An essay by Christopher Morley
When one becomes a father, then first one becomes a son. Standing by the crib of one’s own baby, with that world-old pang of compassion and protectiveness toward this so little creature that has all its course to run, the heart flies back in yearning and gratitude to those who felt just so toward one’s self. Then for the first time one understands the homely succession of sacrifices and pains by which life is transmitted and fostered down the stumbling generations of men.
Every man is privileged to believe all his life that his own mother is the best and dearest that a child ever had. By some strange racial instinct of taciturnity and repression most of us lack utterance to say our thoughts in this close matter. A man’s mother is so tissued and woven into his life and brain that he can no more describe her than describe the air and sunlight that bless his days. It is only when some Barrie comes along that he can say for all of us what fills the eye with instant tears of gentleness. Is there a mother, is there a son, who has not read Barrie’s “Margaret Ogilvy?” Turn to that first chapter, “How My Mother Got Her Soft Face,” and draw aside the veils that years and perplexity weave over the inner sanctuaries of our hearts.
Our mothers understand us so well! Speech and companionship with them are so easy, so unobstructed by the thousand teasing barriers that bar soul from eager soul! To walk and talk with them is like slipping on an old coat. To hear their voices is like the shake of music in a sober evening hush.
There is a harmony and beauty in the life of mother and son that brims the mind’s cup of satisfaction. So well we remember when she was all in all; strength, tenderness, law and life itself. Her arms were the world: her soft cheek our sun and stars. And now it is we who are strong and self-sufficing; it is she who leans on us. Is there anything so precious, so complete, so that return of life’s pendulum?
And it is as grandmothers that our mothers come into the fullness of their grace. When a man’s mother holds his child in her gladdened arms he is aware (with some instinctive sense of propriety) of the roundness of life’s cycle; of the mystic harmony of life’s ways. There speaks humanity in its chord of three notes: its little capture of completeness and joy, sounding for a moment against the silent flux of time. Then the perfect span is shredded away and is but a holy memory.
The world, as we tread its puzzling paths, shows many profiles and glimpses of wonder and loveliness; many shapes and symbols to entrance and astound. Yet it will offer us nothing more beautiful than our mother’s face; no memory more dear than her encircling tenderness. The mountain tops of her love rise as high in ether as any sun-stained alp. Lakes are no deeper and no purer blue than her bottomless charity. We need not fare further than her immortal eyes to know that life is good.
How strangely fragmentary our memories of her are, and yet (when we piece them together) how they erect a comfortable background for all we are and dream. She built the earth about us and arched us over with sky. She created our world, taught us to dwell therein. The passion of her love compelled the rude laws of life to stand back while we were soft and helpless. She defied gravity that we might not fall. She set aside hunger, sleep and fear that we might have plenty. She tamed her own spirit and crushed her own weakness that we might be strong. And when we passed down the laughing street of childhood and turned that corner that all must pass, it was her hand that waved good-bye. Then, smothering the ache, with one look into the secret corner where the old keepsakes lie hid, she set about waiting the day when the long-lost baby would come back anew. The grandchild—is he not her own boy returned to her arms?
Who can lean over a crib at night, marveling upon that infinite innocence and candor swathed in the silk cocoon of childish sleep, without guessing the throb of fierce gentleness that runs in maternal blood? The earth is none too rich in compassion these days: let us be grateful to the mothers for what remains. It was not they who filled the world with spies and quakings. It was not a cabal of mothers that met to decree blood and anguish for the races of men. They know that life is built at too dear a price to be so lathered in corruption and woe. Those who create life, who know its humility, its tender fabric and its infinite price, who have cherished and warmed and fed it, do not lightly cast it into the pit.
Mothers are great in the eyes of their sons because they are knit in our minds with all the littlenesses of life, the unspeakably dear trifles and odds of existence. The other day I found in my desk a little strip of tape on which my name was marked a dozen times in drawing ink, in my mother’s familiar script. My mind ran back to the time when that little band of humble linen was a kind of passport into manhood. It was when I went away from home and she could no longer mark my garments with my name, for the confusion of rapacious laundries. I was to cut off the autographed sections of this tape and sew them on such new vestments as came my way. Of course I did not do so; what boy would be faithful to so feminine a trust? But now the little tape, soiled by a dozen years of wandering, lies in my desk drawer as a symbol and souvenir of that endless forethought and loving kindness.
They love us not wisely but too well, it is sometimes said. Ah, in a world where so many love us not well but too wisely, how tremulously our hearts turn back to bathe in that running river of their love and ceaseless charm!
“Our Mothers,” an essay from the book, “Mince Pie: Adventures on the Sunny Side of Grub Street” by Christopher Morley