Today's the 11th anniversary of my mother's death. She died four days after 9/11 in 2001.
My mother was in my mind yesterday as I read Elizabeth Johnson's chapter in Quest for the Living God entitled "God Acting Womanish." Johnson notes both the advantages and disadvantages of the maternal metaphor as applied to God. As she points out, the term "mother" is fraught with cultural expectations that often reduce it to the sentimental level--to a level that occludes the meaningful revelatory significance at which the metaphor of divine motherhood aims.
She also notes that not all mothers are adorable. Some are dreadful. Others are desperate and confused, barely able to sustain their own lives, and therefore not dab hands at raising their children.
Even so (and rightly), she finds rich significance in the metaphor of divine mother, and her chapter on God acting womanish does a marvelous job of plumbing that significance, setting it forth for readers who may still, even now, need to be taught that all language applied to God is metaphorical. None captures God, who is beyond language.
And beyond gender--a realization that, as Johnson notes, many of us can't seem to get into our heads in a culture imbued with symbols privileging the male, and with half-baked religious "ideas" that simply take for granted God's maleness.
Many of us are--still, even now!--like the theologian who, according to an anecdote Johnson recounts, once stood up to rebuke Rosemary Radford Reuther as she lectured. Greatly exasperated at Reuther's critique of the popular image of God as an infinitely ruling man, he blurted out the kind of imperious corrective men who take for granted that they have been constituted the definers of everything love to issue to women and déclassé men: "God is not male. He is Spirit."
As Johnson observes,
More solid than stone, more resistant to iconoclasm than bronze, is the ruling male substratum of the idea of God cast in theological language and engraved in public and private prayer (p. 98).
And so mothers. And God. And the anniversary of my mother's death. My youngest brother is with Steve and me now, and as I think of my mother's death, I think of how healing it is that he and I can laugh at and even lampoon some of our mother's idiosyncrasies.
My mother was not one of the perfect ones, and my brother, who has always had a colder, clearer eye than I have when it comes to people and their foibles, can now capture with pitch-perfect tone how she sounded as she issued some of her dictates: "No, hah-ah," he can say just as she said it, biting down on the syllable "hah" to emphasize that she absolutely, positively did not intend to do whatever it is you were pleading with her to do. Just because.
Because calling her as stubborn as a mule would do a disservice to mules, who are mild and biddable creatures in comparison with my mother. Stubborn was our mother's middle name. Writ large. And underlined.
My brother, who never enjoyed hearing no as an answer, remembers our mother's emphatic no-saying. I tend to remember more her fascinating drama-queen moments, moments of which there seemed to be a never-ending fund--so that when my brother and I watched several episodes from last season's "American Horror Story" recently, we both agreed that the way-over-the-top Southern drama-queen mother Jessica Lange plays in that series is definitely our mother.
Drama heaped on drama with drama left over to spread on top. She had a greater talent than I've ever encountered in another soul (well, perhaps one of my nieces, who seems to be my mother incarnate, can compete in this quarter) to make anything about herself. A drama in which she was the star player.
Get her raging--something she excelled at, eyes flashing, hands wildly flailing--and the glorious, arcane words that would pour out of her mouth: "No, hah-ah. I positively do not intend to mollycoddle you or anyone else on this planet," she once screamed at me. "No pollywogs live in this household."
Positively was one of her favorite emphatic words, enunciated syllable by syllable with painful exactitude, high emphasis on third syllable. But mollycoddle, pollywogs? I had no idea in the world. That pronouncement (aimed at me) sent me to the dictionary--as so many of her stage pronouncements did. It taught me that "pollywog" has another meaning besides "tadpole." She was, God help her, talking about the ceremony when sailors cross the international dateline and are sometimes required to dress up as women.
And how she knew anything about that interesting ceremony is beyond me.
So: using my mother as a metaphor for God might prove more than a little challenging, since, as my brother and I now agree, she had ways of demonstrating her maternal solicitude that were more than a little unconventional. And yet, as we both also recognize, she was also a much-vexed mother who struggled extremely hard in very difficult circumstances to assure that her children were well cared for.
She was a wife married to a man who, as a neighbor once told her, might be a right decent man if he ever found a way to move beyond 12 years old in his level of emotional intelligence. A man who often made no living at all, when he preferred to spend the time other, steadier men devoted to work in his pursuit of wine, women, and gaming tables.
And so in that sense, my mother definitely did offer glimpses of divine lovingkindness, of steadfast, self-sacrificing love: of the willingness to give everything possible to make sure that her children were provided for. She was very capable of fighting like the she-bear of Hosea when her children's welfare was at stake. And fight she did, on more than one occasion, for each of her sons . . . .
And so I remember my mother with love and affection on this anniversary of her death. And who knows? Maybe those drama-queen moments did me more good than I realize. Maybe, in fact, they prepared me for my own life of center-stage moments, emphatic gestures, and orotund words uttered careful syllable by careful syllable. Absolutely, positively so.