A reverend came over to my house one day and with a loud, booming voice, proclaimed, “The Lord has brought you to me.” I chuckled at the notion of me, a practicing Jew, bringing the Lord to the Reverend. Through her visit, however, I was better able to understand why.
This reverend, who wishes to remain anonymous, had a complicated relationship with her mom. She felt devotion for her grandmother, who instilled in her a love of faith and became a stable and reliable presence when hardship fell. That hardship included her parents’ divorce, her father’s death during a military coup, a subsequent stepfather who was nasty, and finally, a glorious escape to the U.S., where she could pursue her studies and become a reverend. The seed that her grandmother planted came to fruition.
Why she felt the Lord had brought me to her was that I asked her to share one important lesson she took from her mom’s life as part of a project I was working on. My request forced her to confront her anger towards her eighty-something-year-old mom and to ultimately find peace. Otherwise, she might have continued to skate over her bruises and scars and never make amends. She put her mother’s behavior in context and saw that her mother did the best that she could. She was able to extend an olive branch and affirm a relationship.
Prior to the reverend and others like her, I viewed the world of moms and children very differently. I had only my own experience to shape what I viewed as typical. My mom was extraordinary— for her kindness, resilience, strength, and commitment to life-long learning. When my mom turned eighty, she enrolled in a study program where her younger classmates chipped in and bought her a rolling backpack because they worried she might fall when carrying heavy books. For me, that gift was profound, and reminded me that we are never to old to grow, learn, and embrace the world around us.
My story would not be of an olive branch, but a pure and simple flower.
It turns out that there are as many sons and daughters extending an olive branch as extending a flower, and both are equally important. “Flower givers” are in many ways fortunate because their feelings aren’t terribly complex. Their struggle is often about settling on one lesson. The “olive branch givers” have to review history, own a piece, forgive a piece, and then do the hard work of reconciliation. There is some vulnerability involved, but they persevere because there is some healing, too.
A Chinese daughter shared her use of an olive branch when she went about raising her children. She had grown up during the Cultural Revolution and was raised by a cruel paternal grandmother while her mother tried to cope with an angry husband and her family of three daughters. The daughter sharing her story eventually escapes China, becomes a psychiatrist, and moves her parents to the U.S. It took therapy and time, but she has forgiven them for the many ways they made her feel invisible. She has used her pain to make sure that in her world, everyone feels heard.
Soon after hearing that story, I met the son of an Irish immigrant. His mother came over at 16 and with plunk and determination, eventually became an executive buyer at Jordan Marsh. She married late and then had two children. Upon meeting me, the son whipped out his phone to show me a picture of his mom’s hand-written note, titled “The Ladder of Success.” In it, is a ladder with both percentages and words along each rung: “I think, I can, I will, and I did.” She wanted to instill the power of positive thinking. She also led by example. The son vividly recalled how every Sunday they attended church, and his mother’s first act was to shake the hands of the residents from the halfway house, offering them a ride back home too. The ladder still spoke to the son who is now in his mid fifties. Positivity and dignity were to be used to scale the ladder.
Both the ladder and the feeling of invisibility focus on a lesson about the individual and their relationship to their world. One is positive and full of hope; one is negative and full of self-doubt. One is a flower and the other, an olive branch, but both are able to extract meaning and help us construct a life well lived.
These stories affirm the reason I undertook this project to share short pieces of one lesson we take from our moms. In At My Pace: Lessons from Our Mothers I learned that it is never too late to find gratitude, even when it involves turning a lesson on its head as a “not to.” It is never too late to extend the olive branch. Who knows? There may even be a flower waiting to come out. No matter what, the discovery that results is a gift for us all.
Jill Ebstein is the editor of the At My Pace series of books – At My Pace: Lessons from Our Mothers (Nov, 2016) and At My Pace: Ordinary Women Tell Extraordinary Stories (2015). At My Pace: Lessons from Our Mothers is a celebration of the matriarchs in our lives. The book brings together thirty-eight pieces that highlight the love and complexity between parent and child. Available on amazon.com here.
Jill will be hosting a session in Newton, MA on Sunday 4/30 to help daughters write their piece — a great mother’s day present for those who want more meaning and less clutter. Email Jill at email@example.com to learn more.