It’s been said that we remember what we remember because it’s important to us in the present moment. As I reflect on Mother’s Day, three memories from childhood present themselves, each with a critical life lesson for today:
1. Racism is a sin. I am around 10 years old, looking out the front window of our home on a quiet street in Bronx, New York. I notice a boy, five or so years older than me, looking a little too suspiciously at my bicycle, which is lying on the sidewalk. He is of a different ethnic background, and I yell to my mom that someone is trying to steal my bike. I use a racial epithet to describe that someone. Enter Mom, who takes me aside and explains, gently but firmly, that it is wrong to use those words. In fact, she tells me, it is just as wrong to use those words as it is to steal a bike. I don’t know if that was the first time I used a racial epithet. I do know it was the last.
2. It’s OK to be an introspective introvert; Carl Jung said so. I’m thinking Mom’s careful explanation of the difference between introversion and extraversion took place when I was 13, as that was the year Jung died. I imagine there were articles in the newspapers about his death and references to one of his many gifts to the world, the understanding that there are different personality styles, each with its own perspective on the world. Mom, an extravert to the core, was telling me, in her kindly way, that it is OK to be an introvert and that spending time in my room reading books or sorting and categorizing baseball cards rather than socializing was perfectly OK. (Although I think she might have been worrying a little about me too–for good reason!)
3. What matters most is how we treat each other. I am seven or eight, lying in bed. Mom is sitting on the edge of the bed reading a poem to me. It’s “Abou Ben Adhem,” by James Leigh Hunt. You know the poem’s story: A man is awakened one night and notices, in the corner of the room, an angel writing in a large golden book. He asks the angel what he is writing, and he replies, “The names of those who love the Lord.” The man then asks, “And is mine one?,” and the angel responds in the negative. Undaunted, the man replies, “Then write me as one who loves his fellow man.” The next night the angel reappears and shows the man the list of “the names God has blessed,” and there at the top was his. Through this poem–which I have just this past month committed to memory (my New Year’s resolution is to memorize a poem each month)–I learned that the path to God is through love for our fellow men and women. It is much less about doctrines and institutions and rituals, and much more about how we treat each other, whoever that ‘other’ might be.
Each of these memories occurred before the tumult of the ’60s descended upon America and the Brock home. The cultural upheavals of those years hit many families hard. Some families adjusted to the changes reasonably well; others, not so well, occasionally retreating to unhealthy belief patterns, negative stereotyping, and the demonization of supposed enemies. Our family took the latter course. And when Dad died at the close of that decade, leaving Mom with eight children, six still living at home, the retreat intensified, unsettling the simplicity and contentedness of those early years.
Yet those three memories remain, and I will always hold Mom close in my heart for the lessons she taught me. I can’t say I’ve always lived up to them; the Golden Rule has proved to be far easier to preach about than follow for me. But I have those memories, those three life lessons, to fall back on whenever life throws a nasty curve. They serve as the perduring legacy of a mom who accepted me for the nerdy introvert that I was and let me become, well, the nerdy introvert that I remain today.
Happy Mother’s Day.