Tag Archives: motherhood

The Night I (Finally) Understood Christmas

Animal onesie hugsMy favorite Christmas moment was the last one before I fell hard asleep.

I’d been in commandant mode all day, maybe all month, but finally — finally — the presents were opened, the meal was produced, and the family was unpleasantly full after gorging on turkey and all the fixin’s plus some extra fixin’s for good measure. “Ben!” I’d barked at my nephew, “move it!” as I motioned for him to step away from the counter where I planned to set the brimming dishes. Then I added, “I want you to know I speak to you like my own children.”

As if he would understand that I only bark at those I love.

In the moment this picture was taken, this delicious moment after I emerged from bed to take it, my adult daughter and son had returned from checking on two pooches that my son was babysitting over the holidays. He seemed too tired to drive so my daughter, his older sister, agreed to go with him. When they returned, they had concocted the idea to take a picture in front of the tree in his-and-hers animal onesies.

They could hardly stand, they were so tired. I could hardly stand. But I’m so glad that I got out of bed to say goodnight just as my daughter was telling her brother that no one was around to take the picture. Then they saw me: problem solved.

Pictures were taken: arms flung wide, arms wrapped around each other. They’ve been this close since the beginning, a true gift to one another.

Why is it that I just figure Christmas out — remind myself what the season means — about the time it’s over? Until then, it seems, there’s just so much work to do to make it perfect for everyone. Or (let’s be honest, Betsy) to make it perfect enough for my own standards.

Christmas had begun to seep in on Sunday when I finally made it to church. As the advent candle was lit for the fourth Sunday, this blessing was said:

“Love surpasses the secure locations we would choose, the holy nests in precarious places and roots in the fragile.”

I’d been feeling overwhelmed. Broken. With my son applying to teach English in Japan, it had been like college app season all over again, characterized by my own frantic feeling that I needed to make sure he didn’t miss a step. He wanted this, after all, so I was all in. I know what they tell parents — it’s supposed to be their problem, not ours (there’s yet another “should” from whoever “they” are) — but I’m terrible at disconnecting.

So I was sitting in church feeling like a failure, like a rotten mother who, in her effort to ensure that things got done and done right, was turning the holiday season into boot camp. Instead of offering love, I was draining it. Ninety percent of the time I’d been in bitchy mode; the other 10 percent I tried to make up for it.

As the week continued, I couldn’t stop thinking about the blessing of the Advent candle. About precarious and fragile places. About brokenness.

Was this a reminder that love conquers all? That I could make all things right with enough love?

No, I had it on its head. It was a reminder that I was loved — am loved — even in my fragility and weakness. Even when I confuse motherhood with sovereignty.

Then I read Pope Francis’ homily on Christmas Eve. The meaning of the birth of Jesus, he said, “is the humility of God taken to the extreme; it is the love with which, that night, he assumed our frailty, our suffering, our anxieties, our desires and our limitations. The message that everyone was expecting, that everyone was searching for in the depths of their souls, was none other than the tenderness of God: God who looks upon us with eyes full of love, who accepts our poverty, God who is in love with our smallness.”

God’s love could surpass my smallness? The way I sometimes fail in mothering, the most important role entrusted to me?

Here were my children, standing by the Christmas tree, engulfing one another in a hug, goofy in zebra stripes and leopard spots. Here it is, I thought, what Christmas is really all about. Love, just love. If only I let it in.







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“Fathering” and mothering

Henry Campbell and Madeline F. Stone

As rich as our language is, sometimes it lacks the just-right word. Often, in my father’s final days, he said as I helped him, “Everyone needs a mother.” When we “mother” someone, we watch over them. But when we use “father” as a verb, it means to procreate or found.

When I say my Dad “fathered” me, I am not trying to clarify my paternity. He was an actively loving Dad. When I was very small, I know he played those little games that help children discover their fingers, toes, mouth and nose: “this little piggie,” “mousie in there,” and my favorite, “Tom Tinker, eye blinker, nose smeller, mouth taster, chin chopper chin chopper chin chopper!” (This last delivered with a final tickle to the chin.) Oh, and he played a mean knee jouncing game called, “Hobbledy hoy.” Though my toddler days are pre-memory, I know he did this because I later saw him automatically repeat those games, with his first grandchild, Sandy, and later with Maddie and Thom.

As he did with my brothers before me, Dad inspired a love of reading. What better feeling than sitting in his lap or snuggled in bed as he read aloud from “A Child’s Garden of Verses, “Friendship Valley,” the L. Frank Baum Oz series, “The Wind in the Willows,” or “Winnie-the-Pooh?” It doesn’t surprise me that the photo Maddie has resurrected and featured on her Facebook page is one of her Papa reading to her.

Unlike his father before him, he believed in sharing with his children the things he was passionate about. Though I never took to fly fishing and hunting for upland game birds the way my brothers did, there was always a spot for me if I wanted to go. I remember one hunting trip in Eastern Washington vividly. Dad cobbled together an outfit for the freezing temperatures: someone’s outgrown Filson trousers, insulated socks, boots, base layers, ski sweater, hunter’s black-and-red checked coat, wool hat and gloves.

We arrived while it was still dark — and very, very cold — at one of the stubbled wheat fields made available through The Family Hunting Club near Othello, WA. I had chosen not to shoot, so I crunched through the frosty field trailing Dad as one of our faithful Springer Spaniels worked ahead of us, seeking pheasants to flush from their hiding places. Eventually I was tired (of course I was, it was early and I was a teenager) and wanted to rest. Since cruising around in a field that is being hunted is not a great idea, Dad planted me in a spot on a ridge and told me to STAY THERE.

Lying in the barren field, making clouds of my breath, tuning in to the quiet music of a rural field, I watched the sky slowly color the thin winter clouds. My brothers don’t think I share the same awe of the outdoors that they do since I didn’t partake in the hunting part. But I do. My love of the outdoors is based on appreciating the poetry of the landscape and the creatures big and small that inhabit it. When we lived in Seattle in early grade school, I could entertain myself for hours lying in the abandoned street that connected 10th and 11th Avenue East, or perched high in a tree in Roanoke Park at the top of the hill. I never feel alone when I am in any place where there are growing things – a field, a forest, a garden. I feel connected. And I think that’s thanks to my Dad, who, to the end, cited bits like this one as he admired the Camphor tree down the street on our daily walks together: “This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight, Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic, Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms…”

Dad was my first and best advisor and mentor. I was annoyed in high school when he made me take typing (this was before knowing the keyboard was the gateway to computing). He explained that I might need to support myself some day. As a college upper classman, he made me identify careers in which I might be interested, and then set up some informational interviews for me. I felt awkward, even mortified as I had lunch with him and a PR guy from Weyerhaeuser. But he gently nudged me from the nest. After I started my career, it was Dad who I called when I needed to negotiate a salary or faced a delicate situation, or when I wanted to share the good news of a promotion or salary increase.

(Mom was less than thrilled as my career advanced. In her experience, given her marriage during the beginning of WWII, a career was at best an interference or at worst a threat to one’s job as a wife. In the early years of my marriage, she met the news of one promotion with stony silence, and finally blurted out, “What I want to know is: when are you going to become a real woman?” Translation: when are you going to have children? Todd, standing in the kitchen while I talked, saw the expression on my face and wisely left the room before I exploded over the phone back at her.)

Much later, I asked Dad why he was so supportive of my career. He said that he never wanted me to feel trapped, as his mother did. In other words, if Todd proved to be the kind of SOB that his father was, with a mistress on the side for his entire marriage, he wanted me to be able to leave. He was for women’s liberation before there was a name for it, because he loved women AND respected them. That love and respect was evident in his relationship with my mother, even though he said he “fought for his pants every day of my life” with Mom.

Because of the strength of my mother and father, I carried self-respect into my career and family life.

I have written previously of the crisis that I faced in my marriage over ten years ago, which I wrote about in this blog post. I remember sitting with my Dad in the living room of our house in Davis, over a glass of wine. I told Dad I didn’t know what was going to happen.

He didn’t judge. He didn’t offer advice. He didn’t try to intervene. He just said, simply, “I’m always in your court.”

Dad loved and respected Todd deeply. I know he wouldn’t have wanted our marriage to fail. But he told me in no uncertain terms that he had my back. It was the best thing he could possibly have said to me. And somehow it gave me the strength to persevere with Todd and work through the things that were creating a distance between us.

One of the most painful things my Dad would say to me in these last few years was, “I’m not really a Dad anymore.” When he said that, I felt a stabbing pain in my heart because all of the “fathering” that he did over the years remained with me and would never diminish.

In these last weeks, I would help put him to bed with the help of a caregiver, dim the lights (his habit was to leave some light on) and hold his face between my hands and say, “I hope you rest well, dear. And I’ll see you in the morning. I love you.”

Dad cherished me as I rose from the dependency of childhood. It was a labor of love to mother him when he needed it. I owe him so much.

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Taking Mom for Granted

Although my mother died in 1999, she lives on in my mind. In not a few of my mental pictures, she is busy in the kitchen in her quilted satin pink bathrobe — the one Dad bought her on one of his last minute Christmas Eve shopping expeditions. She’s sweating slightly and occasionally barking orders like the domestic commander that she was.

My brother and I huddle around a giant stainless steel bowl “picking the bread,” a chore that involved plucking slightly stale sandwich bread into suitably-sized increments for the sage and onion stuffing. We cooperated but were none too happy about it. I am sure I had been told – repeatedly – to get out of my luxurious four poster bed in the dark corner basement room where I would easily sleep until noon, given half the chance. But I wasn’t given the chance as (alas) Mom needs help.

The bread picked, my chores continue, or I should say, “chore.” The only other standing task I remember on holidays was setting the table. Holidays, of course, called for the household’s finest: Grandmother’s heavy silver place settings, Mom’s “Golden Wreath” china, Waterford “Lismore” crystal and lots of silver serving dishes that invariably needed polishing. I’m sure I emitted my share of heavy sighs while getting everything up to Mom’s standards, which is to say the standards of a Marine Corps officer’s wife.

In the meantime, my Mom finished the stuffing, got it in the bird, “jounced” the turkey up and down with Dad’s help to maximize room for the stuffing, stitched up the gaping maw of the turkey’s innards, and started the long, slow process of babysitting and basting the turkey to its golden, roasted peak. Somewhere along the line she prepared the side dishes, although turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing were all anyone ever cared about.

When it came time to gather ’round the table for grace, a toast, and the ceremonial carving of the bird, we thanked Mom. Or at least I think we did. To be honest, I’m not sure.

I took our delicious holiday meals for granted. I took our lovely home and table setting for granted. I took my mother for granted.

And, as strange as it sounds, I am grateful that I could be so oblivious in my security. One of my mother’s greatest gifts was that she was utterly reliable and predictable in her role as mother. I never had to question whether she loved me, or how she would respond if I did something she approved of, or disapproved of. She was the same, day in and day out. An immutable force of nature.

As I look forward to the holiday tomorrow, I expect that I will be taken for granted. I hope those who I love don’t have to think about who I am, what to expect of me, and how I feel about them.

So, go ahead. Take me for granted. It’s one of the nicest compliments you could pay me as a legacy from my mother.

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