A Letter to Mom
“Being good is the mother of doing good.” -American Proverb
Dear Mom, You know I write a weekly essay in the paper, but this week I’ve been scratching my head about what to do for Mother’s Day. Though you and I talk on the phone just about every night, I’ve been thinking about how long it’s been since I wrote you a letter. It made me laugh. I’m like the shoemaker whose kids have no shoes. If charity begins at home, little in my life would have ever begun without you. And this letter is for you. I may not be like all the other sons. Or you like all the other moms. But in every mom is everyone else’s mom. And in every child is every mother’s child.
When I was a kid, you told me I was different. And that God had blessed me and that you believed in me. Whether it was true or not may or may not be important. What is important is that you told me. And I believed it. And by your love I began to believe in myself.
Begin at believing in your self and you can do anything. Even fail. Thanks, mom. I’ve failed a number of times in my life, but I’ve never failed to believe in myself. I could have failed on my own. I could have never succeeded without you. “Success doesn’t come easy”, you said. And you ought to know. I don’t know what it would have been like to have my mom die when I was two weeks old. I don’t know what it would have been like to have been placed in an orphanage as an infant. I don’t know what it would have been like to be out of school at 13 and working full time at 14. I don’t know what it would have been like, and I don’t know where I would have had the courage not just to go on. But to go on without anger. To go on with love. And believe somehow that if you worked hard and were loving then life was worth living. And if we’re not loving, life is a lot less than living. A lot less. Loving success is not the same as finding success in love.
Rereading the last line in the paragraph above, I realize not only how much you’ve taught me but how much I have to thank you for the way I’ve come to know things, see things, say things. “You know,” said a professor friend to me one day, “if you write something every day in the paper soon you’re going to start writing epigrammatically.” I looked at her and chuckled at the obvious. “I already write epigrammatically,” I said. Before I knew what an epigram was, you had them stuck up and around the apartments and houses we lived in. “It’s nice to be important,” said the first one I can remember, “but it’s more important to be nice.” I can’t remember where you got that little wood sign. Probably at some curio shop that intellectuals like me look down our nose at when we laugh at “blue collar” sentimentality. Thanks, mom. I got it. And still cling to it, to your reminder. It’s not smart to be a snob. Feeling superior doesn’t necessarily reflect superior feelings. It’s nice to be important but it’s more important to be nice.
I know there were a lot of times when you didn’t feel so nice. When you hurt and the old hurts from childhood haunted you. I remember you sitting on the couch watching an old movie and then breaking into tears that were deeper than any televised drama. Neither Dad nor I could calm you during those moments. You just needed to cry. “Life’s like that,” you said, “some times you just need to cry.” And I have. And I have remembered that you said it was okay. And reminding me that it was okay to cry, gave me the right to remind others. And a lot of us who are sobbing are going to feel better. Because sometimes in life nothing makes us feel better than having a good cry. Heaven weeps for those who can’t cry. For children whose parents don’t give them permission to cry.
You’ve held my hand and cried not just at my sadness but with my success. It is written in scripture, “You are bone of my bone. Flesh of my flesh.” And you have found joy in my joy. You have taught me that we don’t have to live through others to joy in their life. When I am happy you are happy not for you but for me. And you have taught me that love is when we love someone for who they are not because of their success at who we want them to be. Because we plant the seed doesn’t make us the tree.
Two thousand years ago, the Rabbi Ben Zoma said about the Bible, “It is a tree of life for those who will cling to it.” Mom, you reminded me that even when my ideas put me out on a limb I was connected to the tree. Years later when my days were filled with questions and my nights had no answers, I remember walking in one park in particular and hugging a tree, and listening to the wind blowing through the limbs, and waiting for answers. And when there were no answers, I was nevertheless, less alone. I was connected. “You are part of something,” you said. “Never forget that,” you said. “You are not just here. You were here. And you will be here.” And I have never forgotten that. Or forgotten to remind others. In the end, we are all messengers delivering by our mimicking actions what we have seen, what other’s
3 have told us. Indeed, our DNA is a biological message that we can’t shake. A reminder that the past runs through us. Yea, to the seed of our seed.
I remember you coming home from long hours of work when the day was already dark and winter barely gone and witnessing your determination to plant Pansies. And tomatoes. It was strange to see you planting things. You were the definitive inner city kid down on your knees. Perhaps the experience grounded you. Gave you the roots of a home and garden that never grew in your childhood. Months later, when spring had sprung and you returned from work, the pansies lifted their head to you when you went by. They did not know of our humble circumstances. You had planted them. To them you were a queen. And to me. Real royalty isn’t one who rules over but lifts up. Whether we raise flowers or children or hopes, we are more for lifting what would be less without us.
When the tomatoes ripened you would pull one from the vine and smell it like it was heaven. “Smell,” you would say, and you would stick it under my nose. And the vegetable would have the fecund odor of earth and life and birth. And the smell remains in my nose today. And becomes a template for smelling life or smelling when life is missing. There is an air to those who are alive and living. And to those who are not.
When Dad got sick, a life together that finally seemed to be glued together came apart. When Dad needed to be in a nursing home, you lived in the hallways. The most demeaning demands of his situation became your day to day. Days and nights blended into a long gray good-bye. The situation was like sailing into an endless horizon and some days I don’t know where you found the strength to navigate the situation. You and I held close. Now more than any time in the past you leaned on me and sometimes I leaned back. My brother’s wife was a saint to the day and Dad. And when I asked her where she found the strength, she said, from you, Mom. You are a well that others draw from even when you feel your well has gone dry. “Love,” you told me, “is the endless well.” Let all who are thirsty come and drink.
When Dad died part of you passed away. “It will never be the same again,” you sobbed, “it will never be the same again.” And I listened. And I said nothing. And you looked at me wondering, where now? And my heart broke. And I said, “You are right mom. Things will never be the same again. But they will be better than they are now. Trust me.” And you trusted me. Not because you wanted to but because you had to. And I thanked God that I was there as I had so many times thanked God for your being there for me. And I thank God today. For you. Moms may know everything, but as a matter of fact even moms sometimes forget how much they matter.
The wheel rolls. Change is the only constant. When you met another man and came to visit with him, you announced that you and he would not sleep in separate bedrooms. “Are you serious about him?” I asked you. “I’m going to marry him,” you said. I turned to myself and in the role reversal laughed. What was I going to do? Tell an eighty-year old man to wait? “Okay,” I said, “you can sleep together.” And you laughed. And I laughed. And then we cried a little too. Sometimes we can chew on more of life’s changes than we can swallow.
Now I am older. And you are older. And I call you almost every day. Just to make sure you’re okay. And to tell you I love you. And you say, “I love you too.” And I send you surprise food packages. And your husband buys me exotic Vodka. And I thank God that I have lived long enough to see this day. Even when some days what I see makes me weep. No tears in life, no rainbows. You taught me that too.
Though time teaches, but we don’t always take notes. People don’t write letters much anymore. A lot of kids have written letters to their parents. And never sent them. I wanted to send this one to you but for me. Because you have always been there for me. Even when I didn’t have the courage to show up. For me. Now I watch old movies on TV late at night and think of you and then. Long before CNN you’re caring was on the air round the clock. Lots of times I tuned to you when the rest of my life was static. Life, we discover, can be a test pattern. Moms, I learned, are God’s love channel.
Folks say it’s a good idea to clear the air between parents and kids because you never know when you won’t have the moment you have only for a moment. But I don’t have any old laundry to clean, and if I did you would say “just throw it in the washer,” then give me a hug, and ask if I was hungry, and we would sit around the kitchen table and talk. Happy Mother’s Day lady! As Dad used to say when he pretended he was Ralph Kramden in the Honeymooners, “Mom, you’re the greatest.”