what’s a mother’s legacy?

I had stepped outside for a breath of fresh air and – truth be told – a break from the boys inside who were driving me crazy. I walked the dog down to the street and pulled the newspaper from its box, tugged off the plastic wrapper still dripping from the morning’s latest summer storm.

A headline at the bottom caught my eye. It made me stop and read the whole obituary in my driveway: In eight decades as a singer and pianist, she made her name by balancing her family with her career. It’s not every day that a mother’s work-life balance makes the front page.

“Her heart was as big as her talent,” said Paul Peterson, her youngest child. “She was everybody’s mom. They all called her ‘Mama Jeanne.’ She was always so welcoming. Everyone from David Sanborn to Steve Miller rehearsed in her basement on Morgan Avenue.”

“She lived an incredible life and left a great legacy,” said her grandson, saxophonist/keyboardist/singer Jason Peterson DeLaire, who tours in Michael Bolton’s band. “From her, we learned about music and life and love.”

As I walked back up the driveway, I wondered about the questions we all eventually ask ourselves in the quiet of facing mortality.

What might they say about me when I’m gone? What kind of legacy would I leave?

. . .

The video made the usual viral rounds this week, and I should have known from everyone’s Facebook warnings to watch with Kleenex in hand that the coffee shop was not the place to click on the link. But caffeinated click I did, and Colbert choked me up, too.

Setting aside his usual snark and cynicism, he spoke eloquently and emotionally about the woman whose love had shaped his very self. As I tried to coolly wipe my nose with a napkin before anyone noticed, the same questions quietly rose up again:

What would my kids say about me after I die? How can I lead the kind of life that leaves people remembering love?

. . .

Last week I held my youngest in my lap for a blessed three solid minutes while we listened to the priest’s homily. Mass was going so much better than the week before: spirits were high, boys were behaving. I’d even managed to skim the readings for the day over breakfast so I had some clue what was going on even when I didn’t hear it.

But the opening line from the Gospel had bugged me all morning, tripping me up like an annoying pebble stuck in my sandal.

Once when Jesus was praying in solitude, and the disciples were with him…

How could he be alone and yet accompanied? How could he pray so peacefully surrounded by people?

Was this some archaic editorial inconsistency (he’s alone/whoops, he’s with everyone)? Or simply proof of the divinity of He Who Could Meditate Amidst The Annoying Masses Of Humanity Even Though I Can’t Manage An Our Father When My Kids Are Driving Me Crazy?

I wondered about this paradox of prayer. As I cleaned up the breakfast dishes, as I drove the boys to church, as I plied them with books and crayons during the Gospel. I wanted to hear some word about how this worked.

But as the visiting priest started preaching about the obvious heart of the gospel – take up your cross and follow me – I figured the line that caught me would get glossed over.

Until he started telling his own story of feeling called to the priesthood.

He spoke about his mother who raised 7 children. How she prayed in the living room every evening before dinner while the rowdy crew of kids ran circles around her. Unflappable, she’d sit there on the couch with the same small prayer book in hand.

Only after she died, well into her nineties, did her son get a chance to see that prayer book. Wondering what captivated her attention every evening, he flipped it open to the well-worn middle and found that every night she had been praying for her children’s callings – specifically that of the two boys she worried about most, one would get married and one would become a priest. (The current priest admitted he was in fact the former, to the laughter of the congregation.)

But as he quickly moved into the next part of his story, I sat there still thinking about his mother as I breathed in the scent of my boy’s messy curls. I realized this priest had enlightened exactly the passage I’d pondered.

That was how you prayed in solitude, even with all the ramble of disciples around you.

That was how you lived a life where work and love could be braided together in messy beauty.

That was how you left a legacy of compassion and caring so deep that the people you loved would never forget it.

You prayed like Christ. You prayed with a mother’s heart for what mattered most.

8 thoughts on “what’s a mother’s legacy?

  1. Wow. I’ve been thinking about this lately, too – how we often feel guilt at not finding solitude to “work on” our relationship with Christ. How we’re called to worship with our hands and pray with our whole lives. Thanks for such a great, thought provoking post!

    1. Oh yes – that “praying without ceasing” means something much different than it looks at first blush! I love how you call it worshipping with our hands – a beautiful reminder for all that we touch during the course of a day.

  2. Perhaps the only thing harder than being a mother, is being called by God (and this is a true vocation) to love children who are not your own as very much as you would love your own (if God ever allowed you to have your own) when the parents of the children in-question are still around and part of their lives. It’s like walking a razor blade — there is no way you can speak the truth: God sent me here because he saw your need when you wouldn’t ask for help. You get zero credit from society for whatever love and love of Christ you speak into the loves of these children (you may be the only person speaking Christ into their lives). The million hilarious little kid stories cannot be shared, because it’s not your kid. Few photos exist. Don’t expect to be remembered on holidays. Expect to have your heart broken, daily. You cannot fix the brokenness behind why God called you into the lives of these children in the first place, you can only love…and pray…and have faith that the Holy Spirit will pick up the slack.

    1. Indeed, Val – the mothering calling goes beyond biology or even family ties. You’ve spoken truth to this, and the depth of your love for the children in your life rings true. Thank you for reminding me of this.

      1. There was nothing “theoretical” about that when I wrote that, but we just passed through a very difficult weekend in a very difficult season in the household where I have been living for two years. It’s hard to re-read those words today. There was this moment where a friend of mine called the question over whether or not God even cared as we were changing-guard late night on Saturday night after I finished babysitting. My answer was: “If God didn’t care, I wouldn’t be standing in your living room right now.” You’re welcome, and blessings.

  3. Reblogged this on St. Val the Eccentric and commented:
    This is a beautiful post, well-worth reading and thinking about. What is a mother’s legacy? How can one pray in solitude when surrounded by people? (namely small people driving you crazy). This blessed my day, may it bless yours.

  4. I’m one of those who also teared up at Colbert’s tribute … so lovely, especially given the tragedy she and her family endured when Stephen was young.

    I was thinking about how so many people say such superlatives about their mothers when they die: she was always so loving, she gave and gave, she was the wisest person I knew, she was my role model. For a fleeting moment, I had the random thought: Are these loved ones telling the truth when they say such things? Can there really be that many amazing women all around us, quietly living like saints on earth? And I realized that yes, they are telling the truth, and there really are so many moms like that. Such holiness is far closer to us than we think. I hope my kids will have cause to say the same about me someday.

    1. Ginny, your comment made me laugh because I love reading obituaries and always end up inflicting my favorites on my husband on Sundays – and he will sometimes respond with your same line of thought (although much snarkier): “No one ever says, ‘What a jerk! We’re so glad he’s gone!’ in the obituaries. 😉 I like to side with your optimism instead. I think there has always been more goodness and compassion around us that goes unrecognized and uncelebrated. It’s a shame when we wait till the end to tell someone how much they meant to us, but I think the superlatives come closer to the truth than the cynicism or simply the unnoticed of day-to-day.

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