Monday, May 12, 2008

Beyond Shangri-la

Mother's Day this year, as it has every year, presents me with a challenge. The card.

What card do I buy my mother?

I step up to the racks laden with cards extolling the virtues of 'Mother'. Syrupy words flow across the paper. Greetings that start with words like, "You were my mother, now you're my best friend." or, "Mother, you have always stood by me, guided me and loved me. You have...." and then the card goes on to explain all the mother has done to teach her daughter to be fierce and independent, accomplished and successful.

I read the words and my critic's minds leaps to my defence, ensuring I don't do something it deems hypocritical, "You can't send that one. It's not about your mother. We don't feel that way about her. Nope. Not that one either. You don't want to be just like her," and the head games go on and on.

Who would have thought buying something as simple as a card could present such a plethora of options, and awaken so many emotions?

My mother is a very sweet woman. Kind. Caring. At eighty-five, she is still one of the most beautiful women I have ever known. She was born in a French colony in India. A place the traumas of the 1930's Great Depression never touched and where WW2 brought her a husband, but no other conflict. My mother never knew deprivation until she left her home at the age of 22 to sail to the other side of the world with a man she barely knew.

"It was like Shangri-la," she once told me when I asked her about the land of her birth. "Nothing bad ever happened there. No one was ever mean or cruel. It was a perfect place." I wanted to challenge her on her memories, to tell her, 'that's impossible', but these were her memories, her history.

And then she told me about her crossing the seas. About entering the big bad world beyond the confines of the salmon covered walls of the sprawling estate of her childhood. A world filled with strangers who spoke a language she didn't understand, who held worldviews far different than the insular perspective of her childhood. "Your father wouldn't let me speak French," she said. "I was only allowed to speak English."

My mother was torn from the lands of her home, from the arms of those who loved her and cast upon a sea of change where even her language of love was forbidden. My father wasn't very forthcoming in his support. We can not give what we do not know, and my father knew very little of loving support. Very little of love or of being a 'family'. He'd been sent far from his mother's arms when he was a boy. He'd always felt he was alone. Always believed he had to take care of himself because no one else would.

Last night at my sister's, where we went to celebrate Mother's Day with a feast deserving of royalty, my mother sat quietly. Her eyes downcast, her mood defeated.

Her sadness has always scared me. Always caused ripples of fear to course through my veins. I remember my mother being sad most of my life. When we were young her sadness sometimes lead to her threats of killing herself. As adults, she still asks, "What's the point of living? I may as well be dead." I've never understood her sadness. And in my lack of understanding, I have struggled to unearth the cause of her pain by challenging her on her position. In my insistence that she explain herself and learn to understand me, I've been a challenge to my mother.

Last night, as we were sitting around chatting before dinner, my sister asked my mother, "What did you have for lunch today?" and my mother answered with a long description of the meals they served for breakfast and for lunch at the lodge where she lives.

I listened to their exchange and envied my sister her ease and devotion with my mother. At one point, my mother started to read the card she had given her, and my sister quietly took my mother's glasses from where they perched upon her tiny nose, and cleaned them. "How can you even see through these things?" she asked as she replaced the glasses on her nose. It is an exchange I have witnessed a hundred times between them. It speaks of the love and care my sister takes with my mother. It speaks to her ease and grace.

Me on the other hand. I'm more like a terrier. I want to dig into the conversation. To get to the meat of what's behind her depression. Her sadness. Her moods. I want to challenge her worldview. To upset the apple cart to see if there are any seeds that need to be unearthed. I want to understand why she wants me to be one way when I'm another. Why she wants me to do it her way and not my own.

It has been a constant thread of conflict between my mother and I. My desire to understand. My constant questionning. My need to make my own way. To find my own path. Perhaps it is that she fears I will be hurt. Perhaps she fears I will fall down. My questionning mixed with my lack of fear gives rise to her fears and thus, we never find common ground upon which to speak of matters of the heart.

I watched and listened to my sister and mother exchange simple words last night and felt my heart melt.

Love isn't a fierce battle to be won or lost upon the words that break open the vault enclosing our deepest fears. It isn't a deep, dark secret waiting to be unravelled to reveal the hidden depths of pain within. Love doesn't lurk in the secret messages hidden within a cypher buried in a vault that only time will tell of its mystery.

Love is in the simple conversations. The gentle touch. The cleaning of glasses so someone you love can see the world through clearer eyes. It's in the meal, lovingly prepared with a dish for every tastebud. It's laid out on the damask tablecloth where tulips grace a crystal vase, their purple heads nodding towards the family gathered round, inviting them to partake of the exquisite repast laid out before them as they share in the unbreakable bonds of familial history.

Love is in the quiet moments spread out between the words. It cannot be found digging furiously in the mud and muck of history. Love is in the moment. This moment where a mother and daughter exchange words about what they had for breakfast.

In the end, I bought a simple card. A card that expresses my love for my mother in gentle words.

She gave me the gift of my life. She carried me into this world with love and the belief that her love would carry me through life's journey. She wanted for me all she never had. All she could not give. Because that is a mother's love. To wish for her child to not know the fear and sorrow, the pain and hunger she has known. To want only for them to see the love in her eyes, and not the sadness of knowing she was powerless to protect them from the world beyond Shangri-la.


Anonymous said...

It doesn't look like you get a lot of comments on this blog, but I want you to know how wonderful and helpful your writing is. Just beautiful stuff, and it has helped me in more ways than you'll ever know. Thank you so much for sharing. :)

M.L. Gallagher said...

And thank you for caring enough to write!
Love, hugs and beans! :)