This was meant for Mother’s Day but I like to consider of all May Mother’s Month. An ode to four mother’s I know and love:
My mother always described growing up under communism as being gray and oppressive though as a kid, having been raised in America and then visiting Slovakia, I couldn’t wrap my mind around that. There were the greenest valleys under the bluest skies, the deepest forests out of which sprung up the most enchanting folktales, and the dreamiest hills topped with the most romantic castle ruins. But in my limited experience in adulting, I’ve come to realize some of the complexities of place and of personal happiness and that living in the mountains won’t solve everything as ten-year-old Dominika thought.
My mother left her parents and sisters to come here, a world away from her first home–a flat, tepid marsh covered in a patchwork quilt of gray highways and smokestacks. She got married, had a baby, and then had four more babies. She had to become a mother without her own mother and sisters to help. Now that I’m a mother, I find this unimaginable. Within a year of coming here, she suffered the loss of her father and had to grieve an ocean away from her family and without the consolation of witnessing and participating in those last rites and rituals the Church gives us.
But she gave me a beautiful childhood and my memories of growing up with my mother are of making homemade pizza with her, of taking trips to the library and having picnics, and of being picked up early from school every so often just because she thought I might need a break.
She’s the most joyful person I know. She finds hearts in everything, especially tree branches. She has few inhibitions about social decorum. She once walked into the St. Regis hotel for high tea with those disposable flipflops from a nail place because her nails were still wet. She will start dancing anywhere anytime if she hears a beat she can’t resist. As an adolescent, I found this all unbearable but now I find hilariously delightful and liberating. She always smells so good. So maternal. A mixture of perfume and housekeeping and love. She is closer to nature than anyone else I know. Prays more than anyone else I know. Preaches at her kids more incessantly than anyone else I know. And I’m so grateful she’s my mother.
My father’s mother was a magnificent woman. My ideal woman. She was a nurse, a wife, a mother of seven children. When I think of her, I think of Arizona where she lived–sweet-smelling and full of warmth, adventure, and life.
She was so generous and loving with all people. She had over twenty grandchildren but still made each one feel uniquely loved. She would always tell people that I was a writer and that I would dedicate my first book to her. And I will if I should ever write one.
After she raised her children, she began hiking and hiked the Grand Canyon into her seventies. She traveled round the world making friends everywhere she went. When my mother once said that she couldn’t imagine her daughters getting married and having babies in their early twenties, my grandma laughed and said that having her seven children never stopped her from her achieving her dreams. And I needed to hear that. I so needed to hear that.
The last time I saw her, she was suffering from lung cancer. When I told her I was pregnant, she hugged me tight and told me she had to stay alive to meet my baby. But she passed away on the feast of the Assumption. Since her love for Mary was so great, the beauty of this was lost on no one.
I imagine now she is hiking through celestial canyons, canoeing down the Milky Way, and easily winning the saints and angels over to her friendship. (I readily admit that’s pretty dodgy theology but I think it’s safe to believe that Heaven is full of both adventure and friendship).
My stará mama. My mother’s mother. Another magnificent woman. Another one of my ideal women. She embodied the quote by Thomas Merton which I try to keep at the forefront of my mind in writing this blog and in living: “Happiness is not a matter of intensity, but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony.”
After a life of toil, of moving away from her family to marry and live among strangers, of mothering four children, farming, living through wars and under communism, of working as a cleaning woman in a hospital, of building and making a home in the city alongside my mother’s father, of having two of her children leave for America, and then of being widowed, she lived quietly by the rhythm of her daily prayers and work. She maybe even more perfectly harmonized that balance between ora et labora than those in the cloister.
She loved her grandchildren and loved when we visited, but I imagine it was probably difficult for her to have rhythms upset by wild and wiggly children. I remember countless time being hushed and told, “stará mama spíííí!” while she was taking her daily nap.
The last time I saw her was when I stopped over in the motherland during my study abroad semester in college. There was plenty wonderful about the whole study abroad experience, but at that point in the semester, I was cold to the bone, didn’t remember the last time I had been hugged, and was tired of hearing a language that sounded like honking geese. And there my stará mama and my wonderful aunts were full of warm hugs with delicious treats up their sleeves for me. I lived like an eighty-year-old woman those two weeks. We woke up at 7am, took naps in the afternoon, said our rosary in the evening, watched an hour of television and went to bed by 9pm (me decked out in a Christmas sweater and my mom’s pajamas pants from when she was postpartum with my twin brothers because my stará mama deemed my jams not warm enough for May).
They were two of the best weeks of my life. I remember thinking that it was probably the last time I’d see her, and the sound of her rich voice carrying hymns throughout the house all day made my heart feel as though it would break from beauty.
My son’s godmother
When I had to choose a spiritual mother for my son, I immediately thought of this dear friend. We met during college freshman orientation and I didn’t realize then that becoming friends with her meant I was saying yes to an education in friendship. Just by being who she is, she’s taught me so much about what it means to choose (and keep choosing) a person for that “least natural of loves”.
Her earnest and infectious love for life reveals itself in a thousand ways particularly in the way that she gives gifts. During the process of wedding planning and then during pregnancy, I was pretty much just hoping all the time I spent crafting registries would pay off respectively in the forms of the pretty dishes I was coveting and the necessary but not gharish baby items I wanted. But this friend always seems to know what I truly need. As a wedding gift, she asked all the married couples she looked up to to write my husband and me letters with marriage advice. As a baby shower gift, she put together a stay-at-home date night kit replete with mini champagne bottles and chocolate.
And then there’s small gifts like when she brings me fresh cut rosemary. And then there’s the great gift of her conversations. I feel as though we have an on-going conversation that we pick up and leave off whenever we get together. A conversation on friendship, on vocation, on life dreams and goals that always leaves me high on hopefulness.
When I asked her to be my son’s godmother, she voiced her concerns about being his godmother and her vocation and how she might not be able to be physically present in his life. But I’m a great believer in godparenthood being able to transcend time and space and I don’t think the gift of self that she’s given me in our friendship will be denied to my child if her vocation calls her elsewhere.
And truly I feel that about all these women. I grieved with the passing of both my grandmothers that my son would never know them. But their gift of self is not bound by material limitations. There are two quotes that I find comforting particularly in regard to the death of loved ones but also in regard to physical separation of any kind. I would offer commentary but I really think they’re left best speaking for themselves:
“Those who join the Carmelite Order are not lost to their near and dear ones, but have been won for time, because it is our vocation to intercede to God for everyone.”
-St. Edith Stein
“But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
-Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey
A happy May to all the beautiful mothers, physical or spiritual, from all time and space.