I remember lots of things about my mother. I remember the way her laugh shook her shoulders as she cackled, I remember the smell of her coffee before I went to bed and when I woke in the morning. I remember her rough feet curled under her as she read her Bible in the morning sun. But I don’t remember where or when or why she told me something I remember so well.
My momma never spoke ill of my father in public– ever. She explained it to me once, and while I can’t remember the event, I do recall her telling me explicitly why she did it and what for. She said that her vow to my father was sacred– that he entrusted her with his heart and life– and to bring up his shortcomings in public, even in teasing, was to betray that trust and dishonor him. It wasn’t a promise my father asked for, but she freely gave him her confidence in honor and love.
We were at a bridal shower once when I was very young, lots of ladies sipping tea in a sun-filled room, laughing and eating finger sandwiches. My mom had brought me along because she knew I loved these feminine gatherings (and so I could wear the new frilly dress my grandma had made me), and after a while the topic of husbands arose. Eyes started rolling and each woman’s pitch rose as she recounted a husband’s recent indiscretion and roaring laughter ensued. Toilet seats left up, forgetting this, losing that (again!)… All was fodder for their popcorn grievance session. I turned to my mother at one point, half expecting her to chime in with a sarcastic gripe about something equally cringe-worthy my dad had just done, but she just sat there smiling softly, sipping her tea, and gave me a wink.
My mom defended our home ferociously, both from attacks outside and within. Hurtful teasing or sarcastic jabs at home were quickly met by her fierce gaze. “We do not talk like that at home. Apologize, NOW.” Her goal was always to make our home a haven, a safe place, free of hurtful teasing and danger, and she modeled that with my dad. She saw his commitment to her as something to honor– how could she disrespect his vulnerability by griping with girlfriends or her sister on the phone about his socks on the floor and that dumb thing he said last weekend?
Her honor changed him. My dad– the oldest of three, son of an army colonel, having grown up rootless all over the world– was never familiar or friendly with his emotions. Trust was foreign. He was by no means a perfect, or always respectable, husband. But as my parents’ marriage grew, he transformed. He softened, learned to trust, and relaxed within the tender confines of unconditional love. And my mother continued, despite his consistent shortcomings.
I don’t know why this memory has surfaced in the pools of my mind recently, but I can’t stop thinking about how brave and strong that love of my mom’s was, how integrous and whole. While my dad was the oldest of three, my mom was the youngest of five, growing up with a bipolar/schizophrenic mother and WWII vet father. She was raised in extreme dysfunction and pain, and at 18 bought a one-way ticket for as far as she could go. Her ticket took her to the place where she met Jesus and my dad. What strikes me about all of this is– how did she know? How did she know how to love unconditionally when she had hardly ever been loved at all? How did she know how to create a safe home when she had never felt at home anywhere? How did she know to build a healthy marriage when she had never — ever– seen one?
The only answer I have is Jesus. His love and perfect protection, in stark contrast to all she’d ever known, taught her to love and protect like he does.