Some people have mothers they could always go to for advice. My mother was not like that.
If she was speaking about the news, or about some cultural phenomena, or about people we didn’t know well, she was ruthlessly practical, and confident in her ideas to the point of brazenness. She was terribly articulate, somewhat caustic, and gave zero quarter to nonsense or sentimentality.
If you were in trouble, though, and you asked her directly what you should do, she would likely say, “Oh, honey, I don’t know. I never know what to say,” and she would wince and smile painfully and very clearly indeed not know what to say. You would end up wanting to comfort her, and the whole thing was just awkward. I did not go to her for advice very often.
Now that she is gone, though, I find myself imagining not what my mother would say, but what she would do, and I find the pattern very clear and consistent.
My mother would always pray first.
I don’t know if prayer came naturally to her, or if it was a deliberate effort, but prayer marked the beginning and end of every day and the beginning and end of everything important she did. Her house and her person (and later, her nursing home room and eventually her coffin) were crowded with holy cards, medals, icons, and spiritual quotes, not to impress anyone else, but to remind and redirect herself.
She kept and updated a blackboard of who needed prayer, and she frequently asked people to pray for her and for others. When dementia took her ability to speak and communicate, she could sometimes still pray out loud long after her other words were gone, and I can only imagine that interior prayer lingered with her, as well. Prayer seems to have been the thread that held her life together.
My mother would take care of people’s most pressing physical needs in the most direct way possible.
If she heard, or even suspected, that somebody needed something, she would instantly set about figuring out how she, herself, could supply that need.
Sometimes this was fruitless and frustrating to her — as when she eventually discovered that the “Nigerian priest” who was writing her heartrending letters was actually a scammer, or when the disabled neighbor who had “nothing to eat” in her house actually had plenty of food, she just wasn’t in the mood for any of the things she happened to have on her shelves; but it never even occurred to her that it was someone else’s job. If someone needed help, she assumed she should at least try, immediately.
My mother would start with the needs of most vulnerable person present.
She had a very clear notion of hierarchy of needs, and was thoroughly undazzled by things like money, popularity, fame, fashion, or sophistication. She would always instinctively give priority to people who society valued the least, and who could least defend themselves.
She wasn’t especially gracious about it, and she didn’t have any particular social skills — just the opposite, really — but this just made it easier for weirdos and outcasts to identify her as an ally; and people who didn’t belong anywhere else were drawn to her like a magnet.
My mother would try to preserve the dignity of the people she was helping.
She was acutely aware of how painful it could be to need and receive aid, and she consciously worked to avoid acting like she was the boss of people she was helping.
I remember in particular one time that a special needs friend who could barely take care of herself turned up from a meeting with a social worker with a birth control device implanted in her arm.
My mother went ballistic, because she knew this young woman had a health condition that made this form of birth control dangerous. Her first impulse was to “march Debbie down to the doctor and get that thing taken out.” But she reeled herself in, and realized that she didn’t want to be just one more person pushing this hapless young woman around.
I don’t remember how the issue was resolved, but it made an impression that she took Debbie’s personal dignity seriously.
My mother would try to learn from her mistakes.
She had a habit of poring over her past experiences and striving to analyze whether she could have done things differently. This was partially due to social anxiety, anxiety in general, and scrupulosity, but she also had an admirable dedication to humbly examining her actions and radically changing course when necessary; and she was very willing to say to her children, “I did this thing, but it turned out to be the wrong thing, so now I do that, instead,” because she wanted to spare us from making the same mistakes.
My mother said more than once that God would put people in your life, and then he would take them out again when they were too much. And I think she was wrong about that.
My mother wanted to be radically open to other people, but she let them use her in a way that wasn’t respectful to herself as a person.
It’s a fine line when you are seeking holiness and self-sacrifice, but I think her own lack of self-confidence played too great a role in the decisions she made about how much of her time and energy to let other people have. There is a difference between self-sacrifice and self-erasure, and I don’t know if she knew that. I wish more people had given her the radical respect and openness she gave to them.
I’m a little confused about the theology of praying to the dead. I pray for my mother’s soul, of course, and sometimes I pray to her, as well. I imagine that she knows all kinds of things that were hidden to her when she was alive. But really, the things she understood while she was on this earth are giving me plenty to think about.
A version of this essay was first published at The Catholic Weekly on October 11, 2022.