Monday, November 14, 2005


After babysitting kids for an enrichment class, attending my friend's class to give support, cleaning my house for like 2.5 hours, baking cinnamon swirl bread, helping put up Christmas lights, braving the crowds at Costco, buying Christmas garland and red berries at Michael's to aid in the decorating of the mantel in the front room and coveting a fall table spread in Pier 1 Imports on Saturday, I felt like the day had been full. I love this time of year with all the things to do and seasonal activities. Just today, I left work and went to a kitchen shop to buy holiday sugar cookie cutters (purchasing a Christmas tree and star) and food coloring. I think I love to do a little bit of anything and everything---so many aspirations. Sometimes the aspirations are smothered, though, with doubt that any would ever come true. Lately I have been thinking a lot about motherhood and mothers and what a lot of work and sacrifice it entails. One of my very favorite things that I remember about my childhood was how my mother read to me, faithfully, each night. I don't know how much she enjoyed it at times (I imagine it was what she probably didn't want to do sometimes with so many things she would have liked to do), but I appreciate it so much now. I can still remember lying next to her and watching her mouth and listening to how she made the sounds in her mouth. Isn't that a great memory? She had just such a way---and it was just hers. No one else sounded like she did. I took a poetry class the last semester I was at BYU, and wrote a ghazal about this relationship with her:

Come on in

She is the image that keeps recurring in
my head. Hers is the wide, joyful quick grin

that still smiles at me when I think of her.
She is the woman who shooed all the men

out so we, alone, could eat the doughnuts
and talk by ourselves in the warm kitchen.

I can still hear her voice as she read to
me, nursery rhymes and the little red hen.

We moved on to "chapter books" as we called
them, thinking about other people's sins

as I saw the world and the hostile place
it can sometimes be. I could see that in

her Sounder reading; things were not the same.
There was much suffering and pain, and I, in

the page, thought I understood. It is not
that easy, but the stories also lend

the way to connect to others, and she
had a way of linking our world, here, in

with the story. That was a marvelous
gift: a window looking from the outside in,

every night, as she called my name. It was
time to read: Elizabeth, come on in.

I am amazed at mothers and what they do---and the woman behind the mother. There is an essay that I love by Tessa Meyer Santiago titled Another Marvelous Thing (since I'm on with the word marvelous tonight). This is kind of what I'm talking about---being a young child and not really knowing my mother for Claire. She was always my mom. I will give you just a sample:

Once my childhood mother stole my center stage. One afternoon she told me, while she checked on the seedlings beneath the study window in the front garden, that she had done acrobatics when she was a child. I didn't believe her. I couldn't believe her. This was my mother who dyed her gray hair, wore panty hose on Sundays, and knew how to make chocolate chiffon cakes so light they floated. So there, in her flowered housecoat, surrounded by passion fruit vines and hibiscus trees, and watched by her disbelieving fifth child, my ancient mother kicked off her sandals and did a cartwheel, landing, quite gracefully, with her long, brown legs in the splits, her garments peeking out from beneath her hem. I was shocked, stunned. She might have just as well grown wings and taken to the air. I asked her to do it again. She didn't. She laughed that laugh she laughs when she can't quite beleive she just did what she did and went back to weeding. If I'm correct, Mervyl, the ancient, unchanging mother of my childhood, was only thirty-seven at the time.
Why then was I so shocked at her impulsive gesture? Perhaps because it revealed the Mervyl behind the mother. To me as a child, my mother was not a woman. She was mother. She was a collection of parts melted together that took her face and smell. She was a red-and-white Volkswagen bus waiting at the end of the school driveway on the days it was too rainy to walk home. She was clean, cool, cotton sheets on my sick bed while I took a bath during week-long asthma attacks. She was a green, dimpled bottle of 7-Up in the refrigerator door during my bouts with tonsillitis. She was a cooler of egg-salad sandwiches wedged between the front seats of the VW bus on the way to Plettenburg Bay. She was ripe-red tomato sections and Vienna sausages on a plate on the counter when Julia Smitherman came to lunch after school. She was fingers stroking my hair as I slept on her lap during golden-lighted Sunday evening sacrament meetings. She was a voice rising, falling, then stopping as she fell asleep during my bedtime story. She was the hum of the sewing machine making quilts from piece goods bought at the Laura Ashley store in London; the bark of dogs as they rounded the corner early on the gray morning walks before the rest of us were awake. She was the smell of Nevia on summer afternoons spent pouring over her Sunday School lessons. She was there, always, mother, unchanging, warm.
...I remember another picture that hides itself as a backdrop to the wedding of my oldest sister, Margo. It shows my older mother, forty-two years old. Her hair is almost gray. She is standing in the dining room beside her sewing machine. Behind her, hanging from the sliding-door track, are seven dresses: a bride's dress, two brides maids', and the flower girls'. Her oldest daugher is getting married in about two weeks. In her arms, she holds her youngest child, Alexandra Margaret, not three weeks old. She is looking at her child with tender eyes, the same way she looked at my children when she cared for them after their births. Her face, though, is almost gray, heavily lined, her shoulders bent.
In my child's eye, I remember the wedding, the pieces and parts of it: My mothers' food, the tuna mousse, the chippolata sausages, the cast-iron tubs swimming with grape juice bottles and ice cubes. My red-sprigged flower girl's dress, the dancing and the reading of telegrams; my youngest sister, five weeks old, in her bridesmaid's dress, carried in my mother's arms down the aisle.
As a woman and a mother now, I see a different picture of the same event. I am shocked by the exhaustion in my mother's face. I am stunned by the sheer logistics of the whole picture: giving birth to your seventh child in your forties, sewing seven dresses while plagued by a severe case of mastitis..., catering a whole reception six weeks after the birth, and caring for your family in the meanwhile. The woman in me aches for Mervyl during that time---that she swallowed her pain, her exhaustion, and her fear that she could not do it all and went on anyway. I ache for her intense love for this unexpected child who made her way into the family at such a time and for her loss as she watched her daughter marry a man clearly unsuited for her. But the child in my thanks the mother in Mervyl for not stopping, for not sitting down in a heap on the kitchen floor and declaring, "That's it. I can't do it any longer. I'm done." While the woman battled her exhaustion and her fear, I practiced for life, building memories of weddings and turkeys with white-frocked drumsticks, filing away snatches of "jolly, good fellows" and confetti baskets to pull out when I remember Margo's wedding.
...Discovering that my mother's mothering contained strains of a struggling self, as well as the woman she was before she was my mother, does not scar my shining memories. It makes her, in fact, more precious. That she could so gently and unobtrusively work her own desires into my incessant demands without pushing me off my stage is remarkable. In my own motherhood, I keep waiting for that Kodak moment when the world will turn hazy around the edges and the camera will focus on me, dressed in pastel, with a tear in my eye as I watch Julia and Christian sing an eager "Mother, I Love You" at the top of their voices during the Primary Program. At that moment, I assume I will be supremely Mother. It has never happened yet. I have hardly felt that supreme confidence, that overwhelming urge to be mother that I assumed my mother always felt. I almost always feel split between my mothering duties and my personal desires.
Once I felt raw emotion, love, I suppose, but bordering on desperate obsession: Christian lay strapped to a table, a large needle in his spinal column; they were testing for meningitis. That night, as I lay next to him in his hospital crib, I would have dealt with the devil for my second child. My love for him was matched only by my fear and utter helplessness. But during the darkest hours when his temperature hovered around 106 degrees, when I hadn't slept for more than two days and I was reduced to tears, I realized my mother had loved me, nursed me, cared for me in the very same, desperately fierce way as I struggled to breathe in my childhood bedroom. Simultaneously, I was filled with both a desperate longing to have my child sleeping peacefully in my arms and a lightening sense of awe that somebody on this earth felt about me in this passionate, powerful, almost primeval way.

(If any one wants a copy of the whole essay, I'd be glad to email it to you. I love it.) I am grateful for my mother and her time in mothering me. Here are a few things I remember:

N-O-W! (We always knew she was serious if she started to spell.)

Trips to Hawkins for hamburgers, french fries and shakes

Naps when I came home from Kindergarten. She would read stories to us before naps, too, and then all three of us (my mother, little sister and I) would take a nap.

Diet Pepsi, Diet Coke, or Diet Dr. Pepper


Pushing us on the swings

Taking us to the river at the cabin


Decent and modest, considerate and polite

Hot air balloons on the fourth of July

Warm baths at night

Bath cubes

Werther's caramel candies

Microwave popcorn

Tuna macaroni salad

Veteran's Pool and licorice ropes afterwards

the piano

"See Amid the Winter's Snow"

And I see reflections of her when I can't justify spending $25 on a shirt in Gap. Even now, I stand amazed at how ready she is to give, to help, to talk to me. In the same way that I yearn to connect and continue reaching toward her, I feel that returned to me.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...