As I’ve been thinking and writing about my mother this month, I’ve unearthed various letters and tidbits that bring her wit and wisdom roaring back… I published this as part of a post last week but it seemed somehow appropriate to bring this piece back in honor of our national holiday for gratitude…
A few days after my mother died, I found a book in her bedside table that contained 24 spiritual exercises “for healing life’s hurts.” I don’t remember taking it, but I must have, because I stumbled across it again this week, in a cupboard, forgotten. There was her first name in her careful right-leaning cursive, the top and bottom of the “E” of Eileen curling back upon itself, the “n” swooping east in a long, straight stroke. Other than the cover, only one page of the book bears her handwriting, the third lesson, entitled “The Healing Power of Gratitude.” She underlined this passage: “(S)ometimes just letting ourselves be loved can solve so many problems. When we let go and just soak up love from the Lord and others who care for us, we have a whole new power to go on again.” Next to this, in a slightly shaky hand, she wrote, “God doesn’t walk out on me — I walk out on him.”
Gratitude was a common theme in the letters we exchanged over the years. When we spoke by phone, living 800 miles apart, we often struck sparks off one another, but on paper we were forced to listen. (I say “we,” but more likely it was me who had the interrupting habit.) She almost always began with news of her church “doings,” good Episcopalian churchwoman that she was. A letter I received when I was single and working in Los Angeles — now bundled with others in a box — was written in her classic vein. She began by noting that she was “piddling around” getting some things done, including publicity about the United Thank Offering, which she lamented was rarely used as it was intended. One was supposed to put coins in the Blue Box as a personal spiritual discipline for acknowledging the good little things that happen every day. She wrote, “I admit that I frequently forget to use it but I do remember a lot of the time to say thank you, God, when I get a lovely letter such as yours which came yesterday, or Dad shows his appreciation for something — or maybe because I didn’t have a flat tire when I was in a hurry and late — this past week I have been grateful when there may have been a whole 24 hours this puppy of your brother’s didn’t dig something up in the yard — or managed to hit the papers during the night.” She ended that long train of thought paragraph by saying she just wished the timing of babysitting my brother’s dog was different so that she could get on with gardening.
Even that last bit is true to form. On the page, she just shrugs her shoulders and moves on. The dog digs. The garden will suffer. We shall overcome. I can think of dozens of examples when she took far bigger things in stride. Her anger worked the same way. She yelled, said her peace, gave as good as she got. But when the argument was over, she didn’t resurrect it. Her lexicon seemed nearly devoid of those negative emotions that require time to fester: blame, guilt, spite. She wasn’t one to let things marinate.
This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for so much, but, Mom, you are at the top of the list.