Last Spring I had the good fortune of being in Beirut, Lebanon, and there, the first day of Spring is Mother’s Day. Buds bloom, trees unfold their brightness, birds nest, nature recycles life and the people of the Middle East celebrate new life and hope with Mother’s Day. It seems apropos. All things that remind us of hope, of life, of stability and belonging, of creation and procreation, are symbolized by and encompassed in the word Mother. Mother earth, Mother Nature, motherland, mother church, mother tongue, mother ship, mother board, mother of all inventions…mother.
Mothers. Love them, or hate them. Look up to them or look down at them. Their loving hands caress gently or strike fervently. Cherish them or curse them. Emulate them or vow to become what they’re not. Idolize them or move away from them with disdain Nurtured or neglected by them, no matter how we feel, no matter what our sentiment regarding our emotional and psychological wellbeing, we owe who we are to our mothers.
As I reflect upon who I am today, a cyclorama of varied memories unfurl before me. Memories collected and stored– some precisely rendered and accurate while others grainy and modified by the caprices of time seem to ambush me with complexities of emotions. I thought it was easy to sum up my mother, but now as I face the reality of a life of a woman whose past strength has fed me, I have to remind myself that I cannot expect my mother to fight back with the same strength of her past. I come to realize that the complexities are mine and mine alone.
There were moments in the past where as a child I was unnerved by mama’s sharp interrogative eyes that knew how to speak with a glare and bring out the difference between truth and fabrications. In my teens and youth I was angered by the strength of her fertile mind and charismatic verve. She proved her points and always came out triumphant. Then as a young woman I began to appreciate the debating bright mind that helped me to straighten the jagged edges in my life situations. Today, I am moved to tenderness when I see in her eyes a frightened look that almost immediately shifts into a world of her own. What was once precisely accurate in her reasoning now wafts intermittently between real time and years of memory that fail to connect.
Sitting before me is incarnate the wisdom of a woman, which, as I recall, she happily shared by example and through lessons that at the time seemed harsh, but in retrospect and over the years, appear well invested. She smiles…a beatific, pensive smile. Somewhere in that smile is a no nonsense woman who knew how to pull a family of over 70 relatives together, host dinners for business associates and still find time to volunteer her learned and intuitive skills among friends and benevolent organizations. She asks me, “What are you writing?” “Things I’ve learned from you,” I reply. She nods, and for a split moment, the interrogative eyes reappear. She taught well. She taught hard. She pushed for perfection to make up for her imperfections. She is human. She makes mistakes. She is counselor to many, consoler to even more, a worrier and a warrior, a cheer squad when needed, a philosopher in her own right, and an example of unconditional love in the form of perfect composure. She is mother.
“What are you writing?” she repeats again. Repetition, once used as a habit for instructing and absorbing facts and for demanding compliance is now simply a habit for loss of remembrance. I repeat, “Things I’ve learned from you.” There is a nostalgia in my voice, an almost sadness. “Like what?” she asks. Encouraged by her interest I start to ramble about how she taught me that the ultimate purpose in life is to be a convinced servant of humanity; to be able to give the best of oneself is a true and only gift that one can give to the world; that there is divinity in coincidences; that the valor of a person is measured by what he/she does behind closed doors; that when all is said and done, we are accountable to a higher authority; that to waste money is to disrespect its value; that there is no difference between rich and poor except in our perceptions and judgment; that there is a difference between pity and compassion; that nothing is worth doing if not done with a value of the virtues. “Do not use slander. Maintain the integrity of your soul,” she interjects. She is aglow with serenity and compassion. She is content.
At the end of that day, as I said good night to my mother, I lost myself in a memory of moments when I had been a little girl. I recall waking up one night to see my mother’s silhouette in the bedroom. Her fingers intertwined gracefully around her clasped hands in a prayer position. In the near gloaming light that emanated from a framed image of the Virgin Mary and Child, my mother was praying, reciting in an almost whisper. Upon seeing me awake and I having told her that I couldn’t sleep, she left the room and returned with a small apple which she handed to me to eat. She assured me that eating the apple would bring sleep to my eyes. She then resumed her position and continued her prayers while I ate the apple. When both of us were done with our “tasks,” she approached my bed, and with a tender word, she kissed me and tucked me in again for the night. Whether it was the image of my mother praying, the soft whispering lull of the words, or the bites of the apple that immersed me into immediate slumber I shall never know, but I do know this… that till today an apple at night helps me sleep. The memory clings to me as comfortably as does the fit and warmth of a favorite old sweater.
That night, as I kissed my mother goodnight and pulled the blanket over her aging body, I said a short prayer and as I turned to walk out the door, I heard the soft whispering lull of her prayers. From my pocket, I took a neatly wrapped apple and in the near gloaming light of the Beirut night skies, I bit into it.