Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Gifts of Our Mothers... Part 1

Mothers -- and not just our own -- gift us with the tools we need to live our lives. I'm not ready to write about my mother's gifts, except to say I'm thankful the world is full of other mothers and the gifts they have to offer!

I've been enjoying the Mother Letter Project. This project touched my heart from the moment I clicked the first link. I was moved to participate in the project -- not for recognition of the relationship I have with my own mother, but to honor the woman who is my mother-in-law.

My mother-in-law taught me how to be a wife and mother.

Don't get me wrong; she's not perfect, and wouldn't want the stress of anyone thinking she is.

Mary is patient and kind, content and humble, and abundantly forgiving. She offers wise counsel, not only to her husband, but to all the people who touch her heart. She submits her life and desires for the great good of her husband and her family. Mary was never afraid to use tough love as a tool with her four children. Best of all, in my opinion, she raised her sons to be amazing men. I love her.

When I first met Joe's family in 1986, I was astonished by the quiet. Yes, everyone talked. And talked and talked and talked! (And laughed and laughed and laughed!) But there was quiet. There was peace. There was respect. People listened to each other. Problems were discussed discretely -- not to create family secrets, but to respect each person's privacy and individuality. Joe's home was a resting place and sanctuary for me. I learned there that I wanted people I most love to have the Very Best of Me -- not whatever was left of me after I gave my best to others.

I wonder what Joe thought when he came to my house. (And that statement begins Part 2, should I ever decide to write it...)

Children do live what they learn. When my children were small, I was caught between two worlds -- the one I knew from my childhood and the one I encountered at the Kounkel's. I reached a crossroad, a fork in my road, when Adam was seven. We were in my bathroom and I had hold of his upper arm. I was angry with him for some recurring bad habit. I was yelling at him. I happened to meet his eye during my diatribe and stopped cold. I knew that look in his eyes. I lived that look when I was a child.

We sat on the side of the tub, Adam on my lap and Jakob cuddled close. I apologized to my boys for the first -- and not last! -- time. "I made a mistake. I shouldn't yell at you. I shouldn't make you feel bad. I love the you you are," I said to them. We were late for school that day, but that's okay. Sometimes it's important to savor the lessons life offers us. As I sank in the warmth of their forgiveness, it occurred to me that asking forgiveness is not something we do for others; it's something we do for ourselves.

My life changed that day, and so did theirs. For the rest of their boyhood, I addressed trouble or disobedience or plain-ole-naughtiness with humor. "Stick that lip out any further, Mr. Kounkel, and I'll grab it with the tongs!" Or, "Say one more nasty thing in this car, Other Mr. Kounkel, and I'll tie you to the roof for the rest of the ride!" Oh, I still holler at those boys -- at least by the seventh time I tell them something. But then they sit on me and we laugh until we can't breathe.

I read this poem by Katherine Nelson Davis:

A mother is someone to shelter and guide us,
To love us, whatever we do,
With a warm understanding and infinite patience
And wonderful gentleness, too.
How often a mother means swift reassurance
In soothing our small, childish fears,
How tenderly mothers watch over their children
And treasure them all through the years!
The heart of a mother is full of forgiveness
For any mistake, big or small,
And generous always in helping her family,
Whose needs she has placed above all.
A mother can utter a word of compassion
And make all our cares fall away,
She can brighten a home with the sound of her laughter
And make life delightful and gay.
A mother possesses incredible wisdom
And wonderful insight and skill --
In each human heart is that one special corner
Which only a mother can fill!

And so, I thought, I will contribute my own Mother Letter and get a copy of that project. I'll print those Mother Letters on nice paper, create a cover, and bind it all together. It will be, I think, a gift Mary will read and treasure. The feel of the paper under her fingers will give her pleasure. And one day, when she's finished, she will honor me with the gift of that same book in exactly the moment I need it.

Thank God for Mary.

Will You Let Me Be Your Servant?

Every year when I write our family Christmas letter, I sit in a quiet corner reading the mail we received during the year from friends near and far. I reflect on the speedy passage of another series of months until I fairly burst with the joy we lived in the past year. At that moment, I run my fingers along my keyboard, take a breath, and spin the story of our year.

Most years, my letters are stamped and ready on Black Friday. Then I wait until I receive the first letter of the season before happily making my way to the post office to mail my stack of Christmas cheer.

2008's letter was nearly impossible for me to write.

As I sat in my quiet corner thinking about the year, I felt little joy.

2008 saw the end of my parents' thirty-nine year marriage. I watched mom consumed by her demons. Grandpa Stuart -- our last grandparent -- died. Dear friends and family suffered all variety of personal heartbreak. Our business struggled in tough economic times. Tragedies small and large dominated my thoughts.

I couldn't write the letter.

I started preparing dinner instead.

Preparing food for people I love brings me peace. That night while chopping onions and slicing potatoes, my mind drifted to the people who would be eating this meal. I thought of Joe, outside with Adam putting the Christmas star on the roof. I smiled at all Joe's taught Adam about being a man in the last months. Over the noise of running water, I heard Jakob giggle -- or, rather, he chuckled like the cool teen he is -- as he shared some tidbit about the day with one of his friends who still actually talks on the phone.

As I prepared food to nourish their bodies, they nourished my soul doing what they do.

I realized how incredibly blessed I am.

I married a phenomenal man who loves me more than I deserve to be loved.

I am mother to two boys who are each my favorite son.

I am surrounded by nurturing friends who held my hand while mom broke my heart.

I prayed with Grandpa Stuart in the forty days between his diagnosis and death.

I welcomed new relationships with dad's family.

I achieved mutually respectful relationships personally and professionally with astonishing people.

As I finished the dishes after that evening meal, the lyrics of a song Grace sings, Servant Song by Richard Gillard, haunted me.

Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you?
Pray that I might have the grace to let you be my servant, too.

We are pilgrims on a journey, we are trav'lers on the road.
We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.

I will hold the Christ-light for you in the nighttime of your fear.
I will hold my hand out to you; speak the peace you long to hear.

I will weep when you are weeping, when you laugh I'll laugh with you.
I will share your joy and sorrow, till we've seen this journey through.

Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you?
Pray that I might have the grace to let you be my servant, too.

I am a servant by nature. I genuinely love helping -- so much that a dear friend gave me a mug with a new motto: "Note to self: STOP volunteering for stuff." During Grandpa's final illness, I found profound joy in doing things for him just so he could be comfortable -- with no sense of my own discomfort.

Prior to this year, I have never been good at accepting service from others, or admitting I needed help.

This year I did need help. Thank God for all the people who were abundantly generous. I would not have survived this year emotionally intact without learning the value of letting others be servants too.