When I was little my mom used to put me to bed. She would kiss me and say something her mother had always said to her: "I love you more than tongue can tell." However, the way she slurred her words, it would always sound to me like "Tunkintell." I pictured a little man, like a mix between William Tell, Robin Hood, and a leprechaun, who for whatever reason was not nearly as lovable as me. Apparently she loved my brothers more than that weird little guy too.
Today in my singles' ward three people my own age, two men and one woman, obviously none of them mothers, spoke about motherhood. Or rather, they had been assigned to speak about their mothers and the lessons they had learned from them, but each of them in succession started to speak about their own mother, then stopped and talked about something unrelated. They expressed love and gratitude for their mothers, but once that was said, it was like they ran out of steam. I believe this is because expressing one's feelings about the woman who bore and raised them feels overly intimate, maybe even a little sacrilegious. It's easier to talk about faith in the abstract than the faith you learned from your mother.
Every mother's life is connected not only to her daughter's, but to her own. I am tied to my grandmother as much as my mother is tied to me. We cannot be separated anymore than our names in a long line: DorothyKathleenElisa. My mother, Kathleen, told me little about Dorothy, my grandmother, until I was an adult. I have pieced together as much of her life as I can, but much of it remains a mystery to me. I wish I had known her better when she was alive, but now the stories about how and the reflections her life has in her only daughter's life are all I have to work with.
My grandmother lived in Spokane for most of her life. By all accounts she was an incontrollable sass, from the time she was three or four. She loved dancing and smoked a pack a day (sometimes more) for over seventy years. She married young and already pregnant in a time where marriage was the only option for unwed pregnancy. (I promised my mother I wouldn't share this information with anyone until after she (my grandmother) had already died. I hope she doesn't mind that I'm sharing it now.) Her first husband drank too much. He beat her and chased her around with a knife in front of their three sons. I am fuzzy as to whether she left him or he left her, but they were eventually, mercifully separated and she moved across the country with her oldest son no older than 6. Once, on her way to work as a secretary in a doctor or dentist's office, she got on the bus, looked down and realized she had forgotten to put on her skirt. She was only wearing a slip. She laughed about that story for years, my mom says, which makes me think I probably would have gotten along better with her under different circumstances. It's the kind of thing I would do.
Later, Dorothy fell in love and married Edgar, my grandfather, and had three more children. my mother was the oldest of this newer set. My grandparents were deeply in love and never fell out of it, even though they were poor and couldn't afford a wedding ring at their marriage. Dorothy used to put on records of Hawaiian music and pretend to dance the hula when my mother had friends over. Once, she broke a plate over my mother's head when Kathleen was being especially horrid. Dorothy and Kathleen shared a love for professional baseball and little ugly dogs.
I have only heard one Mother's Day talk that did not involve the extravagant praise of one's mother. It was in my home ward many years ago. An older brother in my ward spoke about forgiveness, and his effort to understand that his mother did the best she could in raising him and his siblings. We all need a bit of that charity towards our mothers, I think. For me that recognition of the woman behind the mother did not come until a few years ago. But seeing that human being underneath, with quirks and fears and insecurities, makes every mother more lovable to me, not less.
My mother entered the convent upon graduating from high school. The Church paid for her Master's degree in biology, and although she had previously considered becoming a research scientist, as a nun teaching was pretty much her only option. She played guitar and smoked cigarettes (though not as obsessively as her own mother) and didn't get along with her Mother Superior. At the same time, she spent hours praying and meditating. She filled two gallon buckets with water and held them straight at either side of her body for as long as she could. She marched in support of the Civil Rights' Movement. She took off her veil when it itched. Later, when she left the convent, she took a job at a women's prison, where she met my father.
As a child, my mother was everything that was safe and reliable. I refused to go down any waterslide until she agreed to go down with me. I still hate waterslides. She was so much older than the mothers of most of my friends, but unlike many of them, she had a mind of her own. Real life experience. She had lived through enough of life to not be one of those eerie overbearing mothers that most first children have to deal with. She let me walk to the store alone. She let me climb trees and ride my bike and sit in the attic for hours if I wanted do. There was a tremendous amount of freedom in being my mother's daughter. Yet at the same time, when I was frantically finishing a poster or paper in middle school, she would drive me to Kinko's or check my spelling, but only if I asked her to.
I also saw the Kathleen in my mother every once in a while. When she lost her temper with me and told me to go to hell, I saw her Mother drop to reveal the human being underneath, just for a moment. Or when one of us kids would demand the same stupid book she had read to us every night for a week, she would roll her eyes and flat out refuse. She wouldn't buy me the trendy expensive toys I wanted. We had to play with math games and anatomically correct dolls. From a very young age, I was fascinated by babies and childbirth. She indulged this fascination and even bought me a copy of "Our Bodies, Ourselves" when I started puberty. She never treated me like I was too young or too stupid for the truth. Which is why to this day I have no patience for people who talk to children as if they were idiots.
I see myself in both of these women. Not only in my forgetfulness and brutal honesty, or in my near-constant cravings for cigarettes (though I don't give into them), but in all the things that make me who I am. My mother wrote this to me in a letter soon before I left for college:
"You are, first of all, my first child. You changed my life--and your dad's--so incredibly much! Your dad stopped riding motorcycles because of you. I never read the newspaper the same way after you were born. I quit my job because I couldn't bear to leave you. We watched you grow up, delighting in you daily."
Later, she pointed out the ways that I have followed in her footsteps:
"You know the joy of forgiving and have tried to mend fences and work for peace, in your personal life and in the world. I watched you go each Saturday to to stand with the group against the war in Iraq out of conviction that killings others is not the solution. You accept all different kinds of people and are slow to judge others."
The older I get, and as the possibility of my being a mother to someone becomes more and more real, the more I realize how much I want to emulate my mother. I want to love the world and work to make it better, the way she did. And inspire my children to do the same. Happy Mother's Day, Mom.