This week I heard something on the radio that I think has been a long time coming. Companies large and small—from chocolate companies to homemade crafts to travel businesses—have started giving people the option of “opting out” of Mother’s Day promotions, recognizing that after an unthinkable amount of loss in a pandemic year, many people today are grieving for their mom instead of celebrating her.
I remember being in this place myself just a few years ago. Not long after I lost my mom, every promotion felt like salt in the wound; I remember ranting once to our grief group about a big Russell Stover display of “Candy for Mom” that pushed me over the edge. It felt like the whole world was celebrating. Everyone else was busy preparing dinners and buying cards and candy and I, alone, was an orphan. Not true of course. But that feeling of aloneness—isolation, heartache—is very real when we’ve lost someone we love. So I take it as a hopeful sign that as a society we are becoming more aware of one another’s pain, we are being more careful to remember that all of us together have had a tough year, and we are accommodating each other’s needs differently, with more gentleness. Those are good seeds to plant in the soil of this world.
Whether we are missing our moms today or we can call her up or see her smile, we all have in our minds and hearts a library full of meaningful moments with our moms, biological or otherwise. The memories can be anything–something funny she said or did, kindness when we didn’t deserve it, an example that we’ve steered by through our lives. Maybe you’ve noticed that the older we get, the more those fleeting little memories become livable experiences. Moments we can return to and enjoy, seeing the color and hearing the sound, feeling the feelings, celebrating, loving, and feeling grateful for all the ways we’ve been blessed.
When I was a little girl, I thought my mom was beautiful and smart and she sometimes had this kind of far-away quality—I used to pretend that she was a great princess who for her own safety had been exiled to live among us common folk. There was just an air of nobility about her, and from my earliest days I admired and respected her. In most normal days when I was young, mom seemed content to me, doing the things that wives and mothers did back then, but then I saw her really come to life during the years she taught Journalism at Warren Central High school. She was the newspaper and yearbook advisor and I have great memories of tagging along with mom to “help out”—which means they gave me a box of Butterfinger niblets and some paper to draw on– and seeing her interact with the big kids who were her students. She was funny, animated, laughing. It was quite a transformation. My mom, joyful, fulfilled, engaged. A bit of happy royalty shining through.
My mom wasn’t what you would call a cuddly mom—she was intellectual, smart, reasonable, responsible. I remember the time we stood in the kitchen—her washing the dishes, the sink full of Ivory Soap bubbles, and me, dish towel in hand, ready to dry, eight years old, knowing I was going to get a lecture. She had that look in her eye.
Earlier in the day I’d gone to see the school nurse with a stomachache—which was a fairly common thing for me because I got quite anxious at school and would much rather be home, given the choice. After letting me lie down for a half hour or so, the nurse called mom to come get me. The trouble was that, mom was teaching at Warren in those days and she had to leave her job and her students to come pick up her quasi-queasy third grader. I’m sure it was getting more than a little tiresome. That day in the kitchen she leveled her gaze at me. “Have you ever heard the story of ‘the Boy Who Cried Wolf?’ she asked. And then proceeded to tell me Aesop’s colorful tale with the searing ending: If you bend the truth along the way, no one will believe you when you really need them to.
Moms are often good at embodying messages like that—the value of integrity, kindness, faith, and care—without a lot of fanfare, simply by living what they believe. Whether they are aware of what their lives are teaching us or not, the lessons we learn are unmistakable. This is part of what the writer of Proverbs says in our Old Testament reading today—a child thus raised brings joy to his or her parents:
22Listen to your father, who gave you life,
and do not despise your mother when she is old.
23Buy the truth and do not sell it—
wisdom, instruction and insight as well.
24The father of a righteous child has great joy;
a man who fathers a wise son rejoices in him.
25May your father and mother rejoice;
may she who gave you birth be joyful!
As I page back through my memories now on Mother’s Day, I don’t have many mental snapshots of me making my mom joyful or causing her legitimately to rejoice. I do remember smiles and laughs, approving nods, and the occasional, “I’m proud of you.” My mental snapshots—and maybe yours with your own mom as well—don’t seem to be organized around any particular theme or activity or lesson. Instead, they are moments that continue to make my heart smile, that cause love to well up within me. I think of them—and her—and I feel grateful.
In my role at hospice, there is a book I often give to families that have young children. It’s called The Invisible String, and it’s a story of two children who are frightened by a coming storm. Throughout the book, the mom gives them examples of how love continues across all distances, across all time, and it is ours to keep forever, comforting us when we need it, giving us strength and hope and peace. The invisible string we share—with our moms and families, with each other and with God—is the love we are blessed with that is truly stronger than distance or time, stronger even than death.
There’s a picture of my mom in a black one-piece swimsuit, looking back over her shoulder at the camera, wearing Audrey Hepburn-style sunglasses. I still remember that moment vividly; my brother John, 13 at the time, had taken the picture with mom’s old viewfinder camera. We had just spread our towels out beside Raccoon Lake, where my mom—as the single mom of a teenage son and a 6-year-old daughter—had decided to take us camping for the weekend. She’d never done anything like that before, and never did anything like it again after that.
This swimsuit picture—and mom’s movie-star gaze—happened on our final day, so she was probably relieved we would be going home soon. It had been an eventful trip so far. On the first night, John struggled to put up the tent—none of us had ever done that before and it was well after dark when the tent was finally standing. Then in the middle of the night it rained, and I discovered that when I wrote my name with my finger on the side of the tent—K-A-T-H-Y—the rain would come pouring in through the letters. Pretty neat, huh? My mom didn’t think so because our sleeping bags and pillows quickly got soaked.
Close to dawn, we heard a ruckus outside the tent. “Bears!” John hissed, “Be quiet!” When the noise subsided, we peeked through the zippered door of the damp tent and saw a family of raccoons skittering away into the woods. They had opened our Charles Chips cans and stolen our lunchmeat and Pop-Tarts and pretzels.
But the most memorable moment happened out in a rowboat in the middle of Raccoon Lake. We had our fishing poles and both Mom and John had already put their worms on the hooks and cast their line into the water. I was upset about the little worm and couldn’t bring myself to inflict such torture on a living creature. Finally, John put the worm on the hook for me and told me to toss my line out into the lake. Never having done such a thing before, I didn’t know how to do it. So I stood up in the boat—which apparently you aren’t supposed to do—and swung my fishing rod around and tried to make the line go in the right direction. Instead, I felt a sharp and painful jab in the seat of my pants.
I am certain my mom earned stars in heaven that day as she tried to keep us all calm in a rocking boat in the middle of the lake while carefully removing a fishing hook from the seat of her six-year-old’s trousers.
And that is something you learn later in life—perhaps after you become a parent yourself—we somehow, miraculously, are given the strength and insight, wisdom and patience just when we need it most. I don’t know whether mom had ever had a situation that prepared her to be cool and calm in that particular panic or not, but it was there when she needed it. I think God does that—reliably, consistently, continuously—for each of us every day. In all our best qualities, our caring actions, God is there. In the moments when we are at our worst, God is there too, holding out love and compassion and hope for better days. Pointing out the better path. God gives us advocates in our mothers, teachers, nurses, nurturers, and perhaps most strongly an example of how to live this life with honesty, strength, kindness, fairness, and purpose.
In our New Testament reading today we hear about a mother—a Gentile mother—who had a sick daughter, believed to be possessed by a demon. She heard Jesus was coming to her small town, even though they’d tried to keep his presence a secret. Something told her to go and try to speak to him, hoping against hope that he might heal her daughter. When she discovered where he was, she went right into the house, fell at his feet and begged him to help.
He said to her that his teachings were first for his own people, the Jews. “Let the children eat all they want,” he said, “it’s not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” But the woman said, “But Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
The answer showed her faith—faith that Jesus was able to heal, faith that her daughter could be well, faith that she had a right to ask such things—love had given her that right. Jesus told her, “For such a reply, you may go: the demon has left your daughter.”
Isn’t that a fascinating moment? The mother asks—insistently, expectantly–for healing for her child. Jesus at first appears to sidestep her request, so she pushes him a little bit, showing courage, faith, and the power of love. And Jesus tells her, “It is done. Your daughter is healed. Because of your reply.”
Our moms also spoke for us, they spoke over us, they prayed for us, and they did their best to do their best for us—who knows how many times. We no doubt only saw a portion of it. And we grew and healed and learned in the light and expectant hope of their love. What they did for us then—no matter how long ago it was–still blesses us today. As we look back through our lives—enjoying the memories that move us—we relive those moments and enjoy in full color the sights and sounds, warmth and happiness of those special times.
In in 2019 researchers at the University of Cambridge in England found that when we recall positive memories, they have a healing and protective effect on our emotional health in the present. When we remember the specifics, reliving the details and re-experiencing the feelings, it lessens our stress and gives our self-image a boost. As a result, we become more resilient, more grateful, and we have the refreshed wherewithal to approach life’s challenges with a more positive outlook. So simply thinking about our moms—and all they did for us in love—continues to bless us today. It’s the invisible string.
This Mother’s Day, whether our moms are close and huggable or available to us only in our memories and hearts, let’s celebrate the one who helped each of us literally come alive. Remembering her and the fun and heartful times is good for us—physically, emotionally, and mentally—and it blesses God with gratitude for keeping us all together, one beautiful family, held together by the never-ending, eternal invisible string of Love.
- OT Proverbs 23: 22-25
- NT Mark 7: 24-30
- Positive Memories: https://elemental.medium.com/the-power-of-positive-memories-86c2441ffe07
- The Invisible String: https://www.amazon.com/Invisible-String-Patrice-Karst/dp/0875167349/