It was many years ago, but the pictures are etched in memory, a photo album of a frightened child, fearful of the riotous thunder and the uncontrolled lightning that in my imagination seemed as bright inside our home as the neon lights in Times Square.
Violent summer thunderstorms were commonplace in our Mississippi Gulf Coast hometown. For a 4-year-old, however, there was nothing common about them, especially in the middle of the night. Forget the astronomical odds of lightning striking a single person; for me it was more like even money.
But there was a fail-proof, go-to plan that always would stop the throbbing beat of terror: My mother would invite me to sit by her bedside, and she would hold my hand and tell me all would be OK. If she said so, it had to be true, and peaceful sleep would come quickly once again.
It is easy to understand what was meant by the lovely quote from the past, often attributed to Kipling: “God could not be everywhere, so therefore he made mothers.”
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And today is the day we set aside to say thank you to them with brunches or dinners, with flowers or candy, with a greeting card or a FaceTime call from far away. But tell me, why is it just one day each year? One, a hundred, a thousand days would be insufficient to recognize what we owe our mothers.
My mom raised 10 children: seven boys and three girls. She was widowed when four of us were still teenagers or younger and two others were not far removed from that age group. And she would later bury two of her sons.
Somehow, she was always there for each of us.
Thunderstorms or homework, mumps or earaches or a more serious hospital stay, early morning Masses or sit-down midday dinners, she was always there.
Prom preparations or graduations, football games or needed hugs to heal the bruises of our losses, welcoming any and all of our friends or keeping 10 baby books for us to keep as treasures, she was always there.
Being the listener we all needed or making sure Dad never learned of some of our minor infractions, filling the room with the sound of her laugh or providing the strength when her husband, our father, died, teaching us about generosity and sharing or, better yet, showing us how love is revealed in our daily lives, she was always there.
I was the eighth on the roster and for five years I was the baby, the longest stretch for any up until then. Then along came my younger brother and younger sister. But five years as the baby. Surely, that guaranteed a special place in her heart for me. The truth? There were 10 special places in her heart, one for each child.
Just as there were later on for the dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She was the same Maw Maw to every one of them.
And Maw Maw’s kitchen was the place where, for decades, she and my older sister, Udell, made and sold cakes that graced the tables and added delicious calories to menus throughout the area. It’s also where my mother, for 30 years, reported and wrote about engagements and weddings, about births and deaths, about visitors in town and children’s activities in schools for the weekly newspaper my family once owned. The telephone was seemingly attached to her ear and her trusty typewriter was nearby. When Miss Inez called, people answered.
Maw Maw’s kitchen also was a sanctuary, a place of refuge, for the next generations. Moms and dads had to check their grumbles at the door. This was a safety zone for children, and they knew it. There was only one judge and jury, and in Maw Maw’s neighborhood the kids reigned. Ask any of them today about Maw Maw’s kitchen and amidst the laughter and the tears there is enough wonderful material for a book.
There are so many photos in my mind’s album: Mom, her wish fulfilled, seeing Pope John Paul II in person on the White House lawn; Mom pictured in Ebony magazine as she gave the everyday cross to the first African American bishop consecrated in the United States, Joseph Bowers was his name; Mom taking care of more than 100 people who made our home their home during the 1947 hurricane, helping me to fully understand the story of the loaves and the fish.
So many. Each picture more precious than the other, each picture a lesson on life itself, each picture carefully stored away with a shared love.
And every time I see a lightning strike, I feel her hand holding mine, and all is OK.
Gregory Favre is the former executive editor of The Sacramento Bee and retired vice president for news for The McClatchy Co. He is currently editor of CALmatters.