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In What Light There Is: All that I am

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“All that I am, or ever hope to be, I owe to my angel mother,” wrote Abraham Lincoln. Scholars believe that Lincoln most likely wrote those words about his first mother, Nancy Hanks, who passed away in childbirth when Lincoln was only 9 years of age, the great sorrow of his young years. It was his mother Nancy who inspired him with the virtues of love, justice, honesty and peace that molded him into the adult he became. Yet Lincoln could also have written those words about his second mother, Sarah Bush Lincoln, who married Lincoln’s father a few years after the death of Nancy. Sarah also adored her stepson Abraham, and once called him “the finest boy I ever knew.” Lincoln was certainly blessed in life with his two mothers, and they helped him to develop the compassion for others and the deep sympathies that he carried with him throughout his life. I think of his words and that quote each May as we celebrate our own mothers.

My mother is gone for seven years now. She was a bright and strong woman at a time when brightness and strength were not necessarily the most desired traits in women. But strong she was, and passionate about the issues in our country and in our world. After she passed away, we found among her things copies of the numerous letters she had written over the years to various legislators and leaders and U.S. presidents. She made sure her voice was heard. To her, it was what you do in a democracy.

My mother was the first activist I ever encountered. She was also the first person I knew who opposed the Vietnam War, even before students or politicians or other activists were speaking out. I remember her saying that the United States would pay a terrible price for years to come for our involvement in that war. I was in high school at the time and there hadn’t been much talk yet in the general public about the war, so she was prophetic in her words. Historians note that Vietnam was the beginning of our loss of faith in institutions and the beginning of a loss of innocence in our country.

In the years after my mom’s first prophetic words, the problems of Vietnam became more apparent and much debated. I was a student at UW-Madison by then, and was among the many who protested the war, who marched and who worked for Eugene McCarthy and his anti-war platform. I will never forget the passion of so many of us against that war, against napalming, against what we considered to be an illegal and immoral intrusion. And, like my mother and the other idealists back then, I hoped and dreamed that our nation would take a more humane stance in our actions around the globe, and that we would live by our finest principles. We not only wanted peace, but we wanted justice for minorities, equality for women, and civil rights for all. Many negative things were written about the youth culture of the time, but what I remember about that time is the pure idealism. We believed that our nation could live by higher standards.

That’s a long way of saying that my mother and others knew about the energy it takes to fight for what is right, to speak out against wrongdoing and to never sit by passively without letting your voice be heard. Speak truth to power, my mom always believed. I am proud for any part of that which remains alive inside of me.

For all of her activism, my mother was a person at peace. She and my dad lived in a middle class neighborhood in a big white house with pear trees and apple trees and even, for a while, grape vines. I’ll never forget the warm apple pies of fall or the sweet pear and grape jams of summer that my mother made with the fruits of the earth. My mom and dad were happy people who appreciated their home, adored their children and laughed a great deal. They lived life easy and they were gentle parents. They seemed to feel as Lincoln did when he said, “I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.” Gentleness and humor resonated within the walls of their home.

Years later, after the deaths of my parents, we sold their big white house to a young couple who seemed to fall in love with it. The passion of that couple made us feel as if the sale was meant to be. That feeling was re-enforced in the months afterward when we happened past the house and saw an anti-Iraq war sign in the front yard. We decided that our mother would have been smiling.

Strength was not the only gift my mother had. She was compassionate, and perhaps that was one of the reasons why needless wars bothered her so much. She was also very grateful for the fullness of her life. When I was a young mother she said, “Enjoy these days. They go by so quickly.” I think those words are the reason I write so often of the poignant beauty and briefness of this journey. It is such a gift.

One of the best legacies my mother left me was her gift of words. She kept loose-leaf notebooks of writings and quotes she liked, and she would often share articles or books with me. I know that my mother’s early encouragement of reading played an enormous part in all of the words that rattle around in my gray matter.

No one is and no one has the perfect, idealized mother of story and song. But maybe this Mother’s Day we can, like Lincoln, reflect on the good things in our mothers who did the best they could within the circumstances of their lives. To them, we owe much of “what we are or ever hope to be.”

So, if your mother is still with you, now is a good time to give her a word of thanks for whatever strengths she possesses that live inside of you.

And if your mother is here only in spirit, send her a little word nonetheless.

For she lives on in pear jams or in warm apple pies or in stirring words or in passionate spirits. Or in whatever her gift to you was, large or small.

And so this week, I send a little word myself.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

I miss you.

Linda Flashinski is a retired educator whose column, “In What Light There Is” appears on the first and third Sunday of every month. The phrase is from a poem by the late John Ciardi who wrote, “And still, I look at this world as worlds will be seen, in what light there is.” You may reach Linda at Copyright, Linda Flashinski, 2012.


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