What Would Your Mother Say?
My mother, Judy, really is an outstanding woman. I could write books about her character and life. In the interest of keeping it simple for this essay however, I will only share a broader view for now. She is one of nine children, born and raised on a farm in Northern Iowa. It would be an understatement to say that she had to work hard during her childhood. Daily chores on the farm engrained in her a sense of work ethic and fortitude that few can match.Even more important than hard work, her devotion to Catholicism and to her family has never wavered. She attends church regularly and prays rather consistently throughout her days. She has always put family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and strangers in need for that matter, above herself. My mother works hard, prays hard, and lives life to the fullest.Not falling far from the tree, my intensity level matches my motherâ€™s. This definitely added some fuel to the fire during some rather tumultuous times in our relationship over the years. Having grown up quite a bit and grown out of most of my rebelliousness though, I have, for many years now, been able to understand my mother and her intentions â€“ which I believe are always in the right place. I am able to see her strength, compassion, and never-ending love for not just me but anyone who crosses her path. I have the utmost respect for how she lives â€“ working to help others, surviving difficult times, and maintaining her faith and appreciation for life.
And yet, I hit a writerâ€™s block every time I have even thought about including her in my work. How can I do her justice with words? How can I balance writing honestly about her humanity and simultaneously give her credit for the â€œsainthoodâ€ she is closer to than many?
In fairness to myself, I have only begun to take my writing seriously in the last few years. I have struggled with my own acceptance of this new label as a writer. More recently, I attended a week-long memoir class at the University of Iowa. It was due to this recent experience that I am a step closer on how to address my mother in my writing.
I was standing outside smoking a cigarette one afternoon before class. All of a sudden, a woman I had met earlier in the week walked up behind me and asked â€œWhat would your mother say?â€ in reference to the cigarette in my hand.â€œMy mother has something to say about a lot of things that I do,â€ I replied.I am not entirely sure why this womanâ€™s question made me stop in my tracks and actually consider stomping out my cigarette. I am not sure why I was embarrassed by her question. I am not sure why I didnâ€™t have my normal resentment about another non-smoker feeling the need to point out my habit. Rather, I heard her question. And have heard it over and over again for weeks now inside my head.
What would my mother say?
The question hit me hard. The funny thing though is that I am much more concerned about what she would have to say about things other than my smoking habit. We both know smoking is not a smart habit and therefore it is not a topic worth discussing. I trust that she prays for me to stop smoking and I can appreciate that. I assume that she knows that it is a goal of mine, and something that I work on, to become a non-smoker. Honestly, my mother has not tried to tell me how to live my life on any issue for over a decade now. And I have â€œcome outâ€ to her about many things over the years, including my struggles with an eating disorder and depression as well as my sexuality issues. So why is it that I am so concerned to tell her that I am a writer? I think that I am most afraid that she would worry or become defensive that I might write something bad about her. Clearly, having my own struggles with how to write honestly and with integrity, instead of simply trying to sell a good story, I can understand if she would be nervous about what I might share with the public. I will have to somehow be able to explain to her my intentions of sharing how important she has been and remains in my life.That being said, I am not yet â€œoutâ€ to her about my intentions to write memoirs. Therefore I did not share with her that I had taken a week off of work and attended this class. I have not yet been prepared to have the conversation with her about my developing writing career.
It bothered me to drive through the State of Iowa and past where she and my father live to get to the class and not stop for a visit. I was again feeling sad and upset with myself on the drive home from the class. I felt the urge to call her and to stop. And yet, the fears around telling her what I was doing in Iowa City outweighed my willingness to stop and say hello on my way home.
It was a five hour drive and therefore I had plenty of time to ponder why I had not spoken of my writing yet, to change my mind over and over about possibly stopping to visit, and to hear again and again the most recent burning question, â€œWhat would your mother say?â€ in my head. I had made it about two and half hours. I had been processing all of the stories I had written, heard, and read all week long, all of the relationships I had begun and the interactions I had had. My mind was a whirlwind of thoughts and dreams and stories. As I got closer to the town where my parents live, I began to â€œwriteâ€ a story in my head about what my mother would say. So there I was driving along and all of a sudden I noticed black clouds rolling in. I noticed that it was beginning to sprinkle. That it was no longer daylight even though it was only four in the afternoon. And suddenly, I was driving in a full-fledged storm. I was scared. I called home and Trudy, my partner of almost ten years, assured me it was not storming at home and that I would drive out of this. I lost my phone signal. I wanted to call her back right away but I heard snapping and crackling in my headset and lightening was all over the place. I decided it was probably not safe to be chatting away on a mobile phone while driving in the midst of what could be a tornado or, at the very least, a serious storm. The wind was blowing so hard that the car was whipping back and forth.
â€œKeep your hands on the wheel,â€ I heard my mother saying, â€œwatch where you are going.â€
That is what she would say.That is good advice.I gripped the steering wheel and focused on the road ahead as much as possible given that I couldnâ€™t really see anything. I flashed back to my mother driving through rain or snow storms when I was younger. I remember being in the passenger seat once and afraid about whether or not we would make it to our destination. I asked my mother how she could tell if she was in her lane or not. She explained how she watches the lines on the edge of the road and gages where she is at so that she doesnâ€™t go into the ditch. This is advice I have used many times while driving at night or during storms.
I certainly needed this reminder right then as it continued to darken outside more rapidly. I could barely see. The noise from the overwhelming rain, gushing wind and the pounding thunder gave me a headache. The road was noticeably slippery and I had to grip tight to hold the car on the road.
I admit that I was pretty much terrified at this point. I wondered if I should stop and pull over and wait the storm out. I wondered again about whether or not I should just get off the highway and stop at my parentâ€™s house. I scanned the sky whenever possible, looking for funnel clouds or a sign that this would perhaps break up soon.
And then I heard my mother againâ€¦ â€œSay some Hail Maryâ€™s.â€
â€œSay ten Hail Maryâ€™s and youâ€™ll be alrightâ€ her voice added.
As far away as I have run from Catholicism or avoided it and stepped back and forth into and out of it over my life â€“ I have never had an aversion to the Hail Mary prayer. It has, on numerous occasions, been my mantra when in the midst of fear or needing support to continue on.
I was trying to entertain myself by still trying to â€œwriteâ€ the â€œWhat would your mother say?â€ essay in my head but by then I was too freaked out to concentrate. I had to focus on the road.
â€œKeep your hands on the wheelâ€ I heard her voice.
I focused. I gripped both hands around the wheel at ten and two. I held steady.
â€œWatch where you are goingâ€ she added.
I kept my main vision on the road ahead (from what I could tell of it) but also used my peripheral vision to keep an eye on the lines to keep me away from the ditch on the passenger side of the road.
â€œSay some Hail Maryâ€™sâ€ she repeated in my head.
I said them slowly and deliberately. I was tempted to rattle them off the way the older nuns would do it in church saying the rosary when I was growing up â€“ at the speed of light â€“ inhaling and saying the entire prayer during one exhale as one gigantic wordâ€¦ seriously â€“ one breath, one word.
But I was honestly terrified. I am much more stable than in previous periods of my life and therefore much less melodramatic. And yet, I am keenly aware of how easily people die. I am smart enough to know that on any given day, my time could be up. And how poetic would it be if a storm took me out on the way home from this writerâ€™s class where I finally felt like I knew what to do with my life. And how good of a story would it have made that I lost a signal with Trudy and she would be sending my parents out to look for me soon. It was not beyond possibility that I could be killed driving in this massive storm out in the middle of Iowa farm country.
I kept my hands on the wheel. I kept my eyes on the road and watched where I was going. And I began to very seriously continue to say the Hail Maryâ€™s.
â€œTen ought to be enoughâ€ I heard my mother add in my head.
I prayed that God would keep me safe and get me through this storm.
It popped into my head that perhaps my mother â€“ having power not unlike Mother Nature herself at times, had felt that I was in fact near and fixing to drive past her town without a visit. That her emotional response to this might have stirred up the storm.
Was it a sign?
Should I stop?
I was south of town and prayed that the storm was going east. I believed that if I could get past the south side of town and head north that I would drive out of the storm.
I was going about 40 miles an hour at the most. Pitch dark. Unable to see.
â€œHail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with theeâ€¦â€ I chanted out loud.
I would lose my place in the middle of the prayer and have to start over. I would sometimes have to say it the fast-nun way to remind me of the words. It is more difficult to say it slowly. You have to mean it then.
My mind raced. But I kept track of how many genuine Hail Maryâ€™s I had said with my fingers on the steering wheel. White knuckles on the steering wheel, my hands and arms tingling and falling asleep by then.
I somehow made the curve around the outskirts of the town and began to head north. I still had three more exits I could take to stop at my parentâ€™s house. I was on my 9th Hail Mary. The rain was still coming down hard, dark clouds everywhere.
â€œHave faith Wollner. You will drive out of this soon.â€ I said to myself.
I rounded the bend completely and said my 10th Hail Mary.
And the sun shone ahead of me in the distance.
And the rain started to lighten up.
And the daylight was beginning to return.
And the lightening and thunder was suddenly behind me.
Ten Hail Maryâ€™s were exactly enough.
I had survived the storm.
â€œHail Judyâ€ I thought. And Hail Mary. And hail anyone or anything else that has watched my back and helped me through the many storms over the years.
Would I have survived the storm without the Hail Mary prayers? Had my mother sensed, like so many other times of distress in my life, that I was in danger and kicked in her own prayers for me during that half an hour or so that I struggled to stay on the road? Were my prayers merely a distraction from my fears? Would I have been just as safe had I left my rap music blaring and sung along instead of praying out loud?Who knows?I personally believe in the power of prayer and I learned this from my mother. But I also know that none of us truly knows the mysteries around spirituality, religion, and what happens to us after death.
What would my mother say?
She would be thrilled to know that I still say the Hail Mary prayer when I am in distress. She would be relieved to know that I am a very safe driver and happy to hear that I still use advice she taught me from behind the wheel when I was a teenager. Clearly she doesnâ€™t approve that I smoke. Only time will tell if I am ever able to give that habit up. And, as I develop my writing career, I will most certainly learn what she has to say about the stories that I intend to tell.
In the meantime, I will have integrity with the words that I write and work up the nerve to tell her one of these days that I am a writer.