“Georgie, did you see the bird’s nest on the front door?” my mother, Jane, asked.
Whenever I visit my mom, I enter through the back door because it’s right off the kitchen. If you call on mom during the day you’ll find her at the kitchen table. Almost everybody, and not just family, does the same. The front door is rarely used because the kitchen and not the parlor or living room is paramount. The kitchen is where conversation reigns and dreams are made.
“There’s a nest there, built into the wreath on the front door,” she said. “Just look and see. Isn’t it amazing? What a mother she is, this bird, taking care of her little ones. She must have spent weeks building it there. She really took her time making a nice home and caring for her family. All mothers should do that.” Her words didn’t register in my mind right away but slowly filtered into my heart on the short ride home and reminded me that something special was about to take place.
This year is the 100th anniversary of Mother’s Day. President Woodrow Wilson made the holiday official in 1914. According to the proclamation, people were supposed to display the flag, probably on or next to their front door, in memory of American mothers for their service to our country. I don’t remember ever hanging a flag out on Mother’s Day. Red carnations for deceased mothers and white ones for the living purchased after mass on Sunday had always been the staple. And, of course, candy, more flowers, and a Hallmark card with someone else’s words telling your mother how much she has always meant to you. But, perhaps, displaying the flag would be more appropriate than the founders and signers of this event could have ever contemplated.
Years ago, a foreign film, Spanish, I think, entitled Miracle of Marcelino told the story of an orphan boy, raised in a monastery, who conversed with the crucified Christ. One day, Marcelino was dreamily playing at the foot of the cross. He was thinking about his mother. “What are they like… what do they do – mothers?” Christ, gazing down upon the child, and in perfect control of his body despite being nailed to the wood, did not hesitate in responding: “they give,” He said.
My mother grew up in Philadelphia, during the Great Depression. She learned from her mother a sense of quiet dignity. At one point, the family had to make a series of moves in the dead of night because they had no money to pay the rent. Her mother would not budge out of their temporary quarters until the house was thoroughly cleaned and looking better than when they had moved in. She could not give money, so she gave her labor. Despite pangs of hunger, public assistance, which in those days they called Relief, was out of the question unless it was the last resort. Even then, when times got better, it was paid back.
Maybe that’s why my mother always cherished our home. Here she raised ten children with painful memories of miscarriages in between which were never spoken about. Each sibling grew up with an innate feeling of being an only child. Love wasn’t sought because it was never hard to find. It wasn’t demanded because it was freely given.
Our home was always a model of cleanliness and order. It was a simple home, but not plain. Instinctively, even a stranger, especially a stranger since children naturally abuse and misuse that which they take for granted, perceived affectionate care and respected it. It wasn’t somebody’s house – it was Jane’s home.
Strangers filtered into our lives on numerous occasions and quickly became welcomed guests. During difficult times there was always a pot of tea, a tender hand, a warm smile. Prayer wasn’t something reserved for Sundays. Faith was absolute. God was never far away. He was just part of the family.
As much as it hurt our growing knees, family rosaries were said before the statue of Our Lady of Fatima on Sunday evenings. While other kids in our neighborhood taunted us, seeing as they did, before our front window, an entire family kneeling in devotion for the “reparation of sins, the intentions of our holy father, the pope, and the conversion of Russia.” These were the dictates directly given by the Mother of God – the Queen Mother, and my mother breathed these intentions into our hearts.
In our home, brothers and sisters were their own best friends, and, at times, although rare, their worst imagined enemies, because they imagined it. And when tragedy struck, Jane’s home was the place to endure it because suffering wasn’t a stranger here either.
It was on Mother’s Day, many years ago, that my sister, Donna Marie, passed away after a life-long struggle with Juvenile Diabetes. For a time, it seemed to be the end of our world. The peace of a cherished quarter acre of ground in a place called Levittown, Pennsylvania, was menaced by the death of one of our own. And it would have been a severe threat, save for the hope and courage of my mother. It was Jane who took that cross upon her own shoulders and showed her children how to bear life and, slowly, accept death. Because, in her heart she knew there would always be spring – a renewal of life.
Somehow (and I can’t explain this) those who give the most absorb the most. Pain, grief being the worst kind, flows into the heart of one who cares more readily than those who live a selfish existence and bar empathy at all costs. For the pure of heart, there are no floodgates against the rising tide in this “valley of tears.” And so my mother took our suffering, and her own, and swept it under the recesses of her heart as the Savior did in the Garden of Olives. It is the only time the lover gives by taking. But, not without cost – there is always a price, there is always a cross.
A few years ago, my mother was rushed to the hospital. We all thought she had a heart attack. The doctors and nurses at St. Mary’s Hospital were just as certain. After an exploratory procedure, an astute heart surgeon spoke to us trying to explain an anomaly: mom had a broken heart. We had all heard of it, but only in the context of a romance trade novel or an old movie – or something that happened to people before the age of modern medicine. It was tragic but totally understandable. One heart gave out and the other succumbed because true love demanded no less.
For the most part, however, with proper care, a broken heart is a passing condition which can be treated without causing severe damage. It only mimics a heart attack because of a sudden physiological increase in hormonal activity, if my understanding of the science is correct. However, some people, such as my mother, who had taken unto herself the agony of others and felt, as Jesus did with the death of Lazarus, the overwhelming heartache of loss and separation, permanent damage can occur.
How many heartbeats are there in a lifetime? Is it a billion? Science has not and cannot determine this – in the lifespan of a bird or of my own mother. And why should we bother to measure this anyway? Who can judge the love jettisoned into the cosmos by even a single beat of a truly compassionate heart?
Thankfully, my mother’s heart beats on: absorbing the shrapnel of incoming fire from her children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, friends, neighbors, parishioners, her community, and the nation which she has served with such quiet dignity for well over eight decades.
She is living history and is living history. She is a depository of wisdom attained over a lifetime of both joy and sorrow. True wisdom cannot be attained any other way.
“She really took her time making a nice home and caring for her family,” she said. “All mothers should do that.”
I think I’ll hang the flag out this Mother’s Day. I’ll display it, proudly, next to my front door, in honor of all mothers who have given of themselves for their families, our country, and providing the one essential ingredient to our nation’s success: a warm, loving nest, where dreams can grow and sometimes take wing.