“Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world.”
~ Miyamoto Musashi, Samurai Warrior
Mash up of memories.
For many of you, the “holiday” season is not easy. For me neither. While those around us are planning a party, or a festive meal with all of the trimmings — or placing carefully wrapped presents under the tree, or taking the grandkids to a candlelight service — or singing Christmas carols in the car on their way to do last minute Christmas shopping — there are those of us who struggle with life’s tragedies — alone.
Unlike other proud grandmothers, when people ask me if I have grandchildren, I say “Yes,” but don’t elaborate. Nor do I pull out pictures to show the kind questioner. I have none. When people ask me if I am having a big crowd for Christmas, I say “No,” and leave it at that. When they ask me if I have finished my Christmas shopping, “ I say “Yes,” without any pride in the accomplishment, since I have no family for which to buy presents. After my blunt answers, they never ask more.
I still engage in a bit of holiday cheer though. Not like I used to when I could share the season with my children and grandson. I hang some decorations and light up my ceramic Christmas tree. This year I hosted a Chanukah party because I love this festival of the lights and it reminds me of our Christian/Jewish home that I once shared with my daughters and my ex-husband Howard. Yes, I listen to holiday music too. It’s not the same, but it helps me get through this sad time.
Memories also help me get through my tears. I remember my children when they were young and they delighted in the season. For example, years ago my daughter Phoebe was very excited to help out at her Montessori school, in preparation for the Christian worship. She was attending preschool at Aquinas Montessori in Camas Washington, which was housed on a Catholic campus. The children were taken to a room where they could polish the brass candelabras that would be used for Christmas. When she got home that day, she was filled with excitement. I asked her what made her so happy and she proudly exclaimed “Oh Mommy! I got to polish the Menorah!”
On another Christmas we attended a candlelight service at Unity Church in Vancouver, Washington. Reverent Bernadette looked beautiful in her red suit and long dark hair. As she shared her thoughts with us about the Christmas story, I felt the “presence.” When it was time to go to the front of the sanctuary to take our lighted candles and place them in the sand tray, the organist played “Silent Night” and I again felt the loving “presence” in my heart. I was carrying baby Phoebe on my hip, with her older sister Bianca by my side. After placing my candle in the sand tray, I waited for Bianca to join me — but I felt her disappear for a moment.
Behind me I heard Reverend Bernadette announce that the congregation would be honored by an impromptu solo by a young singer whose “. . .name is Bianca.” I turned around in astonishment as I heard Bianca sing “Silent Night” . . . in Japanese! My sweet autistic child was learning Japanese phrases at her preschool, and apparently had fully memorized this traditional Christmas Eve song.
The worried look on my face caught Rev. Bernadette’s eye, and she confidently waved me to my seat, so I moved on leaving Bianca on the stage. I sat and cried tears of joy, as I listened to my darling little girl. She was innocent then and filled with the spirit of the “presence.” The entire congregation was mesmerized too. At that moment, the Holy Spirit flowed through all of us.
I won’t ever totally heal from the parental alienation that my ex-spouse Howard and his wife Susan put me through. The hardest part has always been my guilt that I could not protect my daughters from Howard’s cruelty. However, with each passing year I am stronger and wiser — and have more to offer others who suffer. I know that I haven’t lived through this abuse to be nothing more than a victim or a survivor. I know I am more because God loves me and wants me to let others know that to do to protect themselves and their children.
In fact, I was speaking to one of my clients a couple of days ago who is facing something similar with her ASD spouse, from whom she is separated. She is terrified that her children will never recover from his alienating efforts. I gave her comfort and some tips on strategy. I learned the hard way that to do battle with a narcissist (who is hell-bent on destroying you), requires more than being tough. You must learn to be wily and strategic — yet always take the high road.
As we talked and she calmed down, she was comforted to know that she would not have to face parental alienation alone as I had. After our conversation she sent me this sweet text:
Thank you so much. There is a special place in heaven for people like you. ❤️
The New York Times helps me grieve.
I start almost every day reading the online version of the New York Times. It helps me with my personal grief, to read about tragedies around the world. Climate change, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, another mass shooting, the attack by Hamas on the Israeli kibbutzim near Gaza.
Does this sound odd to you? Not to me. My life is exceptionally blessed in comparison. I may never see my children or even know my grandchildren, but I live safely in an Oregon beach town. I have a beautiful home with an ocean view. I have plenty to eat, and work that fulfills me. I have invigorating walks with my dog Kokomo. Pampering my elderly kitty Trinity, and playing with her streetwise kitty sister Seven of Nine, give me a chance to “mother” my loved ones. Every day I count my blessings and thank the Lord for providing for me.
As I opened the email prompt from the New York Times this morning (December 23, 2023), and scrolled past the headlines, my eyes dropped to two articles that were listed as “Editor’s Picks.” I wasn’t emotionally ready for the first one, The Day Hamas Came1. So I started with the other one, The Joy of Communal Girlhood, the Anguish of Teenage Girls2.
Now I know what you are thinking. Both pieces are pretty intense for a holiday weekend, but for me these news stories inspire me to be a better person — to do all that I can and a bit more to make the world a better place.
I cried through the whole piece on girlhood. My choice to start with my personal loss reflects where my heart is at Christmas — with my daughters Bianca and Phoebe — who lost their girlhood through our divorce and the malevolence of their father’s parental alienation. As this “Year of the Girl” draws to a close I hope they are infused by the feminist spirit of the “Barbie” movie, and Beyoncé, and Taylor Swift – Times Person of the Year. As grown women, now in their 30s, I pray my girls listen to their unconscious memories of the mother who loved them and loves them still. It’s a mother’s love that can carry girls past those troubles of girlhood like the mother did in the “Barbie” movie. Unfortunately, Hollywood makes it look easy, but I haven’t given up.
It was a good place to start my morning reading — with my mother’s heartbreak — and to know that I will survive. The tears made it easier to read the next piece, “The Day Hamas Came.” Why was it easier? Because when you are devastated by irrational hatred for no reason — other than that you exist — which is the only explanation for Howard’s destruction of our family — I have a kind of resilience for the stories of others who are devastated by monstrous hatred.
I am not saying it was easy to read this second NYT piece. I watched the village surveillance footage showing Hamas terrorists storming the kibbutz, gunning down young people, throwing grenades into homes to burn families alive.
I was brought into the last moments of the lives of those who perished in the village of Be’eri on October 7th, as I read their anguished texts.
I read about a Jewish woman who had often helped her Palestinian neighbors by escorting them to medical facilities in Israel. During the siege she kept several neighbors safe in her home — until the Hamas terrorists exacted their horrific toll.
I read the texts of a social worker who was trapped in her burning “safe room” with her husband and sons. She made the decision to leave certain death from the fire to escape to the garden and try to hide beneath some trees. She even posted pictures of her last moments — before she and her family were shot to death.
It’s not that these horrors half way across the globe from me, make it easier to accept my personal sorrows. Rather, it is because of my personal sorrows that I have the courage to face what is going on in Israel, and Ukraine, and Sudan. That I am able to read a painful account of a mother’s last moments. That I can vow to do whatever I can to bring comfort to those who suffer. That maybe I might even find a way to effect peace.
The most precious Christmas story.
Perhaps because I am a mother, and a mother who has been crushed by hatred, I pay attention to stories of other mothers who are doing all they can to protect their children. For example, I loved the powerful speech of the mother in the “Barbie” movie, in which she described the impossible standards women are held to. I am sure she inspired many a mother and daughter. Hopefully her speech also softened hearts.
I was awestruck last year when First Lady Jill Biden made a secret trip on Mother’s Day to Ukraine to visit Olena Zelenska, the wife of Ukraine’s president. The two mothers met and talked and I can only assume shared stories of the hardship of motherhood under trying circumstances.
I shared texts with an American Jewish mother as she waited in the Tel Aviv airport on October 8-9. As soon as I heard about the attack, I texted her to find out if she was safe. She assured me she was and that she was getting flights for her family back home. First her husband flew out. Then her daughter and her grandchildren. This brave woman was the last to leave — not before her entire family was safe.
I don’t know much about the life of Rinat Even, the 44-year-old social worker who posted her last thoughts on social media before the Hamas terrorists murdered her and her family. Undoubtedly it took incredible courage to let the world know what was unfolding in her village, through social media, even though she and her children faced certain death. She is a hero.
Another mother has been watching over me for many years. I first met her when I was arrested and locked up in the Clark County jail during the long and torturous divorce process. I had a blazing headache and I was shivering cold as I tried to shake off the shock of what Howard was doing to our family. I was terrified for my children who were left alone at my house after I was arrested. I wrapped myself in the thin blanket I was issued when I was taken to my jail cell, and I sat there quietly waiting until I could be released. I noticed a tiny piece of paper wedged into a metal corner of a table in my cell. I worked the paper out of the corner and it turned out to be a pamphlet left by the Catholic Charities, “Mary’s Way of the Cross.”
I had many feelings that night as I read Mary’s story, the story of watching her son Jesus as he carried the cross to Calvary where he was tortured and murdered. I can’t imagine her anguish, but her courage and love are undeniable. She was a remarkable mother who guides me to this day.
Even as I tell you of these mother’s stories, I am reminded of another story about my daughter Bianca when she was only five. At school the children were given the assignment of drawing pictures that represented Christmas. The teacher collected the drawings and created bundles of Christmas cards for each parent, using the children’s art. On the day of the Christmas party at school, the children surprised their parents with a gift of the bundled cards.
I remember thanking Bianca and giving her a hug. She was very pleased to have participated in creating this special gift for her parents. As I sorted through the cards looking for Bianca’s drawing, her teacher Donna approached. She said, “I asked all of the children to draw a picture of what Christmas meant to them.”
I said, “That is so sweet. Thank you, Donna.”
Donna smiled back and continued. “Yes, the children loved this project. They all drew fantastic pictures.”
I nodded in agreement, but wondered why she was continuing to emphasize this kindergarten accomplishment.
Donna said, “So you will notice that the children drew Christmas trees, and Santa Claus, and candy canes, and colorful wrapped presents.”
“Yes,” I said, as I shuffled through the children’s drawings again.
“But” she paused and looked me in the eye. “Bianca was the only one to draw a Nativity scene.” Then she pointed to Bianca’s card.
I lost my breath for a moment, astonished that my five-year-old had such a deep understanding of Christmas. Bianca noticed my reaction. I turned and looked at her with an inquisitive expression. “Bianca, your drawing is lovely but I am curious about why you choose this picture for your Christmas card?”
In her matter-of-fact way she said, “Donna asked us to draw a picture of the meaning of Christmas Mommy. And it’s when Jesus was born.” Of course, it is. Jesus’ birth is the meaning of Christmas.
The meaning of being a mother.
I became a mother when we adopted Bianca, my precious beautiful little girl. Phoebe came along three and half years later and helped me discover the joy of love again through her delightful smile. Both daughters have made my life so much richer than ever it would have been without them.
I miss them profoundly and I will never get over the loss. But I also know that my mother’s love is an important gift, even from afar. I am not perfect. It is not a mother’s perfection that children need. They need to know that even with all of her flaws and mistakes and regrets (and theirs) that they are loved beyond measure. Mothers are like that. We have hearts that are huge and go on loving forever.
It’s not being a mother per se that makes the difference is it? It’s the lessons from motherhood that make us resilient, stronger, and wiser. Never in life is anything as life altering as choosing to sacrifice for one’s children. And when a mother rises to the level of that kind of challenge, she is a powerful force for good in the world.
This is my wish for all of you for this New Year of 2024. Think deeply of the world and be a force for good in whatever way you can.