Are You My Mother?
Are You My Mother?, the 1960 children’s book written by P.D. Eastman, was only of the earliest books I read to my children. After his mother flies away from the nest to find some food, a baby bird hatches and searches for his mother. Without a sense of who or what he is, the baby bird asked animals and machines of various stripes if they are his mother. In a moment of harrowing adventure, the baby bird cries to go home, to be with his mother, and is put back in the nest. The moment she arrives, he recognizes and knows her to be the one he has sought, his mother.
He knows her because it is his nature to know her.
And while it would have been more perfect had she been there all along, she comes to him as motherly as she can, with food and comfort and familiarity.
How have I recognized mothers of late?
On a Thursday morning, with the May sun shining down on us, I watched as a mother dressed in black spread dirt on the coffin of her miscarried child. She invited her other children to come and do the same. Soon, she backed away and wept in the arms of her husband, her parents, her neighbors and friends. Miscarriage is a hidden loss, but with her courage to bury her child in the presence of family and friends, she shows her empty hands and broken heart.
And of the children surrounding the tiny grave, only the eldest carried the weight of sorrow. It was sadness about the burying itself. “It’s dirty work,” she said to me, with a little smirk, before she told my children they could help if they wanted to. (They did).
A common impulse of adults is to want to shield and protect children from all that could distress them.
By allowing these children to see how much a part of life death is, and to be a part of the picture by participating in a physical and meaningful way, this mother did more than give life to those she was privileged to bear all the way through a pregnancy. She does more than educate their minds by teaching them to read and name their colors, by handing on her faith. She helps to form them to face the world, to know that even in the dark times of life, that she is there, family, neighbors and friends are there, who will join alongside them to bury the loves they can no longer hold close to them.
A mother has the power to teach
A mother has the power to teach, kneeling down in the dirt, absorbed in the moment and yet aware of her surroundings. On a different day entirely, my daughter, the same age as my friend’s daughter, commented on how she saw me move through the garden, walking slowly, examining the plants lovingly, gently brushing against them with my open hands. I plant the roots, press down the soil, pull the week and, in time, harvest the flowers and arrange them to take to the cemetery today.
I cannot carry the weight of grief for my friend.
But standing there in the cemetery, present with our hearts and mind, providing unasked-for flowers, I show my children another lesson. In times when our hands are empty, we could hide that emptiness in the name of being strong or holding it together. But when we know and live our lives knowing that weakness is a perfectly acceptable part of being human, then others can come to fill us up, in their own way. So a woman made a rosary. Another gifted a piece of memorial art. The woman who works at the cemetery gave her an angel carved from stone. And I gave her flowers.
Thus we show our children both that community could be there, and how to be part of a community for others. We show how to comfort, that it is safe and acceptable to need comfort. In a way unlike any other relationship, the mother has the power to show the child that when he or she cries out, someone will be there.
Like that mother bird, we may not do it perfectly.
Our children will face times of sorrow. But when we do the best we can, there is hope that this accumulation of lessons, both oral and by example, will do more than we could possibly imagine for the ones entrusted to our care.
We cannot control the past or the ways in which our mothers might have missed a thing or two, but we can choose what we do with those who live in our world. We can choose to be a safe haven for those who are vulnerable enough to express their need.