Sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert with Krin Haglund, 10 May 2015
(Click Read More for access to the audio file for this sermon)
When I first started thinking about this month’s theme of character, I thought of how parents are charged with the responsibility of forming the character of their children. I guess I would describe character as the moral and mental quality of who we are. It is who we choose to be and how we choose to live our lives, but it’s also how we’ve been shaped by the experiences of our lives from the very beginning. It is the moral code we choose to live by. Those who parent us, -- mothers, fathers, grandparents or other guardians -- are given this overwhelming task to teach us right from wrong and to help us fully develop into the person we were meant to be.
Babies don’t come with instruction manuals, but we take them into our arms and we try to do our best with the emotional resources we have been given. Sometimes we are blessed by loving wisdom passed on to us, and sometimes it takes all our strength to free ourselves from the past experiences that have hurt us rather than nurtured us.
Is it fair for me to say that mothers often come under a lot more scrutiny than fathers? Freud certainly had a lot to say on the subject, as did Philip Roth when he wrote Portnoy’s Complaint. I remember reading this book in my teens and thinking if a son could so blame his mother for everything, I never wanted to become a mother. Fortunately, the effects of that book faded. But these days we talk about “tiger moms” and “helicopter moms” as having a presence that weighs too heavily upon their children. I remember a time when I went looking for parenting advice back in the 1990s. Even then, the books I found blamed me, the mother, for choosing to work. I became a parent in the era of Super Moms, when we were supposed to do it all: raise brilliant, talented, polite, well-rounded children, and have a stellar career. No person can do all that without making mistakes, or burning out at some point. It least, I couldn’t.
Today, on this Mother’s Day, I admit I’m thinking more about my father who died a week ago, on Friday, May 1st. He was 89 years old. Thankfully, he died peacefully as he wished to die, surrounded by family, listening to Beethoven.
I think of my father’s mother trying to raise my father and his brother in the 1930s. She worked all day as a seamstress and came home to cook, clean and supervise her children’s homework. My grandmother was tough and critical. Love was not a word in her vocabulary; duty was everything. Praise was not something she ever gave to her children. Her husband struggled with his mental health and he never did go back to work after the Depression. It was my grandmother who shouldered all the family burdens. Yet she recognized my father’s love for music and, when he was 13, she bought him a piano and arranged for piano lessons. I can’t imagine the sacrifices my grandmother made to do this.
Love was not a word that came into my father’s vocabulary until very late in his life, yet it was my grandmother’s unspoken love that helped to define the rest of his life, to define his character. He pursued his passion for music and became a composer and pianist.
The other day I went through some of my father’s papers. It was an amazing sojourn through old composition books with pages of notes about music theory that he probably took during his courses in college. There were poems he had written, proposals for music projects and books, the beginning notes for an instructional course he had developed for children on how to play the baroque recorder, there was the logo design for the video store he owned for a few years, there was stationery for the many businesses he created that never did succeed, there were carefully hand-drawn charts about plants and how much acidity they needed in his garden, there was correspondence about the comic opera he had written, finally performed for one short run in New York City, and the libretto for an opera about poet Pablo Neruda that he never completed but for which he had written some of my favourite pieces of his music. In those papers was a man I had known well, and yet had never known at all.
My father always thought that my mother was the better parent, that she was the one responsible for my brother and me growing up to be respectable adults. It was true that, like my grandmother, she was the solid backbone of the family. She was the steady one who was always gainfully employed and paid the bills, while my father, as a musician, was often out of work. My mother was the one who enforced the rules, and we often resented her for that when we were young. It wasn’t until later in our lives that we learned that my father was the one telling her what to say behind the scenes. Love was always very much in my mother’s vocabulary. She was my best friend and it wasn’t until she died that I really got to know my father.
My mother always said that my father was Peter Pan. He never wanted to grow up. His head was always full of schemes and he was always in the midst of some unfinished project. But my father gave my brother and me creativity, imagination, the ability to see beyond the mundane and the willingness to be adventurous and try new things. My mother taught me to follow my passions and how to get things done, but my father was the one who taught me to live into my own eccentricities.
I suppose, like anyone, I have my inner complaints about family. I still remember clearly the day when I was very pregnant, driving to work, and I was suddenly struck by the realization that now I’d be the one under scrutiny by my own children. Not having a telephone on hand (back in the days when almost no one had a cellphone), I offered a silent “I forgive you” to the universe and hoped that my future children would forgive me, too.
It’s not your mother, or father, who made you weird: you just are. In the end, the people who mother us have a profound effect on our lives, but we each have the responsibility for who we ultimately become. We may be given a foundation to build upon, but our own character is something that we can chose to shape for the rest of our lives. If we’re flexible and persistent, maybe we can discover our own eccentricities and embrace them with joy.