A Mother's Love

Mother’s Day: Love is bigger than mistakes

I lost my stepmother 3 days before Mother’s Day a few years ago. It was shocking and heartbreaking and I watched my brother and my father nearly fall apart from the grief.

Gwen loved baking mostly, but I learned many classic techniques like brining, frying, grilling, and how to make a roux (gravy!) from her. I’m grateful for this knowledge, of course, but I am most thankful to her for teaching me the love of reading.  Every week she took me to our cavernous, columned, marble-floored library for a new stack. The happiness I found in books led me to a feeling of belonging, of being versed, curiousness, and an awkward awareness of my sensitivity.  This ritual made me feel smart and brought me the realization that there was a vast world outside my small town; it gave me genuine happiness.  Gwen cared about that. She cared whether or not I was happy.  She cared about what I wanted in a way few others have in my life.  

In the spring of 1978 I wanted Andy Gibb’s new record.  Gwen got me to do small chores and explained that one works for what one wants and I began to understand the concept of earning. When “Shadow Dancing” was finally mine, I played it ad nauseam and was deliriously happy.  And Gwen cared about my happiness.  I didn’t feel lonely with her nor did I have that ‘absence of place’ sense that would come to follow me thereafter. She was a remarkable woman and one of the only thoroughly-decent people I’ve ever known. It broke her heart when I went away. A part of me broke, too.

My real mother’s mother, my grandmother, used to watch me during the day. Gege created what I can only describe as a world within a world that felt like it was all just for me.  I might have written “Steel Magnolias” based on the steady stream of characters going to and from her “beauty salon” that sat at the back of her property. The mix of the well-to-do and modest’s daily dramas of gossip and general socializing provided the greatest of backdrops for my emerging creativity. 

The yard and house were large, plentiful with many forms of inspiration. I had citrus trees, a giant fig tree, chickens, tomato plants, etc., although I thought the figs were kind of weird.  That whole wasp-on-the-inside thing freaked me out and their flesh reminded me of skinned knees.  Plus I’d heard that Adam and Eve used fig leaves to cover up their nakedness. Gross. It was only after Gege introduced me to fig preserves that I was able to overcome my disgust for this unusual fruit (which are really inverted flowers; but anyway.)

Gege took me fishing, taught me to poach eggs, shell pecans, snap peas, and make lemon meringue pie; she showed me the luxury or putting cheese in grits and on toast, and that you steam potatoes before you mash them.  She taught me the secret to fluffy dumplings, how to tell when a pot roast is done, how to stew a perfect chicken for pot pies, and her talent for the art of cooking by instinct…she never used a recipe or a timer. She made me feel special. She made me feel loved.

She will be 90 this October and my time with her is one of the fondest childhood memories of my life.  I am blessed to know unconditional love because that is what she has always shown me.

When I was 11 I had some unexplainable knowing that I was going to be a musician and it wasn’t an idealized vision of being a “rock star;” it felt more like a calling. And so I begged my mother to buy me a piano (and she did) and then a guitar (she did that, also) and I taught myself to play them. Words came to me.  Melodies came to me and through practice, I found structures, rhymes, progressions. And one day my mom looked at her strange and introspective child and said, “That’s really good.  I think you are a songwriter.” And with that one gesture of approval, such was how I began to see myself.

Once she asked me to move her car from one side of the driveway to the other; when I switched on the ignition, I found blaring from her speakers a recording of my music.  She had been listening to my songs!  And that said to me that she understood what I was doing. It said she believed in me. My mother believed in me. At age 16, there are few situations that can trump feeling that your parent is proud of you.  I will never, ever get over it.

My mother supported me, she let me explore who I was; she celebrated the good in me, my talent, my individuality.  She was quietly uninfluenced by the apathetic “realists” around me who saw gifted, ambitious children through faintly envious, intolerant eyes. My rebelliousness and inability to fit in did not threaten her as it seemed to with other judgmental adults who were ruled by their own self-imposed limitations and conformity; she was not altered by those who could not treat my youthful hope with any degree of respect. She had a way, this habit of delicacy, this silent devotion. My mother loved me. And that was monumental.

But of course, all mothers make mistakes.  Some of which create such guilt within us we think we are unworthy of love.  I’ve made mistakes, some so hideous I thought I might dissolve from the remorse.

I hope my children will learn from me that you can survive life-altering mistakes.  You can face your hurt.  You can do the right thing even when you feel like you deserve to pay forever. My mother has taught me that overcoming guilt, even for things that may or may not be your fault, is worth the effort.  Saying you’re sorry, taking action, is worth the shame. 

My mother taught me that you can come back from utterly devastating blunders.  She taught me that you right what you’ve wronged and you pick yourself up with honor.  She taught me that family is worth the battle and showed me that love is bigger than mistakes. She showed me that forgiveness is a perpetually-worthwhile purpose: both for the one seeking it and for the one giving it. And that is one of the things that makes her a superior human being. That is one of the many reasons why I love her like I love no one else. A mother’s connection to her children is organic and she is vital, essential, indispensable to their ability to bond, to their sense of identity, to their very being. Of the many, many things for which I am thankful, being cared for by exceptional women is among the most cherished of gifts I have been given.  Every day is Mother’s Day for me because I’ve had the best of the best in mothering and grandmothering and I have children who truly make the world a better place.