Wednesday, August 14, 2019

A Mother's Work Is Never Done

The hand we held dear.

What Wade’s mom’s passing would mean ambushed me weeks before the fact as I reached around a blind corner of our kitchen cupboards and pulled out an assortment of food containers that had been passed back and forth among family members to carry home leftovers from Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners which Roberta Glenn Miller Jones either hosted or contributed to as a guest.

I realized she would be absent when next we gathered for those holiday meals, and I lost it.

Roberta sold Tupperware in her day, but more recently had a retirement job as one of those Costco ladies offering tasty treats to shoppers. Yet she had another job more central to her character and from which she could never retire: mom. Even death cannot diminish that role. I know, because my mother continues to nurture, support, and teach me two decades after her passing. She lives on in me. As Wade is quick to say, though she died the year before we met, he sees my mom in me.

And I see Roberta in Wade. Even their body types are similar. I’ve laughingly told friends that Roberta is an older version of Wade in drag. And that similarity made me mindful—as we and other family members sat by her bedside in her personal care home, holding her hand, watching her get smaller and smaller as inactivity and inability to eat took its toll—that  this could be Wade in the future.

During the stressful weeks prior to her gentle passing in the early morning hours last Tuesday, I’ve been asking our Google speaker to play jazz while I fixed breakfast. I couldn’t quite handle listening to the repeatedly troubling news on NPR, my usual choice, and I like the way jazz often takes the listener to unexpected places.

When asked to construct her obituary for the paper, I learned her middle name for the first time, Glenn, which, combined with her maiden name, Miller, prompted thoughts about the Big Band era of swing jazz. I forgot to ask her older sister, who came for the memorial service Sunday, if that was intentional on their parents’ part or if that was just a family name.

Roberta’s service in the beautiful sanctuary of Mountain Park United Methodist Church in Stone Mountain, GA, was very well attended, surprisingly for an 83-year-old who outlives so many family and friends. Her large Sunday school class, people around her age, attended en masse, as did members of the women’s circles, including her own. Relatives came from all over the country, joining local friends and colleagues of her sons, as well as the owner and manager of her personal care home.

I began looking forward to the service when her delightfully spirited pastor, Rev. Ellynda Lipsey, met with the family to prepare the service and her eulogy and message. She, other members, and the congregation’s Stephen’s Ministry had visited her, sung to her, sent her cards and brought her flowers.

When I first met Roberta as Wade’s “friend,” I knew I was in safe space when I saw a reproduction of John F. Kennedy’s presidential portrait hanging in her living room. That is the one keepsake I requested upon her passing. I had had the same portrait in my bedroom as a teenager. As I write this, I’m wondering who will get her Barack Obama campaign button attached to her wall calendar.

How we really got to know each other was sitting together in hospital waiting rooms during two of Wade’s surgeries. We had each brought reading material, but hardly looked at it as we enjoyed prolonged conversations by which I learned about her youth and Wade’s upbringing in Oaktown, Indiana, which then had a population of 600, a town I will finally visit when we bring her ashes home. She and her husband, Gary, had married in the United Methodist Church there, reared three boys, and finally retired to the Atlanta area when all three sons settled here after college. Though she was known for her reticence, we seemed to have no problem chatting away. Long before, I came to know Gary when I interviewed the family to write his eulogy, at Wade’s request.

With other family members, she happily attended our very small wedding the year the Supreme Court decision legalized same-gender marriage. She gave us two throws that we use when watching something on our flat screen. These sacramentals will continue to keep us warm in the years to come, even as her Tupperware will make the rounds of ours and other households.

Wade selected this poem to be read for his mother’s memorial service:

Donations in thanksgiving for Roberta Jones may be made to the Stephen’s Ministry of Mountain Park UMC or Homestead Hospice.

Copyright © 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

"Hey Kids! Look at the Too-lah! Look at the Too-lah!"

Wade looking at the Indian Ocean along 
Plettenberg Bay, South Africa, last summer. (crg)

On a recent visit with my family of origin, I heard the usual stories rolled out by my older siblings, putting me in my proper place as the “baby of the family.” One sibling surprised me by a new take on an old story. Being the youngest, I sat in the front seat of our old Hudson with our parents on a cross-country drive, apparently considered a privileged position by my sister and brother. At one point, given my vantage point, I saw a body of water and turned to them in the back seat, exclaiming excitedly, “Hey kids! Look at the too-lah! Look at the too-lah!” We long ago decided that “too-lah” must have come from the word “toilet,” then my only frame of reference for a body of water.

On this telling, however, one of my siblings added the word “condescendingly”—that I had “condescendingly” turned to them to announce this wonder. Miffed, I replied, “How can a toddler be condescending?” My other sibling had a different interpretation, that I was simply imitating the tone my parents took to convey something exciting to us kids.

This story came to me as I am currently reading The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross. A bookmark not many pages in reminds me I’ve tried to read it before. In the past I’ve made the common mistake of understanding “dark night” as simply a period of suffering externally imposed, but, at the same time, it is a spiritual practice detaching ourselves from anything that is not God (including moving beyond our mental images of God “to the state of the progressives”), while welcoming God’s transforming love of our souls. At least, that’s one way of putting it.

One by one and day by day, as I read the sins or “imperfections” that may come with the spiritual life, I am realizing that I am guilty of each one of them. The first listed is pride, how the contemplative novice may be so excited by what she or he is learning that they prematurely become spiritual teachers rather than doers. That very nearly silenced me as a writer of these “progressive Christian reflections,” much as reading and writing about Zen Masters in recent years almost nudged me to enter their silence.

I realized that my readers may be enduring what my siblings did when I was a child, hearing, “Hey kids! Look at the too-lah! Look at the too-lah!” I get so excited by what I’m learning, if not always practicing, that I want to write about it.

I overheard a monk acerbically say of spiritual author Henri Nouwen, “I wish he would stop writing about wanting to pray and just pray!” In his book, Reaching Out, Henri offered a kind of defense, which I’ve quoted before:

I found some consolation and encouragement in the words of one of the most stern ascetics, the seventh-century John of the Ladder, who lived for forty years a solitary life at Mount Sinai. In his chapter on discernment, step 26 of his spiritual ladder, he writes: “If some are still dominated by their former bad habits, and yet can teach by mere words, let them teach…For perhaps, being put to shame by their own words, they will eventually begin to practice what they teach.”

A half century ago I visited a progressive Baptist congregation whose pastor offered a good job description of his work. Along with other ministerial responsibilities, he was given time to explore theology and spirituality on behalf of the congregation and share those insights from the pulpit.

So, even if I may not have the exact word for God or the exact words or best practices for the spiritual life, I can still lean over the front seat of the Hudson and shout excitedly to all of you, “Hey kids! Look at the too-lah! Look at the too-lah!”

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Copyright © 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.