I’ve been thinking about my mom this week. Last Sunday was her birthday. She died four years ago but if she was alive, she would have turned 92.
She was a pastor’s wife for most of her life – 65 years -- taught Sunday School, led women’s Bible Studies, raised four kids on a preacher’s salary, visited the sick, threw dinner parties for large groups, baked a lot of cakes, took care of grandchildren, believed in the power of Clorox and hard scrubbing, made these amazing dinner rolls that will probably be the bread served in heaven, once performed “Twist and Shout” at a pastors’ gathering talent show, wearing a Beatles wig.
And she ironed.
Many people who knew her thought of her as a kind of minor saint.
I feel a little bad saying that out loud. I loved my mom, of course, but her flaws were always very apparent to me.
As I always felt, mine were to her.
Last Sunday was also All Saints Day on the Christian liturgical calendar. At some traditional Catholic churches I imagine the emphasis of the day is on the people who’ve been canonized for their outstanding piety, virtue, and goodness. Your basic American Idols of holiness.
At our crazy little non-denominational mishmash of a church on the corner of Elm and LaSalle, we take the “all” part of All Saints Day pretty seriously. By saints we don’t just mean those folks who’ve made it through the hoops to be deemed officially holy.
We don’t define saints as “perfect Christians” or the folks who have it all figured out, who’ve gotten it all right.
No, the saints we celebrate are those who, through their very ordinary, very human, absolutely flawed lives, still manage to bring a little more love and hope, mercy and grace into the world. Manage to open the window, a tiny crack, now and then, to something bigger and better and brighter than your basic trudge-through-the day-paying-the –bills-and-getting-stuff-done-ness that our lives can so often become.
So I was thinking, on Sunday, about a lot of people I know, living and dead, who have done that for me. Who do that for me. There are some famous ones certainly, people I’ve never met, but whose stories I’ve heard, words I’ve read. Dorothy Day. Martin Luther King, Jr. Oscar Romero, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Frederick Buechner, Anne Lamott, Malala Yousafzai, Jon Stewart, Jimmy Carter, Mr. Rogers.
And then there are the ones I do know personally. If I start naming names, I will be here a while.
My mom is also on that list, I realized, Sunday.
Someone who was by no means perfect, but who still managed to, in the midst of her messy, imperfect life, put some more grace and love into the world. And into my life.
My mom, I realized, may actually have been the saint that taught me that it’s OK to claim your own messiness and imperfection. And name it. And laugh about it.
There was always at least one drawer in whatever house we lived in when I was growing up that my mom claimed as her CBI drawer. CBI stood for Confusion Beyond Imagination. That drawer was the catch basin of our lives. The place where you put stuff you couldn’t deal with in the moment. Or something which you weren’t quite sure, where it belonged, or if you should even keep it. And it was a mess. It looked like I feel a lot of times.
Of course, I have created a drawer like that in every house I’ve lived in as an adult too.
When my daughter Zoe was about 5 she had a friend, Ali, over for a play date. At one point during the play date Zoe asked me for something she was missing and I pulled open the CBI drawer and started digging around in there, while Ali and Zoe looked on. Ali’s eyes were on me in an expression I couldn’t quite read. So I asked, cheerfully, “So Ali, do you have a drawer like this at your house?” And Zoe interjected, “Of course not Mom, Ali’s mom is actually organized.”
In the prayer time, toward the end of the service on Sunday, while someone at the front read aloud the names people in the congregation had submitted of folks who have died this year, saints we’ve known personally and those who we’ve only known through their reputations, people left their pews, walked to the front, lit a candle and placed it in a communal sand pit.
As I watched people file up, I thought about how I have spent a good portion of my life maybe just a tiny bit too focused on what my mom wasn’t…her inability to always be who I needed her to be sits in bold relief for me, most days. I see her CBI drawer way too clearly.
I feel like, in many ways, I was IN her CBI drawer, one of those things in her life she didn’t quite know what to do with.
It’s been hard for me to forgive my mom for that.
But when I walked to the front on Sunday and lit a candle I prayed a prayer of gratitude for my mom, for what she gave me, the good and the bad of it, because even the bad taught me things, even if it just taught me what I didn’t want to do or be.
I prayed that I could forgive her for not always getting it quite right, and for sometimes getting it quite wrong.
And I prayed that my daughters will do the same for me.
In the days leading up to my mom’s funeral, when family and friends were all hanging out together, I asked everyone to tell me 4 or 5 things my mom had taught them. Asked them to be as specific as possible. The night before the funeral I gathered all those little lessons together and organized them into a list poem, a form the Chicago poet and my dear friend cin salach taught me about. I got that poem out again this week and read through it. It felt good to read it again, and remember her. (I’m including it at the end of this post. )
To see once again that my mom was not perfect. And yet she still taught the people she loved so many things.
And that luckily for me, for all of us, perfection isn’t required.
As Frederick Buechner said about saints in his book, Wishful Thinking, if you look closely at their lives, their crazy, confused, anything but perfect lives, what becomes most clear is that, “…maybe there's nobody God can't use as a means of grace, including even ourselves.”
I certainly hope so.
Here's the poem.
What She Taught Us How to laugh until you cry.
How to tell a story.
And that there’s always a story.
How to feel safe in a thunderstorm.
How to give a good hug.
Make sure you get good pictures.
Make sure there are people in the pictures.
Keep photo albums.
Practically any event can remind you of a song.
Sing at the drop of a hat.
To love surprises, all shapes and sizes.
You just can’t watch a movie without popcorn
Wait until the cake cools before icing
How to be best friends with your sisters.
Empty cereal bags can be used to microwave a baked potato in.
If you have beauty you must have pain
It will grow out
Stand your ground on the big things
She taught us that the words “Have you eaten yet?” “Can I fix you something to eat?” “I made your favorite cake,” as well as warm dinner rolls made from scratch which require getting up at dawn to start and allowing to rise for hours before baking can be a complicated, never totally decipherable coded message of love.
Always have a goal.
Keep a journal.
Write in it every day.
Be your husband’s partner for life.
Never be your husband’s partner in a game of 42
It’s important to visit your grandchildren, even if you have to get on a plane and go to South America to do it.
When you can’t get on a plane, send a care package.
She taught Karis the shortest distance to the Wendy’s.
She taught us pretty is as pretty does.
How to talk to total strangers.
How not to talk to telemarketers.
How to stay close to your brother all your life, hint: a weekly phone call and scripture memorizing competitions go a long way.
How to remove unwanted hair from various places.
How to iron.
She taught us
Always provide "a gracious plenty"
Bible first, then breakfast
A smile is better than a frown
Never eat spaghetti on a first date.
Tear the dryer sheet in half. How to make practically anything
into a special occasion.
How to get your kids to come visit (note: drama and guilt work wonders)
How to be smarter than you let on.
Sift the flour and salt together.
Never take yourself too seriously.
Oh how good it is to sleep in your own bed.
How to bake red cake.
What you do in a beauty shop.
When a bargain is not a bargain.
How to make meringue.
Smile though your heart is breaking.
How to be polite but firm.
How to be lady like.
To wear a girdle.
Everyone’s got a story.
Everyone should have at least one CBI drawer, because Confusion Beyond Imagination just happens.
She taught Zoe and Hannah you’re never too old to lead the young adult Sunday School class. And that earth’s crammed with heaven.
She taught us
find the love of your life.
Stay married to him for 65 years.
How to plan a dinner party for 8, for 10, for 20.
How to make a salad large enough for 50.
How to tell someone for the thousandth time not to exaggerate.
If you keep your pulse points cool, the rest of you will stay cool.
She taught us to have favorite quotes. Like “No juice is a good word to know when you have no juice.”
She taught us how to work your favorite quotes into conversation as often as possible.
If you mix cinnamon red hots with applesauce and heat it up you can call it Mary’s Rosy Apples and serve it with pride.
Always learn people’s names.
Jello when combined with small chunks of canned pineapple and Cool Whip counts as a salad.
How to choose a favorite verse from every book in the Bible. Even though Leviticus is really hard.
She taught Delores babies don’t come from Sears&Roebuck
She taught us
Winning is much to be preferred over losing, not that you should be competitive or anything.
How to say OH with a sigh in front of someone’s name to indicate disappointment mixed with affection, as in Oh Lenora
How to say OH in front of someone’s name to indicate shock mixed with affection, as in Oh Lenora.
She taught Chris and Chad that there are regular movies and then there are Not Grandmother Movies.
She taught us
How to pray for your children, your friends, your ladies Bible Study group, your husband, your grandchildren, your great grandchildren. How to pray for pretty much anyone who walks in the door.
How to pray for guidance, for understanding, for a miracle, how to pray when you’ve almost lost all hope, how to pray without ceasing.
How to wait.
How to stay busy.
How you’re never lonely if you have a book.
She taught me
mothers never do it perfectly no matter how much they want to.
Be prepared to ask forgiveness.
She taught us
Parting is such sweet sorrow.
You’re as young as you feel.
Life’s too short to count the worms.
It’s important to make an entrance.
And to always leave ‘em smiling.
She taught us to have faith. Have tears.
Tell jokes. Have courage in living. And perhaps a small, never-too-rowdy party in your room while dying.
She taught us all how to skip because there will surely be skipping in heaven.
She taught us
have a wonderful trip.
March 21, 2011