Sometime during my years of teenage angst, when daydreams of my future husband seemed to fill endless hours of my existence, I recall asking my dad to tell me about the first time he saw my mom. Immediately, an affectionate grin crossed his face, a sparkle entered his eye and without hesitation, he reminisced. As if he were watching a replay on the big screen, with keen clarity he willingly described the moment.
“She was walking down the sidewalk in downtown Libertyville, her head held high, with confidence and poise, holding the hand of her young son in hers.” The grin expanded into a smile as he continued, “…and she had those beautiful, long legs too.”
Never have I forgotten this encounter with my dad. While he did not hesitate to mention her physical beauty, it was not the first thing he noticed about her. Instead, it was her strength and dignity. For a teenage girl who was all consumed at the time with body image, this was a monumental revelation. As I have aged, my understanding of the significance of his words has expanded in accordance with my understanding of their cultural context.
It was the early 1960s. She was divorced, a single mom and a Roman Catholic; three words when added together, exposed a woman of her generation to a climate of rumors, gossip, shame. It was too early in anyone’s young life to be so misunderstood and defined by actions that were out of her control. Yet at just 22 years old, she seemed to be in a situation that appeared rather bleak, even by today’s standards.
The youngest of five children in an Irish/German Catholic family, she already carried with her the scars of living with an alcoholic father and the painful memories of her own mother as the target of his drunken rage. Following her graduation from high school, she entered the order of the Sisters of Mercy in Chicago, seeking to do something wonderful with her life in service to others. Within a year, she knew she had a different calling and went home.
Quickly delving into post-convent life, she found a boy to whom she gave her heart and he became her husband. Returning from their honeymoon, she discovered she was pregnant. When she shared the joyful news with her beloved, he left. Gone, never to be seen again. She, the daughter of an addicted father and an abused mother; abandoned, alone, pregnant and just 21.
Stripped bare by the circumstances of life, she did not give into despair, she did not succumb to the role of a victim, she did not become bitter and paralyzed. Instead she made a choice to clothe herself with strength and dignity. She moved back home and worked full-time. When her son was born, she loved him and nurtured him and embraced life as a single mom, with the help of her own mother. Most importantly, despite the stigma attached to her situation, she walked with her head held high.
With confidence and poise she faced incredible adversity. This is the essence of the woman whom my father fell in love with and she is the one I am forever blessed to call “Mom”. Today she celebrates her 80th birthday. In the weeks leading up to this occasion, she communicated clearly that she desired no fanfare, no parties, no special toasts. I am at a loss as to how to appropriately celebrate such a milestone when given these restrictions. Hence I turn to the written word to help me to shine light on her beautiful life I’ve been privy to witness my whole life. Strangely, at the same time I feel a sense of sadness for the time I’ve wasted. I feel myself grieve the years I didn’t open my eyes to the priceless gift lavishly given to me. Unfortunately, these add up to claim the majority of my life, that was until I became a mother myself.
Her amazing adventure with my dad began over 50 years ago on the day he saw her walking down the street with my brother. It is a story I increasingly cherish the older I get (click here for the juicy details). Against all odds, they took a chance on one another; she as a woman broken by abandonment; he as a man embracing a life with a stigmatized divorcee who already had a child whom he would have to learn to love as his own. Both were the product of conservative Catholic families staunchly against their union, because of the fact it could not be recognized by their Church due to her divorce. None of these factors stopped them from following their hearts.
Though now she journeyed in partnership with the love of her life, adversities did not cease. After elopement, their family’s silent treatment was deafening. Stripped bare of this support during their first year together, they strengthened their bond to one another. When their firstborn son was was delivered full-term without life or breath, their oneness became even more unwavering in their shared grief. And when my dad suffered a massive stroke at the age of 25, one that rendered him helpless for many months, she again clothed herself with strength and dignity. She forged a new path and did whatever she could to nurse him back to health, all the while juggling motherhood and full-time employment outside of the home.
As her only daughter, I have grown up in the warmth of her unconditional love. In her quiet way she has spent herself completely to care for dad, my two brothers and myself, without complaint. Not once did she tell me the of the suffering she had endured before I entered her world. Nor did she ever speak of the suffering she endured because I had entered her world. (I’ll be the first to admit I wasn’t always the easiest kid to parent.) Even now, when I phone her to apologize for my youthful and feisty stubbornness that I am privileged to encounter in my own offspring, it is with utter grace and mercy that she claims she doesn’t remember me ever being difficult.
Looking back, I honestly cannot recall a time when tribulation took a hiatus from her life. There were more losses of babies she wanted, people she cherished, some of whom were taken from us too soon. In the most recent of years, when retirement offers so many of her friends the opportunity to winter in sunny places, she has found herself stuck in the cold, harshness of Midwestern winter, driving back and forth to the hospital or the rehabilitation facility to faithfully be at my dad’s side when unwelcome health crises have crashed in. Yet somehow with each new crushing sadness, with every single harsh blow she allows herself to be made stronger and her dignity to be preserved.
One of my favorite Franciscan wisdom speakers, Fr. Richard Rohr writes, “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it. If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably give up on life and humanity. We can see our own suffering as a voluntary participation in the one Great Sadness of God (Colossians 1:24). Within this meaningful worldview, we can build something new, good, and forever original, while neither playing the victim nor making victims of others. We can be free conduits of grace into the world.” And this, I think, sums her up.
If you happen to watch her on any given day, you will glimpse a woman who is free; a woman who is a conduit of grace in this world. You will glimpse it when she is surrounded by her 10 grandchildren overflowing into the spaces of her cozy town home. She loves and accepts them each wherever they are at in their journey and they know it beyond a doubt. You will glimpse it in the ways she cares for my dad. Time after time, she shows up from sunrise to sunset at his bedside in the Emergency Room, the hospital, the rehab center to support and advocate and love and suffer alongside him. You will glimpse it when she listens to her adult children with their adult problems. Without a first thought for her own needs, she sacrifices to make theirs more manageable. You will glimpse it when you see her feeding treats to all of the dogs who pass her home on their daily walks. They even recognize her when she is driving in her car and drag their owners towards her. You will glimpse it in the way you feel in her presence; special, loved, worthy, accepted just as you are, graced.
Mom, each time life strips you bare, you rise and clothe yourself with strength and dignity. This is the rich legacy you give the world and us, your children and grandchildren. You are a living example that no matter what waves crash in and threaten to drown earthly happiness, we can continue to walk this journey with confidence and poise and become the most amazing conduits of grace, just like you. Although words will never do justice in expressing my eternal gratitude to you, nor the depth of my love for you, be assured that I am forever blessed because of your life and the way you have chosen to live it, head held high, with confidence and poise, and yes, still with those beautiful, long legs.
Who can find a woman of worth? Far beyond jewels is her value.
Her husband trusts her judgment; he does not lack income.
She brings him profit, not loss, all the days of her life.
She reaches out her hands to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy.
She is clothed with strength and dignity, and laughs at the days to come.
She watches over the affairs of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband, too, praises her:
‘Many are the women of proven worth, but you have excelled them all.’
Acclaim her for the work of her hands, and let her deeds praise her at the city gates.”
–from PROVERBS 31-