No doubt about it, I chose my mother wisely!
May 15, 2014
There’s an old adage that offers a wise counsel, even as it leaves us powerless to heed its advice: Pick your parents wisely.
Easier said than done; but the adage holds. We’re not fully our own persons. We’re also products of our parents who give us not only our physical DNA, but, in a complex confluence of how they are inside their own persons and how they relate to us and to the world, also profoundly help shape our person and our character. As adults, it can be both freeing and emotionally crippling to reflect upon exactly what we really inherited from our parents. They shape us.
I had this in the back of my mind on Mother’s Day, as I reflected upon my mother and the DNA I inherited from her. She died 43 years ago, but she left a lot of herself here, with my siblings, with me. What did she give me, beyond some of my bodily features?
What she gave me didn’t happen in a vacuum. She raised a large family, with the help of a very supportive husband, my dad, and, while they had a marriage made in heaven, they had to spend most of it chronically strapped for money, time and energy. The demands on her were always somewhat beyond that for which she had adequate resources. But, somehow, she always managed, always managed to make do, always found a way to stretch everything, including her time and energy, to feed, clothe and properly mother us.
She frequently didn’t have the time, energy or heroic patience to provide us with the individual affection and warmth a child so desperately desires and needs, even though she was a naturally warm and kind-hearted person. The pressure of so many needs could wear her idealism and attention pretty thin at times, so she wasn’t a Hollywood mom, always perfectly dressed and perfectly affectionate.
And she often was torn in so many directions she couldn’t give us her full attention, but she did provide us with what we needed most of all, safety and security. She gave us a house and a home that was always steady and robustly sane – often times, loudly so. Inside that ambience we were always safe. Nobody could have given me a greater gift or greater riches in my youth.
Moreover, inside all that busyness and scrambling to provide, sometimes magnified by her attention deficit disorder, she taught us something else of importance: that you don’t have to wait until everything is perfect, until all your bills are paid, your health is perfect, you have the right leisure time, and there are no large headaches waiting for you tomorrow, to celebrate and enjoy a moment.
She knew how to celebrate the temporary. Every feast day, birthday or Sunday was an occasion for a special meal and a special celebration no matter what might be putting a damper on life. And, perhaps most important of all, my mother was largely responsible for giving me faith; though, in this, she had my dad as an equal partner. More than anyone else, she pushed me to be open to hear the call to priesthood.
Anthropologists who study initiation rites in various cultures tell us that the initiatory process needed to move someone from being a child to an adult must instill four salient truths: Your life is not your own. Life is hard. You will die. Your life is not about you.
The culture and church out of which she came already had indelibly etched those truths into her. For her generation, especially if you were poor and lived in a rural area, life was naturally hard and mortality rates were high. Lots of people died young. And the ethos of her generation held that family, church, neighbor and country could ask you for your life, and your duty was to give it over, without whining or self-pity. It was selfish to think first of yourself.
She had inhaled that ethos and then she breathed it into us, particularly the truth about your life as not being about you. The other facts, that life was hard and that you were going to die, were left to speak for themselves; but, from the time you graduated from toys to school, the message was clear: Your life is not your own. Your life is not about you. Anthropologists might well study my mother’s initiatory vision and tactics.
No mother is perfect, and neither was mine. She had her faults, and I carry many of those, too, along with the better things she gave me. But reflecting on my mother, I have only good feelings and warm gratitude. I chose my mother wisely!
Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio. Contact him through his website, ronrolheiser.com.