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Faith of Our Mothers

I haven’t gone home for Mother’s Day in years—a conscious decision. My mother’s delight in my presence hasn’t measured up to the comfort I’ve received by attending my own predictably liturgical church, tied to the lectionary that marks milestones of Jesus’ life, without regard to the secular calendar. Except for a one-line prayer of thanksgiving for our collective mothers, my church leaves the May commemoration in the hands of the family-breakfast in bed or dinner on the town.

But back home my pastor father ran a different kind of church, with God as a frame around home or country holidays, Mother’s Day being chief among them. Deep down, my patriarchal father knew he owed his very life to his mother, and his stable home—which facilitated a smooth career—to his wife. Deep down, he knew they and other women deserved recognition for their years of service at home, in the church. Consider the gold watches they’d never get (their wedding bands and someday their golden wedding anniversary receptions having to suffice). Consider the church offices they could never expect to hold. I say this annual Mother’s Day tribute was a guilt offering, and it grew grander as he approached his retirement.

When I was very young, every mother present received a long-stemmed carnation at the end of the service. I stood guard over the galvanized pails, making sure everyone knew the rules: Only one flower, only to mothers, white if her own mother was dead, red if alive. My mother brought her scarlet flower home and set its spindly stem in a clear-glass bud vase in the middle of the dining room table.

As for his personal commemoration, some years Dad gave Mom a rose bush, which he added to the thorny garden gradually taking over the parsonage yard. She enjoyed the blossoms; he enjoyed the digging and pruning. One year he brought her a case of pork and beans, a purchase he justified by figuring that opening a can of precooked food, rather than cooking up dried beans from scratch, would save her time in the kitchen.

Early in June, the church Dad pastored celebrated Family Sunday, presumably a holiday of his own making. The sermon praised fidelity and solidarity. Outside the main door every family, upon leaving church, could choose a rose bush to take home and plant in its suburban yard. The more roses gracing the neighborhood, the better.

When he moved to a smaller town (we children grown, no longer lined up on the front pew, Mother anchoring the side aisle), Family Sunday got assumed into a bigger and better Mother’s Day celebration. A potted plant—a rose bush if the price was right—handed to every mom.

Dad’s last full-time pastorate was in a rural hamlet—a dozen houses and a church, no store, not even a quart of milk for sale. Dad knew his congregation well, and one year was confident that every woman in church on Sunday would indeed be a mother—that is, until I, about thirty-five, unmarried, and childless, called on short notice and said I was coming home. “Wonderful!” my mother said. I’m not sure my father—who in church five years earlier had referred to me as a “maiden lady”—was as glad to hear of my impending arrival. Here’s what he had planned: A tribute and prayer, with all mothers marching to the front, lining the altar rail. A special tribute to the oldest mother, the one who’d come the farthest, the one with the youngest baby. A mother’s trio. The congregation singing “Faith of our mothers, living still / In cradle song and bedtime prayer...,” a song used this once and only once a year, Mom pointed out to me, as if I hadn’t figured it out for myself. A sermon extolling motherhood. Give-away potted petunias. From start to finish, the service breathed blessing on she who had borne and raised children. On Saturday afternoon Dad asked if I would take part in the service. “Maybe you could read from that article you wrote....”

A magazine had recently published a pointed guest editorial of mine, titled “The Family Isn’t Always the Answer” (reprinted in Priscilla Papers, Summer 2000, p. 20). The tag line told the story: “Some of the most godly leaders—Joseph, Moses, and Samuel—didn’t have neat and tidy family lives.” Was my father kidding? That he wanted me to get up and read this in church, on this Sunday set aside to honor the hands that rocked the cradles? “There are eight million more women than men in the U.S.....The traditional family simply can’t be God’s plan for every godly woman.”

“What are you thinking, Dad?” I asked, not with any incredulous accent on a specific word, but with steady phrasing, looking for clarification, hoping he’d say something that would let me justify saying, No, I can’t, I won’t get up there in front of everyone and humiliate myself.

“Well, you had some good points. And it’s presenting another side of the issue. I’d like you to be part of the service....” As I suspected, he was trying to be helpful. He was trying to broaden his narrow frame. And how could I refuse a request—as out of place and awkward as it seemed to be in the grand picture-when my writing had made it clear that being left out was not tenable? I gave myself a few hours to think about it, swallowed hard, and said, “Okay, I will read,” though I wasn’t sure why. To make him feel good about being magnanimous? To educate the congregation? To claim some place for myself in the only serious tribute given to women the whole year long? Probably all. So Sunday morning, pretending I was someone and somewhere else, I walked to the pulpit on cue, and spoke my piece.

The service continued as planned. I survived, though I never again went home for Mother’s Day. The church survived, even soon enlarging their sanctuary. And my parents stayed on; within a few years buying a house for retirement on the hamlet’s upper road, where Dad tore up the lawn and planted roses.

That might be the end of the story but for a serendipitous stop at the high-steepled, red-door church in Bath, New York, where Mother now lives in a nursing home. One Sunday morning in October, four months after Mom’s stroke, I said good-bye to Dad, drove the eighteen miles east to see Mom. I told her I’d slept well, read her a page from a devotional book, and prayed. Getting ready to leave, I asked if she wanted me to position her geri chair so she could look out the window or toward the hallway.

“The hall.”

It wasn’t what I’d wanted to hear. “But Mom, don’t you want to see the tree?”—the immediate view outside her second-story window.

“I saw it yesterday.”

I turned her toward the hallway and kissed her. We exchanged farewells: “I love you. I’m praying for you.” In tears, mourning mother’s days, I returned to my car to head south, to Virginia.

Not ready to face the fast four-lane, I drove down the main street of town, past that church with the red door. I looked at the church sign and at my watch. I was only five minutes late for the 10:30. Great! A liturgical service. No surprises. I know the predictable words bridging heaven and earth: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth.” The phrases and the gifts—they’ll help me put my world in order. Just what I need. Get me settled for the ride.

I opened the church door and settled into a pew near the back. There was nothing remarkable about the service. I might not have marked it but for its one surprise, after the sermon and before the Eucharist: an “extra “congregational hymn and one I’d never discovered, buried in the “Christian Life” category of the Episcopal Hymnal 1982.

In the first verse, Linda Wilberger Egan’s lyrics summarized Gabriel’s birth announcement to Mary, noting: “Blessed is she who believes in the Lord.”

A second verse, about the Samaritan woman, ended: “Blessed is she ... who perceives.”

Long before we got to the third verse, pronouncing blessing on behalf of three female witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, I sank, sobbing, to the pew and let myself be overwhelmed by the blessing of belief.

For my mother, whose faith remained true to her and would, I prayed, till death.

For me, suddenly able to perceive myself fully within the Lord’s welcomed company.

Trying to calm my emotions, a woman sitting behind me, in the back row, placed her hand on my heaving shoulder. Feeling her touch, I widened my claim of grace: For her and all the faithful women whose belief, like a thorny rose, blossoms fragrantly in the yard.

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