Thursday, March 11, 2010

Ever Enough

She means well.  She fears that should she disengage from the problems of those she loves, they will crash and burn on the jagged rocks of The World.  So it has always been with my mother.

This good woman has a stalwart belief in all things Evangelical; it saddens her that I bristle in discomfort at the thought of being lumped in with the group I've fled from.  She reminds me that my dead father "would be mighty disappointed" with my flight away from that particular nest, although I'm not sure she's right.

Dad always seemed contented to know that his children carried the light, although none of our lanterns looked exactly alike.

For my mother, my being a Christian is not enough these days.  It's not enough that I believe the Creeds, that I believe in the Atonement of Christ for my sins; not enough that I embrace a Trinitarian God, and a bodily resurrection, not to mention a miraculous virgin birth. 

I have to see things her way.

My mother, to be fair, has been an exemplary woman for my entire life.  She stood against racism in our all-white community of Barrington, Rhode Island, she was the first woman to preach a sermon at our Conservative Baptist church, and while she'd never label herself a Feminist, it was she who asked the right questions which caused her church to recognize women as leaders in the church.  This was the stuff of scandal 35 years ago, and in some circles, it still is.  

She and I don't see eye to eye, but I admire many of her traits and accomplishments.  I am acutely aware that we share some gifts and talents, the love of music and words being chief among them.  Her great gift to me was the nurturing of these gifts.

My mother's love of Mahalia Jackson's music is probably the raison d'être for my musical quest.  I can still see Mom dancing with her young children in our living room as Mahalia belted out "Didn't It Rain?" while the needle in our old RCA Victor scraped and skipped across the ribbed furrows of an oft-used record.

As a teenage paperboy, I took my Christmas tips and bought a used set of drums.  They were cheap, Japanese drums with badges that said "Norma" tacked to their blue sparkle shells.  Dad and I drove through the snowy streets of our town to collect them from the smokey den of a local family whose son had tired of his brush with rock'n'roll.

I carried the bass drum towards the parsonage as Mom came out to greet us.  She recalls saying to God Almighty, "Lawd, have you given him this gift only to have him wind up in strip bahs?"  I guess a drummer's options were slim at the time.

I've always appreciated that her prayer was a question, especially given the fact that she, more often than not, has answers.  I'm thankful that she didn't put her foot down and refuse entrance to my drums; had she seen the coming onslaught of continual throbbing and pounding, she may have barred them from our basement.  I'm grateful that she was able to believe that the Giver of talent could also be a Navigator for it.

The drums were my life until I was halfway through college, when the songwriting bug led me to guitar and piano.  The drums brought me a little bit of glory, some high school notoriety, and a place in a band which traveled to Scandinavia.  But eventually, I realized that to be a drummer is to depend on the fact that a band has to need you, whereas a guitarist or pianist can play solo, without ever looking back.

Mom followed my career enthusiastically as it led from one Christian band to another, and took great pride in my using my talents "for the Lawd".  As I matured, however, I realized that singing to the choir was not enough for me.  I'd been writing songs for years now, and not all of them fit neatly into the Christian Music world.  My faith became a bit more private and personal as I grew, although you might not think so by reading these pages.  I was less inclined to immediately jump into a spiritual discussion, and felt less pressure to evangelize than I had felt as a young man.

Methodically, as Christian music and I had less and less use for each other, God Almighty opened new doors, and the opportunities to play great music became more and more frequent. 

My mother seems conflicted about what I’ve done with the gift she passed my way.  She has often expressed to me her grave disappointment that I am not “using my gifts for the Lawd”.   When we speak of career choices, she steers the conversation toward The Day of Judgment, and how God Almighty will have a word with me about the misuse of the gifts he entrusted to me.  She bristles when I tell her I’ve written a song for a group called “The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band”, thinking, no doubt, that a band with such a name must play strip bars. 

She worries about the cost of my disappointing God.  Not that I’ll burn in Hell, but that, because I’ve not limited my lyrical content to singing His praises, my entrance to the gates of Gloryland will include a moment of humilty in which our Lord will apparently roll his fiery eyes, sigh, and remind me that I could have done so much more for Him, but, well... sigh, I didn't, but well, there's been a place prepared for me, so I may as well come in.   Perhaps, he'll slap my wrist while he's at it.

Ironically, it is my upbringing which gave me my belief in The Atonement, and in the notion that Jesus spilled enough of his own blood to cover a multitude of sins.  In light of that, I’ve fruitlessly argued that I envision no 8mm film clips of my most embarrassing and private moments, which is what the Final Judgment has always sounded like to me.  Eternity will seem aptly named if Mom is right about the Judgment; it will feel like forever.

These are the conversations which I've taken great pains to learn how not to have.  Sadly, I no longer share my successes with my mother, and I've learned to withhold the details of my life, not that I'm doing anything unseemly.  Simply put, whatever I share will be processed through the filter of her approval mechanism, and a tired conversation will ensue. 

The Kyrie and the hymn I've been fortunate enough to have published aren't enough to make her realize that I'm trying to be holistic about my gifts.  With her, it's all or nothing.  My playing on the stages of the world with great artists doesn't mean much to her, but if I were a penniless hymn writer, she would be ecstatic about my career choice.

Once, after Mom had gone on and on about my negligent use of my gifts for "the Lawd", I said, "Mom, I won't have this conversation with you.  I love you, but if you keep going, I'll be hanging up".  "Yes, I know, but..."

"Love you, Mom."


I’ve gone from being the dutiful son to the negligent one.  I no longer pick up the phone to call and see how life is in her assisted living community.  Instead, I respond to her mass emails with a brief, cheerful detail-free email.  I tell her that my daughters and I are well.  I don't tell her how beautiful Maddy's blue hair is or about Kate's lizard-themed illustration project.  And I don't answer her question regarding the devotional book she gave me for Christmas 2008, because the answer is, "No, I'm not reading it".

My daughters and I visit her once a year in Connecticut for several hours.  On one trip, we found an IKEA in New Haven, and loaded up on lingonberries, potatoes, Swedish meatballs, and korv, the Swedish sausage that I make at Christmas.  When we got to Hartford, the girls and their grandmother busied themselves with a game of Scrabble™ while I cooked a Swedish meal for my mother, whose ancestors hailed from Gothenberg.

She was delighted that I cooked for her, and it was a wonderful way to avoid a conversation with her while showing her the respect and kindness that a mother deserves.  In a small, charitable act I am able to make her journey on the Long Road Home a bit more comfortable. 

I never imagined having to use strategies and negotiations in this most fundamental of relationships, and even as I write these words, I hope to balance them with an appreciation for the good things that Mom has brought to my life.

I think about the biblical notion of sheep being separated from goats, and wonder which group I'll be in.  I'm not prepared to choose between the secular and the sacred; I don't see them as separate, and I'm not sure that one can't be mistaken for the other.

Upon considering my pending judgment, I wonder, is the Atonement not enough?  Is it really possible that the faithful will stroll through Heaven's gate only to have their wrists slapped by God Almighty's holy yardstick?  Did He really hang up on that Cross for the sins of humanity only to find that He wasn't enough for Himself?  

Meanwhile, I treasure the good memories of my mother, while acknowledging sadly that we just don't agree anymore.  She worries about her son, who seems to have been co-opted by The World, and perhaps it's only a matter of time before I wind up playing drums in a strip bar. 

Boom chick-a boom.



  1. Every time I hear stories like this about Grandma, I can't help but take it personally. I mean, I guess she disapproves of my career choice too?? Does she think I should have chosen theology instead of the social sciences?? She says she's so proud of me, but what is she really thinking? And if she actually is proud of me and my career path, what's the difference between me and you? Maybe the difference is just that you're her own son. Oh well!

  2. well, they say it's easier to be a grandparent than to be a parent. I think you've got it right about the difference.

  3. "Dad always seemed contented to know that his children carried the light, although none of our lanterns looked exactly alike." That's a wonderful way to say it. Thanks.

  4. The weird thing about blogging like this and telling a story... it can hurt feelings and bring up "stuff"... And at this early stage of my blog, I know of several readers (besides family) who are familiar with some of the characters. That makes the story more difficult to tell, to be sure.

    I may be failing as a writer if the humor of my mother's character isn't obvious. Her staid beliefs ,her accent, and her worrying about the nature of God make her compelling to me.

    She is, as I've written, a good person.

    Hopefully, I can make her and the other people I write about compelling to readers.

    Thank you for reading.


  5. Uncle Phil, I love the portrait you paint of Grandma. I think it's dead on, and it shows she's a complicated person just like we all are. I think you are so generous in recognizing all her good qualities along with the not so good. We're all flawed people, obviously, and I could only hope that if a family member wrote about me, they'd do it in as balanced and loving a way as you do with Grandma!

  6. I love your sketches of life growing up in Barrington, your Mormor and Mom, and your Dad. And the faith that meanders through all. Well done, thou good and faithful storyteller.

  7. Thankyou, Mr Coffee. I just used one of your fabulous grinders this morning.

  8. I think there are plenty of righteous people playing drums in strip clubs....

    beautiful writing

    complex stuff

  9. Ah, Phil....our mothers. We could go on for hours abut them, couldn't we? So much to appreciate, and so much to cringe about. They sure are a great resource for some fun stories though. I'm not sure if you have regaled your blog with the "shaved her legs and..." joke that your Mom just didn't get (to the mass hysteria of everyone else). I always smile fondly when I think of that. Sure wish I could've met her. I bet she and my mother would've been two peas in a pod.

  10. howlinformydarlin- Marco, I'm honored that you chimed in and that you're reading. Thanks!

    303, you know, I don't think our mothers would have been peas in a pod, as you suggest. I think they might have seen in each other the things that we presently writing about them.

    Thanks everyone.

  11. Well, if I ain't moved to tears, Phil. This was beautiful! Thank you.

  12. In a different way, I have had a similar experience with my mother. She is a good woman whose expression of faithfulness to Christ is tied to a lifelong devotion to a specific church tradition. (Ironically, she refuses to define herself as a part of the Plymouth Brethren but this best explains her church affiliation.) Because I don’t attend this type of church, I will never be good enough in her eyes. I feel like a wayward sinner because I am an active member of a Presbyterian church. Not that I really care about being a Presbyterian—I just like this particular local church. I won’t even talk to her about how our daughter and son-in-law go to an Episcopal Church. I imagine that intellectually she acknowledges that I am a Christian believer but emotionally she regards me as an outsider. It is too bad because although we both have faith in Christ, her attitude hinders spiritual fellowship with one another. We’re unable to share with each other about our faith journey and that makes me sad.

  13. Rb, thank you for reading!

    Jacqueline, the kind of spiritual relationship you want with your mother is probably not going to happen. For most of my adult life, I attempted to get my mother's approval. We had what seemed to be a great relationship in many ways, until I realized that it was only the things that we agreed on that she could accept about me.

    This led to a further journey, which I will no doubt write about, to a therapy program called Onsite here in TN. Through the journey Onsite provided me, I was able to come to the place of honoring myself, and thus the above writings.

    Following my experience in therapy, my mother did and said things to me which played her hand as a less than positive force in my life. I was able, for the first time in my life, to not fight for her acceptance, nor to even shame her about these things (whish is impossible anyway).

    I can only say that while satisfaction with your mother is unlikely, freedom from her is possible.

    Best wishes and thanks for sharing.

  14. Thank you for your response to my comment. I look forward to more reading!


Your comments are welcome, and I will try answer any questions, if possible. Thanks for reading! pkm