Mike's Sunday Letter

Last night at Scarlette's graduation

--with personal notes
  • Congratulations to our daughter Scarlette for her graduation yesterday from the University of Illinois Chicago.  She even carried her son (four months old) across the stage as she got her degree.
  • Our daughter Alison got a new job (full time with benefits) in Madison, Wisconsin at the First Unitarian Society, as a communication coordinator.  She and Nelson will be moving there in June.
  • Parents always celebrate when the job is "full time with benefits."
  • Jie leaves for China in 10 days (she'll stay about six weeks) for her annual trip to spend time with her family and friends there.
  • Reading Frank Chadwick's science fiction novel, How Dark the World Becomes.  Frank leads the writers workshop I attend.  I have appreciated his advice and have looked forward to some time to start one of his novels.  I'm not normally a science fiction reader, but this is entertaining.

May 8, 2016
History of Our Mothers
Happy Mother's Day.
On behalf of my three daughters and myself, I would like to say thank you to our mothers.
Youngest daughter Scarlette walked across the graduation stage yesterday (University of Illinois Chicago) and got herself cheered for pulling down a bachelor's degree in Industrial Design.  She deserved the cheers.  It has been a tough road for her:  coming to this country as a 16 year old immigrant, struggling with the English language, fighting off depression from leaving a world of friends and familiarity behind, and trying to navigate power plays with her strange American father.  She worked through three different colleges on the way to her degree, married a nice guy from her dormitory, and gave birth to our first grandchild.  I was proud of her yesterday, tears filling my eyes to watch her.
But I was also proud of the woman sitting next to me during the ceremony, Scarlette's mother.  Jie has spent almost everything she has earned in America on Scarlette's education.  When Scarlette's dad died (in 2004) Jie became a single parent and had one goal:  position herself to provide the best life possible for her daughter.  I have seen her maternal love mature and strengthen in the ten years I have been married to her.
And I have marveled at the stories prior to my becoming part of the family.  Jie grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China, separated from her own parents.  In that time and place, every family knew hunger and fear.  Times had gotten better by the time Jie had Scarlette, in 1991.  But there were still challenges.  

Giving birth in China in those days was different.  When Jie's water broke at 3 a.m., at that time no one in the neighborhood had a car...and taxis didn't run in the middle of the night...and the hospital was over a mile away.   So Jie sat on a bike while her husband pushed her from the apartment to the hospital.  Then after Scarlette was born, the maternity ward was so crowded that Jie had to share a small bed with another new mother.  Mothers do what they have to do.
While I can only know Jie and Scarlette's early years through the stories that are told, I had a front row seat from the very beginning for Mindy and Alison and their mother, Sharon.  Like Scarlette's mother, Mindy and Alison's mother also entered parenthood from a difficult life.  She suffered from an alcoholic father, homelessness as a child (they had to move in with her grandmother,) and depression as a young adult.  But when her daughters were born, she blessed them with a surprising reservoir of tenacious hope that surprised me.  It was a hope and a goodness that had often eluded her.
My memories construct a story revealing how much Sharon has influenced Mindy and Alison.  I picture them sitting on her lap while she reads them books.  In my memory they are playing tee-ball and Sharon is cheering them from the stands, as though they are famous ballplayers (even though the game is torturously bad!)  She is their adoring audience and they are putting on an interminably long play they have written themselves.  

She observed their every birthday, holiday, and life accomplishment as though they were royalty.  Thanks be to God for mothers who bless their children with such unquenchable hope and confidence in the goodness of life.
And thanks be to God for my own mother, Esther.  I talked to her today, by phone, about "motherhood."  

Who gave her advice on child rearing?  ("Dr. Spock")  

Who gave her the self-confidence to be a mother of four boys and one adopted daughter?  (Early confidence came from her aunt.  When she was a teenager, it was her job to babysit her younger sibling and cousins.  That aunt told her that she had a good knack for 'child psychology.')  

What other parents did she try to emulate?  ("Nobody really, we watched other parents, and talked about them, but you kids were unique and so were we, so we had to figure it out on our own.")  

How could you raise such a large family when you lived so far away from your parents? ("We belonged to a Sunday School class and we were all the same age and all had kids.  We helped each other.")  

Is it harder to be a mother to young children, teenagers, or adults?  (Adults.) 
Years ago my mom had a revelation while sitting in church.  At the time there were four boys (my sister had not yet been adopted) and the youngest (Jay) was 3-4, old enough to be comfortable with other people.  That Sunday all four of us were scattered around the sanctuary, sitting with friends.  My mom found herself sitting alone, for the first time in her adult life.  She suddenly wondered who she was at that moment.  Motherhood had consumed her identity...so she was totally disoriented when she stepped out of that role.  She was catching a glimpse at her future:  her sons living their own lives.
So she decided to get a job, in Decatur, at the Sears store, in the office.  It would be her job to sign people up for the Sears Credit Card.  But she quit that job after only a few months (probably right before she got fired!)  She hated working there.  She hated being away from her family so much.  And she hated sending credit cards to people who did not have the ability to pay them off.  She kept telling people that they had no business with a credit card.  Then she quit, came home, and waited a couple more years before returning to college, then becoming a teacher, which is a lot like being a mother. 
She liked it around her kids.  She could tell them what she really thought...and all she had to worry about was whether she was right, not whether she was following someone else's expectations. 
And so this is a day for gratitude, for our mothers:  mothers who do extraordinary things in order to secure wherewithal for their children. Mary (mother of Jesus) rustled up a manger (when her baby was accidently born in a barn,) a good male role model (Joseph, when she discovered that she was 'with child' by the Holy Spirit,) and some 'confidence builders' ("he will pull down the mighty from their thrones and raise up the lowly") for her firstborn.
So for this day, and for all the others:  Go mothers!  Hooray!

 The Sunday letter is something I have done now for over 20 years.  It is a disciplined musing:  mindfulness, memory, and imagination.  I write it when I first wake up on a Sunday morning and then share it with the congregation.  The letter you see published here is usually revised from what the congregation receives.  This discipline of thinking and writing puts me in the place of describing rather than advising.  It prepares me to proclaim the gospel rather than get preachy with the souls who will sit before me.  --JMS




J. Michael Smith | 2508 S. Cottage Grove | Urbana | IL | 61801