Thursday, January 8, 2015

In honor of Mom

From Toledo, IA
Me and Mom, 1985
Maytag Park in Newton, Iowa
Last summer I wrote out a meandering post, "Following and Straying: The paths of my ancestors," where I was trying to weave together a number of things related to place, vocation, and ancestry and the difficulty of such things in our late modern world. The principal subjects were my two grandfathers, my father, and me. I soon realized that I had only talked about my male ancestors in the post, which kind of nagged at me.

Well, a few days ago my mom reached a significant age milestone. I won't say which milestone, but I'm 35 so that should limit your guesses. It wasn't a particularly enjoyable birthday, as her and my father are both very sick. (Get well soon you two!) And I'm a horrible gift giver but a passable writer, so this post is about adding nuance to my previous musings about family influences and honoring my mother on her birthday. So here's to you, mom...

Parenting is many things, including a kind of education; both for the parents and the parented. In the complex and costly dance of intimate familial relationships, many things are constantly going on. One of those is the passing on of virtues (and vices).

Here's what I've noticed about what virtues I received from my mother by way of her just being who she was/is, and I'll tell it with a few stories...

Aunt Marcie

When I was a young child, two of my mom's relatives - an aunt and her daughter - lived together in a small house on the east side of Des Moines. As I've mentioned here recently, we spent a good bit of time in that part of town, so we would occasionally stop by for a visit. The daughter (we called her Aunt Marcie) had Down's Syndrome. While my mom could probably tell many stories about how their beautiful relationship of interdependence worked, I was too young to really absorb anything more than images and impressions which I can still recall fairly clearly.

They had Tinker Toys, which I thought was pretty fun. Not only that, but they had an electric motor that could be paired with them, which opened up all kinds of new possibilities for motorized awesomeness. My brother is the engineer in the family, so I left that business to him while I built much simpler things and enjoyed the fruits of his labor.

While playing on the floor in the living room as the adults talked, I noticed vaguely that Aunt Marcie wasn't quite like the rest of the adults, both in appearance and behavior. So I kind of watched her out of the corner of my eye, curious. But I also noticed something else: She was a part of the conversation. Her sister would ask her questions, my parents would talk with her, and she would happily participate in the flow of conversation. Of course, this speaks well of more than just my mother, but this was her family.

I derived this lesson: People who are different than "us" in some ways are still "us" in others. The virtues I'd name here would be humility, charity (as in the charis/grace kind of charity), and kindness.

Some years ago, my brother and I helped carry Aunt Marcie's casket at her funeral, held at my home church. I couldn't have been more proud to help in whatever way...

The Bus

My mother's profession when I was a child was that of a legal secretary. She worked in a few different law offices in the greater Des Moines area over the years. In between two secretary gigs, she got a part-time job as a bus driver for the school district. Rather than a big yellow bus, though, she drove a station wagon and took the kids in special education between school and home. Sometimes I rode with her and the other kids.

One of the boys on the bus, like Aunt Marcie, had Down's. He was older than me, but he and I would sit next to each other and play with the action figures that I brought along with me. A little older now, I was a bit more keenly aware of the differences between he and I, but as before my mom was there modeling for me that these kids were kids just like me. So despite those differences, I happily played along with the boy next to me.

This further reinforced the lessons I'd learned earlier, except now without the familial association. Even people outside our family who were "different" were deserving of respect and relationships.

The Flood

In 1993, the Midwest experienced dramatic flooding. "The Floods of '93" is a term that many Midwesterners can recall (though we've had worse floods since in the past decade). I was 14 at the time and when things started getting really bad, we were vacationing at the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. From the couch in our rented cabin by the lake, I remember watching Tom Brokaw reporting from flooded downtown Des Moines. I thought it was cool that the national news was in Des Moines. (I hadn't developed my empathy skills all Iowans have an inferiority complex, so we love it when people notice us.)

After vacation and after the Des Moines River had folded back into its banks, a flooded-out department store right alongside the river was set up as a temporary Red Cross disaster relief center. Mom volunteered us to work for a day (or so) at sorting supplies in the makeshift workspace. I remember being surprised at how simple our jobs were and marveling at how this small thing was somehow helping people who needed it. I wouldn't say I derived pleasure or self-satisfaction from it, but it felt more like a solemn duty. I don't recall complaining about it (though memory is a tricky thing...).

The lesson I derived from this was: If someone needs help and you can help in some it. The virtue of charity here begins to move more toward its common usage, i.e. "volunteering."


In closing, I would say that my mother passed onto me those "gentler virtues" that sometimes go unsung. Combined with the "plainfolk" church I grew up in, these were consistent with what I was learning about what it takes to be a disciple of Jesus. And now having the benefit of hindsight and the privilege of a seminary education, I've begun to identify that those virtues are often the very same "Fruits of the Spirit" that the New Testament letters hold out as goods to strive for and by God's grace cultivate in our lives and life together as the church.

So that's how I'm honoring my mother on this her, um, big milestone birthday (a few days late). I love you, mom. Thank you.

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