This is a personal story written by a member of our congregation, Pipi Granat Cuadrado . It is called "A Mango For Meemo". Thank you so much Pipi for allowing us to share your story.
It is summer, and mango season. She sits staring as I walk in with the mangoes. The look is as blank as flat concrete. I steel myself for the sheering force of the shell my mother has become. She may take my hand and say my name. Or she may say, “Who is this? This place isn’t for you. Go home.“ with all the Alzheimer patients I have had in my family practice, you would think I would be prepared for this turmoil.
Having her at our home seemed the right thing to do after her adoring new husband of 3 years could not care for her. She had called me daily at the office saying he was trying to kill her. I had to baby-proof the house as though a toddler lived there. She was up all right wandering around. Medications for sleep made her stagger, those for agitation made her nauseated.
She often thought I was trying to harm her. Once she came at me and grabbed my face with her fingernails, twisting my cheek like a cat fight among girls. I screamed for my husband, unwilling to fight my tiny mother. A minute later she hugged me and told me how much she loved me—what blessed forgetfulness. This was my sweet mother who had kissed my forehead when I was a child and who told and retold the story of how I was burning up with fever as I was bundled off to the hospital, aged 4, temperature 106 degrees Fahrenheit. I had typhoid fever when there was no treatment for it. Several children in that mini-epidemic on Miami Beach had died. And she kept saying to my father, “What if she dies? What if she dies?” And every time she told the story, tears would softly stream into her eyes, but she held them back so they never fell onto her cheeks.
These days my mother often looks at me with expressions identical to those of when she was normal. I look into her eyes and can no longer fathom the blankness I know is there. It is the mirror of the piercing stare of a newborn who seems to know what you are thinking. I am learning what the families of my patients come to know while they are suffering: They are doing their grief work in advance.
I bring her mangoes, her favorite fruit…mine, too. “Do you know what I brought you, Meemo?” I ask (she was renamed “Meemo” long ago by a grandchild). “Why do you ask such a stupid question?” she says. “I don't’ know, and I don’ care.” She does not recognize the mangoes. “Remember how Daddy used to plant fish heads under the mango tree to fertilize it?” I ask. This is one of our favorite family secrets. She pushes the mangoes away. I go to the kitchen of the house where she lives and peel a mango, fighting the same tears she always fought. I admonish myself: This is not about you; this is about her. I bring the plate of mangoes with a fork. She will not touch them. I force a jolly smile and pierce a piece of mango, bringing it to her lips, as she must have done for me as an infant. She licks it, then opens her mouth like a little bird. She knows the mango! She takes the fork, a smile spreading over her face. She gobbles down the plate of mangoes, grinning as the juice runs down her chin.
My mother was a no-nonsense practical lady, but she was sentimental. She was cute and quick and had written a book of poetry that the refused to call by that name. She called it verse and said she was a viersifier, not a poet. Some verses were one-liners: “Life is dress rehearsal for which there will never be an opening night.” She could not have known how slowly and painfully the curtain would descend and that the theater would be empty before the stage lights would finally go out.
Until then, I will bring her mangoes or whatever else is in season.
Let me start with sharing a passage from A Tale of Boxes: the role of myth in creating and changing our stories by Robert T. Latham:
"Jack and Jill
Went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down
And broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after.
Jack is a story. Jill is a story. The hill is a story. Going up the hill is story. Fetching is a story. The pail is a story. The water is a story. Jack falling is a story. Breaking his crown is a story. Jill tumbling after is a story. All of these smaller stories make up the larger story of this nursery rhyme.
Everything that exists is a story…Every story is a tale of encounter with other stories. My story is what I create from the meaning I give my experiences… [And] our stories forever mingle… "
We all tell stories. And each story we tell has at least a little piece of us within it, whether it is a personal story or a fable, myth, or historical reenactment. And each story we hear leaves us with questions, feelings, thoughts. They affect us, remind us, change us sometimes in subtle and sometimes profound ways. The best stories stay with us long after they are told.
Stories, particularly stories about mothers and mothering, touch something deep within us, something ineffable, something that can be paradoxical and complicated. Our birth mothers are our first physical connection with another human being. Often it is from our birth mothers that we have our initial experience of security, connection, support, love, however flawed any or all those might be and often are. And besides our birth mothers there are often people in our lives who give us mothering, let's call them our spiritual mothers; they offer us security, connection, support, unconditional love, usually at some critical moment in our lives. The stories of mothers in our lives often influence our sense of worth, our understanding of love, and how deeply we can trust. Because these stories are so deep and impactful in our lives, when a mother changes, whether through aging or other reasons, our relationships with and our stories about them change.
I was particularly touched by the story that Pipi allowed me to share with you today. She shared a story of how her relationship with biological her mother changed. What did you hear, feel, think, or experience as you heard the story? Did you think of your mother or of someone in your life who mothered you or of your own mothering of someone in your life? Did stories your own stories begin to fill your mind or heart?
That's what happen to me when I first read this story. I remembered a time when my mother calmly and with great practicality took care of me when an edger cut off two of my toes. I was crying, out of control, in shock, not knowing what to do. I ran right to her. Despite my panic I knew she was the one who could take care of me. She wrapped up my foot with my almost completely severed toes, stopping the blood loss, and took me immediately to the doctor. He reattached my toes back and put my whole leg, my whole leg in a cast. My mom came through, as she always did. She was that kind of person.
And I remembered how she still loved me even when I did things that, let's say, were dangerous or scary. After a long day out in the cow fields near my home, I brought home a black racer snake in a pillow case. I thought I would keep it. But I needed something to put it in. I found my father's crab trap. I thought that would work despite the obvious space between the wooden slates in the trap being wider than the width of the snake. It was just at this point that my mother came to see what I was up to. I poured the snake into the trap and it easily squirmed out and raced straight toward my mother. Fortunately it was as scared of her and she was of it, and it turned away from her at the last second.
Pipi's story reminded me of my father, and his final years with Alzheimer's disease, unable to leave home without becoming disoriented, asking countless questions or telling the same stories over and over again. And how my mother in turn mothered him, as he increasing became more limited, more needy, more childlike. And it took a toll on her.
And I reflected on my mother now, as she ages, with increasing physical limitations, and my concern for her safety and security while I live several states away. I know my brothers live close, but she still lives in her own home, alone, valuing her independence.
I also found myself asking questions as I heard Pipi's story, about the mystery of the mangoes, about her mother's husband of three years. Of the toll it took on Pipi as she cared for her mother. Of typhoid fever, its impact on Pipi and her mother. All the stories that were left untold, but still calling to me.
And I wondered what I might do if I were in Pipi's shoes. How would I act, react, cope? The wondering continues even now.
My stories and Pipi story now intertwine. And I suspect her story intertwined with your stories, your questions, your wonderings.
Sometimes a story can be engaging, sometimes healing and sometimes it can be a triggering. Some of us might not have had a positive relationship with your biological mother, or had what might be described as a complicated relationship with those who mothered you. Some of us crave a mothering figure in our lives, or are experiencing a significant change in our relationship with someone who mothered us. Hearing "Happy Mother's Day" may poke a still-healing bruise on your heart, and for that I am sorry.
Some people have found Mother's Day too commercial and not really all that focused on honoring our mothers.
And still others feel like they honor their mothers all the time, and don't feel they need a special day for that.
Maybe it's time to write a new story about Mother's Day, one that can hold fresh purpose or meaning. Did you know that the first Mother's Day was the result of a proclamation written by Julia Ward Howe in 1870? Do you know who she is? Howe was an American poet and author, best known for writing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic". She was also an advocate for abolitionism and a social activist, working particularly for women's suffrage and she was a Unitarian. She urged women across the world to join the cause of peace-building. Her words—written in the language of her time-- held a radical call to create peace that still resonates today:
"Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.
From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: 'Disarm! Disarm!'"
Following her proclamation, Howe began advocating the creation of a “Mother’s Day for Peace” on June 2. As Unitarian Universalists, we could certainly celebrate Mother's Day by working for peace, inspired by our Unitarian forebear, Julia Ward Howe.
How many of you have heard of Mama's Day? "The first Mamas Day [in May 2011] began as a project of the Strong Families Network. Partners included: California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, Young Women's Freedom Center, Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity, Sankofa Collective Northwest, National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice, Western States Center and Bold Futures. This first event set the foundation that all other Mamas Days have been built on, uplifting the diversity and beauty of all forms of mamahood. The campaign seeks to reach and highlight the mamas that the Strong Families Network organizations work with — folks who are often overlooked in mainstream celebrations of Mother’s Day, including young mamas, working mamas, immigrant mamas, single mamas, incarcerated mamas and mamas struggling with substance abuse." (mamasday.org) Perhaps there is a story in celebrating Mamas Day that might hold meaning and purpose for you this time of the year.
Our Unitarian Universalist 2nd and 3rd Principles call us to affirm and promote: "A free and responsible search for truth and meaning." and "Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations." These Principles, remind me that we are not a static faith with static beliefs and traditions. We are a covenantal faith. In other words, we decide as equals in this community who we are, who we want to be, how we want to worship. We choose what we choose to celebrate and how we choose to celebrate special days, times, transitions, holiday and holy days. Mother's Day is just one example of a day that we might consider together. How does it hold meaning and purpose for us in this community?
As a covenantal community, we support one another in our individual search for truth and meaning and we seek, as a congregation, to grow spiritually, however we choose to define that. Our covenant is inclusive of our individual as well as our collective answers to the Big Why's— why we want UU Miami to exist, thrive, make a difference in the world. Our covenant is created as we share our stories with one another and we find meaning and purpose in our experiences with one another. The most effective covenants are created consciously, in open sharing with one another. That is why we held a Visioning Workshop together a couple of weeks ago and why we will continue this Visioning process, so that we consciously create the story that forms the foundation of this congregation's understanding of who we are and why we exist.
There are innumerable stories within each of us, including those about our mothers. Some we will share and some we choose not to. In this congregation your stories are just as important as any else's stories. Please know that we gather in this community to accept one another's stories, to be affected by one another's stories, and to better understand who we are, both individually and as a community, through the sharing of our stories. Some of our stories may be very difficult to tell, and some may be difficult to hear. But in this community we respect your stories and we understand that if you choose to share them with us, they become part of our story. We as Unitarian Universalists respect one another's worth enough to hear your pain and we listen to hear what hurts, and we will love you through it to the other side.
"[Stories] convey experience not by 'talking about', but by opening hearts and minds in ways that make them capable of experiencing that which cannot be described." (Experiencing Spirituality: Finding Meaning Through Storytelling by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham) One last thing about Pipi's story. So much of what I experienced as I heard her story was found in what was not said. Pipi opened up a piece of who she is and how she experiences the world to us. She offered us more than a simple story about feeding her mother mangoes, -- aren't most stories shared not simple stories when we really listen—she offered us an opportunity to experience the ineffable, the profound. She offered connection by sharing her vulnerability, and in doing so offered us a heart space to share our own vulnerability. In that act, we experience what Wendell Berry wrote about:
We clasp the hands of those that go before us,
And the hands of those who come after us.
We enter the little circle of each other's arms
And the larger circle of lovers,
Whose hands are joined in a dance,
And the larger circle of all creatures,
Passing in and out of life, who move also in a dance,
To a music so subtle and vast that no ear hears it
Except in fragments.