Mother’s Day Is About More Than Mothers
I attended an online poetry reading this weekend sponsored by Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry. One of the featured readers was poet, novelist and essayist Julia Alvarez whose works explore the identity of Latina women. Alvarez spent her early childhood in the Dominican Republic. Someone asked Alvarez what gave her the courage to write in her adopted language of English about themes largely missing in a canon dominated by white Anglo men.
She credited a Catholic nun who taught her in school with giving her the confidence to write.
On Mother’s Day we remember, of course, our birth mothers and grandmothers. It is also a time to remember all the other women who helped mold us. Julia Alvarez’s story struck me me because Catholic sisters played such an influential role in my own life.
At my high school, the Academy of St. Aloysius in Jersey City, N.J., my Latin teacher Sister Helen Jean Everett infused in me a lifelong love of the humanities. In my senior year at the Academy, our music teacher, Sister Lorraine Casella, suggested I study abroad during my junior year in college. The time I spent at the Sorbonne in Paris fueled a lifelong curiosity about other countries and cultures. I haven’t stopped traveling since.
In more recent years, Sister Thomasita Homan of Mount St. Scholastica Monastery in Kansas introduced me to monastic contemplative spirituality. Through her example, I learned what it means to live the Benedictine values of listening, community-building, hospitality, humility, simplicity, prayer and praise.
All of these women chose not to marry and have children in a quest to serve God alone. Yet they have many “daughters.” It is because of the nurturing they give. Their influence is felt most especially by those of us who might not have enjoyed ideal relationships with our own mothers.
When I was single and still unmarried — or rather married to my career — and most of the friends my age were already having children — Mothers Day was a tough holiday. I would slink in my pew at Sunday Mass when the priest asked mothers to stand for a blessing. I was grateful one year for the enlightened priest who extended the blessing to not only mothers but “all who give good mothering.” Meaning aunts, godmothers, teachers, and nurturing neighbors and friends.
Celebrating “all who give good mothering” should be what Mother’s Day (and conversely Father’s Day too) is about. There are many men who are just as caring and nurturing.
My Uncle Frank, who lived upstairs from my family, gave me that kind of care. He was the person I ran to for a band-aid when I fell and skinned a knee. He took me trick or treating, made me breakfast on many mornings. He is the person to whom I poured out my adolescent angst.
As someone who married later in life and never had children, it has been particularly important to me to give good mentoring to children come into my life, whether they are children of relatives or friends or the little girl from our neighborhood who comes by my house regularly to tell me about the book she is reading and how her science project is progressing.
On this Mother’s Day, who are the women — and men — who have given us good mothering? How are we giving good mothering to others?
Here is a beautiful poem for celebrating Mother’s Day by Julia Kasdorf:
“What I Learned From My Mother”
I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.