Life Notes: A Son, A Mother
Observing a portrait of gratitude

It was one of those perfect fall days: clear, breezy and nippy, but not yet cold. Just the right temperature. That settled it; I dropped everything and set out for the place nearby where the homemade soup is rich and delicious and always available.

I saw them at a distance in the parking lot. The man was middle-aged, and the woman was much older and clearly feeble. She was getting settled on a walker the man was steadying for her. She seemed capable of toppling at any moment as he held her – and the walker – in some inspired feat of agility.

Just by the way they interacted, I could tell these two were mother and son, together for an outing at a time in their lives when such small indulgences become monumentally complicated. For the son, there was this delicate transaction between simply taking over and gentle assistance. I could imagine his valiant struggle to make his mother feel less dependent than she was.

For just a second, his eyes met mine, and in that glance, I read so much: sadness, resignation, anxiety and devotion. And yes, thankfulness that he was there for her.

I wanted to rush over and offer help, but I knew how wrong that would be. This was between the two of them. So I smiled an encouraging smile as I passed, and then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the son slowly, carefully guiding his mother toward the little cafe. It was a journey that would not end quickly. Clearly, this man had willed himself to stand back and let his mother painstakingly make her own way. It mattered to her. That made it matter to him.

But I could also see the mother’s patience and stamina were both wearing thin and I could imagine how her arms ached from leaning on a walker. I watched from my booth inside the cafe as she approached, squared her shoulders and took those last steps. I’m sure that son would gladly have carried her if he could have, but that would have spoiled everything.

I imagined all the times this mother must have knelt down to tie a shoe, soothe a broken little heart, comb unruly hair or just kiss a sticky cheek. How many meals she had made for him, how many bedtime stories she had read to him.

Finally, I let my thoughts roam over all the moments, big and small, that this mother and son must have shared through the long, intricate web of family life. I considered all the sacrifices any mother makes for any child. They are immeasurable, endless, automatic and absolute givens in a relationship that defies logic and demands so much giving, at least initially.

Then, in the relentless march of time, everything changes and the role reversal begins. Now the parent needs, and the “child” gives. The yearning often is to give everything the parent has ever wanted. Yes, a special kind of gratitude flows in this reverse dance of the generations.

I thought about how privileged that man was to have the opportunity for repayment, and how much much I miss the privilege of doing the same for my late mother. My father, sadly, was gone before I could begin to do for him what he had done for me.

In this season when winter is waiting in the wings and Thanksgiving nears, that little mother-son vignette said more than all those sappy cards ever could about what it means to love a mother. It speaks to what gratitude means for those of us who have been parented and want so much to return the gift. Always with respect. Always preserving dignity. Because when it comes to giving thanks and gratitude for parents, enough is just never…enough.

November 2013
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