A letter written in love and, I hope, on time.
Wallace Stegner is—or “was” since he’s no longer with us—a writer I think you’d like. Maybe you’ve read him? He was already at the tail end of a long, productive career when you were just a girl growing up in the 1960s. That notorious decade which put the world on its head. The ‘60s seems now like a postwar pressure-release valve, a moment when so many chased a peculiar kind of freedom from: from all the constraints of time, place, neighbours, institutions, authorities, children, spouses.
I think, in all that commotion, Stegner’s beautiful voice was drowned out. It’s a shame. The reason I’m saying this, I guess, is that I think the things for which he stood are also the things for which you and Dad stand. Who would think that the decades you spent living in your same old town, in your same old house, married to your same old high school sweetheart who was still working his same old job, would become its own kind of counter-culture?
Fidelity and the cultivation of the beautiful have always marked your life, and because of that I think you’d like Stegner’s writing. I also mention Stegner because one of the last pieces he ever wrote was a letter to his mother. Be warned: It’s the kind of letter that will make you cry in the best kind of way. It made me cry when I first read it and has every time since. What strange power words have.
He published the letter and entitled it: “Letter, Much Too Late.” His letter was “much too late” because his Mom was—like Stegner is now—already dead. She died when he was just a young man setting out on his way in the world. But in all his busy-ness he had never really reconciled himself to the woman to whom he owed so much, maybe everything. After fifty years he still sought her approval, which he unconditionally had no matter what he accomplished. And he accomplished a lot.
After fifty years he could still hear—and he still wanted to hear—her reassuring voice saying: “Well done, my good and faithful son.” Words of affirmation and love echoing through all the decades and in all the corners in which his mother was no longer. And the words were there, in memory, still potent enough to comfort a wrinkled, aged man who despite all his accolades and achievements was now a grown man, yet always her child.
It’s funny to think that on this side of eternity, I will always be a son to you, and you a mother to me. What does that mean? In the cosmic sweep of time, what is the 38 or so years and counting of your motherhood? For starters, maybe, it’s been for a small group of lively, self-centered, often deviant children—yes, your children—their glimpse of heaven. It’s been their preparatio evangelica, preparation for the experience of grace. Sorry, this is not meant to be hagiography, a history of a saint. We know that none of us were.
But, well, let me explain…
Do you remember how we spent so many of our Saturdays in the gardens? That’s a silly question, I know. Of course you do. Maybe I’m more interested to know how you remember those days. I guess they are not just something past, but still present for you. Many of the trees you tended are still there, just bigger. There are new ones, and ones long gone. And most mysteriously, there is an entire forest of trees that came and went and are remembered by no one.
As I write this, I feel a deep sense of gratitude that even now when we drive over on a Saturday morning in the Spring and into early Fall, I can be almost certain we’ll see you and Dad out in the gardens, still working as we used to for years.
In Paradise Lost, the poet John Milton beautifully renders Eve, our first mother, with the ruddy, sunbaked complexion of one who’d been out in the garden too long. When God asks—in Milton’s version—Adam and Eve to maintain the hedges and pathways, I always had an image of our home on King Street as I read, and you and Dad stewarding your bit of the Kingdom (of course, with more clothes and power tools). I think Milton’s vision of Eden was drawn from a particular garden he knew somewhere in England. We can’t help it. We know from experience. We take our experiences with us into books, and our books with us into our experiences. Which one is more real? I think they amplify reality together like two voices singing in harmony, two lenses seaming a singular vision.
It seems, as I get older, that the gift we provide (or fail to provide) our children is simply the experience we will use to weigh and evaluate the reality of all other lives, living or long past or our own in different seasons. What is home, family, justice, mercy, hospitality, service, denial, love, anger, jealousy, hate, forgiveness, father, mother? For better and for worse, the stock experiences of our childhood are what we measure our reading and our encounters against for the rest of our lives. The God I understand will maybe always have some faint reflection of Audrey Sikkema to Him, the new earth always a faint tracing of the gardens on King Street, which is to say the old earth.
When I was a younger child, I simply thought this is just “the way things are,” but I know enough now to know it very well could have been otherwise. I know enough now also, I think, to know that the stability of your lives was a daily choice that involved self-denial and sacrifice. What futures did you envision at my age? What are the paths you did not take? Your choice, though, has gifted a certain benediction to your children even though the world—and perhaps even we, even you, under its influence—scorned it as parochial, backward, and small. I know there were times, and there still are, that I want to get away from it and be on the move to bigger, better things. Shame on me, on us. I know many now live transient, uprooted lives, and I’m grateful you have stayed where you are.
In my memory, you seem so old then. But I realize you were younger then than I am now. Photos break the spell. And when I look on them now, I see someone who is both mother and peer. I’m sure as I continue to age—as we all do—I might even look on these pictures like Stegner thinking on his young mom and see you as child. And when I think of that I’m bewildered by the game time plays with us, tricking us into thinking we’re not all just children raising children raising children. What is the span of a couple decades that separate us in the far reaches of eternity? Does sixty make you feel how brief the moment of your life really is? Did time-bound, deathward Eve—who is told to have lived over nine centuries—feel any less confused by the brevity of her moment in the dappled sunlight of her garden? Or do the moments only feel brief in a world where moments stop? Or seem to stop, I should say.
It’s a funny thing out of all the motherly advice you gave that I either ignored in my foolishness and arrogance, or simply forgot, I still hear your voice every spring when our gardens come to life: “We cultivate the garden for three reasons. First, to let the soil breathe so the plants can grow. Second, to stop germinating weeds from choking the good plants, and, finally, because it makes the garden beautiful.”
Do you remember how you and Dad explained this to us? I can still picture us in that rock garden off the dining room (now covered over with a deck) at the old house. John Calvin probably couldn’t do better summing up his Institutes than to use that line. In it are Creation, Fall, Recreation. It is good how you both have spent so much time calling order from chaos.
But how do those lines linger? Excuse the crudity, but you and I are now a completely different set of cells than we were when those words were spoken, yet they exist somewhere, and they can be recalled at some time. They are re-presented out of the past. Re-membered by and for the living, now. How do our words cohere? How do they still exercise this strange power over us, over me?
But childhood is not all pastoral, hazy-edged romance. You know that. Probably more than I even do. How much did your children, did I, cause you grief? One Sunday afternoon, during a punishment in which I was banished to my room, I remember leafing through the Bible, opening it, and jabbing a finger at a random passage to “test the Spirits” as it were. My index finger landed squarely on Proverbs 10:1 and after all these years the hair still stands up on my arms when I think about it. How often have I played that foolish son? I know you have likely forgiven the sins of the past, but still: I am sorry.
But I said that mothers, that you, gave us a taste of heaven, and I was trying to explain that. I have done poorly so far, I think. Let me keep trying.
Do you remember the morning I couldn’t find my winter coat? The bus was waiting and everyone else was out the door. I must have been in kindergarten or the first grade. You grabbed my old coat—which I remember thinking was too small, too old, too neon (it was the early 90s, but still)—and you told me you would look for my new coat, but I had to get on the bus. Now! You were apologetic, but firm.
I was so angry with you. I still remember that anger. But more, I remember turning around, wanting to say something, anything to hurt you. Before I crossed the road, I looked back and said, “I hate you.” Loud enough for you to hear it. Hate. I still feel the heat of shame after all these years. I cried on the bus the entire way to school. I remember how much I wished I could come home, say sorry, make it right. All day I thought about you thinking about those words. I could hear the crunch of gravel as Dad pulled in our driveway in his grey pickup for lunch like he always did. I remember thinking about the way in which Dad would bound into the house not knowing the morning you had. For some reason his ignorance of you, your morning, your experience, only made it worse in my young imagination. How lonely you seemed. But as the day wore on, I convinced myself that perhaps you hadn’t heard me, perhaps you had forgot, or perhaps even I had never said the words but only imagined saying them. Did I really say….
But at the end of the day, when I came into the house and you just looked at me with sad eyes, I knew you had heard me. But then—do you remember this?—you just silently wrapped me in a big, warm hug. And after a moment, you asked me how my day was. And at dinner, when Dad pulled in after work, I waited for justice, finally, to come crashing down. I deserved it. But he came in happy and acted as if nothing had disturbed his day. And then I knew: you hadn’t even told him.
Is it silly to hold on to this memory after all these years? How many other moments came and went and are now lost in the vast abyss of things past? What forest of forgotten experiences have grown and passed already in my life?
When the washed-out heavens and this old, tired earth pass away, what exactly was, is, will be that moment we had in our small corner of the world and in our infinitesimal grain of time? I believe, against all odds, it meant something. I think that despite all the times in life we were not our best selves and we needed the grace we refused to give, that this moment will endure in memory and in reality. And I imagine that one day when I meet our Father, this and the myriads of other such moments, now long forgotten, will suddenly shine forth in memory and knowledge. The new hairs on my new arms will stand up and I will remember, maybe perfectly, you and this moment, now purified and illuminated, now realized and held together by the love and the light that turns the cosmos and fires the heavens. You and I, mother and son, brother and sister will see clearly, face to face, each other in the reflected light of the one who holds our words and our actions in living memory, the one who holds together sinew and joint, planet and star, word and voice by the enduring law of love in the decomposing kingdom where all things shudder under the relentless force of the Spirit’s recreation.
What is more real? That wordless hug you gave my wicked six-year-old self or that final, longed-for “Well done, good and faithful son and daughter”? I like to think these will amplify each other into a singular experience. Both are given to ones who need grace, who squandered gifts, who looked away from life and served self all too often. Given with wild and free abandon to those who, at their worst, spat a word of hate and rebellion at the life and love that upheld them each moment.
Marilynne Robinson, in Gilead, imagines that the story of this world will become the epic we tell in Heaven. Our own Iliad and Odyssey, or perhaps Divine Comedy, made up of such moments as these. Like the scars on Christ’s hands, this epic will be a reminder of things past that endure in the new body and new earth. Or perhaps it’ll be more like a dream from which we wake and the very fact we could behave in such ways will seem faraway and dim, laughably irrational in the waking light of the new day. Who knows?
So here, now we are. Sixty years. You have years behind you and years ahead, and the ever-changing now. You are back to where you started in your journey around the sun, ending and beginning another turn in which you learn that all endings are merely new beginnings. I am grateful for the gift your life has been to you, to me, and to those around you. I pray for many more such years, for many new beginnings, and for more moments that become part of the ongoing composition of your life, parts of it we’ll sing now, and who knows, maybe forever.
With gratitude, with love, always,