Sermon Lessons from Childhood for website
Copyright Sarah K. Person
Delivered May 11, 2014 to the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Middleboro
Join us on Mother’s Day as we reflect on the complexities of mothering. No matter what our own experiences, it is an opportunity both to give thanks for life and to set ourselves free from childhood.
I chose our poem by Daisy Zamora because it portrayed my truth, and because it reminded me of my own mother. I recalled waiting anxiously for her on the shore, surrounded by a freak mist that had swallowed up our inlet; and my relief at hearing the lovely sound of her little Sunfish grating on the beach. It was only a few years before she would begin the slow decline that would take her from her favorite pastime and from me.
One Sunday afternoon years ago I had an epiphany. It followed a typical routine for me; a week of classes at Boston University, Friday and Saturday with my mom in Connecticut, leaving at 6:00 on Sunday morning to make it to church in Dedham and back home to Medfield again. Mom had had a pretty good weekend, but it was still difficult, and I was stretched out, resting up before it all started over again.
Without knowing it, I had slipped into a light sleep – aware of my surroundings but not quite awake. And I felt two small hands curled up in each of my hands; toddlers’ hands, babies’ hands; gentle, soft fists perfectly fitting inside my own. I knew it wasn’t real, but I felt my chest bubble with I don’t know what and held on to the sensation as long as I could. “The child is mother to the woman,” I thought, “the woman is mother to the child.” I had no idea what that meant at the time, but I pondered on it for a long while. Who was the woman, who was the child, who was the mother?
My mother was a complex combination of power and fragility, whose daughters brought out very different parts of her personality. I often think each of her three daughters had a slightly different mother. I always loved her, but I never idealized her. My mother and father, like so many of ours, married because they loved each other and wanted to heal themselves with love and children. And the sad truth is that some wounds are too big and too deep to heal with love and children. But the good truth is that they tried and succeeded much of the time.
My mother did not have the childhood she needed, and clung to the memories of those short spurts of time when she could simply be safe and wanted. And yet she did her best to provide a home and a childhood for us. One of the luxuries of becoming an adult is that you have the chance to see, to really see, the humanity of your parents, and the chance to forgive them for it if you need to. If we are lucky, we leave behind the childhood experiences we’d rather forget . And if we’re really lucky, we have children who grow up enough to forgive us if they need to.
I was reminded of that when I read the story of the late Rev. Dr. Jack Mendelsohn – one of the lions of our denomination. Mendelsohn was born in 1918 to professional pianist Anna Torrey and Jack Mendelsohn, Sr. He loved his mother deeply, once saying, “It was difficult for me to think of God as being other than a woman, like my mother.” She died when he was only eight years old, so he never got to experience the whole of her, the unholy part, the part he had to resist so he could leave home, the part he had to reconcile with before he could begin his own life. Instead, home left him. He and his sister were placed with family members in different households while their father left to find work in New York and they never lived together again.
I imagine Mother’s Day was hard for him. I look out into this room and know that we receive Mother’s Day with such a mix of emotions, don’t we? You might be missing her terribly, like Mendelsohn. You might be looking forward to celebrating and teasing the woman you love. But you might have been abandoned or neglected. For you, Mother’s Day might be a charade foisted upon the public by the greeting card industry. And if you are a parent, this day might remind you of the eternal question of whether you were, are, or ever will be, good enough.
It’s the unspoken question in Daisy Zamora’s poem, isn’t it? Are we good enough if we are not, or did not have, the perfectly pretty mother who never cried tears and never lost her way? My girls were eight and thirteen when I was in seminary, and I was spending a goodly amount of time apart from them, and not totally focused on them and I struggled with that. In my courses on counseling and family dynamics, there were two ideas in particular that captured my imagination and regret. One was the idea of centered holding and centered relating; that a mother can create a safe place for her child, can say to the child with her presence and her arms, “I see you, I am there for you, I am affected by you.” It is real and constant. This idea of holding the child literally and figuratively derived from the work of an earlier British pediatrician and psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, who first described the concept of the ‘good enough mother’ as the “ordinary devoted mother…an example of the way in which the foundations of health are laid down by the ordinary mother in her ordinary loving care of her own baby.”
I attended a workshop yesterday and my friend Rev. Megan was there with her baby. Megan led worship with her daughter strapped to her belly, and led sessions with her daughter strapped to her belly. Amazing. And when I took that wonderful child and held her so that Megan could each lunch, she danced in my lap and slobbered over my glasses and grinned as if to say, “Hey, Mom’s over there but I’m still having a good time.” Megan was a good enough mother, who carried out her calling with her child strapped to her belly as if to say, we’re okay. Did I feel like I had to completely separate my children from my purpose in life when I took up ministry? I hope not, but I have regrets. Daisy Zamora admits she always wanted to be herself first, that she wasn’t sure that was a good thing, and that she’s not sure she ever will be the realization of all she wanted. Mothering is such a tough and necessary balance.
So, we are all here together, with all of our emotions and memories of what we had and what we wanted. How can we make this room big enough to hold all of that? What is it that we can hold onto together to help us get the most out of this day?
Well, for starters, let’s be thankful for the gift of life. No matter how hard it has been, or how wonderful it has been, it is a miracle that we even make it to birth. It is something that we are here. Whether we are here because of, or in spite of, the mothering we had – let’s give thanks that we are here. We have a chance to advance, to go forward, to reach those distant shores that our mothers never could. We have a chance to see what they could never understand, to hear and to speak the insights they never heard or spoke; to experience the ferocity of unapologetic freedom, or the peace that might have been always just out of their reach. Let us be thankful for this, and hold on to it here, and here.
And if we are parents, let’s give thanks that we are in the midst of a liberal faith that cherishes imperfection. Let us all hold on to these truths about our imperfections that our children reveal at the most inappropriate times. And let’s give thanks that there is grace in our lives that lets us carry on despite our faults, that lets us forgive and be forgiven.
For all of us, let’s be thankful that mothering is not only for women or even parents. Mothering is the gift of being with one another in love, and of enabling each other to be loving. Jack Mendelsohn, who grew up without his mother, was still able to capture the essence of what mothering is all about, except he called it ministry. He once said: “A minister is someone who sees the world as it is and as it should be, and is able to love them both.” The mother we want is the one who sees us as we are, and as we should be, and is able to love us both.
I leave you with this blessing,
May you feel safe,
may you feel content,
may you feel strong,
may you live with ease.
And may mothering
be worthy in our eyes forever.