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May 30, 2011

The Difference She Made

Dr. Lynn Hoggard is a university professor of French and humanities, as well as an accomplished translator, writer, and poet. The following essay about her mother's role in her ultimately finding her true calling touches on how our mothers, quietly, courageously and without fanfare, change the world into a better and more sacred place.

My Teaching Roots
by Lynn Hoggard
My teaching career doesn’t begin with me. My mother, Ruth Bishop Taylor, who had married early and reared four children while completing undergraduate and graduate degrees, modeled for me the heroism and drama of education. In 1969, when I was a graduate student at home for several weeks between France and the University of Southern California, she was principal of the largest elementary school in Louisiana during federally mandated integration. Two people were murdered in Ascension Parish, and all schools but hers had closed under the pressure. Crosses were burned on my parents’ lawn, their automobile tires were slashed, and they received arson threats to their home and death threats to themselves and their children.
 They won’t win,” I heard my mother tell my father, and her school—Gonzales Elementary—stayed open, because she personally faced down the picketers who refused to allow entry to the forty black students assigned to her school. Taking these students by the hand, two by two, she walked them into the building each morning for as long as the picketers tried to block the way, enduring their threats and insults, under the watchful eyes of an armed National Guard. Her example showed me how much commitment, grit, and guts it can take to educate others.
         Growing up white and female in a then-segregated South, I had a lot to learn about gender, race, region, and myself. I caught fire intellectually at Centenary College, launched a multi-lingual career as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow at the University of Michigan, completed my studies in France and at the University of Southern California, began a teaching career at Texas Tech, then married and eventually continued that career at Midwestern State University. As an educator, I at first tried to embody the revolutionary spirit I saw in my mother. Gradually I came to see that her fieriness was not what fundamentally defined her, that she had become that way to uphold values that lived at the very core of her being. Her example and message to me, I slowly discovered, were quite other—and infinitely more subtle and tender—than I had at first understood. In my relationships with my students I try to mirror that quieter, deeper understanding. Not forced by history to be a pioneer, I am, nevertheless, the beneficiary of a pioneer’s courage, having learned from my mother’s hard-won struggles a life-altering lesson.
I am, in effect, one of those forty black students whose hand she securely held as they walked through the valley of the shadow.

May 24, 2011

The Sharing of Pain, the Sharing of Comfort

I have read a great deal about how a parent suffers when his or her child is in pain.  But, I've read much less about what we experience when we are the child whose parent is in pain. There is something haunting and alchemical about what we feel, even after our parents have left this earth. How do we find our peace with it?  Poet Katherine Walker gives us at least one answer in this poem about her mom's "ol' gray sweater."

Her ol’ gray sweater is comfy and warm
Cloaking the mask of the pain that she bore
It’s pilled and it’s fleece and has a few holes
The ol’ gray sweater that mother once wore

But now that she’s gone I’ve decided to keep
The ol’ gray sweater
She wore when she’d weep

I’ll put it on top of the scars that I carry
And cover my pain up that should’ve been buried
Tuck all the flaws in those pockets of hurt

It looks good o’er this ratty ol’ shirt
Don’t you think?

Though it may make a statement on “What Not to Wear”
Will never be seen in a “Vanity Fair”
Still I’ve got to hold on to this dear ol’ gray sweater
For it covers my sorrow and helps me feel better
(by keeping her close to my heart)

Katherine Walker is the author of Songs of the Feathered Wind, available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
To learn more about Katherine and her work, click here.

Photo above by Linda Yolanda at

May 22, 2011

An Opportunity Missed

The fierce winds lasted only about 10 minutes, but that is all it took to fell the towering pine down the street. Its trunk was taller than the width of the road it crashed onto, and it took out the street light on the corner across from its previous station when it fell.

A crowd of neighbors gathered around the tree. Some very helpful young boys had worked with the adults to haul the tree from the street back onto its owner's property. One of those boys was telling me all about the event when he spotted a tiny bird on the ground, its feathers of two colors, light maze and soft grey. Its tiny body pulsed hard as it struggled to breathe. The boy cried out to his parents:  "Look! Mom, Dad!  There's a baby bird here, it's been hurt!  But it's still alive. We need to do something."

The boy's  father casually replied:  "The bird will be all right. It's going to die. Come on, son." The boy looked at his father with wide eyes, stood stock still, and then followed his father as his parent continued his stroll with the family dog.

It's true, the baby bird could not have been saved. It's also true, though, that this young-man-to-be expressed real compassion, only to be met with a father's unthoughtful and misleading response. It was a missed opportunity--a moment when a parent could have a) praised his son for showing compassion for another creature; b) explained that no, the bird was not going to be "all right," in the sense that his life would be ended; and c) discuss how these things happen in nature, how death is a part of life. He could have shared his son's sadness--even for just a moment.

I wonder what will happen when the family dog's time on earth is over, when a grandparent dies--will this same father simply say, "It's all right. They're dead." ?

I don't mean to be critical of the dad. I'm sure he was caught completely off guard and was trying to protect his son from watching the creature die.  But it was a missed opportunity--and reminds me not to miss those same opportunities when they come my way.

As I walked on, I thought of the song, "His Eye is on the Sparrow." I believe that as that Eye gazes down upon us, its owner wants us to have compassion for all his sparrows, wherever they may be found. 

May 20, 2011

Simple Gifts

Think back to a time when you were given something you wanted very much.  Now, think back to a time when you were given something you needed very much. Which memory is stronger? This special story by Lee Nelson paints a portrait of a woman who created and gave many a simple gift in her lifetime, lending her own art to what was also necessary, making the best of whatever she had--or didn't have. A great example for all of us.

As I maneuver yet one more box of stuff to fit in my spare-bedroom closet, I glance up to a high shelf. The shiny white and blue sewing machine becomes a beacon in the corner of my eye.

With all the things that life has thrown my way the past few years, I haven’t had a chance to sew anything. I used to create so many beautiful things with it—prom dresses, adorable outfits for my nieces when they were toddlers, and the wedding dress I wore one very happy day 22 years ago. Although the marriage didn’t last and the prom dresses can be seen only in faded pictures, the sewing machine remains as a tribute to my late mother, Norma.

The Melody of the Singer

My mom would spend hours at her Singer tucked in the corner of our farmhouse dining room—spools of thread, gingham remnants and dozens of unfolded Butterick patterns scattered about her. She  never cared about organizing the mess. Her creative mind worried only about designing something pretty for her three daughters or herself.

The motor hummed quietly as she guided the needle through one of my new cotton dresses. I can still feel the special pride I had for her ability to literally take scraps of material and create unique wardrobes for us. She started sewing from necessity because of financial hard times, but she soon discovered that for her it was both a passion and a talent.

Making Do Creatively

Money seemed almost non-existent in our household while I was growing up. My father farmed, but the bank account never grew. Tragedy upon many misfortunes just added to financial problems. Mom did all she could to make short ends meet by gardening, canning, freezing, baking, raising chickens, and cooking everything from scratch. By the time I was 10, she had taught me to sew a pants suit, including zippered pants and a lined jacket. An amazing cook and baker, she also taught me, with patience and pride, to cook an entire Thanksgiving meal.
On Sundays and holidays, our home filled quickly with family and friends to help devour her unmatched cherry and apple pies with homemade ice cream. For awhile, she worked in our high school cafeteria, but Mom didn’t like working for others. She would rather spend her days at home, pulling weeds in her massive garden or kneading bread in her cramped, cluttered kitchen.

The happiest I ever saw her, though, was in front of her sewing machine, tailoring something spectacular for herself or those she loved. Mom still wanted to look good, no matter how little money we had. When I was only 8 or 9 years old, I would walk into her bedroom and see her putting her nylons on with long, elegant gloves so she could attach them to her garters without runs. Her 5-foot 10-inch body always seemed lean and youthful to me.

Her makeup was natural. Her smile and high cheek bones reminded me of the models I’d see while flipping through the pages of the JC Penney catalogs. I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world. And when she wore her home-sewn outfits, she looked like a million bucks.   

Pain without Complaint

Mom knew pain in her life, but never complained much. She took it all in stride and tried to make the best of every day. She would just smile and remark that all she needed was her family and her sewing machine.

When Dad died at age 60, she had to go on alone. That was a tough road for her to navigate. She had to move from the big farmhouse to a tiny one-bedroom apartment in a different town. Purging a lot of furniture didn’t bother her as long as she had a place to set up her sewing machine.

As the years passed, she suffered many medical setbacks. First, doctors diagnosed her with breast cancer and she underwent a mastectomy. She always had a good attitude when bad things came her way. That’s why no one knew for a long time that she faced demons of hallucinations and paranoia inside that creative mind. Dementia had taken hold and wasn’t going to release her. Yet, she managed to sew patches on her worn-out clothing or an occasional zipper repair to a grandchild’s coat.

A Stitch in Time …

Despite the bad years when dementia overtook her mind, I will always remember that woman who was my inspiration to be a great cook, a seamstress, a writer, a good mother and a passionate wife. Once in a while, I’ll even try and get her sewing machine out – the one and only possession of hers I truly wanted when she died – and make something beautiful and creative — as beautiful and creative as the pink-and-blue baby quilt that I hope my first-born will cherish one day. I hope he will wrap his own first baby in the comfort of love with which it was sewn and embroidered so long ago by his grandma and my mother.

Lee Nelson of northern Chicago has spent most of her professional writing career as a features newspaper reporter and now works as a freelance writer for magazines, Websites and businesses. She just recently moved from Iowa to reunite with her high school sweetheart after a 25-year separation.

Photos by Letty 17 and Arsgera of iStock photo.

May 18, 2011

The Mother Cosmos

Read this poem by Joe Massingham with care. And remember that the dark spaces of the universe hold great mysteries, that the dark is also deep--and can be its own kind of sacred shelter.

World within World

--Joe Massingham
In the beginning all energy and matter,
the universe entire, compressed into
the smallest ball, held within a black hole
 ’til, on the instant, it exploded and all
was on its way to being the world today.

At first the theorists held that
it would just expand forever.
Now we know that isn’t so, it’s
 slowing down and some time hence
will stop and be at rest, all dark.

My Mum’s a bit like that. An almost perfect sphere
of no great diameter, who,
from the beginning, filled all our lives,
drove us to know more, live broader lives,
fill all our space, use all our time.

When I was young I thought it would be thus forever.
Now I know differently. The energy is spent,
the light is flickering low and
 she is slowing down. Some time soon
she’ll stop and be at rest, all dark.

Joe Massingham was born in the UK, but has lived the second half of his life in Australia. His primary employment has been as a Navy officer, combined with an academic career that led to his earning a PhD and becoming a tutor, lecturer and Master of Wright College, University of New England, NSW. 

Joe has operated his own writing and editing business, but retired early because of cancer and heart problems and now spends time waiting to see medical practitioners, writing poetry and prose, and smelling the roses. His work has been published in Australia, the UK, Eire, USA and New Zealand.

May 17, 2011

A Memory Close at Hand

Shirley Smothers writes of a moment that many little girls carry with them forever--that of their mothers brushing their hair. So soothing when our hair was clean and soft, and so tough when our hair was tangled.  Shirley's poem helps that fleeting moment become eternal in her poem, "My Mother's Gentle Hands."

My Mother's Gentle Hands

My Mother used to comb
my long hair; when she
hit a tangle, I would cry
out in pain.

She would place her gentle
hands on my head and whisper,
"I'm sorry, darling, but you
must endure the pain so that
your hair will be shiny
and beautiful."

When my life hits a tangle,
I long for my Mother's
gentle hands to
ease the pain.

--Shirley Smothers

May 16, 2011

Coming soon....

As many of you know, Blogger was offline a few times last week. When I had time to post, in particular! Stay tuned, some great new content will appear right here, starting Tuesday .... Thanks for your patience.

May 9, 2011

Words of Wisdom from Our First Teacher

Another good way to keep our mother's presence alive is to remember the good things they said to us. I had many an intellectual conversation with my mother, who was also a writer and artist, but it's funny--almost quite literally funny--that when I think of her legacy of wisdom what comes to mind first are her one-liners from my childhood. Many of them, I'm sure, are one-liners other children heard from their mothers:

Pretty is as pretty does.
Practice what you preach.
Young ladies do not dye their hair.  :-)
Finish what you start.

I remember clearly the moment when she said to me:  "Finish what you start."  I was six years old and working on some creative project I dreamed up in my large, light-filled bedroom in our rambling old house in Durham, North Carolina. I was tired and wanted to stop my little burst of creativity.  In that moment, I think most moms would have said, "Okay, no problem." It would be a most natural response. But my mother said:  "Finish what you start." She might as well have been the Oracle of Delphi in that moment. I did not dare leave my project undone. That simple sentence helped me find the discipline I needed later in life--in college, in work, in doing things with my own son, and in many other situations.

The one-liners grew longer as I grew older. By the time I was in junior high, she often talked to me about her own experiences in junior high and high school. My mother was a native of Mississippi and had grown up in a segregated world.  It was the 1940s--segregation was not even a topic, much less an issue being addressed. 

One summer day, she boarded a train for a church conference in Illinois. Young African Americans boarded that same train.  She told me: "I looked at them and thought, we are all Christians." And in that fleeting moment, she knew in every fiber of her being that something in her world was radically out of balance.  When she returned home to her small Mississippi town and gave a report about the conference to her congregation, she, at age 15, brought up the subject of segregation, then and there.  One thing led to another, and early in my parents' marriage, one of the first projects they coordinated together was to lead a church youth camp:  get ready for this--in 1954, in San Antonio, Texas, for Anglo, Hispanic, and African-American youth.

Her faith did away with articial boundaries between human beings.  And, it gave her courage to frequently fly right in the face of every imaginable social convention. Which leads me to what was perhaps her most enduring one-liner, one that stays front-and-center in my heart and mind:  "It was just the right thing to do," she would say, making light of any risk or hardship she underwent in hundreds of situations where she went out of her way to help another or to make a stand for justice. That one-liner never allowed room for either courage or fear to be an issue. It was just life and business as usual--the right thing to do.

She instilled in me a passion for doing right by others that is so strong, it has at times gotten in my way and clouded my vision. But those moments pale in comparison to others, when I can feel my heart speak to me and say: "You know this is the right thing to do."  The inner dialogue ceases, the inner fear decreases, and I strive toward the good that is also right.  I don't always succeed, of course. I fall short more times than I can count. But the voice is steady, comes to me in a gentle Southern accent with perfect diction, and the contralto timbre that manifested itself as much in her speaking as in her singing, and I try again.  Failing or succeeding, I honor my first teacher, the one who ushered me into this life.

As we look back on what our mothers taught us and showed us, we can acknowlege that, yes, our mothers have left this earthly plane--but have they, did they ever really leave us?  I don't think so.  Not long before she died, my mother looked at me and could read my thoughts. She said simply: "I'll never be very far away."

I'm sure she meant this, because for a mother, this is simply the very right thing to do.

May 8, 2011

Through One Journey into the Next: A Son's Accompaniment

I have written before that sudden deaths bring their own kind of bristling, shocking pain to those left behind. On the other hand, the pain that comes from watching a loved one suffer for a long period of time is no less great and requires physical, emotional, and spiritual stamina that can challenge one's every fiber.

I hope that this thoughtful essay from W. Charles, which describes our mother's journey through what he calls "brutal" and "barbarous" illness into the journey that followed will touch chords with those of you who have had similar experiences.

My grieving process over my mother’s passing might not be considered usual.  Before describing that process, I will say that I use “passing” not as a polite euphemism for “death.”  I have no problem using the word “death.”  As should become apparent, I feel that rather than dying, my mother passed from this existence to another.

I will also say two things about the picture that accompanies this remembrance.  It is my favorite picture of my mother, and this image was key in dealing with my grief.
My grieving process was not usual because the vast majority of it was completed before my mother’s body ceased living. 
In some ways my mother’s health was always frail, but it took a downward turn in 1988, and that began a slow and brutal battle that lasted over thirteen years.  Ysabel can attest to this, as she is my sister.  It is with maybe 1% hyperbole that I say that for our mother every single day was worse than the preceding one for thirteen years. 

There were two primary culprits in her demise: Addison’s Disease (an adrenal deficiency) and a connective tissue disorder called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, or EDS.  A medical description would take some time, so suffice it to say that each of these conditions exacerbated the other.  Over time the effect was that her body literally collapsed. Slightly bumping into an object would cause deep and expansive bruises that would last for weeks. Coughing hard and sudden movements of any kind would cause tiny fractures in her ribs and vertebrae and other bones. One effect of EDS is that the body takes longer to heal, thus leaving the body susceptible to re-injury and vulnerable to new injury, and all of that happened with my mother.  She lost about nine inches in height through her ordeal.  That caused tremendous pressure on her organs and bodily systems, causing not only malfunctions but tremendous pain–pain in addition to that of the bruising and fractures.

Then about halfway into this nightmare came something particularly cruel.  Have you seen the recent lawyer TV ads about possible lawsuits for people who took the drug Reglan and developed something called “tardive dyskinesia?”  I know that lawyer ads like that can cause derisive laughter, but I assure you that tardive dyskinesia is real, and is no laughing matter.  My mother did take Reglan, and that did result in her having tardive dyskinesia.

As noted in Wikipedia, tardive dyskinesia is characterized by repetitive, involuntary, purposeless movements, such as grimacing, tongue protrusion, lip smacking, puckering and pursing of the lips, and rapid eye blinking. Rapid movements of the extremities may also occur. Impaired movements of the fingers may also appear. For comparison, patients with Parkinson's disease have difficulty moving, while patients with tardive dyskinesia have difficulty not moving.

Tardive dyskinesia caused my mother’s tongue to often move uncontrollably, at which times she would be unable to speak or eat.  Her eyes would sometimes move rapidly and render her incapable of focusing on any object.  Other uncontrollable body movements would result in the bruising and fractures I mentioned earlier.  She eventually lost almost all ability to use her hands.  And most significantly, tardive dyskinesia affected her diaphragm, meaning she could not breathe, and she came close to dying several times because of this one symptom.

And this was her life every day...for years.  Alhough it might be hard to believe, I have not come close to describing the full extent of her symptoms and suffering.

Watching my mother go through this was beyond excruciating.  However, for me there was something that made it even worse than one might expect.  On a Sunday night in late September 1988, I had a phone conversation with my parents.  Afterwards, I had an experience I wish I never had.  Call it a vision or a revelation or any other similar term.  In an instant, I knew what was going to happen to my mother.  This was not just a feeling or a guess.  This was information conveyed to me, and it was clear and unequivocal. I knew that she was going to go through a long, barbarous illness–and that there was nothing I or anyone else could do about it.  Indeed, no medical professional ever came close to solving the dilemma that was my mother’s health. For instance, after contracting tardive dyskinesia, she spent a week at the Mayo Clinic, and the doctors there were completely mystified.

I did not wish for my mother to die, but I did pray for an end to the pain and torment that relentlessly and mercilessly attacked her for so many years.

That release finally came on September 11, 2001.

My grieving process had been ongoing for 13 years by then, and when Ysabel called me that afternoon and said simply “You need to come home,” there was sadness in my heart, but there was also a huge sense of relief, knowing that our mother was then free.

Still, there was grief to deal with, and as odd as this will sound, the fact that she passed on 9-11 was important in the next steps of my grieving process.  Our father, Ysabel, my other sister Susan, and I believed that it was no random act that she passed away on that particular day.  As Ysabel noted in her beautiful eulogy, our mother had a sign in her office which said “The greatest privilege of a Christian is to serve.”  Our mother was most assuredly one who practiced what she preached.  She spent much of her life in service to other people. 

As we were about to leave the hospital on the night of 9-11, Susan (who passed on in June 2010) said that perhaps our mother decided to leave this world on that day because she was a soul ready to leave, while there were thousands of other souls that left that morning who were not ready and that she could help them.  That made perfect sense to us.  And we were not the only people with that thought.  Over the next week, many people told us the same thing.

And now I finally get to my favorite picture of my mother...As I tried to sleep that night, I wondered whether the death of her body had truly freed her.  I wondered whether she would be able to do what she wanted.  Anxiety began building within me.  And just when that anxiety was about to break me down, my mother appeared to me in a vision–and rather than appearing as she did in her last years as physically broken, she appeared exactly as she looked in that picture: youthful, brimming with life and promise, and, above all, smiling.  She did not speak, but as she gazed upon me with a renewed spark in those amazingly deep eyes, she nevertheless told me, “I’m fine.  I have things to do.”

I smiled and then peacefully drifted off to sleep.

May 5, 2011

Truth in a Line / La verdad en una frase

Photo by Ysabel de la Rosa

God could not be everywhere, so he created mothers.

Dios no podría estar en todas partes a la vez, y por eso creó las madres.

Jewish proverb / Proverbio judío

May 2, 2011

For Our Mothers, Without Whom ....

The Dream of Motherhood by Ysabel de la Rosa
This post title comes from an author whose name, unfortunately, I cannot remember. I do remember, though, that the dedication for his book read:  "For my mother, without whom". This dedication says everything and often comes to my mind in this month that hosts "Mother's Day."

You'll find a fascinating history of Mother's Day here. More than 40 countries celebrate Mother's Day, which has ancient roots in reverence for the divine Feminine and for peace. The most recent actors in this history were Julia Ward Howe and her daughter Anna M. Jarvis of the United States. Both women wanted Mother's Day to honor  mothers everywhere and to be a day that emphasized the peace that mothers around the world want for their families. Far from their thoughts was the idea, expressed early on by a florists' trade journal that, "This was a day that could be exploited."

And has it ever! I started receiving promotional emails for buying gifts for Mother's Day by mid-April. They arrived daily by April's end and continue. There's a hitch, though, in marketing to me:  My mother is dead.

I can't be the only person barraged by these ads whose mother has also made the transition into the next life. You would think, with niche marketing and data mining, that marketers could take the time to figure this out. Perhaps, they could simply offer recipients the ability to opt out of Mother's Day promotional emails, if nothing else.

Anna M. Jarvis
But I have a better idea. Those of us who cannot give physical gifts to our mothers can give other kinds of gifts in their honor. To that end, I'm inviting you to send poems, essays, verbal or visual tributes to your mother that I will post on this blog during the month of May. Please refer to the guidelines for submissions in the sidebar of the blog. Loss can come by means other than physical death, so this invitation extends also to persons who have lost their mother through divorce or some other means.

If you would also like to share something that helped you through the loss of your mom, please feel free to send that, as well. This blog is meant to be a "place" where people can both express themselves and find ways to help themselves with the great challenge of moving on without those whom we love by our sides.