On February 5th of 2007, my mama passed away. Mother’s Day is still her day, but it has a different feel. There are some things about it I want to tell you. As an historian, I’ve read accounts of men dying on battlefields during World War II. Frequently they cried out for their mothers. While I’m sure there are still those cases, it is clear intuitively as well as empirically, they are more infrequent today. While anecdotal, the reason speaks volumes to what has happened to families and to relations between mothers and children, particularly between mothers and sons, female teachers and their pupils. At that time there was this great controversy about Don Imus and his “Imus in the Morning” radio show—and the broad cultural pollution of hurtful, degrading things said about women, whether or not they are mothers, whether or not they are African-American. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day fly in the face of that pollution and also the anecdotal trend I mentioned. Mother’s Day reminds me there is a difference, and special roles attendant to both genders. Maybe not in every individual case, and yes I know women make great soldiers and engineers; and men take care of babies too. Moreover, chivalry has its pitfalls, and women shouldn’t be overly revered. Like sports figures, mothers never asked to be role models or standard bearers for others’ moral compasses. They’ve proven they can be sexual predators, and even murderers (no longer murderesses) almost as well as men can. Although I confess to the prejudice, that men do those things better.
But ‘I am what I am by the grace of God,’ and whether this is a liberated Twenty-First century or the misogynist Nineteenth, according to feminist historians, I do and shall utterly reject the androgynous image of this crazy day in which we live; and I shall do so in honor of my sweet mama—even in honor of what she lacked and fell short of. At the end of the day, I love her. Perhaps it is only a biological device, no doubt transferable, that wracks me with grief and also with gratitude when I recall: how she sacrificed to give my brother and I everything she could as a single parent; and we, selfish little boys, took every advantage as if we deserved it, because Mama said we did. And all the while she did without so many things, so much of the time, in order to set us up higher than she could climb, or at least to give us that chance. There is absolutely no doubt that her life would have been better without us in many respects. It seems to me she gave her bloom to her sons instead. At the end of the day, however, she loved us and told us so. Therein lies a great mystery, and it is spiritual, not merely biological and most certainly not rational. I was just a kid in 1970 when “Love Story” starring Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw came to the screen. It was a romantic tearjerker that I didn’t thoroughly get or appreciate at the time. The most confusing line in it seems to have become the most famous: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” I never figured the line out until February 5th, 2007.
My mama and I had a few issues. I left the nest abruptly when I joined the Army and went to West Point. The selfish little boy just got bigger and hardly looked back at all. The worst thing I did apparently was to get married, and I never understood how the perfect mother could turn into the stereotypically bad mother-in-law. For all my own faults, and there are many, she did not know that you cannot continue to be a wonderful mother and a terrible mother-in-law—for both are the same things at different stages. But I learned something from the death of my mother. Namely, that no matter what she’d done or not done; no matter the accumulated disappointments, missed opportunities for amends and longed for changes of hearts; no matter the inadequacies on all sides, the unwise choices, frailties and jealousies; no matter the outbursts of temper, meanness, emotionalism, impulsiveness and stupid will of a stubborn little girl who didn’t get what she wanted—and the little boy who didn’t either; no matter all this and more, overdrawn or not drawn well enough, I had it within me undisturbed, intact, holy and pure, Love. I loved her regardless, and I love her now. I love her in spite of it; and nothing in the world will ever outweigh, diminish, dilute, or cancel that love. It is so far above and beyond and of such purer stuff, than anyone or everyone saying they’re sorry. And so I cried, and cried and cried for my mother on this battlefield of life. And it occurs to me this kind of love is something God knows well and feels towards us. Oh for change of hearts and making amends before death parts!