Tuesday, May 10, 2011


I am fascinated by primal motherhood; fascinated by the instinctual drive in animal species. As humans, we are brought to the task of mothering with reason, common sense, compassion and with any luck, grace. No matter the species, mother animals mother with instinct and for all of the advantage we have in our superior knowledge, instinct is what often lacks in humans. That is not to say that we cannot defend our young on a level that is primal or that we do not have that built in sense of knowing; the thing that makes a mother stir when she knows something is wrong somewhere or that makes her reach for the phone just as a child is calling home with a problem. A sixth sense is woven into and wrapped around reason somehow, but instinct is quite different.

I have a pair of rather prolific love birds. Separated from one another at the pet store and reunited after 6 weeks, they paint a story of star-crossed lovers in their colorful display of affection for one another. Once a suitable nesting box is offered, Owen knows that he can begin courtship and he knows that to win Jasmine’s heart, he must begin to furnish the home and show his intentions by feeding her. He did not read this or learn it from his dad; he simply knows. Upon accepting his offerings, the two spend a day consummating the relationship, after which they work feverishly to gather appropriate nesting materials into the box. Jasmine knows that she needs moisture in the nest and takes strips of paper and dips them into her water dish, layering them between dry pieces. She knows nothing of the science involved and had no teacher to teach her the technique. She just knows.

Once she begins laying, one egg every other day, she spends all day and night incubating the clutch, coming out only occasionally for nesting supplies or water. Owen keeps watch outside and brings her meals in bed. There is no bickering about who should be doing what; they have their designated jobs and they accept them. Once the babies hatch, both parents work all day feeding and warming, bringing fresh bedding and moist strips to keep the humidity just right. The instinctual teamwork is without ego or competition; there is beauty in their partnership.

We take classes, we read endless books by renowned experts, gather in groups to share and learn and teach and for all of our knowledge gathering, we do not have the same harmonious rhythm that is wired into the simplest of species. Perhaps the greatest contrast that I have observed is that animals know when the job is finished. A mother animal will risk her life to protect and raise her young, but the moment the mission her accomplished and her young possesses the ability to thrive on their own, she boots them out without hesitation. As humans, we let out the tether, but find ourselves uncertain as to when our offspring are really ready to fly, our insecurities likely keeping them closer to the nest than necessary.

Jasmine began biting her young once they were eating on their own and my admiration for her instincts turned to scorn. She wanted them out, and yet they had barely the skills for survival. In the wild, they would have left the nest and likely not come back. Separating the babies to a new cage, I discovered her urgency. She had laid a new clutch of eggs; her instincts told her all of her time and energy was to be dedicated to hatching and raising these babies.

I am fascinated by primal motherhood; by the instinctual drive of mother animals. I am also keenly aware of my human instinctual shortcomings and the gift of human love and bonding that separates us from the animals. Fledging our young is much more complicated, but I am grateful that when they leave the nest, they are likely to return again and again.

Sunday, May 08, 2011


Reaching life’s milestones has a way of propelling me toward inward reflection to ponder the meaning of life and my place in it. My most recent birthday and the arrival of an AARP card bearing my name seemed to juxtapose where I have been and where I am going, leaving me sitting to marinate in where I am. We are all a work in progress being molded and shaped by events along our journey, but most of life’s lessons for me simply echo the wisdom of my first teacher; my mom.

The lessons that I have learned from my mother were specific and make up the foundation that I stand on. From the time I was very young, my mother instilled the basic lessons: say your prayers, always tell the truth, never cheat and keep your room clean to name a few. But as time goes on, I realize that what she really taught was about faith, hope and charity.

Pray about it.” When I was younger, the words were “Ask God for help” but the message has been consistent and is in the forefront of every big problem or decision I encounter. My mom has always been a woman of faith and has taught me that we are better served when we ask for guidance.

Praise God for answered prayer.” It has become more evident to me that prayers are answered and that sometimes we need to sit back and listen for the answers in order to hear them. It is easy to look around with envy in difficult times and to wonder why life is so hard, but an attitude of gratitude turns it all on its head and even it times of strife, blessings are there to be counted.

If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” I can honestly say that I am still working on this one. This is the wisdom that has allowed me to accept the things I cannot change and by doing so, avoiding senseless conflict. "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference."

Lessons of faith and hope were taught with words, but one of the greatest lessons my mother taught she did so by example; Charity. Both of my parents modeled this for me growing up by reaching out to strangers and friends in need, but as my mom entered her retirement years, her outreach has become a major component of her life. She has been working with refugees families to teach them English and help them acclimate to life in the US. Mom and Bruce worked with habitat for humanity helping these people to build and establish homes. Most recently, she has taken a position as a volunteer at the hospital greeting visitors to help them navigate the visit with their love ones and also works with a satelite group making blankets and toys for children in the hospital, raising money for the hospital through bake sales and various other activities. Through her church she has worked with Soles for Souls collecting shoes to send to countries where such a basic need is a luxury. She and Bruce have dedicated themselves twice a year to our troops. In the summer (Marine Appreciation Day) and in the fall (Thanksgiving with the Marines) they have spearheaded a program in their community to bring busses of Marines who cannot go home for the holiday to join host families for the day; filling their bellies with food and their hearts with love and gratitude.

It is easy for most people to see the Golden Years as a time for rewarding oneself for a lifetime of hard work. My mother has shown me that rewards do not always come in the form of self-indulgence; but can be in the satisfaction of touching someone else’s life.

My mother’s wisdom was taught to her in much the same way; her mother (Mema) was the same kind of teacher. Mema (Mary Ellen) married an Irishman, and as devout Catholics, did not practice birth control. Her life mirrors some of the heart wrenching memoir books on my shelf; a life of great poverty and trials. She gave birth to 12 children, two of which died in childhood and raised 5 sons and 5 daughters, my mother being the baby of the clan. The stories shared by my mom and her siblings are about times of hunger and less than meager possessions. I know that things like toothpaste and shoes without holes were not elements of their existence.

In spite of this, my grandmother’s faith was profound, always finding things to bless and thank God for. Her wisdom taught her children not to squander what they had and to always have self-respect. “Squeeze your money tight and do your business tidy” and “Don’t let the neighbors know your business.” These were some of the phrases she would use to help her kids hold their heads high in times of trouble; teaching faith and hope in the same way as my mother, through her words. What astounds me most, however, is her teaching of charity. In spite of having nothing, my grandmother would never fail to find someone who had less and would share what little she had with them.

By the time I met Mema, she was in her later years and I remember her as a nutty, silly, loopy woman and I am sad that I did not have a chance to know her as I grew older. The thread of humor has passed through the women of this Irish linage as an essential ingredient for life. My daughter often calls me on my “random” behaviors and I simply blame the women before me, just as I can also credit them for the basic guidelines for living.

On this Mother’s day, I want to thank my mom and Mema before her for the lessons they passed to me and I hope that I can honor them in carrying forward the wisdom of my mothers.