My daughter Jordan wrote this for me and it is fitting that I share it. She is a wonderful write and story teller, her life story being intricately woven within my own tapestry of love.
” I wrote most of this note on Mother’s Day of this year, but didn’t finish the whole thing on time:
I recognize the irony of entitling this note “On Being a Mother” when I myself have never been a mother, and when I might never be one at all in this life. But I’ve had the privilege of observing and being in relationship with many mothers (my mom and my sisters, in particular), and I also believe that “motherhood” is something that many women, and even men,experience, regardless of whether they give birth to any biological children. And so I feel qualified to speak on what it is to be a mother, not from experience,but from observing and listening to mothers. (Besides, I’ll remind my readers that one of the most prescient and widely-cited experts on American culture –even to this day – was a Frenchman. I’ll leave you to figure out who I’m talking about. But suffice it to say that his “outsider perspective” allowed him to see into nineteenth century America more accurately than many Americans of his day. All I seek to offer is an “outsider perspective.”)
So,with that qualifier in place, I’ll proceed. I’ll start with my own mother:Jamie Marie Kerlin Mehan Grubb. Kerlin was my mom’s maiden name, Mehan was her mother’s maiden name; if you haven’t figured it out, my mom comes from poor Irish-Catholic immigrant stock. Evidently,my great-grandfather worked in the County Cork shipyards. These were the shipyards in southern Ireland from which most Irish migrants to America departed in the late 19th and early 20th century, and hence many Americans with even a touch of Irish in them can trace their lineage back to “County Cork.” But my grandfather did not migrate first to Cork and then to America. He was a laborer in the shipyards, which means that when I tell true Irish folk today that I trace my Irish lineage back to County Cork, I am also prepared to counter their response that “all Americans with Irish in them say they’re from County Cork.” Don’t tell a history teacher she doesn’t know her family history. But I digress. This story is about mothers, and particularly about the one I know best.
I know my mom mostly from two sources: First, I know her from experience. I was raised by her, after all, and we inhabited the same home for 24 years – the longest time frame any of her daughters lived with her, I might add. I think,by the time I left, she was ready for me to be gone – a rare case for my mom,who grieves the departure of all of her children. But I also know my mom from another source. I know her from stories: her stories, stories that others tell about her, and stories that have been formed from the overlapping and perpetually evolving progression of my own memories, some of which are made up of the memories of others, and of the memories of others’ memories. In short, I know my mom from the stories that I and others tell about her, from the memories that we have of her. These stories evolve and change and grow and become, if not entirely “factual” (what does that word mean, anyway?),nevertheless truthful in their own right. Yes, I am making that claim, even as– maybe especially as – a history teacher. I am no post-modernist, but I am no Almighty either.
If I tell some of the stories of my mom now, someone– maybe my mom, or one of my siblings, or an aunt – might contradict me and tell them differently, adding or subtracting or refining or editing what I have to say. But to me, it’s always been hard to say which is more important: the facts of the stories, or the way those facts are told and argued and re-told and re-argued; the end result is a story that is truthful, even if not entirely“factual.” Make of that what you will.
My mom has always been a story-teller. Apparently her mom before her was a story-teller. My grandmother, Mary Mehan Kerlin – “Nanny” to her grand-kids –evidently told stories to complete strangers; she simply struck up conversations with random strangers in elevators, and before you knew it, a good portion of her life story had been implanted in the mind of someone who may or may not have chosen to retained it in his or her memory afterward. I admit that this story – the story of my grandmother telling stories, that is –has probably stuck with me for a very personal reason: it seems to have passed on to me. Whether through “nurture” or “nature” or a combination of both, at some point during my high school years I realized I didn’t have much trouble telling complete strangers snippets of my life story if at any given moment, explicably or inexplicably, something prompted a memory of my life that seemed worth telling.
But I digress, again. The point is, my mom is a story-teller, and because of this,I and her other children all grew up with what I will call certain “stock”stories – the kinds of stories we heard over and over again, to the point where we rolled our eyes and said “yes Mom, we’ve heard this one before” when she told them to us during teenage years. I am not a teenager anymore, however, and one of the benefits of moving up in age – if not in the world – is that I now appreciate these stories as integral to relationship. I’m not going to explain that statement. I’m going to let you figure out what it means as you read.
Some of the “stock” stories that I remember best about my mom involve horses. My mom never lost her love of horses, even as an adult. One of my childhood memories is of her riding bareback nearly eight months pregnant. In fact, one could probably argue that her back problems in old age are largely tied to two of the greatest loves of her early twenties: her love for babies and her love for horses. Which brings me to another characteristic of my mother: she has always struggled with balancing her loves, that is, with loving fully all that she loves and wants to love more, but can’t (at least in her conception of what itis to adequately love) because of limited time and the limitations of simply being human. But she has tried. My God, she has tried.
When my mom was a little kid, probably 10 or 11 (or at least, that’s how old I made her in my mind when she told me this story as a child), she went away to a summer camp. I don’t know if it was a summer camp especially designed for horse lovers, but it was a summer camp that had horses. And that was all little Jamie needed. She snuck out one night with one of her friends to the horse barn, where the two of them took some of the horses out of the stalls, tied up some bailer’s twine into makeshift halters and reins, and rode those horses bareback around the camp riding ring. They were caught, of course, and grounded for the rest of the camp (which, in camp world,means they had to stay in the dorms and miss out on the other fun for the rest of the week). But given the number of times my mom told this story as an adult,I think that nighttime horse ride, bareback under the moonlight with a makeshift halter and reins, probably outweighed any consequent week-long confinement in a dormitory.
There was another time my mom rode a horse bareback, but this time she was a young adult. I don’t know how young, or how old. I know she wasn’t living at home anymore, but I also know she left home in her mid-teen years, so she may have been as young as sixteen. In any case, I believe she was working on a horse farm at this time, handling retired Thoroughbreds. (For those of you who don’t know horses, Thoroughbreds are race-horses, like the ones who run in the Kentucky Derby.) For some reason, my mom was riding one of these Thoroughbreds bareback on a beach near a rocky cliff-face. Why was she doing this? Your guess is as good as mine, or hers now for that matter. Anyhow, something spooked this horse and he ran – straight-up ran, flat out, like he was in the Kentucky Derby. My mom held on bareback while her friends watched wide-eyed. The horse slowed down and came to a full stop shortly before the rocky ledge of cliff, where, if he had stopped abruptly and thrown my mom,she may have sustained a life-long head injury at the very least. My mom got off the horse. Her running friend caught up with her shortly and asked if she was ok. She handed the reins over, turned toward the ocean and walked into it…and vomited.
Even as a child, hearing Mom’s horse stories made me think of a risk-taker. I was a very timid child, afraid of many things, and very afraid defying authority, so I often felt impressed and a little in awe of someone my age who wasn’t afraid to take risks, face the consequences, and live to tell the tale. And my mom is a risk-taker. She always has been. As she grew older, however, married, had children, and “settled down,” the adrenalin-rush producing risks she took as a child and young adult slowly took a back seat to the sometimes less than thrilling but equally hazardous risks of relationships – the risks of loving.
It is probably true that the risks of loving are for all people equally great. But even if this is so factually, it seems equally true that the risks of loving feel greater for some than for others.Loving is, simply put, scarier for some people than it is for others.
Some of the stories my mom told to us growing up revealed, whether she always meant for them to or not, the very real risk that she had taken in marrying and having children, in loving. Some of the stories came from her own memories of pain; no matter how matter-of-factly she told them, the pain was there. She told of screaming and divorce; she told of being dragged around by her hair and accused of being drunk when she was sober; she told of being called a slut; she told of being told that she should have been drowned when she was born. She also told stories that were not of pain, directly, but that, as I grew older, I came to realize were about pain,indirectly. She told of skipping school and smoking dope along the train tracks with other dropouts (and coming so close to being hit once that she lost her jacket when it was torn off by a passing train); she told of seeing tracers under the influence of LSD, of passing out drunk at Pink Floyd concerts, of promiscuity; she told of shame.
I wish sometimes that I knew more of my grandmother’s stories. I think that, if I had known her stories, I would know my mom’s stories even more fully, and my mom might know her own even more fully. I know (from hers and her family’s stories) that she was raised by an Irish-Catholic immigrant woman who worked in a rubber band factory from the time she was six years old till she had a stroke in her old age. I know this because I used to hear that story when my grandmother gave me rubber band balls that she had learned how to make as a child. She made these from the rubber bands that her mother – my great grandmother – brought home from the factory. I know that my great-grand mother was very, very poor. I think she was probably abused by men. At the very least,some of the women in her family must have been, because the resentment and mistrust of men ran deep in the Mehan line (my grandmother told me, when I was11 years old, that I should “never get married, because all men are bums”).
My grandmother grew up poor during the great depression. She told of eating French fry and mayonnaise sandwiches, and onion and mayonnaise sandwiches. She told of making toy “wagons” out of matchboxes and strings, and then building mazes, and then tying the toy “wagons” to cockroaches that she found around the house. She would put these cockroach wagon trains into the mazes she’d built and then watch them pull the wagons around. For one of her birthdays (I think it was her70th), my aunt bought her a doll. My grandmother cried when she got this doll. She rarely cried in front of people, certainly not in front of family, because she was “tough” (she once told me that Frank Sinatra, whom she’d known as a child, was a “sissy”). But she cried when she opened the box containing the doll. All she said,as she was crying, was that no one had ever given her a doll before. In her entire life, she had never once been given a doll.
My grandmother became my mom’s mother, and entered into the risks of relationship,the risks of loving, perhaps without even meaning to, really. Some who knew my grandmother might, in reading this, say that she failed to love, or at least failed to love well. There was a time in life when my mom would have said this– in fact did say it. But before my grandmother died, she (Nanny) softened. She not only showed more love, but she received love. My grandmother died with her daughters around her, loving her to the very end, and she, in turn, in her own feeble way, beaten by years of pain and rejection, loved them in return – reached out and let them love her. As my mom grew older, and as my mom reflects back today, I do not think she sees her mother as someone who failed to love. Yes, her mother failed to show love,perhaps most of the time. But that is not to say she did not love, even in her failure to show it, or to do it well. She loved deeply, she hurt deeply. For my grandmother, the risks of loving were great, and the risks of receiving love perhaps even greater. But that did not prevent her from becoming a mother, and that did not prevent her from loving,and thus from trying to show love, in her own broken, frightened, lonely way,despite all the pain and rejection she carried inside.
My Mom’s first risk at trying out relationship and loving was, I find, an ironic one. She became pregnant because she wanted to love and be loved, and to her nineteen-year-old self, a baby seemed the surest answer. Looking back now, I’m sure Mom sees the irony in this, too, because from what I’ve observed, no one causes a mother more pain and heartache than her own children. However, my older sister Kristen is alive because my mom wanted to love, and to be loved.Who can say no good came of this? There is no joy apart from pain, especially for mothers. (I didn’t make that up. Read John 16:21.)
The marriage in which Kristen was conceived lasted one year. My dad was my mom’s ex-husband’s roommate. However, I must emphasize here that he and my mom only became involved after the divorce was a certainty. There was no divorce-causing affair on my mom’s end, and I would like to make that very clear. My mom tells the story of when she first met my dad. Actually, there are three stories from when she first met him and the impressions she had of him, and I’ve never been able to put them into the right order. There is the story of when my dad was helping my Mom’s “ex” clean out the apartment that he (the “ex”) had lived in with my mom. My dad walked by my mom carrying some furniture out, stopped, and said to her, “Look, I just want you to know that I feel like a real dick taking furniture from a lady with a baby.” She noticed him then and thought, “Wow.What a nice man.”
There is the story of when my dad was looking through a mail cubicle at IBM. My mom was taking mail out of the other side. Their eyes met and they spoke. She had never seen more beautiful blue eyes. Really. That’s what she says.
There is the story of when my dad came to the Halloween party with his face painted red and my mom looked up at him standing on the balcony and knew it was her ex husband’s roommate and thought he was the hottest thing she had ever seen (“even under all that red makeup”) and all she thought was, “Man, this could be trouble.”
There is the story of the New Year’s party where my dad – always a hot commodity to the ladies – walked around the room and kissed most of the women in it. But he took my mom outside of the room, into the hall, and shut the door, for their kiss.
There is the story of when my mom and dad got married at the Justice of the Peace,and Mom said her vows to Kristen because she was so ashamed to be getting married with a child by her side and another one on the way.
Thenthere is the story of how Mom and Dad met Jesus Christ and became Christians.
This is the most important story of all. Or at least, I think many of us children would agree that this was, for my parents, the most important story of all. My Mom told the story, but it was less in the telling of that story than it is in the relationships that grew from it, that the impact of Jesus on my Mom has unfolded into further stories of relationships, and of pain, and of loving, and of being a mother.
My parents became Christians, or so the story goes, shortly after they moved to Vermont. I was about 2 weeks old at the time. I was born in Virginia and given the unique middle name “Sher” after my midwife, a practicing Baha’i. My mom was kind of a leftover hippie at the time, dabbling with natural birth and alternative religious ideas. When my parents moved to Vermont, however, all of this changed. They encountered a neighbor who was, they say, “different.” Both of my parents had some understanding of Christianity, in a variety of forms and from different experiences – in my mom’s case, Irish Catholic, in my dad’s,Southern Baptist – but they had never seen belief in Jesus impact someone the way they now saw it. This neighbor lived with purpose, with faith. She lived with the conviction that the unseen spiritual world was far more real than anything anyone could see with their physical eyes. She lived as though, in reality – real reality, not the kind of “snap back to reality” that cynics talk about – in reality, Jesus was alive, very much alive and very much in relationship with her. My parents wanted that reality,and when they got it they lived it. They want it still. They live it still.
When my parents became Christians, they were pretty short on theological knowledge,to say the least. They wanted a relationship with God, and they turned to those who had – or seemed to have – that relationship. And this is where the most tragic – and I use that word in the classic Greek sense – part of my mom’s story starts.
I do not want to tell this whole tragic part now.
But,suffice it to say, because the Christian faith is based on a story – a true one, but a story nonetheless – it is very important that this story is told correctly, especially to new converts. This is not to say that anyone can tell the story perfectly. Baptists, Catholics, Swedenborgians, Amish, Methodists,Pentecostals, all tell the story with slightly different emphases. But I would argue that they all get the story right as long as they keep the main character– the Hero, the Person about which they are telling – at the center of it. As long as His life, death, and re-life (in theology-speak, “resurrection”) is told over and over again and left to be listened to and heard and, hopefully,understood by the hearers, then this story can’t go wrong. No one can force a story on another. They can only tell it, and leave it to the hearer to believe or not believe. People can debate the finer parts of the story – like my family members debating our own stories – but the central truth must always shine through:the story must be about the Person that it is about, and all the characters must retain their central place as a part of that Person’s story. A good story makes you feel like you are in relationship with the Person about which it is told. A good story can be analyzed and debated and picked apart, but in the end, that is not what makes it popular. That is what gives academics jobs. What makes a story popular is that people can relate to it; they can actually feel that they are a part of the story, in relationship with others who are part of the story, and ultimately in relationship with the Hero of the story itself.
What happened shortly after my parents became Christians is that they encountered storytellers who had the story wrong. But what made things extra tricky, is that these storytellers did not have the whole story wrong. In fact, they had many parts right. In fact, they had enough of the story right to make the wrong parts seem right as well. Lies mixed in with truth are the best kinds of lies – they are the most difficult to recognize.
My parents were told a story in which their own role in the story became more important than the Hero’s role. They were told that their own faith, rather than “the faith of the Son of God,” was all that kept them tied to their Father and their Father’s plan – His invisible world that they wanted so badly to be apart of. As a result of the story that my parents were told – and even more so as a result of the actions that tellers of this story took and failed to take –my baby brother died. And then, as a central theme of this story, my parents were told that God took my baby brother as punishment for their lack of faith during childbirth.
My mom’s story, indeed my family’s story, has been one of learning the Gospel story all over again. Of learning the real story. And of learning how we fit into the real story, not the shoddy telling of it we believed for nine months plus some too long. It is a story of many things, but it is definitely a story of motherhood.
My mom is now telling this story, writing it in her own book, which she hopes to get published some day. I don’t need to tell more of this story right now. I’ll leave it up to my mom to do that. She experienced a very painful story, but she is also experiencing joy in the telling of that story, and hope in the later chapters of it. As she looks back on her own story – and those of her mother,and her mother’s mother –she is starting to the redemption in them, and she is starting to write of that redemption. That,by the way, is the central point of the Gospel story.
I started this by talking about motherhood. Let me return to my title “On Being a Mother.” What is it to be a mother?
I am not going to try to answer that question; I hope I may have answered it in part already. But if you want to know what it is, start listening to the stories of mothers. Start really, really listening. If you are a Christian, or a even just a lover of great literature, read the Bible all the way through and look for every time the word “mother” is written; look for how concepts or metaphors of motherhood are used; think about what it means to be “born again”– who goes through the travail and pain of birthing you, spiritually, and living through the joy and sorrow of watching you “grow up”?
We Christians often call Him our Heavenly Father. But that does not mean that He is unaware of the joy and sorrow of being a mother.