Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Mothers Day Column

I stood in the morning chill and sold my mother’s fabric.

She is well-settled in heaven, I am sure, yet her presence felt near and real as I arranged her collection of vintage linen tea-towel calendars and laid out the calicoes from the 1990s, all country blues and mauves in tiny florals.

I also arranged my own fabric collection on the plastic tables in my friend Patti’s driveway.

Mom left baskets and tubs and boxes of fabric when she passed away, and dresser drawers stuffed too full to open. I dug through her stash for my favorite pieces and added them to my own vast collection, which accumulated in the attic and sewing room and, eventually, in places where fabric didn’t belong, such as the chicken shed and laundry room.

Like Mom, I had purchased each piece with specific ideas of what it might become. Also like her, I magnetically attracted other people’s outdated castoffs, in which we saw scrap quilts and stuffed toys and ruffled pillows.

Finally, though, I admitted I had so much fabric it was actually stifling my creativity, so when Halsey had its annual garage sale day, I asked Patti if I could set up at her place. Then I measured, bundled and priced hundreds of fabric pieces — knits, quilt fabrics, denim, velvet and much more. Much as I hated to let it go, I felt Mom would understand.

As I handled the pieces my mother had purchased and enjoyed, I remembered her.

Like many mothers and daughters, she and I had a complicated relationship. A private soul, there was so much she could never say out loud, communicating instead in hints that I seldom caught. In contrast, I always felt compelled to clarify everything in plain words for the world to hear, which she found horrifying. She was impatient with my dreamy impracticality and frustrated with my sketchy work ethic.

As a child, I internalized her dismay into dark conclusions about my value and her love for me.

Yet we always connected in our enjoyment of crafts, stories, humor in simple things and bargains.

One of the best gifts she gave me, near the end of her life, was far more valuable than all the skills she taught and all the fabric she left. We had a conversation in which I was finally able to tell her about the hardest parts of my childhood and how abandoned and unloved I felt. By quietly listening, she gave me permission to say it out loud. Then, calmly and without defensiveness, she affirmed that she understood how it had affected me and went on to explain what had been going on in her life then, and in her marriage and the church community. She had loved me very much, she said. But she was completely overwhelmed with trying to survive. She was so very sorry I got the messages I did.

As an adult and a mother of daughters, I could finally understand and heal.

Parenting is far less a checklist of dos and don’ts than it is a glaring demonstration of who we are. We mother out of our tangled unresolved issues combined with a fierce love and a determination to get it right. Often, we are only beginning to figure out adulthood ourselves, and we desperately want to do our best with our babies. Meanwhile, we also struggle with finances, take care of elderly parents and work too hard.

Our kids pick up unintended messages from the messiness of our lives.

“There’s no point in talking about it,” I’ve heard people say, “because it’s done. You can’t go back and undo the past. Deal with it and move on.”

Yet I found, in the conversation with my mother, that when she let me revisit the past and explain how her actions had affected me, and then clarified without being defensive, it was as though in some mysterious way we went back and redid things, as they should have been done.

“My brothers and I talk about our childhood a lot,” a woman told me recently. “But we can’t talk to our mom, because she starts crying and says ‘Oh, I was such a failure.’ And then we focus on comforting her, and it really isn’t helpful.”

So when an adult daughter asked to speak to me recently, I had a chance to put my philosophy into practice. We sat down with a pot of tea and I listened quietly, which is far harder than you’d think.

“I always felt like you thought I was incompetent, like I didn’t have what it took,” she said, “with chores or doing homework or anything. Now, I’m always trying to compensate in weird ways, like I still don’t see myself as having what it takes.”

It hurt.

I thought of Mom, doing this for me, and I didn’t burst into tears and insist on being reassured. Instead, I acknowledged what had happened to her and then carefully explained who I was at that point in my life, what was happening, what I was afraid of, why I did what I did, and how I would do it differently today.

“Thank you so much for doing this,” my daughter said as we sipped our tea. “It really helps. And it’s almost like going back and redoing things, even though that’s impossible.”

At the garage sale that sunny Saturday in Halsey, I watched with delight as women with my mother’s passion and determination marched in with large handmade shopping bags and gathered armfuls of fabric.

My daughters walked all over town, sniffing out bargains, then came and watched my sale so I could eat lunch. They were as pleased as I was over the shy little girls who picked out pretty pieces from the scraps I was selling by the ounce and proudly paid the 30 or 50 cents by themselves.

Mom would have loved it all.

This complicated task of mothering is not something we will ever do perfectly, but I’ve found that enjoying the things we have in common, whether it’s tea or quilts or garage sales, will help us find our way through our relationship tangles.

Most of our influence as moms will be unintentional, and we should work not so much on shaping our children as on becoming the person we want them to be.

We can’t undo the past, but giving our children permission to talk about our mistakes and misdeeds is one of the best gifts we can give today, a way of reaching back and gently rearranging how things were to how they should have been.


  1. It took tremendous love and self-control--not to mention an unusual ability to measure one's own motivations dispassionately--for your mother to give you the wonderful gift she gave you, and for you to then pass that gift on to your own daughter. My mom passed away 10 years ago, and we could never have had that conversation. So I am left to guess and wonder and make allowances for the complicated person I understand my mother was when I was a child. I hope I am guessing right.

  2. Having our children discuss with us honestly about past mistakes can be painful. I know from experience and I agree that it is one of the best gifts we can give our children. Thank you Dorcas for this beautifully written post.

  3. “Most of our influence as moms will be unintentional, and we should work not so much on shaping our children as on becoming the person we want them to be.”
    Thank you for this reminder! It’s so true, and I really needed to hear this!

  4. I might need to bookmark this and re-read in the coming years.

  5. This brought tears to my eyes, and that isn't easily done. Thank you for bringing me hope as I mother my own daughters.

  6. We all fail as parents because we have the human nature of sin as well. Is not the greatest gift that we can give to our children to teach them how to say, "I'm sorry. I was wrong. Will you forgive me?"

  7. Beautifully written! Thank you for offering HOPE amid our tangled lives and many mistakes

  8. I had saved this article and just found and read it. With each of my daughters I find myself wondering what I will need to apologize for later. Some of them have been heart wrenching or horrifying as I wish I knew then what I know now so that I could do more to protect them. Some have been moments when I am wondering along with them why on earth I would have said that! Did I actually say it? If so what did I mean? Years ago a professor in graduate school was a really wise woman and said, “It's not our mistakes that wound our children. It’s our incongruence.” When she said it I felt hopeful. I can’t stop making mistakes and reflecting the love of God imperfectly time and again. But I can admit it, repent and do my best to learn & change. Thank you, Dorcas, for being not only congruent but also transparent. I will keep your words in mind when the next time comes.