Thursday, April 5, 2012
...mama, i hardly knew you but we're not through
Thoughts of my mother are with me this morning. She is, in death as in life, a mystery to me. That she wanted me was never the question. What I wanted, though, frightened her: her humanity, an intentional sharing of her unedited self, a glimpse of courage. The world can be a frightening place to a small child. And Mama was afraid of the dark.
The main character of Anita Diament's novel, The Red Tent, is based on Jacob's daughter, Diana. This rather obscure character from the Old Testament is at the center of a story about relationship, community, the powerful bond between strong women. I encountered a quote before I met the book: “If you want to understand any woman you must first ask about her mother and then listen carefully. Stories about food show a strong connection. Wistful silences demonstrate unfinished business. The more a daughter knows about the details of her mother's life - without flinching or whining - the stronger the daughter.”
An aside, sort of: an Amazon reviewer wrote this: "This is the first book that I've read that was based on the Bible. I had my doubts, but being an avid reader of historical fiction I decided to try it. I was not disappointed." What a sad commentary that ancient wisdom has been so abused by zealots of all walks and labels that many turn away without investigation. I am glad this reader dove head first into the story.
Stories about my grandmother almost always involve food. Decades after her death, she and I live in foodie communion. With my mom, also deceased, the wistful silence is deafening. She was smart, creative, and loved. I know enough, from my grandmother, to piece together bits of her past. Her identical twin sister died suddenly just before the age of three. A portrait of my aunt that hangs in my son's house is based on a hand-tinted photograph taken less than twenty-four hours before she died of rapid-onset diphtheria. The image of the tiny blond girl haunts.
One of life's awful dilemmas: the raucous toddler who went to bed with her sister/playmate - her carbon copy - and awakened without her; the mother whose beloved child died...who, in her deepest grief, embraced a living reminder daily. But the story doesn't end with Mom's twin. She had an older brother, Uncle Raymond, the golden-haired, laughing boy. A delight. And a younger sister, Jo, whose health was delicate. The first kept my grandmother in stitches. The latter carried her back to memories of her lost child. In the middle, my mother, always a bit of a challenge, I gather, from stories that have made the family rounds.
The family lived on a small farm during the Great Depression. The post-Reconstruction south was brutal enough without the added economic woes. Everyone worked hard. My dad told me that my mother picked cotton as a child. Not for fun, like the two handfuls I pulled off the thorny stalks with my grandfather's help. I recall as an adult, when I drove my late husband to the old farm, he looked around and said, "All these years I thought your mother grew up on Tara." She would have denied with vigor any shame associated with country life. But she lived it in a million ways. Her woods were dark and deep, but not lovely. Her life was a study in contrasts. Over time, her escape backfired. The world she created - that she thought would satisfy - became a prison. In the end, her deepest desire was to return to that small south Georgia community, to family and friends, to those woods.
I never saw her happier than when she dropped the veneer of so-called respectability and lapsed into southern talk. My grandfather taught music. Mother learned to play the piano, the fiddle, and the guitar as a youngster. I never saw her touch any of them as an adult. Because she wasn't "good enough". Oh, perfectionism, that oppressive taskmaster, a killer of souls. She never quit humming, though...the music never left. I hope that she knows how much I loved her unguarded moments when she forgot about what we looked like or what someone else might think if the word got out...and belted out a Hank Williams song with gusto.
This fabulous cook, creative sewer, master gardener needed only her own approval...and this she could never give. Oh, Mama, I wish you could have heard - really heard - what Henri Nouwen said: “Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, "Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody." ... [My dark side says,] I am no good... I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the "Beloved." Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”
And this: “To live a spiritual life we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude. The movement from loneliness to solitude, however, is the beginning of any spiritual life because it it is the movement from the restless senses to the restful spirit,l from the outward-reaching cravings to the inward-reaching search, from the fearful clinging to the fearless play.”
Mama, you planted beautiful gardens. Won countless blue ribbons. But your fear of the garden of solitude left you in a perpetually lonely place. I wish you could have understood what it means to be Beloved. We all are, whether we know it or not. But Beloved does not come without cost. The price is Truth. I had to come face to face with the depth of my own depravity to appreciate grace and mercy, undeserved and freely given. The price, in this case, is right. And righteous.
If Stephen Hawking can't explain the universe, I'm not going to tackle the subject of time. Except to say this: we don't seem to have to be physically present to each other to be in relationship. The dialog continues beyond the grave.