Painting “Mother’s Love” by Roxana Gonzales
Her teeth, discoloured and crooked, were a life-long source of embarrassment. Her body, once wafer-thin and airy, had become thick and heavy. Fat, evenly distributed, made her breasts and belly, even her arms, too big for her small frame. Light on her feet when young, she didn’t risk dancing now. She might crash through the floor, or so she joked.
Expensive department store creams did not do much to turn back the clock. Her too pale skin, once smooth and taut, had become like crumpled paper. She wasn’t old but gravity was having its way with her. She would sometimes moan that her body had turned on her. She had begun to sag. Headaches and aching joints made for sleepless nights. She looked haggard.
Her respite, not surprisingly, was the beauty parlour where she went for two hours of pampering every other week. When she emerged, her short grey hair had been bathed and moulded into the perfect assortment of blue curls. Those Friday afternoon escapes always refreshed her, put a spring in her step. It was a visible transformation.
Nightmares, traumas from her past, haunted her relentlessly. Scissors click-clicking as they cut away her new party dress, too blood stained to salvage. Frantic, fevered voices asking her name. Eyes that wouldn’t focus, blurred by the dark fluid she couldn’t blink away. Forced in and out of consciousness by pain, when lucid she would try to speak, answer their questions, but there was too much fluid in her mouth and it choked her. Finally, a familiar voice, muffled but near. Momma! Tears came forming temporary rivulets on her blood stained face, stinging when they connected with one of the too many abrasions.
It was 1924. The concrete bridge abutment stopped the racing Gray-Dort dead in its tracks turning the slight teenager into a missile. She flew out through the windshield and skid across the concrete before landing in a crumpled heap along the embankment. My grandmother would often recall how no one knew who her daughter was because of the damage, the blood. She would retell how she paced the floor of their small apartment wondering where her daughter was. It wasn’t like Helen to be out so late. Then, the call came. A nurse had finally recognised the local girl. She elaborates on the terror she felt and how nausea overcame her when she saw her daughter. “I didn’t think she would live. She was unrecognisable. My beautiful girl cut to shreds.”
For me, all those years later, the most unsettling scar among the many, was the one across her throat. Centered where the Adam’s apple is found on the larnyx, the wound had healed to form a white rope-like scar almost as was as wide as her neck.
Despite everything, or perhaps because of everything, my mother always looked her best. She powdered her face, rouged her cheeks, and carefully applied red lipstick before gently blotting the makeup on a tissue. It was a ritual. I thought she looked pretty and would tell her so. Little did I know she was fighting gallantly against the deadly sin of vanity that niggled her. To give her strength and cleanse her tarnished soul, she frequently visited the confessional where Father Kelly would admonish before absolving. I often wondered how he would feel about himself had he been shot through glass and torn to bits?
The battle wasn’t one she could win, though, and the warring, begun even before that dreadful accident, gave way to shame which, in turn, gave rise to presistent, draining guilt. In the end, the memories took their toll as did the inevitable cancers.
Looking back, it’s easy to see that her confusion wasn’t unusual or extraordinary. It stemmed from the non-sensical and hurtful expectations of misogynist informed teachings. Church men assured women they knew how to reach the Kingdom of God. Disown, downplay, and disregard your beauty. Punish your unworthy body. Serve men. Your final reward will make all your worldly distress worthwhile. Rubbish practices and beliefs we perpetuate still, though thankfully, less and less.
I didn’t get to know Helen very well. She left when I was nineteen. We hadn’t ever been close. Not ever. But, in truth, I was hard to like, let alone love. She tried. She had hopes for me. And she never stopped praying for me. In fact, I believe she is praying for me, now.
I did my best, too. My way was just different from hers. Also, I was brash and inexperienced, too young and full of myself to realise how disrespectful my attitude was. What is clear to me today is that no matter our differences, I was never as kind to my mother as I should have been. Unfortunately, I wasn’t given the chance to temper my arrogance. I didn’t have the luxury time affords; the luxury to apologise sincerely and act accordingly.
I continue to adjust that attitude regularly as a sign of gratitude. Somedays, I do a good job. Other days, not so much. I am fortified in my efforts, however, by my mother’s prayers for me.
It’s not odd for us to regret our treatment of someone, especially, once they’re gone. What remains problematical for us is that we can’t seek their forgiveness face to face. We have to trust they would have let us off the hook and go ahead and forgive ourselves. A key tenent of the Sacrament of Reconiliation is that healing is conducted via forgiveness whenever the request for it is sincere. I find myself struggling with this concept more often than I should. I believe my mother did, too. I believe she had learned to accept herself and wanted to love herself, scars and all, but confused love-of-self with vanity.
My wish for you today is that you give yourself permission to explore another’s actions as deeply as you would your own. Could you survive their nightmares? How might you feel about life if the face looking back from the mirror had many scars? Could you accept yourself fully no matter? We are all deeply scarred in one way or another, but my mother’s example showed me that love doesn’t mean living another’s life for them or putting expectations on another as a condition of that love. Rather, she proved to me that love is doing your best to love another no matter the life they live.
Momma, if you’re listening, I love you.