I’ve been saying for months now that my mother birthed me twice. The first time was in July of 1961. Looking at her smiling in her wedding dress I know that she, like me many years later, had no idea what motherhood was going to be all about!
She never told me much about the labor and delivery. I’m hoping it was easy given the amount of grief I may have caused her from that point on! My father was a creative, big idea person and that sometimes got him into trouble. This apple (me!) didn’t fall far from his tree and for my mother, who was much more conservative and practical, it could be challenging!
I pushed her buttons with little things like leaving my clothes all over my bedroom floor and while she could dress me up, I always reverted back into a tomboy. I was defiant when she would have preferred complacency. When she wanted me to stay home and commute to college I insisted I was destined for a dorm.
I was stubborn. So was she. Probably like every daughter, I drew a line in the sand vowing to never be like her.
In her eighties when she moved nearer to me so I could keep a closer watch on her, we had found an easier peace with each other but what I didn’t know was that whatever was left unresolved between us would unavoidably rise to the surface over the next few years.
Caring for her I sometimes felt like I was in labor. She was pushing in ways she didn’t even know as her body and mind gradually declined. She was forcing me to clarify what my priorities were, what I cared most deeply about, what faith I had put in God, and what faith I had only in myself.
It was painful to grapple with my own inner conflict. Should I give voice to my own needs or hold my tongue? Was it better to keep surrendering to the inevitability of her dementia or continue the struggle trying to fix what was out of my control? Could I allow myself to be tended? To be vulnerable? To throw up my hands and say, “I just can’t do this anymore!” …and then dig deep to discover that I could?
In all the chaos and contradictory emotions, it was easy to lose sight of my priorities. Thankfully, when I reached the end of all that I had in me something would happen to bring me back to them. I remember arriving at her door one afternoon as she was frantically looking for her checkbook. “Someone stole it,” she muttered over and over again, “and I bet I know which girl it was.”
“Is there any possibility you misplaced it?” I asked.
“Mary, you’re not listening to me,” she raged. “I had it this morning!”
Knowing we’d been through this before, I started looking in all the usual places. In her growing mistrust of the world she had taken to hiding things. Sure enough, her checkbook was under the cushion of her favorite chair.
“Here, Mom, I’ve got it.”
She looked puzzled and then simply deflated as she slid onto the edge of the bed. “Oh,” she said quietly as if there was some vague remembrance. “How did it get there?”
She wasn’t looking for an answer. There was no point in trying to explain.
In moments like that, all struggles melted away as we just sat together in the silence that filled the room. Life would suddenly be clear and simple. Whatever moments we had, I just wanted to be present with her in them.
By the time she passed away, I had whittled life down. In caring for her, I became clear on my own values and priorities. I knew who I was. Not only did I trust life, but I trusted myself. I suppose that’s what I mean when I say she birthed me twice.
It’s like the transformation of dough into bread. When I’ve done all that I can do to mix and knead ingredients, I have to let the dough digest and rest. Only then can the transformation into bread begin and that takes heat. Dough goes into the oven but bread comes out. In the process it becomes the nourishment I have to offer others who have gathered around my table.
So it was with my mom. She cranked up the heat. She kneaded me. She helped develop my gluten. She taught me lessons about the living of life right up until she took her last breath. I’m so grateful for those moments. They continue to nourish me and are part of the nourishment I now have to offer others.
As Thanksgiving creeps closer I’d like to offer a few things (in addition to the biscuits and pie that will be on the table) to chew on.
First, I’d encourage everyone to be grateful for those people who knead us, stretch us, or turn up the heat in our lives. Consider the possibility that in the turmoil something might be transforming in ways we just can’t yet know. Of course include those who help to soften your edges, too. My Aunt Florence did that when she continuously sent me letters and called from Arizona throughout my mother’s illness in an offering of love and support.
I’d also like to suggest that you start Thanks-giving now. Count your blessings as you knead an extra loaf of bread over the next couple of weeks. Stash each one in the freezer then pull them all out when it’s time to make your stuffing. All that love and gratitude will taste delicious! (Plus, I’m posting my favorite bread recipe next week from Peter Reinhardt as incentive to get started!)
Finally, a few years ago I had a tradition of sending out a few special gratitude cards on Thanksgiving morning to people who had touched my life in some way during the year and might not know it. I think I’d like to start that tradition again and would encourage each of you to pick a person or two or three to send a card to as well!
Let’s be grateful for this life we have and the people who fill it. Is there someone who’s helped transform you or a Thanksgiving tradition you’d like to share? Post a comment below so we can all share in it!
I hope to see you around the bread bowl one day soon, too!
PS: Did you see the pictures from the Sweet Yeasted Breads class last weekend? They’re posted on Kneading Life’s Facebook Page! Don’t forget to “like it” while you’re there!