The first commandment was the first one I ever broke, although I didn’t know any better at the time.
You see, I idolized my mother before I knew much about God.
As she stormed through the house with her vacuum cleaner, I trailed along behind her, proclaiming, “You are the most beautiful woman in the world.”
That was my early version of prayer.
To me, she was omnipotent. She taught special-education children by day and then came home to cook supper, check homework, do laundry and get lunches ready for the next day.
From her, I learned what it meant to be a woman. She was critical of herself, lamenting her baby-fine hair, plump figure and a tendency to burst into tears when she was upset.
But she taught me the good stuff too. How a mom can’t resist her kids’ smiles at breakfast, even if she didn’t get enough sleep the night before. How a mom’s body is cushioned especially for hugs.
Was she happy? Somehow, that question seems important in the 21st century, where so many books probe the issue of women’s fulfillment.
Should we give ourselves full-throttle to a career and forgo family? Should we combine the two? Or stay home and embrace the whole Betty Crocker thing?
My mom didn’t waste time dwelling on these questions.
You did what had to be done, and you didn’t fret about it. This meant, in my mom’s case, teaching a few extra years before retiring, so she could put her younger daughter (me) through graduate school.
In her own way – like millions of other moms–she modeled Jesus Christ who said, “I have come not to be served, but to serve.”
And serve she did, quite literally, overseeing sumptuous family feasts, where everything, from the manicotti to the tempting desserts, was made from her own mother’s recipes.
“Grace, come and sit down,” my dad called out, but she waited until everyone was served.
My dad was a bit gruff and remote, but my mom was the soft touch.
She was the one my sister and I ran to when the kids called us “fatty” at school. She was the one who took out needle and thread and stitched up my beloved stuffed dog, who fell apart in the washing machine.
She worked hard all her life and longed for retirement, but a cancer diagnosis cut short her leisure years.
Still, she showed me how to live a happy life.
It may seem impossible to think that someone with cancer could still be content – but her joy was found in deeper things.
When I came home on college breaks, we savored our moments at the beach, bobbing in the water for hours, while my father sat on the shore studying the horizon for sharks.
No matter how tired she was, she could rally to bake a batch of biscotti. And when it came time for me to leave, she always stood in the driveway waving at my car until it vanished from sight.
When she lay dying in the hospital, she still clung to her protective role.
Noticing that I was coughing, she checked my brow for signs of fever and then instructed my dad to take me home so I could rest.
For years after her death, I waited for the phone to ring so I could hear her cheery voice again. For years, she showed up in my dreams, wearing one of her flowery housecoats. And to this day, I find it impossible that she missed the births of my sister’s seven grandchildren and the unveiling of my seven books.
Every Valentine’s Day, it all comes home again.
I reflect on all the years of sacrifice, the hours in the steamy kitchen, the evenings at the ironing board. I see her shopping at the bargain stores for her own wardrobe, so her girls could shine at the prom.
I see her laughing with us and crying with us. I hear her telling us, over and over, that she loved us. I remember her forgiving us and comforting us when we fell down.
Maybe, in those days when I trailed her around the house, worshiping her in my own way, I was learning something very important about God.
I learned how big his heart is – and how he will sacrifice anything to show his love for us.
Lorraine is the author of “The Abbess of Andalusia: Flannery O’Connor’s Spiritual Journey” (St. Benedict Press). Lorraine’s web site is www.lorrainevmurray.com
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