It is my unproven but firm belief that the level of our love for God is precisely equal to the love we have for our mothers. From our mothers and from God we learn that we are not alone and that we are loved. From our mothers and from God we learn that what we accomplish in life is so much less important than how we behave in life. From our mothers and from God we learn to trust the goodness of others even when we are not shown goodness. From our mothers and from God we are taught not to be afraid. If we cannot learn these life lessons from our mothers, it is very hard for me to understand how we can learn these lessons from God.
I learned this from my mother Rosalie Gellman, who lives at Chai Point, a wonderful Jewish home for the elderly in Milwaukee, Wis. Even though Mom does not hear much, she does not take a pill and can still beat me in Scrabble. Mom is 96. She raised four of us and for many years cared for my dad, Sol, who died from Alzheimer's disease in 2007. Mom will not admit it, but the last 10 years since Dad's passing have been a huge relief to her. She was not just caring for Dad, she was dying alongside him.
Mom was trained as a librarian, but with her intelligence and organizational skills she could have been a CEO. However, in my mom's generation, the demands of family dictated a selflessness that was utterly consuming and made any other life choice just a dream. Even so, Mom never resented her burdens and never complained. She grew up in Wichita, Kan., and met my father when he was training to leave for Europe as a soldier in WWII. During the depression she worked in my grandfather Max Greenberg's work clothing store where she learned to extend credit to customers who had no possibility of ever paying their bill but who needed clothes in order to work. Mom had good friends and has outlived them all.
Don't mistake me. There were times when my mother willfully intruded on my life. One day in the 60s when I was demonstrating against the Vietnam War in front of the Milwaukee draft board, a cop yelled out, "Is there a Marc Gellman here?" My loyal comrades immediately pointed at me. The cop walked over, handed me a brown paper bag and said, "Your mommy packed you a sandwich." That was pretty much the end of my protesting days. You can't be a revolutionary when your mommy packs you salami sandwiches!
Later in my life I became more conservative, which was not that hard given my starting point. Once I had the bad judgment to tell my very left-wing mom that I had voted for Ronald Reagan. That year I received a birthday card from her that had a picture of President Reagan on the outside and on the inside this message: "You deserve each other! Happy Birthday." Mom is a piece of work.
Mom also knew how to praise me for my best work while making clear to me that I had to continue to try harder. When she likes my column of the week she will tell me, "I got your latest column and I loved it." When she is less than overwhelmed she says to me, "I got your latest column and the lady down the hall loved it." All others are met with, "I got your last column," followed by silence. Unconditional love does not mean unconditional praise.
Growing up we never had a lot of money, but when I read Mother Teresa's teaching that "Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty," I knew that because of Mom and Dad I was extravagantly wealthy.
A final word for those readers who never had a mom they knew; or who had a mom who did not know how to love them. You too can find a place in your life and your soul to celebrate Mother's Day. This secular holiday can claim you if you call to mind any woman in your life who saved you from emotional poverty by making sure you knew that you were wanted and loved. All of them brought you into life and love, but not all of them birthed you. Mothers come in many versions.
Also, to those of you who had time with your mother that death has ended, honor her memory by trying to love someone the way she loved you. Remember her on Sunday and tell stories about her to your family -- stories they may not know. Mainly remember her because even the memory of the righteous is itself a blessing.
Happy Mother's Day.
(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including "Religion for Dummies," co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman.)
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