Tomorrow is my mother’s birthday. She would have been 77, and you would have known it was her birthday because she would have told you–probably very soon after you had become friends with her. She loved her birthday. And she loved to celebrate. Really celebrate. This is the woman who, when I was growing up, would let us buy a hamburger at one drive-through and fries at another–so you could “have what you like,” she’d invariably say. And it wasn’t just take-out: when as typical teenagers we’d groan over her effusive (to us) declarations of “I love you,” she would reply, “I don’t want you to have any doubts.” She remembered little things that people mentioned and had a gift closet full of what she’d tracked down and was saving for just the right moment. And a never-ending supply of cards, for every occasion. Pace Parks & Recreation (which is having a special appropriately enough tomorrow, too), she was the original queen of “treat yourself,” a great permission giver for raucous extravagance.

My mother was only a little older than I am now when she died twenty-two years ago. In some ways, it’s quite difficult to imagine her in her 70s. Even all these years later, my family and I still are inspired by her effervescent spirit. But the older I have gotten, the more I have recognized the anxieties that led her to always identify 1 Peter 5:7, “Cast all your cares upon him for he cares for you,” as her favorite verse. She experienced the death of her father when she was only nine; suffered two devastating miscarriages; survived a husband away at war after she had just her first baby; oversaw multiple moves across the globe. She had to establish a home (often in less than ideal circumstances), make friends and find a new community, and help her children navigate the whole thing. Again and again over the 9 times we moved during my childhood.

I’m thought of her often during this pandemic and considered how she would have responded. I’m sure she would have laughed and cooked and found silly ways to put everyone at ease. But she would have done all of that, even as she prayed and planned and probably worried that all would be well. The day she died, she taught a Bible study on God’s providence, where she told some of the events of her life that I shared above. As she finished the lesson, she told the gathered women, “whatever happens today, remember to put your weight down on the goodness of God.” Less than 24 hours later, a brain aneurysm had ended her life.

I love the acknowledgement there in that “whatever happens”: it means that “whatever” will indeed happen. But it’s not the only thing. The care of God means there is so much more. A friend wrote me this weekend these lovely words, “There is so much that physical separation requires of us.  And so much to which solitude invites us.” Just so. The continual mix of feast and fallow.

I was talking with another friend yesterday about this blog, and it brought to her mind a poem by the wonderful writer Marilyn Nelson. I am no one’s mother, but this poem gives me greater insight into that experience—of my own mother and mothers everywhere—and perhaps most importantly, of that divine love they so beautifully image.

P.S. Do something fun for yourself today. Sally would want you to.

 Mama's Promise
By Marilyn Nelson
I have no answer to the blank inequity
of a four-year-old dying of cancer.
I saw her on t.v. and wept
with my mouth full of meatloaf.
 
I constantly flash on disasters now;
red lights shout WarningDanger.
everywhere I look.
I buckle him in, but what if a car
with a grille like a sharkbite
roared up out of the road?
I feed him square meals
but what if the fist of his heart
should simply fall open?
I carried him safely
as long as I could,
but now he's a runaway
on the dangerous highway.
WarningDanger.
I've started to pray.
 
But the dangerous highway
curves through blue evenings
when I hold his yielding hand
and snip his miniscule nails
with my vicious-looking scissors.
I carry him around
like an egg in a spoon,
and I remember a porcelain fawn,
a best friend's trust,
my broken faith in myself.
It's not my grace that keeps me erect
as the sidewalk clatters downhill
under my rollerskate wheels.
 
Sometimes I lie awake
troubled by this thought:
It's not so simple to give a child birth;
you also have to give it death,
the jealous fairy's christening gift.
 
I've always pictured my own death
as a closed door,
a black room,
a breathless leap from the mountain top
with time to throw out my arms, lift my head,
and see, in the instant my heart stops,
a whole galaxy of blue.
I imagined I'd forget,
in the cessation of feeling,
while the guilt of my lifetime floated away
like a nylon nightgown,
and that I'd fall into clean, fresh forgiveness.
 
Ah, but the death I've given away
is more mine than the one I've kept:
from my hand the poisoned apple,
from my bow the mistletoe dart.
 
Then I think of Mama,
her bountiful breasts.
When I was a child, I really swear,
Mama's kisses could heal.
I remember her promise,
and whisper it over my sweet son's sleep:
 
    When you float to the bottom, child,
    like a mote down a sunbeam,
    you'll see me from a trillion miles away:
    my eyes looking up to you,
    my arms outstretched for you like night.
 
Marilyn Nelson, "Mama’s Promise" from Mama's Promises.
Copyright ©  1985 by Marilyn Nelson. 
Source: Mama's Promises (Louisiana State University Press, 1985)
 

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids, a city I've come to love. I count myself rich in friends and family. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” I don't have the car anymore, but the sentiment is still true.

7 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Thank you so much for both the testimony and the poem. Oh death, oh death, my own death and the death we have to give to others.

  • Your thoughts and writings always uplift me. Thank you.

  • Lynn Setsma says:

    Tomorrow is my birthday. I will be 74. I will do something for myself. I wish I had known your mom. She sounds like a delightful woman. Thank you for this beautiful tribute to her.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Getting to know your Mom a little explains a lot to me about this wonderful person named Jennifer whom I know. Thanks for this! (And now I want a burger . . . at 9am . . .).

  • Gary A VanHouten says:

    Hope to do something fun today and I hope I remember it’s for Sally. And. That. Poem. Wow! Thank you.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Sorry you couldn’t have that wonderful, unique mother longer in your life, Jennifer.
    And thanks for including that poem – it’s deeply moving.

  • Debra K Rienstra says:

    I have learned always to listen to Sally’s advice, thankfully gifted to me from you.

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