THE COMMUNION OF SAINTS: MY MOTHER

For those whose lives consist largely in “pondering these things in our hearts,” along with Mary, there is seldom room at the inn. Others, with their families, gear, heedless noise—all just as it should be—crowd us out so that we’re relegated to some dingy corner where we huddle, fingers pressed to ears, desperately yearning for a moment of quiet where our ideas and discoveries and insights and love can give birth.

My own mother, I would guess, in a household of eight kids, was always looking in vain for an inn. I came across her once, sitting on the edge of her and my father’s bed, gazing out the window and crying. I must have been about twelve. “Mummy! Are you all right?” …

Like most families, ours had secrets. I’ll probably never know them all, and I’m not sure I’d want to.

An incident, related many years after the fact by one of my siblings, is telling. My mother was an accomplished seamstress. She made her own wedding dress, clothes for us kids, valances, slipcovers, drapes: even a trousseau one time for my childhood doll: a peignoir, a traveling costume, an evening gown.

As we came of age and started moving out of the house, a bedroom opened up and she was finally able to have her own sewing room. Passing by, you’d see her in there, her mouth full of pins, her cut-out pieces neatly stacked, everything ship-shape, trim, and tidy.

One day apparently my father walked by, saw her working, poked his head in and asked, “What’s this project, Janet?”

“I’m making drapes for Aunt Madeleine,” she replied.

Dad did a double-take, then snapped, “Aunt Madeleine died three months ago.”

“I know,” my mother said. “But I promised her I’d do up a set of drapes, and I mean to keep my promise.”

My father worked as a bricklayer and that my mother didn’t bring in any money over the few bucks she charged here and there for her sewing was always a bit of a sore spot: one of those secrets that didn’t get openly talked about in front of us kids but my guess is that behind closed doors festered.

So he was pissed. When upset, he often took one of us aside and vented. So even though I wasn’t there, I can just hear him:  “Am I crazy? I’m busting my rear end out there in the cold and she’s up there making curtains for her dead aunt!”

He loved my mother and he wasn’t malicious. Also he was super funny. So if I was the one he was venting to, we’d agree that Mom was a little cracked and have a good laugh.

At the same time, I’d feel disloyal. And all these years later, remembering when I heard this particular story for the first time, I sympathize with my mother’s point-of-view down to the ground.

She was no pie-in-the-sky dreamer, after all, neglecting her duties as wife and mother. The house was always clean, the floors swept, the dishes washed, the laundry hung.

My mother wasn’t Catholic, but in a way, she had a Catholic heart. You take certain vows; you hold yourself to a standard that in the eyes of the world seems ludicrous, even frightening, in its “impracticability.” And the vow costs.

The vow cost her in other ways. My mother taught me to love books, maybe her finest, most enduring gift. She wrote better letters than anyone I know: newsy, descriptive, forthright, to the point. She was highly intelligent. I think she would have liked to be a writer herself.

She once—just once—submitted a piece for publication, the way I remember it, to a religious magazine of some kind. The piece was accepted: I can only imagine her joy. She wouldn’t have allowed herself pride, but joy, yes. And then, I can’t imagine why and with what lack of foresight and thought—the magazine decided they didn’t want the essay after all.

She never, to my knowledge, submitted another piece. She continued to be faithful to her marriage vows, her private vows to God, to her children, her church, and to her conscience: crystal clear as I imagine it. Long-suffering but dry-eyed, keeping her own counsel, along with God alone knows what secret sorrows and silent suffering.

It’s a truism that daughters tend to live out the unfulfilled dreams of their mothers. I have no way of knowing if that’s true in my case. What I do know is that, though I take after my father in a hundred ways, my mother’s example–never mind that I fall continually short–has been the backbone of my life. Her fidelity to her watch. Her refusal to be moved. Her insistence on doing what she felt was right.

So in case you did want to be a writer, Mom—I submitted another piece for you.  And though I can’t sew a stitch, in my way I took up your thimble and scissors and measuring tape as well. Fifty years later, searching for just the right word at my desk, I’m still working on Aunt Madeleine’s curtains.  

13 Replies to “THE COMMUNION OF SAINTS: MY MOTHER”

  1. Absolutely beautiful, Heather. This piece moved me so. Our lives are woven so intricately by our mother’s (and father’s) love. In these glimpses we can see our own shared humanity and God’s love all the clearer. Thank you for sharing. Again so lovely…

  2. Anne Mallampalli says: Reply

    Once again, you just nailed it, Heather. And with pins! I can picture my own mom at her sewing machine – her mouth full of pins——-love that, hadn’t even considered that mental Kodachrome in decades. Thank you. Your writing is a gift I treasure, and pass along. Covering the 3 pm hour of Adoration at my parish right now. I shared your essay with Jesus. He loved it too.

  3. Anonymous says: Reply

    Yes, our mothers do pull on our heart strings even after they have been long gone.
    We nursed my mother for 8 years before she finally died on Jan 2 /2000. I had a relic of St-Therese on her chest. It was W2K as I watched the clock tick tick to the 12 am, Jan1/2000. Nothing happened. I mean no lights went out,,, no computer crashed… the channel of the TV, at the nursing station next to her door, was on the New York Hew Year’s Eve celebrations. I closed the door of her room, grabbed my mum, raised her up in a sitting position and give her such a big hug. I said to her, “grand-mama, you made it to the W2K! Then I said a rosary of thanksgiving for her life in the sacred silence of a dimly light room for the dying.
    Between this powerful 12 am encounter with my dying mother and 3;43 am on Jan 2/2000, she came out of her coma twice to sit up in bed, screaming with terror and falling back onto her pillow each time to show no sign of life apart for her rhythmic breathing.The blessed salt, the holy water and St-Therese relic were my consolations while my mother, to the very end, agonized in her final few hours.
    I was alone with her. Most of my early life I was alone with her when she had her psychotic episodes, years of going in and out of mental institutions.
    When the Angel of the Lord came to take her home, her last breath was so swiftly swallowed I didn’t even notice, for a fraction of a second that, she was gone.
    I felt inside of my being a liberation, her liberation. I experienced a joy in knowing that all her suffering was ended.
    Her purgatory was now over. I believe that, in the eyes of our Heavenly Father, our Abba, that all sufferings are equal to Him.
    In all of her dysfunctions, which were made very visible to us all and to the neighbourhood on a regular basis, she had a devotion to St-Bernadette and to our Lady of Lourdes. I am still hoping that after this crazy time of COVID, to be able to have one more trip overseas and head to Lourdes for my mum and to submerge myself in the healing water of Our Lady’s refreshing mantle of love and protection.
    My father was her defender and her protector and in the silence of so many long years of mental sufferings she was able, I am sure, to embrace her heart desire…to be healed
    Years later I realize that she died on St-Therese’s birthday, Jan 2, with her relic on her chest
    Thank you Heather for pulling on our heart strings.

  4. God bless her, your mother was a saint. She reminds me of all the unacknowledged people who keep the world going. There’s a famous quote about that, but I couldn’t find it. At the end of Solzhenitsyn’s “Matryona’s House” he says this: “None of us who lived close to her perceived that she was that one righteous person without whom, as the saying goes, no city can stand. Nor the world.” Good for you, Heather, for seeing it.

  5. Sidney+Blanchet says: Reply

    I agree with all of the above, Heather. This is one of your finest pieces among many fine pieces. What an extraordinary and tremendously touching tribute to your mother. May she rest in eternal peace.

  6. Beautiful, Heather, just beautiful…

  7. Molly Walchuk says: Reply

    This was achingly beautiful. Thank you Heather for sharing your heart. Your Mother is so rightfully proud.

  8. Absolutely lovely; touched me deeply.

  9. What a magnanimous tribute to your precious mother. She is one of the many uncanonized saints we pray to today.

  10. At 74, l seldom drift back to such memories. Thanks Heather for taking me back to my Mom who like yours and so many who worked that 24-7 job at home were the true strength of the family.

  11. HEATHER KING says: Reply

    Wow, what beautiful, thoughtful, comments–thank you all so very much. It’s interesting, the anecdote was on my mind during my time of morning prayer, and the story just kind of coalesced…and for once, came together quickly when I sat down to write. Funny how the pieces that take the least time are often the ones that “land” most strongly. Here’s to all of our mothers….and to those of you who are mothers yourselves.

  12. Thank you for the beautiful thoughts about your mom. I miss mine so much and look forward to the day when I see her again. The funeral Mass says about our deceased loved ones, ” One day you will joyfully greet them again because the love of Christ has conquered all things, even death itself.”
    Until then I remember her every day and every day those memories make me smile.
    God bless you Heather

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Aw thanks, Steve–this was one of those pieces that “wrote itself”…interesting that as time goes on, my mother becomes ever more real somehow and definitely more precious to me. Long may all mothers live!

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