Today is Annalia’s 11th birthday. But you didn’t forget. She received a card in the mail from you yesterday, your perfect script on the front, a sticker on the back where the envelope folds onto itself. And within it, I bet, is the characteristic $5.00 check you send to each grandchild.
This morning I was thinking about when I was 11, and you must have been 53, and it was spring and you bought me my own dress, a matching pair of burgundy suede and patent leather mary janes, for my piano recital. In a closet full of hand-me-downs, that pretty cotton prairie-style dress with the lace-up bodice stood out like a rose in a weed patch. You knew that recital was hard for me, a newer student, less advanced at the piano than other boys and girls my age. And I was 11 and who at that age isn’t awkward? But I felt very grown-up and pretty and prepared because of my dress and shoes and I crossed the church stage and played my piece. Never one for the stage. In that way we are alike.
Remember the jasmine that bloomed in the shaded walkway to our little duplex in San Jose?
It lined the postage-stamp courtyard off the dining area, too. On warm nights, we’d turn off the air and push open the windows and let the Pacific Ocean air and the scent of jasmine breeze through the house. You and dad, as usual, made popcorn and watched an A’s game.
I loathed the lack of social life I had at 17, the new girl in a huge city, starting over my senior year, stuck at home with the American League announcers prattling on about statistics and the buttery salted smell of popcorn. Few friends, no siblings (so far from Spokane), no job or school commitments to keep me busy. I discovered Jane Austen and read while you two munched popcorn. I wondered why, all those years, I never knew you even liked baseball. But you love it, like I do, but I prefer the National League myself–Giant’s over A’s any day. You couldn’t get enough of Micky Gallego.
On Saturday mornings, if the day was free and the sky sparkled clear of fog and sea clouds, we’d decide to drive to Monterey by way of Moss Landing and we’d shop at antique stores and eat really great Mexican food or clam chowder at the Tinnery. I fell in love with you and daddy in San Jose. I saw you as real people and through my own eyes. I missed my sisters and my social life but I made the decision to move to California with you and I know, for so many reasons, that it was right for me, for us. I miss Capitola and the fancy restaurant we’d eat at sometimes on the pier in Santa Cruz. I know those memories are gifts that aren’t hand-me downs from the siblings. They are memories I need for now, for the future.
And that intensely warm spring day when we arrived home with Annalia, the tulips flung wide to the sun, the lilacs beginning their scented season, the world waking up and at the same time shuddering in the fear of terrorism. I needed pink, needed a bouquet of reminders that it’s okay to bring life into the world in the face of so much death. You had babies during the Korean and Vietnam wars, raised kids throughout the Civil Rights riots, the Cold War and the Arms Race.
You and dad made the long road trip that May 2002, so that you could give me the welcome you understood I needed. You had lunch waiting, the house cleaned, coffee in the pot. And in my home you were my home. Each baby of mine saw you with their newborn eyes and felt your soft, tan skin as you bathed them, with all tenderness, in the kitchen sink. Each one heard, with ears that didn’t really comprehend the meaning, but certainly felt the love, “Oh, come look, Alyssa, she’s changing everyday. They grow every single day, right before our eyes.” And you invited me to look at life, really look at it, and find the golden apples set in silver. You taught me the way of gratitude.
Your expectations were high, unattainable even. Your commitment to your husband, your family, your God, patent. It sometimes made you impossible to please, impossible to live with. But even with seven kids resisting, pushing, always picking at your integrity, you never ranted, rarely broke down, always sought that second cup of coffee in the morning, Bible in hand, looking at the Life.
You measured your words, and often, under pressure, said the wrong thing, silently feeling the guilt of the damage you may have caused. You figured out ways to apologize when you couldn’t trust your mouth to do the work. I get that now. I understand what drove you and what tore at you. I have my own brood of kids, my own Life-seeking habits, my own regrets. And I want to speak less and lean more.
I remember in San Jose when you taped a message on your bathroom mirror that read, “I know I’m somebody, ‘cuz God don’t make no junk.” You taped that there for you. Your broken heart was healing as your turned a corner in age. Your sixties would be a decade of change. After forty years of hands-on mothering, you’d watch empty-handed and full of heart the seeds that you planted go off and grow.
It hasn’t been all pretty. We are a wild garden without your constant tending. I’m sorry for that, sad for the pain it’s caused. I know it’s time to give you pink, give you a season full of reminders that there is joy even in the darkening twilight.
No mother is perfect. I’ve made so many mistakes just this week, I can’t count them.
So if someone asks a mom, “What do you want for mother’s day?” many times we demure and say, “Nothing” or “Just your love”. We know the work is hard and thankless, but oftentimes mom’s question the quality of what we’re doing. The legacy we dream of imparting to our pink-cheeked children often doesn’t match the results of our daily effort. We are afraid, we mom’s, of failing.
I wrote this letter as part of an assignment in a workshop I’m participating in, but I chose to share it because, I think we can all stand to be a little more honest with ourselves and our mothers. We can all go to God for grace and for the perfect love that he offers. We can love each other with God’s love. Our closest relationships, when broken, hurt us most deeply and its in those deep fissures that we can allow God’s perfect love to sink in and heal and mend. I pray that for you.