Sharing stories in a group of 15 friends and strangers on Mother’s Day revealed something to me about how we have been affected in different ways this past year. Let’s face it: Mother’s Day invites troubled feelings alongside sweet pleasures and fond celebrations.
Some of us have never mothered a child. Some birthed but did not raise a child. Others have exponentially expanded their genetic imprint on future generations. The expression “pay it forward” comes to mind, not as monetary generosity but as a gift of the fruits of child-rearing that went well enough.
My own story in this conversation started with naming my beloved niece, who is struggling with long-haul Covid symptoms. As a person of color, she brings this country’s demographic story alive for me.
Then, I related a memory from my trip with Mother to the 1967 World’s Fair. I was 18 and had been expelled from college. I was home in Eastham, and she invited me on a road trip to Montreal.
We were looking for somewhere to eat. Restaurants were all filled up. Then, the skies opened. We ran under the ornate eaves of an old office building to escape the downpour, where a disheveled, inebriated gent welcomed us with bleary kindness to his shelter.
Having lived in New York City for a few months, I knew not to engage with strangers of this sort. Much to my teenaged embarrassment, Mother said, “We’re desperately looking for somewhere to get a bite to eat.” Without missing a beat, he offered directions: “Turn left at this corner,” he said, pointing, “and halfway down you’ll find what appears to be just a bakery. But once inside, you’ll see a restaurant behind, where the locals eat.”
We went, we ate well, and I learned something in a way that still chokes me up: we don’t know what to make of each other until we engage. Mother, in her unbiased and gregarious way, looked past his circumstances to something else.
Other moving stories followed in that Sunday morning conversation, reminding us how we can know people for years and still not tune in to what’s up with them. How often do our feelings for someone shift towards mercy when we get a glimpse of their struggles?
Yet our go-it-alone American culture prioritizes sharing our wins and hiding our losses. Accentuate the positive.
We all love sharing our sunny tales. But we are far past a half-million deaths in our country from Covid. And we’re far from assessing the collateral harms yet to surface. Pretending there’s nothing wrong wore itself out as a viable approach to moving forward some time ago.
There are stories of neighbors serving neighbors and aspirations for building stronger communities. But how do we do that?
We don’t know what broad cultural shifts are coming. But we can start inflecting those changes with our own empathy, curiosity, and patience. We know that when we slow down and listen we can tune in better to the people around us.
Let’s use this next phase as “maternity leave” for selectively nurturing the relationships we all long for. Just as we know that, physiologically, social isolation is as bad for us as smoking cigarettes, we know how to focus on mutual care when that is called for. This bodes well for bending the learning curve toward urgently needed justice. Because justice starts with compassion.