Mama Holy’s Handbag

The New York Times recently published an article about the physiological and psychological changes that […]

Carrie Willard / 5.10.17

The New York Times recently published an article about the physiological and psychological changes that happen to women when they become mothers. This reminded me of a conversation I had with my son when he was in preschool about irreversible change, when he was learning about tadpoles and caterpillars. “When you became a mommy,” he said, “that was a metamorphosis.” He was trying out a new vocabulary word on me, and also stating the truth.

This Sunday will mark my tenth Mother’s Day as a mother. I sometimes feel like I know less now than I did in 2008, but I’ve at least learned that moms are expected to carry around everybody’s everything. What started, for me, as a huge backpack-style diaper bag with everything from diapers and wipes to a change of clothes for the whole family has become my purse, which is littered with restaurant crayons and someone’s discarded-but-treasured doo-dad from a birthday party favor bag. I have metamorphosed into the holder of things.

I’m also the keeper of memories, which I imagine is a task that falls to a lot of mothers in a lot of families. I carefully recorded my first baby’s first teeth, first words, first holidays, and milestones in a baby book. For the second kid, well, not so much, but luckily he was born around the same time that my husband and I got iPhones, so there are one trillion photos of him to even it all out. If I didn’t record these events, of course they still would have happened, but would they be remembered? Somehow the mothers of the world have become the keepers of baby books and locks of hair and children’s first shoes. As the third of four children myself, I don’t think there is a baby book recording all of these memories for me, but my mom still remembers my shoe size from the time of my first birthday. (My dad, while a wonderful dad, is probably not completely sure if one-year-olds wear shoes. Bless.) My mom is the keeper of memories.

But what happens when memories start to disappear? My father-in-law, who died of complications arising from Alzheimer’s around the same time that I became a mother, lost so many memories in the years before he died. Because he was a quiet man, even before dementia set in, it was hard to tell what he remembered, and what was gone. Some memories came back in unexpectedly sweet ways. He proposed marriage to my mother-in-law, by then his wife of many decades. He re-introduced her to his siblings as the girl he was going to marry.

What was lost, then? The German theologian Jürgen Moltmann wrote these words at the end of his autobiography:

The people to whom I owe my life are unforgotten. They are present to me, because in their love I became free and can breathe in wide spaces. Unforgotten for me are people to whom I am bound in affection and respect. They have entered into my life, and I perhaps a little into theirs. Unforgotten for me are the dead whom I miss. They are always especially present to me. Nothing that has been, is no more; everything that has happened remains. We cannot make anything undone, not the ill, but not the good either. What was lovely and successful, and the happiness we have experienced, no one can take from us, neither transitory time nor death.

Raise your hand if you’re humming The Beatles’ “In My Life” when you read that:

There are places I’ll remember
All my life, though some have changed.
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain.

The memories that slipped away from the mind of my father-in-law are not lost because, as my husband wrote for the funeral of his beloved Daddy, “God has embraced them for him as surely as God now embraces him for us.” Maybe God keeps those memories in the same place where the deep well of love is kept when it doesn’t have anywhere else to go. I like to think that they’re being held somewhere, and they’re not lost forever.

I also like to think that God has the same parental instinct that I’ve had when frantically recording milestones in a baby book, or when I tuck something away in my increasingly-heavy purse because it’s a treasure from someone I love. I have to hold on to those memories and those moments and even those trinkets, not because I’m proving to anyone how detailed I can chronicle a life, but because I love my children so fiercely, and I don’t want to forget how much I loved them in those moments. God will carry all of our psychic gum wrappers and restaurant crayons for us, and will embrace that which we’ve lost, because God loves us like a mother loves her children. Mothers hang on to things that make no sense, except that those things are beloved by her children, and her children are beloved by her.

God who knows the number of hairs on our head, who knew us before we were knit together in our mother’s womb is the God who wants to gather us under His wing like a mother hen. Those of us who are mothers are imperfect mothers, and our mothers were imperfect before us. We get the baby books wrong, or while we’re diligently writing in those baby books, said baby is rolling off of the couch and onto the floor. (Hypothetically speaking, of course. That never actually happens. Ahem.) Mothers occasionally take treasured school projects out to the recycling bin by dark of night, and bury them under the empty bottles and cans, because we just can’t hold on to any more blasted worksheets. My sister made the mistake of not burying something deeply enough from her preschooler’s eyes. Said preschooler found the treasure in the trash the next morning and said, “Hey! That’s not garbage!” Oops. So, sometimes we hold on to the wrong things and let the wrong things go. We are not God, who gets this mothering thing exactly right, and holds on to what we need to be held. I like it when Sarah Condon calls the Holy Spirit “Mama Holy.

Remarkably, God does all of this holding-on while also releasing us from our sin. I think this kind of holding-on-while-letting-go is the trickiest part of parenting, and God somehow manages to do that, in His divine mercy. I don’t understand it, but I don’t have to understand it, just like I don’t have to understand my car’s engine for it to get me home every night. I’m also a firm believer that parenting, and maybe especially mothering, is one of the ultimate lessons in forgiveness and mercy and grace, because we get to make mistakes every single day, and then wake up and make more mistakes tomorrow.

And so, we pray, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” even though He has so much more to remember for us. Or maybe He just asks Mama Holy to keep it in her purse for a while.