Listen To Article
My mom started keeping a daily diary on her 13th birthday in 1963. Aside from a gap in the mid-70s, she kept her diary going until October 28, 2020 – the week before she died. In August, I visited my sister and we decided to start reading Mom’s diaries to each other from when she was our age. Each day we send a video message to each other. I read to Tracy from the current date in 1991, when Mom was Tracy’s age, and she reads to me from the current date in 1994, when Mom was my age. At the end of each video message, we say to each other, “These are the words of our mama.” And then, borrowing and redeeming a phrase from The Handmaid’s Tale, we say, “Blessed be the fruit.” With these words, we recognize that that we are the fruit of our mother’s womb and that her words are also the fruit of her life.
Last weekend, my sister traveled from St. Paul, Minnesota, to my house in Kingston, Ontario, to spend several days with me. Our goal: to read through as much of Mom’s early life as possible. At first, we bent our heads over the same little diary, each reading silently to ourselves and pointing out the names and events we recognized. We soon realized that we were developing kinks in our necks, and so we began to take turns reading aloud to each other. One sister would hold the diary and read aloud, the other would sit back and listen. We eventually abandoned this approach as well, as we were losing our voices and moving way too slowly through the months. In the end, we did a lot of skimming and summarizing for one another. Even so, after four days of reading, we only made it to September of 1977.
Throughout the weekend, we were immersed in our mom’s teen life. We followed her around as she babysat and shopped, made dresses and washed her brothers’ cars. We marvelled at how much time she spent washing, rolling, pinning up, drying, ratting and combing out her hair and her friends’ hair and her mom’s hair and her mom’s wig. We saw the establishment of her discipline of cleaning the house from top to bottom every Saturday. In her diaries, she referred to it as “the work.” Every Saturday she wrote, “I did the work.” (And when we were old enough to push a dust cloth, we joined her in “the work!”) We witnessed her accounting mind develop as she carefully recorded every dollar and cent she earned in tips as a waitress at A&W. We read the lists she kept in the back covers and margins of her diaries: every letter she received and sent, every solo or duet she sang in church, and every date she ever went on.
Every date. There were a lot of dates. Man, oh man. Our mama really liked boys. She liked more boys than she managed to date and she often was interested in several boys at once. My sister and I played little drinking games with whatever beverage we had near—water, coffee, tea, or wine. We took a sip every time we ran across the name of her current crush. “To Karl!” “To Bob!” “To Dwight!”
Mom desperately longed to love and to be loved—especially as she entered her twenties and girlfriend after girlfriend “got her diamond.” Most of Mom’s diary entries turned from a simple record of events into prayers. She prayed that she would find love and that she would know what to say and what to do in her relationships. She prayed for God’s guidance and for God’s will to be done. She named her longings and loneliness.
Tracy and I had a hard time reading those repetitive prayers aloud to each other without giggling or groaning a bit. Mom’s dogged search for a mate and her pious pleas reminded me a lot of my younger self. I, too, was very intent on finding a spouse, beginning at the age of 14. In fact, I wrote a 25 page autobiographical paper in my seminary philosophy of religion class on “the religion of romance.”
If Paul Tillich is right, and “religion is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary and which itself contains the answer to the question of the meaning of our life,” then my teenaged religious state was that of finding and keeping a man. The God I professed my faith in and worshipped was, in some ways, simply a means to that end. I saw this ultimate concern in my mom as well. I suppose that there’s a part of me that is embarrassed by how much we both longed for a romantic relationship. We were so grasped by that concern, that everything else was preliminary.
But, you know, as I reflect on my mom’s prayers, my heart softens. These prayers were her simple and deep longings – and she lifted them up to God. There is something so beautiful and true about her desire for a spouse. About my desire for a spouse. And why wouldn’t she (why wouldn’t I) talk to God about that?
I mentioned Ronald Rolheiser’s book, Sacred Fire, in my last blog post. In his chapter on prayer, he writes about those who seek guidance from God in prayer.
We see that their prayer, especially when they feel most alone and desperate, is marked by three things: honesty, directness, and humility. They lift their own minds and hearts to God, not someone else’s. They share their aloneness and fears with shameless honesty. There is no pretence, no rationalization, no hiding of weaknesses. They pour out their fears, their inadequacies, their temptations, and their confusion, as do children, begging for someone’s hand to help them.Sacred Fire, p. 188.
In the margin next to this paragraph, I wrote, “Mom.”
On March 7 of 1972, just after she finished practicing her concert choir solo in Dordt’s music building, Mom ran into Jim Petersen. “I thought nothing,” she wrote. “About 15 minutes later, he called and asked me to go out for coffee with him tonight. I accepted… Jim and I just talked about everything! Wow! God, give me the humility I need and the patience to let it be in your hands.” Tracy and I laughed with joy as we read the story of the beginning of our parents’ relationship. They both pursued each other with equal parts piety and passion. As their relationship grew, Mom’s prayers burst onto the page with gratitude and hope. Though their wedding day fell in the gap of time when she didn’t keep a diary, we know that they were married in the Christian Reformed Church in New Holland, South Dakota, on June 15, 1973. My mom’s prayers were answered. Their marriage lasted 47 years, 4 months, and 20 days and produced three children and seven grandchildren.
As Tracy and I continue to read the words of our mom each day, I know we will read her continued prayers – prayers asking God to help her as a parent, prayers for her children, prayers for her grandchildren. We will read outpourings of her fears, her inadequacies, her temptations and confusion. Though she lived to be seventy years old, she always prayed as a child, begging for God’s hand to help her.
Today, I rise up once again and call her blessed.
Blessed be her words and blessed be the fruit of her words. The fruit of her prayers. The fruit of her life.