Across the internet at this time of year, there are hundreds of wonderful poems dedicated to mothers. Yet, I kept returning to this one because, if there’s one thing we do, especially as daughters and from a very early age, it is the instinctive imitation of our mothers (or the mother figures of our early years). They are, after all, our first conscious contact with the world. So, whether it is in how we learn to smile back at her looking down on us, how we love to totter about in her shoes that are too large for us, how we approach the other loves of our lives as we grow older or, eventually, in how we run our own homes and mother our own children — all of these things create and shape our identities and come, in small or large measure, from that singular wellspring. Most of them seep in osmotically, without much conscious effort at all. And it’s not until someone who knows us both points out casually how some trivial thing we do — a gesture, or a look even — is “so like your mother” that it strikes us as noteworthy.
When I look back to the things that I have learned from my mother, even though I’ve stayed away from her the longest of all her children, I find an astonishing number of habits, behaviors, and values that have etched themselves into my being for good. Yes, many were also discarded along the way as I’ve grown up in worlds, cultures, and times entirely different from her own relatively sheltered life. And, at some point, which I cannot pinpoint exactly, the roles reversed somewhat when she started to learn from me too. That is another wonderful thing about mothers. Instead of letting go, they try to keep up with you as you race ahead trying to become your own person. Around that time, the mother-daughter relationship starts to evolve into more of a sisterly one for many too — more so, perhaps, for those daughters who go on to become mothers themselves. Yet, even for those daughters who don’t become mothers, after a certain point, as life itself becomes the great teacher, there is a flash of knowing, a greater bond of understanding and, quite certainly, a deeper sense of empathy for everything that a mother does and means for her child’s identity and very existence, conflicted and challenging as it may be. Eventually, within all of that “growing up”, somewhere and somehow, there is the gentle birth of a kinder, forgiving self-acceptance. That such a personal evolution is so closely connected and inter-dependent for mothers and daughters was just brought home to me in a very immediate way in the past few weeks, so this particular Mother’s Day and this poem hold a very special meaning.
A little bit about the poet. Julia Kasdorf is a poet, essayist, editor, and professor of English and Women’s Studies at Penn State University in the US. Coming from a Mennonite background, her poetic themes often focus on faith, pacifism, social justice, etc. Additionally, she has a deep interest in writers and their relationships with the communities/places that they come from or choose to live in. This led her to establish a course on Writers and Their Communities in Penn State’s MFA Program.
This poem is from the first of her three published collections. That first collection, ‘Sleeping Preacher‘, won the 1991 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize and the Great Lakes Colleges Association Award for New Writing. It contains many poems related to her own Mennonite childhood in Miffin County, PA, and was received with very mixed reactions by that Mennonite community, as Kasdorf described in a 2005 interview. In that same interview, speaking of her own motherhood, she said this:
But it’s a common thing that women say — there’s this funny paradoxical position after you have a child. You’re both incredibly drawn to the small and the domestic and you’re also suddenly very sensitive to matters of the world. Your attention is pulled urgently in two directions.
The poem’s speaker describes a handful of very specific behaviors and values she has learned from her mother. For the most part, they are about how to give comfort to others who might be in pain or grief or in their last moments. It is fitting that the speaker has chosen to focus on these particulars as they represent the primal maternal instinct of nurturing and caring for others. I find it most touching that the speaker describes how she learned specific behaviors without really understanding them fully or even carrying them out with complete sincerity. Yet, as we read the lines, we can see there is a sort of compulsion and urgency in how these actions are carried out, which implies, perhaps, that there must be an innate knowing or comprehension of both the courage they require and the succor they bring. Likely, as a child, when the speaker observed her mother doing these same things, she also noticed how people received her offerings.
We won’t do any more analysis this week and let this beautiful poem stand on its own as a tribute to the wonderful mothers everywhere who have, through their own lives, taught us what selflessness and sacrifice mean: a power that comes from giving and not from taking. And it is not too fantastical to say, as some others have, that if mothers ran this world, there would be no incomprehensible wars, no mindless violence and, quite possibly, a more evolved humanity. Then, just maybe, these Nigerian mothers would not have had their hundreds of girls taken by Islamic militants. [Watch that video clip.]
What I Learned From My Mother
I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.
~ Julia Kasdorf, Sleeping Preacher
[Note: Also, see ‘Clearances‘ by Seamus Heaney, written about his mother’s passing.]