May 14, 2008

My First Sleepless Mother's Day

I'm posting the talk I gave on Mother's Day in my ward last Sunday. I was up most of the night trying to make it fitting enough for a woman like my mom (especially since we're in the same ward and she'd be hearing every word). A few family members wanted to read it, and Laura, my very flattering friend, said it needed to be published somewhere. How about on a blog?

So, for posterity's sake, and in case my flash drive gets stolen or left in some CalState computer somewhere, here it is:

Sacrament Meeting Talk – Mother’s Day – May 11, 2008

One of my new favorite authors is a woman who writes the science column every week for the New York Times. Her name is Natalie Angier, and in addition to her informative articles, she has also written several science-related books riddled with her humor and wit. In one of them, entitled Woman: An Intimate Geography, she writes of a group of hunter-gatherers in Tanzania who purposely isolate themselves from the rest of the world. "The Hadza refuse to be domesticated, despite efforts from church and government agencies to turn them into farmers. They always return to the bush. They hate gardening! They hate milking cows! Instead, they subsist almost entirely on wild pickings – game, berries, honey, tubers…. If they see an impala, they kill an impala. If the berries are ripening 3 miles away, they move 3 miles away.”

This no-frills existence has prompted them to be studied as an almost indigenous people – untouched by civilization and societal norms. “In the United States, demographers worry about the aging of the population and the potential drain of the elderly on the wealth and patience of the rest of us. The Hadza might worry about the opposite, what would happen if they didn’t have their corps of old ladies. As the data show, postmenopausal Hadza women are the hardest-working members of the tribe. Every day they’re out in the bush, digging, poking, reaching, clambering. They gather more food than any of their comrades. They share their food with young relatives who can’t fend for themselves. When a young woman is breastfeeding a newborn and can’t forage as effectively as usual for her older children, she turns for assistance not to her mate (now where has that man got to now??) but to a senior female relative. Grandma takes up the slack and keeps the kids in baobab and tubers. Hadza children are always thin, but without an elder’s efforts, they would become too thin, Karen Carpenter thin, whenever a new sibling arrives, and they might very well die as a result. Hadza elders are truly great grandmas. They are not an option. They are not a Hallmark sentiment. In this tribe, no nursing mother lacks a postmenopausal helper.”

Isn’t this much like the Atonement? Where we lack, Someone picks up the slack, and we are deeply indebted because it is something we cannot do for ourselves.

Perhaps this seems a strange and unlikely existence in the eyes of the world. I have been a member of this ward my whole life minus the years spent in BYU singles’ wards…yikes. Never has this need for mom or grandma manifested itself more plainly to me than in the Pasadena Ward Baby Boom of the New Millenium. As every new precious bundle is birthed straight from God’s Spirit Nursery, the call of the wild mother goes out to none other than their own mother. And boy, do they hear the frantic cries. Our Relief Society room has held proud new grandmothers who have flocked from all over the country because of a simple, basic fact. The divine calling of motherhood is being passed on to a new generation, and the new grandmas want to have a chance to laugh and gloat. So they do that for about one minute, and then they get to work, doing what is most ingrained and beautiful about a woman: they hold, they rock, they calm, they sing, they teach, and they love.

The calling of motherhood is so significant that it cannot be described by one who is not a mother herself, especially in the short time I have to speak. I do not have children of my own, but there are things I have seen about this singular role. Perhaps I can paint a picture.

I teach Physical Science to 70 8th graders in a charter school in Los Angeles. Since September, I have had some great days, many moderate days, and too many rough days to count. If it has been a particularly rough day, I can almost always point a finger at my entire 4th period. They’re right after lunch. They’re loud. They talk back to me. They’re unruly. They’re best friends with each other. They’re 14, but they’re bigger than I am. I have made mistakes in my classroom management techniques when it comes to this class, but I consider it a good day when I have their attention for half the period and I haven’t had to send anyone out of the room to either quiet down or just go straight to the principal’s office.

One of the more common perpetrators is a student I’ll call “Chris” – mostly because that’s his name. Come on, when are you ever going to meet any of my students? If I just call his name to take his seat he gets on the defensive and utters the famous “Why are you always picking on me???” line, which gets a laugh out of his friends, which he was looking for in the first place, which makes me have to count to ten. And that’s on a good day. He’s the class clown, he play fights with his buddies as he walks through my door, and I can’t get him to raise his hand before he speaks for the life of me. I related the issues I was having with him to a couple of his other teachers and they said, “Call his mom. She will be here so fast. Just ask her to come to your class for a day.” The following day, he was up to his same ol’ tricks, so I quickly said, “Chris? I’m going to call your mother.” I have never seen such a look of fear and angst. “WHY????!!” he exclaimed. “Because I’m tired of this behavior,” I calmly replied. I had finally gotten to him, and it felt good. For the rest of the class, he was certainly quiet, but I noticed it was more than that. He was pretty down and obviously in his own world. I chose not to bother him about it, and I also chose not to call his mother in case he got in some serious trouble. Why pour lemon juice on it when the threat of a wound is sufficient?

Just this past Friday, Chris’ mom made an unexpected and unsolicited visit to my classroom. She works nearby and came to give Chris something he’d forgotten. I was absolutely shocked to see what I saw next. Chris turned into absolute putty. He got up from his seat, walked to the door and said “Hi Mom!” and gave her a huge hug and a kiss in front of all his friends. He kept hugging her and I think she noticed we were all watching because she turned to me and said, “Chris loves his mama.” He kissed her cheek, and her forehead, and I had to pick up my jaw off the floor. Giggling with glee, she gave him what he’d left at home and then turned to me and asked, “Now, is he giving you any trouble?” I’m not gonna lie… so I meekly mentioned that he likes to be the class clown sometimes, and that’s when Chris’ grin turned sheepish, and he admitted to his mother it was true. As I turned to the rest of the class to get them into their groups, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that she had him in a headlock while she was quietly threatening him and kissing the top of his head. He glowed for the rest of the period, and I added that day to my list of great ones.

For every Mom like Chris’, there is one that is not. Giving birth is something human females have been designed to do, but being a nurturing mother is a choice. It is not a rite of passage that accompanies pregnancy. I imagine that most women, when their new child is placed in their arms for the first time, feel a strong need to be a good mother for this new life. But it takes work. Patience. A daily dedication to do all you can. To quote a good friend, “Don’t become a mom unless you’re ready to stop being the center of attention.” Obviously, I’m not there yet. But thank heaven for the ones who are and who have done everything they can to make their children’s world a wonderful one.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said, “In the light of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, a [mother] occupies a majesty all her own in the divine design of the Creator.” God has especially designed women to fulfill an incredible potential. They are admonished to educate themselves as much as possible, to expand their talents, to serve tirelessly, to say “yes” for any task whether they have the ability or time or not. Why? So that the refiner’s fire can strip away their dross to emerge as gleaming gold educators for all future generations! Who wouldn’t want their dross stripped??

I have often been in awe of those mothers who seem to pull off all that is asked and more with aplomb. There are a lot out there. The saying, “It takes a village” wasn’t lost on me. Several friends – usually young mothers – have asked me how my own mom was able to raise ten kids. Tired of just shrugging my shoulders, I decided to ask my mom one day. After the initial groan, she said, “You know, there were some days when I just wanted to rip my hair out and cry. At that point, I had to lock myself in the bathroom with the scriptures and have a 5-minute personal devotional. Sometimes, that’s all I could do.”

Those drops of oil in a mother’s lamp seem to run dry a lot. Hope and patience can sometimes be fleeting things. Orson F. Whitney, a member of the quorum of the Twelve Apostles, wrote a 144-page poem in 1914 entitled “Elias, An Epic of the Ages”. In it he paints a vision of a mother’s reward:

O thou, of beauty, loveliest form and phase!
Kindler and keeper of the quenchless flame!
Partner and peer of human majesty!
Sharing with him life’s dual sovereignty,
Well canst thou wait for thrones and diadems,
Queen of the future, Eve of coming worlds,
Mother of spirits that shall people stars,
And hail thee empress of a universe!

I’ve had that quote close to me for about 9 years now. I take it out every once in a while to remind myself not only of my eternal potential, but the kind of legacy I need to live up to.

I hope you will all indulge me on this Mother’s Day. Everyone in this room came from a mother – one of those divine Eves who shall people stars. I came from a mother, too, and I just happen to be so lucky as to be in the same ward as she.
A quick intro to my mom. To quote Cheech and Chong, she was “born in East L.A.” and has lived ‘round these parts all her life. She teaches choral music to elementary school kids in Los Angeles (they love her), and she puts as much into that job as she has everything else. She and my dad got married…a while ago…and decided to have a few kids. A few turned into ten, and all ten believe she and Dad deserve their bejeweled crowns because so far, none of the kids have killed each other OR them.

Upon finding out I’d be speaking, I emailed all my siblings and their spouses and asked them to answer a few questions. Candacy, one of Mom’s daughters-in-law, wrote “if you talk about her too much in your talk, she will kill you.” This is a true statement, so I’m going to take this chance to say: “Mom. You have ten children who adore you and who want to give you an opportunity to bask in their love for once. We have given you pain for forty years, so what’s another 10 minutes? You need to sit down, keep your mouth closed, and face the fact that your children are going to brag about you.” I’ve been wanting to say that for so long. I would have been more harsh, but I’m not allowed to say ‘shut up.’

That said, I have no desire to turn this talk into what Ted termed a Deanne-imony. But I need to address what Ted notices every time I mention the two words “my Mom” in a sentence. I get interrupted by the other person’s exclamation, “I LOVE YOUR MOTHER.” It just happened yesterday with Allison Keeney, and I giggled – internally – because I’d never had the objective view of it. I want to mention a few things that came from my family, not only as a thank-you to our mom, since she’s the only mom we’re all familiar with, but also as life lessons for all of us.

One of the questions I asked my seven brothers, two sisters, six sisters-in-law, and one husband was 1) As a parent (or potential parent), what lessons have stuck with you most that you learned directly from Mom?
Their responses:
If one child contracts chicken pox, then infect the others so they all get it at the same time and get it over with. It was a painful 3-4 weeks, but then she and we never had to deal with it again!

I learned how to hold a wooden spoon and that the trick to its effectiveness is all in the wrist. However, I have been able to teach my kids that wooden spoons can also be used for cooking...

All joking aside, being a good mom takes two main things according to a few of us: 1) Expect the best out of your children. 2) Make sure your children know you love them.

And to save time, smother them with kisses while you have them in a headlock!

Question #2) What's a favorite teaching moment you had with Mom, either her giving you advice or vice versa?

One morning after seminary we were getting ready for school. We knelt down to say prayers before scurrying for the car. One girl, I remember, said the prayer super fast to get out of seminary "early" that morning and when called upon by mom to say it for the family I decided to use her example, barely understandable, in about 7 seconds. After "amen" I looked up and everyone was excited to get going so quickly, except for mom. She gave me "the look" and says with all intensity that I will never forget, "Don't ever say your prayer like that again!", and I could feel her eyes lasering a hole through my pupils. That moment flashes through my mind before every prayer.

Once, when I was in Kindergarten, Mom was cutting my hair in the kitchen. I saw something outside that made me exclaim, “Oh my God.” After mom pulled the scissors out of my ear she said, “Where did you hear that?” I said, “From the teachers at school.” She explained to me that we don’t say that, and why. I remember that lesson clearer than any I ever had at church.
I remember my own OMG experience. I was about 7 or 8 and I had opened a box that had a gorgeous hand-painted wooden treble clef, so of course I exclaimed the way I heard everyone exclaim. Mom grabbed my arm, marched me right into the bathroom and stuck a bar of Zest into my mouth. I had learned my lesson, and it only took me a few months to get over the lye poisoning.

This should make you happy, Mom, that you’ve fooled so many for so long. When I asked the question “When did you realize that Mom was (gasp!) not perfect?” a few wrote back in capital letters and multiple question marks, “SHE’S NOT???” and then followed it up with a “just kidding”.

Eric’s short answer: “She buzzed part of the front of my hair off.”

Several children commented on the lateness of her arrival when it came time to be picked up from school, choir practice, Scouts, Young Women, seminary, basketball, friends’ houses, etc. I guess I didn’t mind so much. There was always some cute boy to kiss to pass that time.

However, my realization of her imperfection did come. My parents were both grammar Nazis growing up, so if your sentence structure has ever been corrected by one of us, please accept my deepest apologies. It’s ingrained. I used to get letters on my mission from Mom, and talk about poor grammar. The whole thing would be a flurry of fragmented sentences – just a bullet point list of the latest happenings:
· Painters came. Fixed the trim.
· Shannon crashed car
· Dad got another award
· Gary still waiting for mish call
· We love Candacy. Christian finally met match
And at the end of every letter, “Love you, miss you, but DON’T COME HOME EARLY!” And to be fair, they may have been bullet-pointed, but those letters came every week for every missionary. I did some calculations: that’s 962 letters, plus packages every Christmas and birthday. And THOSE were on time.

Jesus Christ admonished us all to “be ye therefore perfect, even as your father in heaven is perfect.” You’re close, Mom, but according to your children, you won’t reach perfection until you 1)use complete sentences in your letters and emails, 2)let Shannon do whatever she wants, and 3)stop tooting in the kitchen when you think no one can hear you.

I wasn’t surprised at the response I got from all those who married into our family, God bless their souls. You may not be their blood mother, but they love you and everything you do and are. It’s amusing and common to make fun of one’s mother-in-law, but Ted’s the only one who did. At least you have daughters-in-law who love you.

God designed mothers to be our teachers, our nurturers, and in many cases, our best friends. It has been that way since time began, and it will be that way into the eternities. I couldn’t help but feel a kinship with Sister Marjorie Hinckley when I read a letter she wrote to her family after she and “Gordon” had moved from Salt Lake to Denver. She was writing about the possibility of coming to visit with their third baby.

“I don’t feel too terribly enthused about spending a week over there if Mother would not be home. Not that I wouldn’t like to see Daddy and the girls. I’m simply bursting to see them and have them see the baby, but then they would be away mostly in the day and well, you know how it is with Momma. Take away Momma and what have you got? The house seems so darned empty just thinking about it. Guess you should have been twins, Mother, so you could divide yourself up more easily. You’re quite all right, what there is of you, but there just isn’t enough of you.”

I love you, Mom. I am absolutely honored to have a best friend like you.


Kizzycakes said...

you have got to stop posting pasadena ward happenings -- as if i don't miss it enough already! love, love, love your talk. and, of course, i love deann too!

The Facks of Life said...

this was the best talk ever. i was cracking up and crying at the same time. can't beat that. you're the best!

Jana said...

Oh, how I wish I could have been there to hear this giggle, gasp, and guffaw right along with all my Pas 2 loved ones...and gloat over my own wonderful mother, who was so much like Deanne it's almost scary!

Fabulous talk, Allison. Thanks for posting it.
I especially loved that intro about the post-menopausal women in Tanzania. I'd like to send that to Bonnie (with your permish, of course).

I'm so glad I got to read this. Truly felt like a Mother's Day gift! xoxo

lyndsey + brandon said...

yay i found your blog! and i must say that i still love your talk...even though you did include subject matter that makes me uncomfortable ;) i find you incredibly entertaining and plan to become an avid reader of your blog.

Timid Tripper said...

I love Natalie Angier's Infinite Geography too! And great talk. Thanks for sharing.

Timid Tripper said...

I mean intimate geography, although I guess for some it could be infinite. ;)

Kathleen said...

loved it!

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