The girth of our gratitude is proportionate to the depth of our perspective. This truth was once again made apparent as I visited with my 87-year-old mother, prior to this year’s Thanksgiving holiday. It has been a year since my father died, and my mother, along with the rest of us, continues to adjust to his absence. “He’s still in every room of this house” was her response when I asked her if she missed him. The house she still lives in was literally built by my father, plank by plank, that he scavenged over the course of a few years along with the recycled nails and tools to complete it after four years, and two children into their sixty-plus year marriage. Certainly, what she says resonates with me, as every time I walk into the house, I expect to see him there. He is missed, but in other ways, he remains present.
Mom in many ways is now more independent than ever, but at the same time due to the physical challenges of age, finds herself having to be dependent on her children for help. Mom laments, “Growing old is hard. It’s not fun at all.” Another perspective that rings true for me with every passing day. Minor challenges can become major setbacks, or at least in her mind. For instance, during my stay, the ice maker on her refrigerator quit working. My nephew Joshua, who is mechanically handy, was the first person she called. Although I did feel a bit emasculated as I was sitting right next to her, I agreed that he was the right person to call. I thanked Josh for coming out, and remarked that I wouldn’t know where to start, to which he laughed and said “Well, we all know how to do different things, besides she pays me well in apple pies.” We shared a laugh.
Challenges it seems, large and small, have a way of uniting people in laughter or tears. We often refer to these moments, whether confirmed by kinship or affinity, or family. This is the power of perspective. A minor inconvenience that I wouldn’t give much thought, prompted my mother to take immediate action because ice in her sweet tea is a priority. But that action moved other people to action which resulted in shared moments, emotion, and created memories that will endure when the principal actors have all passed from this life. As it turned out, the ice maker cannot be fixed without a particular part that has to be ordered, prompting Joshua to volunteer to bring all the ice we need for our Thanksgiving meal. Mom seemed concerned about many things, the malfunctioning ice maker, perhaps, just adding to the many issues that she seems to be concerned about. But this too is perspective, right? What concerns me during one season of life, may seem inconsequential to her and vice versa. But all these multi-perspectival threads interwoven produce a beautiful tapestry that we call family and when viewed from a distance we reference as memory.
As I attempted to talk to my mother about all the issues concerning her, she would vacillate between her concerns and her memories as informed by her emotions. I learned things about her that I didn’t know, family histories and dynamics that occurred before I was born and others, I only have vague memories about. Someone has rightly observed that every one of our siblings has different parents. Of course, this is true because every experience is different. What my brothers experienced being raised by our mother and father is very different than what my sister experienced, and all of them had very different experiences than I did with my parents. Because of age differences, the older parents I knew were very different from what my older siblings knew of younger less experienced parents. Of course, none of this would have been evident to us as children, but now given the passage of time we understand life in a way that we couldn’t have then. The only advantage age has over youth is experience informed by perspective. Religious texts often refer to this as wisdom. But sometimes age isn’t necessarily an indication of maturity, and depending on the person, their experience, and their geopolitical influences that wisdom may be truncated.
These thoughts were bouncing around in my mind during these last few days, and during the conversations and silences shared with my mother. “What sometimes helps me;” I shared with her, “is to think about the other 8 billion people on this planet. Then to consider that all these people are present here, at the same time I am, not to mention all the lives that have been lived previously. We like to think that we are special, that our lives have meaning, but relatively speaking we live insignificant lives.” My gift may not be that of encouragement, but I managed to ramble on; “Maybe the best we can hope for is the meaning we assign our lives, informed by our faith that guides it.” At this point, my mom responded, “Remember you need to take Charlie to the groomer.” Charlie is her miniature poodle. I wonder what he thinks about the meaning of his existence.
My philosophical musings were cut short, by the needs of Charlie’s vanity; I managed to get him to his stylist on time. On the way back as I traveled down the country roads of rural Arkansas, trips I’ve made numerous times, I thought about how all this must appear from the perspective of the Divine. If indeed God is watching all this coming and going, concerning Himself with me, mom, my brothers and sisters, and Charlie, how do our lives match up to what He intended? If His intentions are to care for Charlie’s toilette and for the repair of mom’s ice maker; Josh and I have it covered.
In between my contemplation and Josh’s handyman skills, my brother Ron and sister Kim quietly and faithfully serve and care for my mother. In ways she both understands and doesn’t, my older brother and sister, to varying degrees sustain her. In fact, as I was writing this, my sister, Kim, was sweeping, mopping, and cleaning my mother’s home on her lunch break. My brother Ron lives next door to my mom and is positioned to be the first responder to her needs when they arise. They do this consistently and without much fanfare, as my oldest brother and myself live far away from the old homestead. They are both to be commended for their service, love, and care. Perhaps this is the wisdom that informs my gratitude in moments of reflection; that family isn’t perfect, nor was it ever intended to be so. It is a myriad of threads sewn together to provide meaning, patterns, or comfort for those who find themselves cold. But sometimes this tapestry may also be used to extinguish or even fuel the necessary fires that cleanse the palate of experience in anticipation of something new.
In short, family exists to perpetuate itself, finding a way to repurpose the lumber and nails of the past to construct a home for the future. Just like the one my father built for my mother and his young family all those years ago that will host our Thanksgiving meal. For this perspective I am grateful.