About the time that I became a mom, my relationship with my own mother fractured. We limped along for another decade or so. I looked every year for a Mother’s Day card that read, “I understand you did the best you could.” Never found one. My mom died twenty years ago and, if I’m honest, my life has been simpler since then.
Having my own children transformed the holiday for me. Both of my boys have outdone themselves, reminding me in writing of what it means to be a mom. I have stacks of cards and letters from them and, every now and then, I find one tucked in a cookbook or filed away in a box of newspaper clippings. I add these "new" discoveries to a keepsake box. But this morning, I woke up remembering two examples that didn’t find their way into that box.
One Mother’s Day morning, maybe a dozen years ago, I followed our golden retriever into the kitchen to feed her and make myself a cup of coffee. My kitchen cabinets -- three walls’ worth, above the counter and below it -- were covered with yellow Post-it notes. On each one, printed carefully in black marker, was one reason that my youngest son loved me. I stood in the kitchen and cried. I left those notes up for weeks, until their adhesive failed, the printing faded. I did end up throwing them away. But now and then, when the sunlight catches a cupboard door, I can still see smudges that remind me of those little yellow notes. And I resolve never to clean the cabinet doors completely.
Both of our boys went back East to go to college, and the oldest stayed in Washington, D.C., and New York City for a while. I remember a couple of Mother’s Days when I got a phone call from him and the promise to answer, in full, any question I wanted to ask. (All those years of telephone interviews and stodgy sources came in useful!) But the gift I’m remembering today, arrived in a plain brown envelope. I don’t think it even came with a card. But it was a new copy of a book that had made me cry every time I’d read it to my boys, “Love You Forever.”
I used to wince whenever they chose it from their bookshelf and asked me to read it at bedtime. It began with a new mother, holding her infant son and singing him to sleep: “I love you forever, I’ll like you always, As long as I’m living my baby you’ll be.” Page after page, the boy grows up, the mother sings her song -- sometimes under her breath -- until he holds his elderly mom in his arms and sings, “As long as I’m living my mother you’ll be.” It’s sentimental, I know. I’m a sap, I know. But my adult son sent me that book, without a word. I know. I keep it now on my own bookshelf.
Later this morning, all five of us will get together for brunch: my amazing sons, their beautiful wives and darling daughters. And I will revel in watching these four bright, clever, devoted, young people, already surpassing me as a parent. And I will think of my own odd childhood, of my husband and I doing the best we could, and I will find a weird kind of solace in that Mother's Day card I never did find.
This morning I watched a live stream of the funeral of James H. Cone from Riverside Church in Manhattan. (Here is a link.) It was a remarkable service: a deeply personal testimony from Kelly Brown Douglas, who remembered her first encounter with Cone -- she read one of his books twice in a weekend -- studied with him at Union and teaches there now. Fiery words by Cornel West. Actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith captured the pitch, tone and cadence of Cone’s distinctive voice as she shared her interview with him from her play “Let Me Down Easy.” Bill and Judith Moyers read from Scripture.
Between speakers, the camera looked out over the pews. From that perspective, the casket that held Cone’s body looked so small. So much smaller than his impact on those of us who studied with him, or studied with those who studied with him, or even read a piece of his work, most of it so unflinchingly fierce it is hard to forget.
I shared a personal story about him last week, but I have been thinking since then about the last time I saw him. My husband and I visited Union, maybe seven years ago. We sat in on one of Cone’s classes. His subject was feminist and womanist theologies, and at one point he talked about Beverly Harrison, another of my teachers at Union who challenged and changed my mind. He said Harrison wrote about, and he quoted her on, “the power of anger in the work of love.” I remember thinking at the time that her phrase was a good fit for James Cone.
Here are some thought-provoking pieces written about Cone in the last few days:
From an opinion piece in The Washington Post: One of America’s most influential religious figures has died. He deserves more notice.
“In a nation where putative Christians supplicate before the modern version of a pagan emperor, a nation where liberals too often shy away from religion’s moral language, Cone’s vision is more necessary than ever.”
From Sojourners Magazine: Why James Cone was the most important theologian of his time
“Cone laid out both the challenge and promise of the true repentance that white people need to make before they themselves can be liberated from America’s original sin and discover true Christianity.”
And from The Christian Century: James Cone's theology is easy to like and hard to live
“There can be no reconciliation with God unless the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, and justice is given to the poor. The justified person is at once the sanctified person, one who knows that his or her freedom is inseparable from the liberation of the weak and the helpless.”
It seems so odd to wish that Cone, so often angry in the work of love, would rest in peace now. Maybe he will, but the rest of us should not.