My aunt thought the Easter bunny had brought her a baby sister! Today, April 5 was Holy Saturday when my mother was born in 1909. I wonder how long it took my aunt to come to other conclusions!
Mom has always been a contradiction for me. Her childhood always seemed idyllic compared with the chaos that seemed to reign in our house. She recalled parents strolling hand-in-hand on leisurely summer evenings along the creek that ran through their farm or amid their orchard that was the envy of Cedar County. In addition to being beautiful with her raven hair and green eyes, my Mom was also really smart. I never had reason to doubt her claim that she earned the very highest score in the entire country on her 8th grade standardized exam.
Life was really hard for Mom as well. Her only sister who had welcomed her Easter arrival with such delight died at 28 giving birth to her third child. Mom’s favorite sibling, Uncle Rudy, died of cancer the year I was born. My parents married in 1931 and somehow survived farming during the Depression plus the birth of eight children before “moving to town” immediately after WWII. Mom could not have been ecstatic with the news that she would give birth to her tenth child – me – at the age of 41! Like me, my Dad could not have been the easiest man to live with – she did it for 62 years.
The contradiction that has always haunted me the most, however, relates to education. Despite my mother’s clear intellectual aptitude and academic success she was denied the opportunity to go to high school. Not even the protestation and appeals from her eight grade teacher dissuaded my grandparents from their belief that Mom was already very well prepared for her intended destiny as farm wife and mother. Yet, she never begrudged Uncle Rudy, dashingly handsome from photos my mother prized, for the opportunity to graduate from college and medical school! How that disparity must have hurt! But, was she even quipped to name this as an injustice?
Life brings such joy, beauty and delight. It is also confoundingly unfair, unjust and tragic. Cynics say, “Life is short, then we die.” During Lent Christians deliberately enter the passion, death, resurrection cycle. From this vantage I am beginning to appreciate that Mom enforced Lenten disciplines of fast and abstinence in our home and trucked us off to church long before we even knew the words “Triduum” or “Paschal Mystery” because she knew them to be the truth of our lives.
Mom died just shy of her 98th birthday. We chose 1 Corinthians 13 and the Beatitudes as the perfect Scripture for her funeral liturgy. “Love is patient, love is kind, love is…” encapsulated her life! Proclaiming the Scripture from the lectern of Holy Trinity Church, the church where she had brought me to be baptized but from which the family had moved 52 years earlier, I was totally unprepared for the punch the Letter to the Corinthians delivered. It was as if I had never before heard the conclusion to the passage:
For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became [mature], I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Yes! Amen! Thanks be to God! Because of a mother’s love I am alive. Because of her mature, time-tested and tempered faith I am able to get a glimpse of what genuine faith looks like.
None of this mitigates the fact that life remains confoundingly unfair, unjust and tragic – especially for the poor and those in any way dismissed as having little value by our culture. Yet amid this culture that worships individual autonomy, personal fulfillment and material acquisition my mother’s story proclaims a contradictory truth: self-realization comes from self-giving, perhaps even to the point of dying to self. Human freedom, our fulfillment, is not so much the power of autonomous choice as it is the ability to orient what choices we have toward love.
Happy Birthday, Mom! Aunt Dora was right… your life was the gift of Easter!