My Undelivered Mother’s Day Talk

My bishop asked me to give a Mother’s Day talk in sacrament meeting in May. I spent five or six hours writing it out so that I could deliver it within the fifteen minutes suggested by the bishop. However, I didn’t get to give it because the speakers before me on the program used up all the time.

Before the meeting began, I told the bishop that it was likely a mistake on his part to ask me to give a talk. He said no, it wasn’t a mistake. When the meeting was over, I told him, “There, you see it was a mistake. The Almighty countermanded you.”

My bishop, set apart less than a year ago, is also my home teaching companion of five years standing. I’ve had a hard time learning to call him Bishop Hatfield rather than just Jerry. Needless to say, I love and admire him greatly. As I wrote in my talk, he “is a gentle, thoughtful person who leads more by example than by exhortation, being what he hopes others will be and doing what he hopes others will do.”

I’d like to summarize my talk here, but before I do, I’ll introduce myself. I was born and raised in Snowflake, a Mormon town in Arizona. I served a French mission during the mid-1950s. I married Althea Sand in 1958 and we have one daughter. I taught English at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, for thirty-five years. Upon retiring, Althea and I moved to Issaquah, Washington, in order to be near our daughter and her family. I occupy my time caring for my grandsons and editing Dialogue.

Back to the talk. In an early paragraph I defined the reason for Mother’s Day, “Isn’t it true,” I wrote, “that when we honor mothers we honor the great virtue which they embody, the nurture and affirmation of children? It is the time-honored principle of altruism, the principle of unselfish devotion to the welfare of others, applied expressly to that most vulnerable and most precious of all categories of human beings, our children.”

At seventy-one, I realize that I love my grandsons as intensely as I loved their mother when she was small. When I see a stranger with an infant in her or his arms, I realize I could love that child intensely too were I called upon to do so. I therefore went on in the paragraph mentioned above to write: “And isn’t true that many, many persons who are not mothers serve children, and many, many others would serve children if they had the chance? For that reason, I would like to praise and honor not only mothers but those persons who, regardless of their gender and station, nurture and affirm children and even to those who, though circumstance has denied them the privilege of nurturing and affirming children, would do so with good will and rejoicing had they the chance.”

I was paying my respect to the childless persons who inhabit many wards, men as well as women. They are the unmarried, the single. I’ve heard it over and over from single friends. Mother’s Day is a hard one to get through. So I was saying, on Mother’s Day, let’s honor the human impulse to nurture little children. Let’s praise everyone who feels it.

Nonetheless, I shaped most of my talk toward praise of the women who have or have had children. Predictably, I did it by praising my own mother.

I admitted that my feelings for my mother were complex. In keeping with the custom of her era, my mother resorted to whipping by way of discipline. Once when she was in her eighties, I confronted her with a memory I had of being required to go outside to the tamarisk patch by our house and break off a switch, bring it into the house, lower my pants, and receive a whipping. It was the lapse of time between my misdeed and the final punishment that struck me as unjust. My mother contested the accuracy of my memory. She agreed she had probably sent me out to the tamarisk patch for a switch but was sure she would have let that threat of punishment suffice. She wouldn’t have whipped me. I knew better than to insist upon my version of the incident. I already knew that memory is constructed of both fact and fiction. Furthermore, as we spoke, I felt pity instead of anger. She seemed so aged and frail and needy, and we were both so vastly beyond the circumstances that had given rise to my uncertain memory that I abandoned the matter.

I alluded to my anger toward my mother in my talk because I wanted it known that it didn’t diminish my respect and admiration for her. She was a good woman who did the best she could, and I realize fully that she made an immeasurable contribution to my life and well being. She bore me, she nurtured me, and she left no doubt that, despite recalcitrant, exasperating behavior on my part, she affirmed my being.

I recall from a very early moment sitting in a large ant pile in our front yard howling because ants were swarming over me and stinging me. My mother emerged from the house on a run and, plucking me up, brushed off the ants. Why I sat there passively allowing myself to be stung I can’t tell you. But the point is, over and over, this good woman rescued me when I needed to be rescued.

There, that is the substance of my undelivered Mother’s Day talk. Thank God for mothers. And thank God for the instinct for nurturing little children in whomsoever it may appear.

Comments

  1. Welcome aboard. Let me be the first to comment on your inaugural post. I will also insert that this is yet another evidence for French serving greater-Seattle area living providence.

    I think the most striking aspect of your post is the incongruity of worlds. My parents are visiting right now and not only have we discussed my childhood, but also thiers. There is a tremendous compassion that is born from our conversations and the recognition that we are products of our time.

  2. Thanks for this post, which is great. Two comments: one of the most committed carers for children I have ever met was a brother in a student ward of mine who was working part-time and caring for his and his wife’s children while his wife worked her way through her Ph.D. program. Mother’s Day certainly should celebrate people like him, as well as carers for children who happen to be female.

    Second, I empathize with your comments about the complexity of your feelings about your parents. I find it difficult to think about these things as clearly and cogently as you now do. It can be very hard for me to understand the motives behind these things and to see the good and the bad in violent parents as part of the same thing.

  3. Wonderful post. I hope my children can one day love me through adult eyes. Appreciate what I did and forgive the mistakes that I made either knowingly or unknowingly.

  4. I don’t mind Mothers Day being about mothers. Mothers are important. We all had mothers. If we had good ones we appreciated them. If we had mothers who could not raise us we spend the rest of our life dealing with that missing, important relationship. If we aren’t mothers, but long to be, it is because we think being a mother is something special.
    We can say that Fathers are important (and we do on Fathers day). We can say that we all help teach children.
    But to someone who is in pain because of the loss of a mother, the disapointment in their mother, or because she isn’t a mother, minimizing motherhood by saying everyone else is a mother, or mother-ish, doesn’t really make them feel better, does it?
    We could quit celebrating the good things in life, because bad things happen. But let’s not. Life is pain, in so many ways, which is why we look for things to rejoice in.

  5. Steve Evans says:

    Levi, welcome aboard! A great inaugural post.

  6. Thank you for your post, Levi. There is something bittersweet about coming to know your parents as an adult. I remember always feeling loved, in the general/theoretical sense, by my father as I grew up–but I was struck after I moved away from home to go to college that, seemingly all of a sudden, my father _liked_ me. It was as if I had passed some threshold and become a person he was interested in. I appreciated this, but it was sobering in some ways–what did he think of me, how did he feel about me before then? I wondered if the change was because he suddenly came to appreciate me now that i wasn’t around so much, or whether I had finally reached an age where I could carry on a reasonably intelligent conversation. I don’t really know the answer to these questions, but it has stopped mattering to me. I’m just happy we can golf together, talk about sports, the next vacation to come. I love my Dad.

  7. Great post, Levi. Our parents play a prominent role in our lives, though often in unpredictable ways. I’ve learned not to tell people a lot about my parents, because I get responses like, “Oh, that explains everything.” But it’s not like that–it’s not that simple–and you’d have to have been there to understand why. The texture of a parent’s influence on their children is so varied and complex that it’s quite difficult to communicate to others.

  8. Interesting thoughts Levi. As I was reading through I was reminded of your essay My Mother’s House, (is that the correct title?) which I have always found profundly moving – anyways great to see you on the Bloggernacle, and I look forward to future posts.

  9. I think giving a Mother’s Day talk is the equivalent of navigating a minefield. There’s a thousand different ways to make a thousand different people feel guilty.

    However, it sounds like your undelivered talk avoided all those missteps. Thanks for delivering it here.

  10. Nate Oman says:

    I admire Levi’s bravery. I would never accept an invitation to speak on mother’s day. Way too much politics.

  11. Seth Rogers says:

    I like this talk because it refrains from just mindlessly praising women. I think a lot of people are just as nervous as Nate about speaking on Mother’s day. As a result, they simply try to be as gentle, supportive, and praising as they can.

    But the result is often a talk that says absolutely nothing of value.

    Father’s Day on the other hand, usually involves the men getting lectured on their inadequacies …

    Guess that’s life.

  12. WOW! The Levi Peterson!

    I enjoyed your post, as I’ve enjoyed all your writings over the years. I have read all the novels and short stories you’ve had in print, and I learned much about the Mormon experience through your wit and candor.

    When I was still a Dialogue subscriber, I was delighted to know you were on board, but a bit baffled because I had inferred (or assumed) through your writings that you were a disaffected Mormon or post-Mormon, and when I later left the church and ended my Dialogue subscription I noted with gratitude that your honesty and perspicacity about things Mormon helped in large measure toward that end.

    So, thank you, and best of luck to you.

  13. Oh–by the way, my favorite novels were “The Backslider” and “Aspen Marooney”. My favorite short story was “The Christianization of Colburn Heights.”

  14. Rosalynde says:

    What a lovely and contemplative post, thank you.

    I wonder, thinking it over, whether mothering isn’t in many ways less altruistic than other forms of nurturing children. Most mothers are so psychically identified and physiologically connected with their infants and young children that, in many ways, caring for the child is more self-serving even than caring for herself. (This is not to say that it’s effortless or natural, however!)

    As an example, when I was a teenager, the oldest of many children, I would occasionally daydream that my parents were killed and I was left as guardian of my siblings. In order to care for them, I would have to drop out of school and forego college and other pursuits. The scenario seemed to me very noble, very self-sacrificing, worthy of great commendation and acclaim. Now that I’m a mother myself, and have in some ways made for my children the sacrifices I daydreamed about making for my siblings, my choices no longer feel at all noble or even particularly self-sacrificing. I think this is because I have so much personal interest at stake in my children’s success, genetically and socially and emotionally, that their success actually, it feels, benefits me.

  15. Mothers day talks…..

    I would be frightened out of my mind to actually have to give a talk that day. Who would I offend?

    One thing I have really noticed is how PC the talks have become in recent years. See my frightened comment above. Lots of odes to childless women etc. Sometimes the speaker will seem afraid to give the talk and would sprinkle references to how women without children are mothers to.

    I have always wondered if childless men and women have different responses to mothers day talks as opposed to fathers day talks. I spent three years as a childless married couple prior to births of our 4 children. (fertility issues) I was never offended when on Fathers day a speaker would praise good fathers like crazy and rip bad fathers. The speakers also never mentioned how childless men were fathers because its not true. I know I did not have a kid till I was 25. They can act in father like ways in limited situations but in reality are not fathers until they have kids of their own.

    Would like to hear some comments from the BCC crowd to gain a solid perspective on this issue :) :) See I am afraid to offend…..

  16. With fear and trepidation I post at BCC for the first time. Be kind.

    In regard to B. Bell’s post, I think he’s correct in thinking that Church members are generally more sensitive to the plight of single and childless women than they are to similarly situated men. Father’s Day talks are pretty safe: you simply praise your biological or adoptive father and your Father in Heaven–no need to carefully include all who have a “fathering impulse.” I think there are two primary reasons for this. (Disclaimer: The following statements are gross generalizations.)

    First, the women’s movement has had some success in raising Church members’ sensitivity to certain issues. As a result, members realize that “woman” does not equal “mother” and approach a day honoring mothers with a degree of caution. However…

    Second, Church doctrine and tradition has long focused on motherhood as the primary role of a woman, but a similar emphasis has not been placed on fatherhood as the primary role of a man. Because men’s roles have not been defined primarily in terms of fatherhood, a man may be a successful and contributing member of God’s kingdom whether or not he has children. (Remember the old “men get the Priesthood, women get to be mothers” line?) There’s less of a stigma attached to being a childless man.

    Finally, Levi’s post was beautiful and right on in seeking to honor all those who seek after the welfare of children.

  17. Steve Evans says:

    Alan, welcome to the jungle, my friend.

  18. Alan,

    If it’s a patriarchal system and you have no children, why the man. Even though we talk of women only getting to be mothers, who is the one that determines 1)who gets to be father and 2)who the father really is?
    Now who holds the power?

  19. Larry,

    I think it’s pretty clear who holds the power. Your arguments remind me of a conversation I recently had with my in-laws regarding the increasing disparity in the woman to man ratio in China. My mother-in-law was expressing concern that women becoming a limited/scarce resource would lead to a rise in exploitation of women. I argued that it could actually increase the power of women in China for reasons similar to the arguments you make. If there’s one woman for every ten men, doesn’t she have the power? She gets to choose who to mate and procreate with, right? Well, no, her father actually gets to choose. Anyway, I stuck to my guns for the sake of argument, all the while realizing that theory and reality were on divergent paths. I think it’s the same situation with your arguments. Well-reasoned and logical though they may be, take a look around your ward and tell me who you think has the power.

  20. Clearly, the Relief Society.

  21. Clearly, the Relief Society.

  22. When my kids were younger I occassionally administrered a slap or two (sometimes three…) In contrast I was spanked regularly, and hard with paddles and belts and hands. My folkms wre visiting once and my father observed me give my oldest son a painless (I am serious) slap on the backside to my oldest son. My father recoiled and objected. I asked him where this had come from given his parenting practices and he said then and there that he had been wrong and he regretted it. I never begrudged him the discipline but I have reflected on my father’s repentance. He is fully willing to speak out against his sins and I believe that is the final measure of repentance.

  23. I enjoyed your talk, as I always enjoy your work, Levi. I look forward to returning here and reading more of your posts. Of all the LDS-oriented blogs, BCC has always been my blog of choice. Now, the best just got better!

  24. Welcome to another Snowflake native! (I’m not–I’m a generation removed.) But my dad (Eliot) was good friends with Chas (your brother, I suppose) and I did fall out of tree in his backyard in Price about 40 years ago. Landed on my head, and nothing’s been the same since.

    Enjoyed your post here, and look forward to many more.

  25. Levi Peterson says:

    Thanks for all the good comments on my undelivered talk. I’ll give some update.

    First, a note to Mark Butler, whose grandfather David was my science and math teacher in high school. Also, the first non-relative female that I recall kissing was a niece of Jenny Butler, Marks’ grandmother. That was in front of Bushman’s store, shamelessly public. We were five.

    Back to my undelivered talk, or at least to one of the principals in my narrative about it. My home teaching companion, Bishop Hatfield, phoned yesterday and I agreed him to meet at a certain home at two thirty. I went back to editing Dialogue and forgot till it was too late. I’m embarrassed, even a little desolated, to have lived up to my reputation for neglecting churchly things.

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