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What Your Mother Really Wants

For years now Mother's Day has usually been traumatic for me, but I have always attributed most of that phobia to the rather Romantic sensibilities of my late father.  While my Dad possessed enough positive self-regard to overlook the irony of proposing marriage to my Mom on his own birthday, when it came to planning a family liturgy for that Hallmark Day of All Days to honor the wife of his youth who became the mother of his children, no gesture would have seemed to him too grand or costly.  Go Big or Just Stay Home was his standard operating philosophy when it came to Mother's Day, and as a result, in most years the final outcome turned out to be an exercise in logistics only slightly less complicated than your routine NASA shuttle launch.  As his firstborn son, and for many years the only logical inheritor of this profoundly male set of responsibilities within our nuclear family, this was eventually revealed as the place where my luck ran out.

Although at present it is hard for me to remember all the details exactly due to the ominous and foreboding theme music that is now playing in the background, the gist of that original trauma had to do with the fact that Dad left me in charge of making the final pick-up at the florist the year he took Mom and my two sisters out-of-town until the night before Mother's Day.  "Are you paying attention?" he asked the late adolescent version of me as the rest of our family was loading up the family Oldsmobile.  But I must stipulate for the record that at the time I was probably more interested in what I would soon be free to do to entertain my own bad self with an entire split-level rancher on a suburban cul-de-sac at my disposal. In hindsight, perhaps I should have been a bit more focused at the time.  To be completely honest, my Dad had that tendency of many adults his age to place far more stress and emphasis on what seemed like totally random details regarding things like appointments, mandatory curfews, and what-stuff-actually-costs than I found strictly necessary during the years of my adolescence.  So given that my teenage brain was perhaps distracted just a bit as Dad was telling me when to retrieve three, custom-ordered orchid corsages that he had planned to have my Mom and sisters would wear to church for Mother's Day, I will confess in retrospect that a few regrettable mistakes were made.

Fun Fact: Were you aware that when the local florist flies orchids from Hawaii all the way to central Indiana in order to make custom Mother's Day wrist-corsages for your mother and younger sisters, there is a fairly good chance that the flowers can go bad if they are not handled in a very, very careful manner by a teenage man-child who can often seem rather curiously equipped with earlids during his adolescent years?  Me neither.  But I got a real good opportunity to learn all about that particular problem late one Saturday evening before Mother's Day when Dad interrupted my television time to ask if I had remembered to place the aforementioned orchids where they would remain cool after I transported them home from the florist.  "Of course," said I, noting with satisfaction that I had followed my father's endless instructions with absolute precision while he had been away.  "Then where are they?" asked my father somewhat grumpily, giving me the opening I had been waiting for to prove to him exactly how responsible and resourceful I could be once freed from what had seemed to be the burden of his extremely close, daily supervision.  And with that, the two of us loped back downstairs where I proudly opened up the kitchen refrigerator to show him the orchid corsages I had placed so carefully in the freezer compartment.  Looking into the ice box at what were by then the blackened corpses of Hawaiian orchids turned out to be a clue that something had gone dreadfully wrong.  But as Dad very patiently explained, there is a fairly important distinction between keeping flowers in a refrigerator and stacking their corpses in a freezer.  Who could have known?  Now after learning a seminary vocabulary, I suppose I could have tried to summarize the scene with Latin: Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.  Yet at the time it just sounded so much safer for me to enter my final plea with a single word before the man who served as the hanging judge in those parts: Oops!  

As I suggested, all these years later it seems that I still suffer from a bit of Post-Traumatic-Stress regarding the observance of Mother's Day.  But I suspect a full accounting of that fact may be related not so much to the long-ago demise of some custom-ordered flowers, but rather to the intuition that even a preacher-type like me should still know enough to be careful about what we say whenever the subject is motherhood.  Remembering what I had heard from a neighboring preacher during the years we were serving in Chicago, there are some very good reasons to stand quiet and respectful on this holiday weekend.  For in taking a phone call from one of his taciturn parishioners during the week of Mother's Day, Dr. John Buchanan of Chicago's Fourth Presbyterian Church said the businessman told him, "Pastor, I will be bringing my Mother to church this weekend, so you can preach on anything you please this Sunday, but it better be about Mother and she better like it when you're done."  So I guess you can say that we preachers understand that the stakes will be high.  Just thinking it over even now, I can tell you that my palms get a little sweaty and my throat feels tight.  But rain or shine you can count on the fact that I will do my best to never, ever put the flowers back in the freezer for Mother's Day, metaphorically speaking.

Actually, better theological minds than mine have agonized over the importance of this day, and I am quite content to yield the floor to those who have given careful thought to all those women of influence that we will gather to honor this weekend.  For instance, not long ago Garrison Keillor noted the cruelty and injustice of motherhood given the way that mothers who have so sacrificially devoted their entire existence for the sake of their brood will often discover that their children still grow up "to find [Mother] a little boring in comparison to the maiden aunt who is a little rebellious and more fun to be around, whereas Mom is just the lady who runs the vaccuum."  But according to Keillor, even when that proves to be so, we still have no cause to underestimate our mothers:

". . . She loves you.  You could come home with snakes tattooed on your face and she still would see the good in you.  Most great men were mama's boys.  She encouraged them long before anybody else could see any talent there.  Your mother is on top of the situation. Your father has a hard time remembering your birthday or even your Christian name, but your mother knows you by scent, thanks to years of doing your laundry.  She knows when you're in trouble.  And you will get into deep trouble someday.  Count on it. Someone will file a lawsuit against you and subpoena your e-mail and it will all come flooding out, your dark secrets, your nefarious dealings, and your friends will cross the street to avoid you and your brothers and sisters will fade into the woodwork, but your mother will still love you. Like an old lioness, she'll come running even if you're 2,000 miles away. That is why you pay homage to the old lady on Mother's Day. You entered this cold world causing her more pain than she thought possible and now she won't ever give up on you. Those old ladies you see being wheeled onto airliners are the mothers of children facing imminent indictment for terrible things. [But] Mama will be in the courtroom for you, baby. She will look the jury in the eye and her look may get you acquitted. Buy her something nice, like a set of gold ingots. Or a black car with a chauffeur. She's your mama, honeybuns. At least you could write her a note." 

In a sense, I guess that is what I am doing now.  I suppose that I am writing a note to my mother, or maybe more accurately, I am writing a note about my mother.  In either case, just about everything that I will ever presume to know or at least try to say about mothers and mothering will forever be bound up with the flesh-and-blood example of the woman who knew me before I had yet been named.  And like my Father before me, it seems important now for me to find some way to give back to the woman who always seems to negate the very gesture of doing so simply by the way she continually pours herself out toward the people and needs that she so consistently discovers all around her.  So every year in my family, we go round-and-round with the same old dance, grown children trying to bestow unneeded gifts upon a woman who remains much more comfortable out at the periphery, looking on to make sure everyone else is being served first rather than taking a place of honor at the center of our attention and gathering.  Still, I think, perhaps it is not so much the actions of these children who are trying largely in vain to celebrate her role that actually gives her pleasure.  Instead, maybe something in the way that the contemplative Christian, Thomas Merton, once described the character of God actually comes closest to capturing what happens whenever a mother is being acknowledged by her grown children.  Because as Merton once put it, in dealing with the God who certainly does not need anything that we might try to offer, we mayl still at times find ourselves surprised to discover simply that "the desire to please God does, in fact, please God."  

That sounds about right to me on this Mother's Day weekend, for I do think all our attempts to please her probably do in fact actually please her.  But then again, remembering those dead, black orchids . . . maybe I should still be out looking to price a pair of gold ingots, just in case.

Jeff Crosno