Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

My Mother's Tears--conclusion

And I know now that it wasn’t just from disappointment, as it had been the first time. This time there was more.  This time her tears flushed from the anger that laced her disappointment. Two weeks earlier they’d come in sobs. This time they’d come in heaves spliced into a tantrum of fury:  that her boy could turn right around and do it again after the sheer pain of the last two weeks was to her unthinkable. If she was swatting at anything that day, it was the Satan in me.

I sat upstairs in my bedroom where I’d been banished, the morning air upstairs gradually weakening in mid-summer’s heat. I lay down for a time. I sat on the chair at the head of the stairs, felt the sweat around the back of my neck. Then I stood at the top of the stairs, ready to go down, thinking that I needed to tell her that those three gunny sacks full of straw weren’t what she’d thought they were.

But I didn’t. What I’d already done convinced me that I was guilty, even if this time I wasn’t. I knew I deserved at least some of her anger, so I sat upstairs in the dank lakeshore heat and hoped she’d find out some other way that time she was wrong.

An hour later she came up with a glass of lemonade. She was crying again, the third time in two weeks I’d seen my mother's tears. She’d phoned another mother and discovered that we didn’t steal the straw. She’d hit me without cause, banished me to my room without listening to my story. I’d been guilty in her eyes, and she knew that she’d been wrong.

She handed me a fifty-cent piece. Some time before I’d told her that I wanted to buy a scrapbook from the Variety Store, so she placed that heavy coin in the palm of my hand and told to go out and buy it. She wasn’t trying to buy back my love. I knew, even then, that that fifty cents was her penance, and I accepted it that way.

The tears came this third time from yet another source, from her own guilt and shame, and from the need for forgiveness.

Parents of fussy three-year-olds spend no small amount of time reassuring themselves that someday their kids will be old enough not to need them 24 hours a day. Parents of thirteen-year-olds like to remember the finally-quiet nights, when their kids slept innocently in five-year cribs. To parents, a child’s constant dependence can sometimes be an insufferable burden; but independence can be crippling too. Just recently, a mother of nine told me that saying goodbye to her oldest was just like giving birth all over again.

I’m not sure how much taller I grew in those two weeks when my mother cried three times, but I know that I grew in the inevitable direction all children must—toward independence and away from my parents. Before that time they had never considered their son capable of stealing, of breaking the fifth commandment, spoken so clearly every Sunday morning of his life. To know for a fact that he was something other than what they presumed him to be means a painful separation; in my case, it meant there coming to understand that I was no longer a toddler sucking on clothespins while my mother hung out the wash--I was more than simply parents’ little boy.  I was opening the calendar myself to what the creeds in the back of the Psalter used to call the “years of discretion.”

The first time my mother had cried, sadness and disappointment prompted her tears. The second time, it was anger and sheer pain. But the third time, the time I remember best of the three, her tears flowed from her mistake, her culpability, her error, her sin. And I knew it. With that fifty-cent piece, she was asking me to think of her as someone more than simply my mom, someone born in sin and thus as prone to error as anyone, someone not unlike the self I saw in the image of her kid who'd become a thief.

Both of us changed, I guess.  I’d become something more than her little boy, and she’d become something more than my mom.

That third bout of tears was the greatest of the three.  In admitting her weakness, she was really showing her strength. She was strong enough to be humble, to admit to her humanity’s loose ends, and in so doing she gave me a model of divinity inherent in grace, in forgiveness, even human forgiveness. She showed me the possibilities of her humanity, and thus defined what it meant to be a creature of sin who is, oddly enough, endowed with the image of God.

That day I saw my mother as a struggling human being. To a struggling kid, I could not have had a better vision.

So today I thank her for those tears.

My mother celebrated her 93rd birthday this week.

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