I began this series of reflections on my life by pointing out that I am the only child of a single mother. Perhaps in a way second only to being a child of God has this reality shaped who I am. No doubt every one of us could say likewise about someone–but probably most often a parent, a mother or a father, the ones most responsible for bringing us into the world and caring for us. Is there a more formative, early (as in from conception!) relationship than that of our parents or those who raised us?
Truth be told, if I had more concrete memories about more of my past, I could post an entire series of reflections on this subject alone. Alas, much seems clouded by time. Both by time’s distance and by how time shifts and toys with our recollection and perspective. Sometimes it’s fair to ask ourselves: Is this my memory of what happened in my life or my memory of someone else telling me about it? Of course, I’ve never been one to have a detailed sense of recall–unlike my wife! On more than one occasion I have asked her about things that have happened in the two decades or so we’ve known one another that are vague in my mind but resoundingly clear in her own. Actually, it astonishes me.
I should also say that any post of this sort will also be woefully incomplete. There will be gaps, intentional and otherwise, in what I recount. The bits and details I share are consciously selective; other things might be left by the wayside because I have forgotten; and even what I do share I share through the filter and acculumation of 48 years of living. Memories are both historical and also emotional. There are events that we leave behind and there is also how these events leave us. And when it comes to the most significant relationships in our lives, emotional truth is as important as historical, factual truth. We’ve all been indelibly stamped by our experiences.
So I say this all as a prelude to reflecting on my Mom, because, truly, what I share will be a mix of recounting actual circumstances and how such experiences have shaped me. But how such experiences have shaped me–or how my relationship with my Mom has shaped me–can also have a retroactive effect on how I remember them and subsequently attach words to them.
That, and some of what I share will be what others have told me about my Mom.
So here we go. Fair warning, this is a long one.
My Mom was the youngest of six kids by 11 years. By the time she was a young child, some of her siblings had married and left home. Apparently my Mom had “bad nerves” from a young age. This was code for anxiety at a time when people knew almost nothing about mental health issues and didn’t want to talk openly even of what they did know. From what I understand, my grandmother often didn’t know what to do with her. In fact, for a period of time Mom lived with her sister and her family in Ontario. She wasn’t like her brothers and sisters. She had issues. Her issues created issues for them. What’s a little less clear is why she had these issues. Later in life she came to believe certain things about herself and her growing up that could provide some measure of explanation, but those matters are deeply personal and so I won’t go into detail about them here.
The thing to say here is that my Mom had to deal with mental health issues in a particular family culture in a specific point in history that at times exacerbated the issues themselves. Noting this is not at all to pass judgment but to recognize that none of us lives or grows up in a vacuum. Thankfully, for example, although my daughter has similar issues as my mother once did, we live in a day when we can more openly address them without shame or embarrassment.
As a young woman, it seems as though my Mom simply wanted a life that was independent of family. Maybe she wanted to prove herself. Maybe she just wanted to get away from them. Other than that, her direction or sense of purpose was much less defined. We all live to some extent in response to how we grew up, and that was true of her. And then she became pregnant with me. By the time I was born, she was living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In a way that is difficult for me to evaluate, I think my arrival into her world was a tectonic shift in her life. I was unexpected, if not unplanned. She was on her own, having made the choice for the man who was my biological father to stay away. Yet, there I was, demanding to be taken care of and nurtured and loved. If I may say so, I believe that my presence in her life is what gave much of her life stability and meaning. My reason for thinking this is that once I left home for university, it seems as though her life destabilized significantly.
In a strange sense, it’s also as though having to raise me and see me into the world put her life–or how she saw it–on a sort of hold. I remember, for instance, this odd conversation between me and Mom when I was in my late teens (perhaps during the year I stayed home from university). Now, let me say that I was almost universally unimpressed with all the guys that my Mom dated while I was growing up. I’ll put it bluntly: they seemed like losers. I realize that this was my issue–who is this guy taking my Mom away from me? But usually at the time I felt that she could do much, much better. Like most anyone, she wanted a relationship, and it could be that both her options (as well as her choices) were poor. So when she told me that she needed to start focusing on her life now that I was older (which in this case meant pursuing a specific relationship), I think she must have thought that I would be immediately resentful of anyone who came into her (and therefore my) life. To be honest, I don’t even recall how long the relationship she was in at the time lasted or if I even met the dude. But that she felt the need to have that conversation speaks to me of our relationship, of how much she had invested in me and how she had done all she could to provide for me.
You see, one of the results of my being the only child of a single mother was that Mom and I had an especially close relationship. So much so that by the time I was in Junior High, there is a degree to which we were friends. Or at least that’s how I came to think of it. She was my closest confidante. I think of the many times before we had a car and we went walking to go get groceries or do other errands. Walking meant talking, and we walked a lot. I think there was even an extent to which as I got older that she began to ask me advice or care what I thought about this and that. My memory is of a growing back and forth, never to the point where the parent-child distinction was eliminated but maybe subtlely mitigated. Indeed, in my later university years I can honestly say that there were times when I felt the roles were reversed–or that at the very least, I was in the position of emotional caregiver. I didn’t want that role, and part of me resented it, so while there were times when I leaned into it, there were other times when I used the geographical distance as a means of distancing myself from whatever particular drama she seemed to be going through.
Looking back from my present vantage point as a parent, though, perhaps only now can I really appreciate how much my Mom sacrificed. Or how hard it must have been to raise a son all by herself. Having kids gives me a much different perspective than I had before getting married. Less self-centred, perhaps. Hopefully! Much of my internal conversation about my relationship with my Mom over time has focused on its effects on me. And while I shouldn’t overlook that stuff, only seeing that part of the story ignores the internal world that she must have had when I was growing up.
For example, I was not always a happy teenager. More to the point, I spent a lot of time at home rather than out with friends. There was that awkward period between losing one group of friends (because I didn’t like role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons) and gaining another. I often felt isolated, alone, and I wonder if my Mom must have felt responsible for my happiness on the one hand and a little helpless on the other. I know there were Friday and Saturday nights when she would go out with friends or to work, leaving me home to stew in my own adolescent angst.
I can’t imagine having to raise our kids all on my own. And I know my Mom’s story of being a single parent is so common as to be nearly ubitiquous, but not to have had the option of handing me off to a husband and father must have felt like quite a weight at times. At the very least, it must have been exhausting.
Makes me think. She must have had definite moments–maybe entire seasons (like my teen years!)–when she felt overwhelmed and that she didn’t know what she was doing. Sure, she could talk to friends, her sisters, whatever, but at the end of the day she was the one who had to do the hard work of answering my questions, dealing with my moods, and interpreting my attitudes, silences, and behavior. Yet, still, as I think about it now, she never really let on how hard it was. Despite the struggles she must have had, and that I was mostly unaware of until later, she appeared to be a strong person to me. Indeed, she was in many ways.
Considering her relationship with family over the years, it’s actually kind of amazing, as well as a testament to her wisdom and humility, that she kept church and God in her life. She always had faith, even if sometimes she had very real struggles. And I don’t know if it was having me that prompted her to stay connected to the church. I’m sure my presence made a difference, but my Mom also always had a spiritual thirst. But whatever her reasons were for continuing to go to church, and for making sure that I did, I know it was a source of strength. A couple of things in particular come to mind. First are the times when she took me (lack of babysitter?) to some sort of Bible study or adult class when I was a toddler. Apparently, I did a lot of crawling around under people’s chairs. I guess my antics were more or less welcome. Another memory from when I was older (maybe Junior High?) was of Mom trying to have some sort of family devotion time at home. I didn’t like it. It felt weird for some reason. She had some Christian records (yes, I said records, records that you would play on a turn-table) she would play, and she would light candles, and want to say prayers with me. I can’t say it lasted long. But, really, my longstanding memory is of going with her to church week after week, learning to participate in Catholic liturgy, having her teach me to pray at bedtime. And I mean, really pray–like the Lord’s Prayer, the Glory Be to the Father (which is now a part of the Daily Office I use), and (until I realized it was unbiblical), the Hail Mary.
Here’s the thing. Even if I am now a Baptist pastor rather than a practicing Roman Catholic, those early experiences in the church and with my Mom were formative in that God, Jesus, prayer, church, and spiritual matters all became deeply imbedded in my consciousness as being primary, foundational, necessary. And she was responsible for that. I owe to her the fact that I have almost always seen life as a spiritual journey, from a theological perspective, as only having meaning and direction if in fact there is a God who both made and redeemed me.
Indeed, it all came full circle eventually. My Mom moved to St. Stephen, NB, from Newcastle (Miramichi) back in 1996 or so when I was studying at Acadia Divinity College. The reason for this was to get away as far as possible from a relationship that had turned abusive. At first, she began attending Mass at the local Catholic Church. When there were weeks where, for various reasons, she missed Mass, she would never hear from anyone because no one at the church made any genuine effort to meet her and get to know her. Then one week on her way to church, she felt like she should instead go to church at the local Baptist church. So she did. It was like night and day. People there were warm and welcoming. And when she missed because she was sick, the pastor left a note the very next day in her mailbox. He did this a number of times. So she felt accepted and loved. She began going to this church and was eventually baptized as a believing adult there too.
By this point in our relationship, all I wanted was for her to be stable, to be taken care of, and not to feel like I was responsible for how she was doing. I didn’t want to be her first phone call in the event of a personal emergency, especially since I was living in a different province. Though to be honest, looking back, a part of me was selfishly insensitive at some of those moments. But I suppose I wasn’t emotionally mature enough to handle the responsibility of dealing with her drama. Part of me resented the fact that she didn’t seem able to show genuine interest in what was going on in my life. And maybe it wasn’t always fair of her to burden me with some of what she was going through and what she was feeling. So whenever she took a step that brought other people into her life who could support her where she was, could even nurture her faith in Christ, and, sigh, be less of a burden on my mind, I was grateful.
Life, unfortunately, isn’t entirely linear. We take steps forward and then steps backward. My Mom actually got married back in the winter of 2000 to perhaps the only person in the world who had more emotional and relational baggage than her. In some respects, they were perfectly suited to one another, and really did love one another. But there are situations when in a marriage each person’s individual brokenness (and unwillingness or inability to deal with it) can derail what ought to be a healing, redemptive relationship. After nearly a decade together, they separated, and remained separated (though perhaps not unreconciled) until her death from cancer in 2011.
My Mom’s life reminds me that life isn’t ever neat and tidy. We can make progress, personally, relationally, spiritually, financially, only to have that progress take an unexpected kick in the pants. A turn of events, a personal catastrophe, can turn what seems to be going well in directions we would never otherwise anticipate. I guess the question is not always what we do in those times but who we are–and who are we becoming. My Mom had her strengths and her weaknesses. She had degrees of resilience. But she also didn’t always deal with adversity well. She made great strides but could also play the victim. And I say this–and hear me out when I do–not to dishonour her but to portray her and therefore myself honestly. I love my Mom. But loving someone doesn’t mean overlooking their faults or shortcomings. It certainly doesn’t mean thinking of them as perfect in defiance of obvious flaws. Yet, as the apostle Peter tells us love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). I can only hope my kids look back on me with that mix of honesty and love too.
When I began writing this post, this is not what I expected to write. I figured I would write more about how her various trials and quirks affected me. Though perhaps I have done that, I didn’t anticipate (and shame one me for this!) realizing while I was writing just how deeply appreciative I am of my Mom and noting, too, how I have been less appreciative at times than I should have been. Writing this has made me think much more about what it must have been like for someone of her background to be a single mother of an only child. She was more courageous and strong than I have often given her credit for in my heart and mind.
I also didn’t expect to end here. I’ve not gotten to the end of her story, certainly not to end of how her story is a part of mine. Maybe I’ll write more, maybe I won’t. But this has been cathartic. Reliving, if even in a small way, one’s memories of such a special relationship has a way of opening one’s heart up to deeper longings of intimacy, of knowing and being known. Such longings are never fulfilled in our lifetimes; but one day, we will know as we are known; and then by the One who has known and loved us all along.
As I do close this entry, I want to do so by saying something to my Mom. “Sorry, Mom, for not always seeing you as you were but only as I wished you were. Thank you for putting so much of yourself into my life. Often I wish you were still here–I have so many questions only you have answers for. I anticipate more conversations with you in the new heavens and new earth. Though perhaps then having the answers to those questions won’t matter to me as much. See you then.”