By Diana Trautwein
She is old now. So old. Frail, forgetful, easily confused, convinced that she is always doing something wrong. So convinced, that she creates elaborate, imagined stories that center on the low opinion others supposedly hold about her.
And it breaks my heart.
Sadly, this is the way of aging for many. The synapses misfire, the dreams cross over into real time, the fears and anxieties of a lifetime bloom larger and larger, becoming tales of terror and disgrace. And no matter how many times I tell her that no one believes she is a terrible person, she returns to the same central, misguided, self-obliterating fantasy. And she inhabits it, completely convinced that always, always, she gets it wrong.
Can you hear this? Can you see it? THIS is the too-high cost of wrong-headed teaching about humankind, most especially about women. This is the fruit of a viper-filled tree of second-best, the-husband-always-knows-better, the male ego is a fragile, to-be-protected-at-all-costs thing, even if that cost is the very soul of the woman who protects it. And this is the fruit of living with a verbally abusive, alcoholic father who repeatedly squanders the family savings - and the hearts of his own children - in pursuit of his demons.
What I see in my aging, valiant mother is the broken heart of a little, little girl who took on a task much too big for her fragile shoulders to bear. She protected her mom, she kept order in a disordered household, she stood up to the loud, denigrating comments of a loutish father. She was the spark-plug and the load-bearer for an entire family system. Not all of that system was sick, not by a long shot; much of it was warm and welcoming. But the darker shadows are what persist in the slowly failing, 91-year-old mind of that girl who grew up in the turmoil of the 1920s and 30s.
In the church of her youth, my mother found both salvation and judgment. She met Jesus and knew the love of God. But for far too long, she knew that love only in the context of a rigid code of behavior, one based on fear, anger and a very particular kind of group identity. Appearances mattered - in her family of origin and in her church family, too. And she worked so hard to look good. What she never quite internalized was the amazing truth that she was good.
She was good because of Jesus at work in her; she was good because she looked out for the people on the edges; she was good because she took her faith very seriously; she was good because she was beautiful on the inside as well as the outside; she was good because she had the gift of hospitality and used it with flair and grace her whole long life; she was good because she took care of so.many.people:
An aging maiden aunt, one who had loved her as a little girl, dying of breast cancer in the 50s - got weekly visits and home-cooked food.
Neighbors, wherever she lived, got regular visits, genuine concern about their children and families, home-baked goodies on a beautiful plate, invitations to dinner and parties, prayers for health and healing and happiness.
Soul-friends got regular phone calls, notes of encouragement, hilarious greeting cards, a truly listening ear, earnest prayers, pick-me-up stories and gifts of grace.
High-school Sunday school students got excellent teaching, thoughtfully prepared each week for 15 years. And they each got personal time, too - breakfasts at restaurants, hand-written notes, weekly prayers.
Her three children got undying support for all their endeavors, thanks and praise for jobs well-done, encouragement to stretch and grow and become.
Her parents, even her difficult father (who mellowed with age), got regular visits, thoughtful gifts, kind words.
Her husband got so much support - emotional, physical, spiritual. He became the good man he was because of the woman who loved him.
How I would love it if my mother could read and understand these words; she cannot. How I would love it if my mother could know, deep within herself, that she is a woman of valor; she does not. How I would love it if my mother could hear the good, good news that, “Jesus loves me, this I know…” And this, somehow - by God’s grace - this finds its way into the pieces of herself that remain.
And how does this happen?
She sings the old hymns. This is the good she remembers - those gospel songs from long ago, and they come back to her, sometimes in snippets and phrases only, but they come back. And she hums them to herself. She asks me, multiple times, if I ever have songs in my head. I say, oh, once in a while. And she says . . . she says . . . I hear them every day.
And I am so grateful.
Married to her college sweetheart for over 40 years, Diana is always wondering about things. She answers to Mom from their three adult kids and spouses and to Nana from their 8 grandkids, ranging in age from 2 to 21. For 17 years, after a mid-life call to ministry, she answered to Pastor Diana in two churches where she served as Associate Pastor. Since retiring at the end of 2010, she spends her time working as a spiritual director and writes on her blog, www.drgtjustwondering.blogspot.com She also contributes monthly at www.deeperstory.com/home/family. For as long as she can remember, Jesus has been central to her story and the church an extension of her family. Not that either church or family is exactly perfect . . . but then, that's what makes life interesting, right?
This post is part of our Women of Valor series. Eshet chayil—woman of valor— has long been a blessing of praise in the Jewish community. Husbands often sing the line from Proverbs 31 to their wives at Sabbath meals. Women cheer one another on through accomplishments in homemaking, career, education, parenting, and justice by shouting a hearty “eshet chayil!” after each milestone. Great women of the faith, like Sarah and Ruth and Deborah, are identified as women of valor. One of my goals after completing my year of biblical womanhood was to “take back” Proverbs 31 as a blessing, not a to-do list, by identifying and celebrating women of valor. To help me in this, you submitted nearly 100 essays to our Women of Valor essay contest. There were so many essays that made me laugh, cry, and think I’ve decided that, in addition to the eight winners we featured in August, I will select several more to feature as guest posts throughout the fall.
We have honored a single mom, a feisty professor, a midwife, a foster parent, an abuse survivor, a brave grandmother, a master seamstress, a young Ugandan woman who reached out to a sister in need, and many more.