My mother was a singer in church, around the house and, after her customary half glass of wine, at parties. Her father was a preacher, and with fingers crippled on his right hand, nonetheless learned to play piano without learning to read music. Music was the most important thing in their house, after God and the bond of love that created and held them. My mother wore Mary Janes and stood pigeon toed in pictures on sidewalks in Bayonne. She dreamed of broadway, and knew all the songs. She married a wild boy from across the bay who soon left to fight for freedom, and found it, repeatedly. I was the first son, and the first grandson and the first cousin within kissing distance of anyone. It was just me and mom a lot of the time, and she’d sing to me – which I loved. But, then, as the spirit of Sondheim moved her, would burst into song in broad public. And I hated that. I was an old guy for a kid. And, mom lived in her own musical.
She was very pretty and men would always try and talk with her. She would blush and brush her shoes together, knock things over, and make Fannie Brice look composed. She was married, she’d say. I’d be the guy who took her home. And sometimes, she’d cry, and sometimes she’d scream and curse. And sometimes she’d want to give up. But, she never let me go, and never turned me away.
Her dreams of being a singer had to go on hold, I suppose. An old little boy is still a little boy who needed a mother. She gave up everything, for me and never questioned it.
When dad came home, I didn’t know him. He got a job that had him traveling a lot of the time and so we got into a rhythm. He’d drop in and rule the roost, then leave again we’d go back to our musical. Dad turned out to be a decent man as he settled into his life. But, it was his life. And, he moved us from place to place following his dream. My mother had three kids, and I was the little man, I guess. I would dress up like a dad in a smoking jacket. I was always dressing up. I held theatrical performances with my brother and sister forced to play menial parts. I’d be Captain Hook. Mom loved to play Maria. My brother and sister would clap their hands and jump around. We’d all do the Jets song, from West Side.
But, there was never enough money. My mom would have to work, and so would pawn us off to her mom and dad during the week. We’d have to sing God songs then, which were not nearly as fun as Bye Bye Birdie. Then my mom got a job working for a broadway critic named Irving Hoffman in Manhattan. And, I was old enough to go in with her sometimes. Irving loved me. Well, looking back, he may have loved mom a bit more than me, but he always treated me to candy and comics and a good story. He was very funny and he was so New York. I was in love wit the city. I met Soupy Sales, and my mom twisted Irving’s arm to get me a picture to autograph. Soupy was a sour dude, but my mom shamed him into giving the autograph. She was a tiger when she wanted to be. And she was my champion, always. She got Irving to twist more arms and got me on Romper Room. I was a star, and she was my manager. We were both in twisted arm heaven.
But, then my dad moved us out of the sate this time. And she left what was left of her dreams to follow his. And she always had to work help support us. When they finally broke up, she had to become a live in maid, as she had no where to go. Then I left college and become her roommate for a while. BUt, it wasn’t long before she was lending me money. She always gave everything to her kids. And she never resented it. She lived to care for others. And, she loved more truthfully and deeply than anyone I ever knew.
Her love held us together, and many many times, held me together. It still does. She’s in her 80’s and still supporting her kids on $11 an hour. I got $200 for my birthday. I asked my sister where she got it from. She just shrugs. Maybe she gambles on the side. She’s always got something for me. And, if she didn’t? She’d still have that all out no holds barred great love. The love of the universe. The strong force that holds all life together, and keeps us from drifting apart into waves and particles. We lived in so many places. I was embarrassed by many of them, but never felt unloved or unwanted. But, she would also cry. Her life was lonely. Sometimes, when I was a kid, I’d catch her crying and come up and hug her. And I knew there were times when it felt impossible to her. But she never faltered. She never fell. And her love kept her together, even as it helped keep us together.
The strong force: love. The love born of tears. The love born of pain. Even as happiness, drunkenness and frivolity keep us shunned of our suffering, so love actually grows from our suffering. In this way, we become strong. And as all beings suffer, we become bonded with our planet through our suffering.
Pain is the essence of communication. It is the absolute currency of existence. We have to be present in our life in order to take a place in the world. In order to be present, we have to be willing to embrace pain, heartache and sacrifice. But, its the great love of the universe, the love of a mother, the love of a family, the love of someone who has taken the outrageous step to steward the life of another, that is the force that binds us to to ourselves and all humanity. The Buddhists have a belief that all beings have, at one time, been our mother. And sometimes those bonds were beautiful and sometimes they were harsh. But, throughout time, our connection to our family of beings, lies in our ability to see beyond the particular insults we experience in our life, in order to care for those who have cared for us. The great practice of equanimity – seeing all beings as equal, and equally, worthy of love – is an outrageous statement. That we will care for the world, as a mother cares for its child is the ultimate vow.
And, aside from being patently absurd, this sacrifice is a great empowerment. The willingness to see others as our own, and to care for them is key to our own liberation. If we can learn to turn our minds from addiction to ourselves toward the benefit of others, our world would be complete. Tapping into that great bonding force, we would want for nothing, except the comfort and safety of all beings. And, in that way, we would have a connection to the greatest power in the universe.
Once, I asked my mother if she resented giving up her dreams for me. She looked sad for a moment, as she sometimes did. Then she said that, along with my brother and sister, I was the most important thing in her life. It sounds like an obvious thing to say, almost a cliche, but it was the truth. And like all truth, it rang in the air and cleared everything else away. She sat there, already growing older, pigeon toed in her silly slippers, tears flowing from her beautiful eyes.