There's a run on carnations this week. No, not those weird blue-tinged ones. I mean real carnations--red and white ones, to be specific. In this week leading up to Mother's Day, carnations and baby's breath rule. In most of America, Mother's Day is significant, to be sure. But in most African-American communities, Mother's Day is practically a religious holiday; only Christmas and Easter are more widely celebrated.

That's sure how it was when I was growing up in Chicago. Always meticulous about how we all looked for church, my own mother was especially fastidious about Mother's Day. Our hair pressed to a fare-thee-well, our little legs shiny with Vaseline above our white anklets, my sister and I joined our two brothers in the kitchen so that Mama could add the final touch--a single red carnation, surrounded by thin green tissue meant to simulate leaves. She pinned one on each of us in turn, and only then turned to get her own carnation--a white one, backed with the same green tissue.

In the language of Mother's Day flowers, a red carnation is worn by those whose mothers are still alive. To wear a white carnation means your mother has died. For all my life, I have worn a red carnation and my mother has worn a white one, because her mother died when she was a child of 2. For all my life, I have dreaded the moment that has yet to come: the day when I must wear a white carnation on Mother's Day. I try not to think of it, but inevitably I do, especially as the day approaches, as I attempt to find a gift to do justice to my mother's incredible gifts to me and my siblings. One day, I know, she will not be there when I call home. And I wonder what I will do then.

My mother still sings spirituals to herself, just as she used to when I was a girl. I used to wake up early and hear her singing in the kitchen, making grits for us, or oatmeal. She sometimes sang about being a motherless child, and I have to wonder now whether, at those times, she was longing for the mother she never knew. She was always a welcoming presence to our friends, but she had a special place in her heart for the kids we knew who had no mothers. For them, her smile was always brighter, and when she talked to them, she called them "baby" more often.

When I think back over what I know about my mother's life, I can see the signs of her longing for what I have always known: a mother's steady smile, a quick rebuke for forgetting "how you were raised," the shining eyes that let me know she has always delighted in me. I can see, too, the source of her deep belief in God. Throughout her difficult and violent marriage to my father, throughout the years of deprivation we often experienced, she found in God her light and her salvation. She knew God as a mother to the motherless, and in that knowledge she lived her life and stabilized a life for her children, in spite of everything.

As a child of the 1960s, I was raised with greater expectations and greater skepticism about God. The older I grew, the more I could not live with notions of an old white man with a beard, making pronouncements about hell and banning people from salvation because they had not heard the name of Jesus. What kind of God, I wanted to know, would let my mother suffer through life with my father?

Even now, all these years later, living my life as a mother and as a minister, I am not completely sure how to answer that question. My mother prayed that her old years would be her best years, and that has been true. I can tell, each time I see her, that the mother I thought would be young forever is finally growing old. I am now the age she was when I began to question her about God, and my oldest son, not even 7, has begun to question me.

I still have no clear answers for the question of suffering that haunts most of us. But I have no questions at all about the reality of grace or the presence of God. I see God in my mother's face these days, realizing that so much of what I have come to know of the Source of Life I learned from the woman who gave me life. In her calm practical nature, in her sense of humor, in her steadfast love, I have been beholding God all my life.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus