I don’t know from whom my mother heard “There but for the grace of God, go I.” But I do know that my mother said those words often. That statement, which I consider a prayer of thanks and one I originally thought came from the Bible, sometimes was accompanied with another of my mother’s saying, “Don’t judge another until you walk in their shoes.” I remember the exact time she said the latter to me. I had just stepped in the house after getting off the bus. That day I felt ostracized by, and probably jealous of, a female classmate, whose parents farmed less than two miles from us, saying something like the following to Mom, “She thinks she’s so hot.”
Mom often chided us not to become arrogant, not to think too much of ourselves. I think those injunctions were to protect us from the expectations and the cost of hubris, for she knew fortunes can turn on a dime.
My mother seldom shared wisdoms with us, much less anything about daily happenings. Understanding my mother required hanging on to every word other than requests for us to perform some task. Once during a visit with the folks, after my second divorce, after the children had all left home, in the midst of Ph.D. course work, after my father had gone to sleep, my mother was sitting on the couch and asked me to listen to the television. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” she said, not taking her eyes off the set. Mom was listening to a young female violin player, Akiko Suwanai, playing a concerto.
My mother’s entire life has been one of hard work, working for room and board in order to feed herself after her first husband died from tuberculosis. After her first husband’s death, Mom let his parents keep my older sister until she was about the age of five. The reason, my older sister today at 81 still cannot understand. It was necessary for impoverished women then, unless one wanted both yourself and the child to starve. I know from reading about women’s lives in the 30s that Mom’s experience was not unusual. For those who desire, please read Tillie Olson’s “I Stand Here Ironing.”
Mom worked endless hours on the farm, morning until exhaustion–helping Dad seed, milking cows, cooking, canning, gardening. After they quit farming for themselves, they were asked to manage the Shelby County Farm. Even though my father and mother put the County Farm in the black by raising crops and growing an extensive garden, Osha regulations said that managers had to have master’s degrees. My father with his eighth-grade education and my mother with her education up through her sophomore year didn’t cut the mustard, so once again after seven years, they left a farm and moved back to Manilla. Even then in their late 60s, both Mom and Dad worked. Mom cooked for the Manilla Depot and Rusty’s; Dad monitored dryers at night for Gruhn Seedcorn.
As I sat down beside her, I never thought my mother listened to music, much less appreciated it, for whenever I sang, I was told not to. The folks rented an oboe for me to play in high school, or else its use was donated. I could practice if it didn’t take away from chores.
I learned once again about Mom’s softness that day we watched Suwanai. I was surprised that my mother was aware that this violinist was better than most. My mother’s interior world, which often was forbidden to us, she sometimes revealed with a slight act, as she did with that request.
One of the other times I glimpsed Mom’s interior world occurred when she reached out to hold my hand as we walked around a few blocks in Manilla. During that walk, she told me that in her 20s, someone had offered her a position to work clerical at the state capital in Des Moines, but she said no, she wanted to be with Dad, and thus gave birth to four more children. She took my hand when we stopped to admire this immense flowering plant growing in someone’s front yard. Its pink blossoms, higher than us. I don’t remember ever holding my mother’s hand prior to that day. Her hand was so soft, its weight like a whisper.
As my mother aged, she became even more silent, but it was not the result of diminished capacity. It was the result of her retreating into her interior world where her thoughts and memories were safe.
The first five years after her death, hardly an hour went by that I didn’t think about Mom. Those times were accompanied with tears. Today, tears happen sometimes. I do know one thing, that as I become closer to the age that my mother was when she died, I now know the meaning of “There but for the grace of God, go I.”