The Common Good

I Am My Mother's Daughter (Thanks Be to God)

“My mother... she is beautiful, softened at the edges and tempered with a spine of steel. I want to grow old and be like her.” ~ Jodi Picoult

When asked to describe my mother, Helen, my usual answer is: Queen Esther in espadrilles and a matching purse.

Esther comes to mind when I think of Mom because she was fiercely loyal, smart, determined, brave and deeply faithful. The sartorial descriptors capture my mother’s somewhat less spiritual side – always put together with a classic sense of style (although these days she leans more toward head-to-toe matching ensembles from Chicos and alligator flats, now that her penchant for wearing pointy-toed heels in the ‘60s and ‘70s have caught up with her poor feet.)

Mom has impeccable style and staggering grace, particularly in the midst of trials and tribulations. She is flinty (think Katharine Hepburn) and has an abiding, deep-in-her-DNA faith [think St. Therese of Liseux.]

Helen is a force with which to be reckoned and woe to you who would make the mistake of messing with anyone she loves. 

My mother and I are a lot alike and yet very different, which has, for much of my life, not always made for the most harmonious of relationships. But I admire and adore her and I think she’d say the same of me. I don’t have words to express properly how grateful I am for her love and even more so for her unwavering love for God and all of God’s children.

A few years ago, I became a mother for the first time. Such life passages have a way of making one more reflective and I have spent a lot of time recently thinking about Mom, motherhood and the lessons Helen has taught me that I now hope and pray to pass on to my son.

Those lessons are legion, but her are a few of the most important:

Love first. Ask questions later.

While she might not use the same words to describe it, this is, in a nutshell, my mother’s approach to life. She has strong beliefs and even stronger opinions about everything from doctrine and politics, to politesse and the inexhaustible merits of ironing boards that she is never, ever shy about sharing.

That said, however, whether she has problems with someone’s lifestyle, theology, wrinkled chinos or not, her first (and last) instinct is to love them.

I remember vividly the weekend of my wedding 15 years ago when she overheard someone making disparaging remarks about the dear friend of mine who graciously flew from Chicago to Connecticut to play the piano (DeBussy’s “Claire de Lune”) as I processed into the church with my bridesmaids.

My friend is gay. While my mother had strong opinions about that, they flew out the door when she heard the unkind words. I thought she might draw blood right there in the church. She loves my friend. She loves him because I love him. She loves him because God loves him. And she loves him fully, unabashedly and, yes, with the fierce protection of a mother bear.

I want to love like she does. And my prayer is that my son will love like his Grammy does, too.

Be generous.

Our family is not wealthy. We are decidedly working class and both of my parents are first-generation Americans – the children of immigrants from Italy (Daddy) and Ireland (Mom.) My parents raised my brother and me in one of the most affluent places on Earth: Fairfield County, Connecticut.

While there were times when my parents struggled mightily with their finances and fought back the urge to try to keep up with the Joneses, there was never a question of not having enough to share with anyone who needed it – no matter what the “it” was: time, money, clothes, food, affection, prayer, etc.

My mother would give you the shirt off her back. She’s the first one to stop by with a tray of cupcakes or lasagna for friends and family, for celebrations, sicknesses or bereavements. She’s the first one to spot the person lurking in the church narthex who needs a hug or a word of encouragement. She sends thank-you notes, birthday cards, verses of scripture, flowers, and “hey-i-love-yous” all the time. It’s part of her spiritual practice. It’s part of who she is.

I love my mother’s generosity. Truly, it’s one of her most beautiful qualities and it’s one of the virtues she’s passed on indelibly to me and now to her grandson. We are so grateful she’s taught us – in word and in deed – how to pay it forward and share the blessings we’ve been given.

When the going gets tough, keep going.

Ten years ago, my father had cancer, fought it and won. And then five years ago, doctors told my mother she had breast cancer. She had a double-mastectomy, reconstructive surgery and is blessedly cancer-free. She emerged from that battle stronger, more vibrant and more full of energy than before.

Helen is like the Steve Austin that way: Better, faster, stronger.

But it wasn’t the doctors alone who did the rebuilding. It was God. Her faith throughout my father’s cancer battle and her own was extraordinary. I recall walking into the recovery room after they wheeled her out of surgery, when she opened her eyes and looked at me with unbelievable clarity. “It went perfectly, Mom, they got it all,” I told her.

“Praise God,” was her response, her first words, her first thought.

In the last few years, I’ve watched in awe as my mother has risen to perhaps the greatest challenge of her adult life as my father’s mind and body have changed with the onset of Alzheimer’s.

For most of my life, Daddy did the cooking, the cleaning, the fixing, the driving, and the problem solving that kept our nuclear family going year in and year out. Daddy was a teacher and Mom worked in an office. He was home first and always had dinner ready and the kids sorted by the time she came home from a long day. They’ve been empty nesters for 20 years and retired for about five. Daddy loves taking care of people – most of all his beloved wife of 49 years. But now…he can’t.

And now, Mom takes care of him with a kind of zeal, fervor and determination that inspires me and all who know them. The love she shows my father moves me to tears, the tenderness they have for one another, the patience (neither her strong suit nor her daughter’s) that I can describe only as “divine” and the great humor with which she’s rolled with the seismic changes in Daddy’s health and presence are … well, I don’t have words that do them justice.

Amazing grace, comes closest, I suppose.

PRAY. (Full stop.)

The motor that keeps my mother – and our whole family – running is prayer.

Helen is a prayer warrior. She prays in the Spirit. She prays without ceasing. She prayers for her family, her friends, her children’s friends (and their children), her neighbors, her church, the President and his family. She prays for strangers. She prays for the world. She prays to stop hurricanes from hitting the coast of Connecticut and they move out to see, away from land.

She prays in the morning. She falls asleep at night praying. She prayed for my husband years and years before I ever met him. She prays for the wife that my brother has yet to meet.  She prayed for my son long before he was even a thought in his father’s mind or mine. She prays for the woman that my son will marry some day, and for his children, whether she ever meets them or not.

She prays for protection, for strength, for divine favor. She prays for creative ideas, for doors to open (or close), for connections to be made, for healing, for reconciliation, for justice. She prays for Jim Wallis and his family. She prays for Sojourners. She prays for you.

My brother, my husband, our son and I pray all the time – ongoing conversations with our Creator, the author and finisher of our faith. And when we find that we can’t bring ourselves to pray, or simply forget to connect with the Holy that way, we know Mom has our back. Praying. Always praying.

It is my prayer that I would grow into the fullness of who God created me to be – the woman for whom my mother has been praying long before she held me in her arms as an newborn babe.

I am my mother’s daughter. Thanks be to God.

Happy Mother's Day, Queen Helen. May you be surrounded by the grace you shower on everyone you know, this day and always.

Cathleen Falsan is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. You can read more about Cathleen's mother, Helen, in her memoir Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl and follow Helen on Twitter @AHighlyFavored1.

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