Pete Seeger is here." If you want a definition of resurrection, there it is: if you do enough good in your lifetime, the love you create will continue to ripple outwards after you go.
What I am interested in on this Mother’s Day is to what extent our parents achieve a sort of immortality by renting space in our brains for the rest of our lives. This is sort of like last year’s Mother’s Day sermon when I asked what wisdom your mothers had imparted to you. But wisdom is an intentional thing, it may be thought out and crafted, as if it were made to stand the test of time. What I’m asking this year is what thoughts or reactions or words your parents may have laid on you whether they intended to or not.
I posed the question this way on Facebook:
“Preaching this Sunday on the parent who continues to rent space in your brain, no matter how long they might have been absent from your physical life. How do you consult them before making decisions? Can you hear their voices advising you? Tell me some stories. What do they approve or disapprove? How much does their approval matter?”
Here are some of the responses I got:
A male ministerial colleague with a new baby writes: “My dad in my head gives good advice on how to be a dad, but when he starts quoting Rush Limbaugh I tune him out, just like when he was alive.”
A musician friend says she can hear her dad say “be nice” when saying her prayers or when driving.
Another female friend says “My mother sits on my shoulder and says nasty things about people. And then she turns around and tells me to be sweet.”
And a male friend comments on this, “Yep. You’re a southerner.”
Our former communications coordinator Andrea Pluhar says “I talk to my dad about making coffee. He approves of my method. My mother is silent, though I dreamt of her recently. In my dream she hugged me, and I felt that hug all the following day.”
Two of my women friends hear their dad as they are diving giving them advice about staying out of the way of truckers.
A ministry colleague says “My father always said that you should have an extra of everything in case you run out or it breaks. This advice came in very handy when I burned up the electric charcoal lighter trying to grill with my friends in high school. I could throw out the destroyed one, get the backup, and surreptitiously buy a new one, and he never knew what happened.”
A songwriter friend says his parental message is “Sadly, ‘If you’re so smart why aren’t you rich?’”
Another minister says “My mom always told me- (and joyfully still does) - that I can be anything I want to be, that I am smart and funny and beautiful. Her mom told her the same things...
“she also said, if you want things done right do them yourself. I have come to learn that was the least of her useful sayings.”
One of my old Charleston friends writes, “Every time I stack plates when clearing the table or when I talk with my mouth full, I hear my mother saying BOTH of my names!”
Doesn’t that wake you up? My mother never called me anything but Edmund, but I have heard of parents who use the formal name of the child when they are upset.
A musician friend says, ”When I was a boy I would carry too many things in my arms. My Dad always said to me ‘make two trips’. But I never did. He died in 1965 but when I (still) carry too many things in my arms I can hear his voice. Is anyone truly gone when someone still has memories of them?”
Another friend: “My father (for whom it can be hard to find good things to say) once said: ‘Don't wish your life away.’”
A childhood friend: “These days I seem to keep hearing my father repeat ‘If you don't have something nice to say about someone don't say it all.’”
A Cape Cod musical friend: “My dad was a carpenter, and always said every tool has a home. When you put it back in the right place, it's always there when you want it next. I think of that when my studio gets messy. He was also a singer. ‘Always know when to get off the stage. Don't wait until you're asked.’ That one begins to haunt me now.”
Here’s a thoughtful response to my question from a friend on the North Shore: “Great topic! It's not approval I sought. It's perspective. They offered another perspective. One of another generation who lived and survived different ways than I had to. My Mom's and my favorite phrase after a phone conversation was, " well, we'll just have to agree to disagree." That was respectful. We don't have to hate people who have different opinions.”
A friend at First Parish wrote: “My mother, and grandmothers, remain a constant inspiration— to work more deliberately, to create greater beauty, to love more deeply, and to welcome more warmly and with genuine interest. I miss them all and talk to my mother every day. She no longer comes to me (in the shape of a Cooper’s hawk) but I know she is with me because I carry her there all the time.”
Another First Parish friend, Marietta Nilson, wrote: “Re: vestige of parent, I daily wear my mom’s silver beads. When I slip her necklace over my head, along with my late sister’s pearls I feel a strong connection to my family legacy and this is of tremendous consolation and even joy to me. My mother and sister were no saints but they were talented, extremely hard-working people who were full of life and humor. I have forgiven them their difficult, authoritarian personalities, easy to do because I outlived them. But what amazes me is how I relate to that jewelry. I have come to understand the meaning of jewelry differently through this experience. I don’t want to wear anything around my neck now that doesn’t mean something to me. Sometimes I wear the necklaces under my clothes, invisible. But I feel a presence and that has come to mean a lot to me. No one is more surprised than I!” And I saw her at the collation after Denis’s memorial service and she did have on the beads, just as she described.
Now when you might be feeling a little over committed, your parental voice can come in handy. Ruth Treen wrote this: “When my father was 94 he said to me, ‘Your mother and I think you’re doing too much.’ I was teaching music and drama at Applewild School, teaching piano to 17 students after school at my home, Director of Music at the Unitarian Church in Groton MA (organist and conductor of two choirs with rehearsals on Sunday afternoons), and coordinator of a concert series at the Fitchburg Library which presented 16 concerts a year on Sunday afternoons by professional soloists and chamber music ensembles. I think that was it. No—with a friend I started the Nashoba Valley Chorale which is still performing. Advice from my parents was rare and I took my father’s advice seriously. When I moved to Cape Cod I continued to accept organist positions, limited my teaching to adult choirs, and helped to form the Chatham Music Club. I sang with the Chatham Chorale for one year, until I heard my father’s advice speaking to me again...”
So let me open it up to you. Do your parents still live in your head, and do they talk and if so, what do they say? Anyone here want to comment?
[Public comment period]
Finally, I’d like to share with you one more dialogue with the [parents renting space in our brain, this one in the form of a poem submitted for this sermon topic by my former wife, Lee Robinson. Several weeks ago I talked about a poem she had written as a young adult highly critical of her mother, and how when that poem got published and her actual mother read it, we had to either break off relations entirely or laugh.
This poem makes a very good answer to that one, because here the mature woman reflects on her adolescent rebellion against her parents and their values. You should know that Lee’s father had had diabetes since childhood and ultimately died in his early 60s. But in this poem, the act of making a sandwich for the poet’s husband in the present brings back memories of the sandwich she was required to make for her father when she was college age.
A Sandwich Like a Prayer
In my eighth decade I am making amends for the seven before.
(Maybe the first shouldn’t count, I was just a child.)
It’s my penance, this sandwich, like a prayer,
because near the end of my nineteenth year I erred.
You, reading this, might say it wasn’t so terrible,
she was still half-child, it was the late sixties,
she’d just discovered women’s lib, surely this was just
her way of saying to her mother I will not be like you,
I will not cater to him. Maybe, you might think ,
she went a little too far, still, it was no sin
But this is not about me only. It never is. There was the father
and the mother. My father (I did not know this then)
who at eight had found his father dead, a gunshot wound
to the head. 1929, the family money gone.
And my mother whose father carried on
with the company secretary flagrantly, as they said
back then, until his wife took to drink.
No one told me until I was thirty. Is that an excuse?
I’d come home from college for a week, Christmas
or spring break, I don’t remember, but only the terrible feeling
of being caged again. My mother went out for a while
And left me with my father. He was not yet an invalid.
“At noon he’ll want his sandwich,” she said, then told me
how to make it. Just so. “On toasted bread. One slice
of bologna, one slice of cheese. Not too much mayonnaise.”
I rose up in my righteousness: “Why can’t he make his own
damn sandwich?” The words, and how I said them
Like a knife. The sharpness, the thrill.
But then her face, that look, as if she knew –
of course she knew – but could not say, I understand.
She left. I made his sandwich. He ate, though not
with any appetite. We didn’t speak.
His eyes were watery, that rheumy blue
that saw things far away but missed the nearer truths.
My eyes are green, yet so like his. My hands like hers.
And so this sandwich.
For you, a man he never met. Forgive me
for all I do not understand. Forgive us all
for what we do not know, for what we know
but cannot say. Take, eat. Such a simple
thing, made the way you like it:
a sandwich, like a prayer.
What Lee’s poem expresses so beautifully is how complicated it is for one generation to talk to another. Her father had his tyrannical side, but he himself was the product of a traumatic childhood, as was her mother. There were truths the daughter could express, simple demands for feminist justice which did not take into account the tradeoffs her mother made daily to make her marriage work so that her three children would have a family to relate to.
In this poem, Lee explores the complexities of confronting sexism. I think about the racial injustice all around me when I was growing up, and how I never challenged my elders on their smug supremacy. I did join an interracial discussion group in high school, but that was a drop in a very large bucket. Like the chauvinism which kept Lee’s family going, the racial injustice was a carefully balanced system with is own inertia. The Civil Rights movement was making inroads on it, but there was much resistance.
When we are growing up, our parents lay down the rules and tell us what’s right. But in my generation, at a certain point the children came around to critiquing the values by which the parents actually lived, which were not always the values they preached.
In our early childhood, in other words, it was “mother, may I?” May I go to the store, may I wear this shirt, may I have a tattoo, may I go out with this girl or boy. Our parents laid down the law. But as we got older, what we saw as the simple justice of liberation turned the tables on our parents and it was mother may we let Dad make his own sandwich, mother may we go to school with black kids, mother may we refuse to fight and kill in a war we don’t believe in?
Well, we are decades beyond all those arguments now, but Lee’s poem reminds us that some of them still echo, don’t they? We don’t have to agree with everything our parents told us, but we are happier if we can remember them with love despite our disagreements. They were not perfect, they were products of their times. Mother, may I have an Amen?
Reading: "The Lanyard" by Billy Collins. The other day I was ricocheting slowly off the blue walls of this room, moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano, from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor, when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard. No cookie nibbled by a French novelist could send one into the past more suddenly- a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp by a deep Adirondack lake learning how to braid long thin plastic strips into a lanyard, a gift for my mother. I had never seen anyone use a lanyard or wear one, if that's what you did with them, but that did not keep me from crossing strand over strand again and again until I had made a boxy red and white lanyard for my mother. She gave me life and milk from her breasts, and I gave her a lanyard. She nursed me in many a sick room, lifted spoons of medicine to my lips, laid cold face-cloths on my forehead, and then led me out into the airy light and taught me to walk and swim,and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard. Here are thousands of meals, she said, and here is clothing and a good education. And here is your lanyard, I replied, which I made with a little help from a counselor. Here is a breathing body and a beating heart, strong legs, bones and teeth, and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered, and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp. And here, I wish to say to her now, is a smaller gift-not the worn truth that you can never repay your mother, but the rueful admission that when she took the two-tone lanyard from my hand, I was as sure as a boy could be that this useless, worthless thing I wove out of boredom would be enough to make us even.