Remembering Who Shaped You
By Charles Rush
November 27, 2011
Psalm 118: 1-4, 2 Timothy 1: 3-7
(mp3, 4.8Mb) ]
trust you took in the blessings of the season, reuniting with family and friends. Friday night my nieces and nephews were over for a dinner party. My nephew has a condition that doesn’t affect his brain at all, but he communicates with you pretty much like a child. He is twenty now and his mother died when he was fifteen, my brother’s wife. We raised our kids together, taking vacations and getting together at the holidays. I heard him talking to my wife. He said, “I have trouble remembering my mother anymore but when I’m with you, I can remember her again.” The holidays are like that aren’t they, reconnecting around shared rituals, at different times of our lives, reflecting on our place in the bigger picture, allowing ourselves to be filled with gratitude for what made our lives possible.
My mother has Alzheimer’s, as so many
of you have relatives that suffer with the frustrations of dementia. It is
pretty far along now. So the last time I went to see her, she just lit up when
I walked in the room. We went to a bench and sat down. I asked her how she was
feeling. As it turns out, loss of our rational selves does not mean loss of our
emotional selves. We retain emotional resonance with each other til the end. “Mom, how are you feeling?”
great.” And then she got confused and said, “I just wish I could remember your
remember you and that counts for both of us I think.”
“Isn’t that wonderful?”
I write her
short vignette’s about her great grand children, even
though she doesn’t know who they are. They are just endearing tales of the
ordinary joys of life, riding on the tractor for the first time, or learning to
walk by pulling on our Labrador’s ears to stand up.
time I get down to see her is mostly spent walking or hugging, we never stop
needing to be hugged, but you can’t really converse any more. We were sitting
on a bench at the park, I said to her, “Mom, I wanted to thank you for giving
me the gift of learning. I can see now that you always wanted to have a child
that was learned and I became learned.”
“Did I?” she
When I was a
toddler, my mother had two books, large picture books for a coffee table, back
when a coffee table was a piece of furniture. One of them was the collected
works of Leonardo DaVinci. The other was the painting
and statuary of Michaelangelo.
We lived in
Little Rock, Arkansas and I don’t believe anyone else on our street had
Renaissance artbooks in their living room. Whenever I
couldn’t sleep during nap time or whenever I was in ‘time out’, and I spent a
great deal of time in ‘time out’ as a child, my Mother would let me read these
I found them
after my father died. You could see where certain pages were worn because I had
read them over and over, across the years and I had scribbled a note. They had DaVinci’s machines, which I was able to see in an exhibit
in Lucca, students at an Italian University had actually built many of the
machines that DaVinci designed, prototypes for the
airplane, the tank, and the submarine for example. He also had a sketch book
where he would sketch people on the streets of Florence in the 15th
century. They were incredibly ugly and I was quite confident that he didn’t
exaggerate at all but we were looking at daily life at the end of the Middle Ages.
When I was 5 my
parents took us to New York, my Dad won it at IBM, and we went to the World’s
Fair. I don’t really remember the tall buildings of New York but we took the
tunnel to New Jersey to see the gleaming new Lincoln tunnel. I don’t remember
any of the rides at the World’s Fair out on Long Island. I remember seeing the
Pieta by Michaelangelo that the Italians had brought
over. You had to go by it on a moving escalator. My mother bought me and her another ticket so we could go by it again.
I guess I’ve
been to Rome four or five times and every time I go, I get up at 7 in the
morning and go to St. Peter’s before the tourists get there. At that hour, the
priests are saying Mass in 5 different languages, mostly for the people working
at the Vatican. The first prayer alcove on the right, unfortunately covered in
bullet proof glass, I kneel and pray, usually almost alone, in front of the
Pieta. He depicts Mary with this enormous lap, reflecting I suppose the
strength of women in nurture. And she is the same age as Jesus, reflecting I
suppose the way that Mother’s everywhere hold their children in death, like
they nursed them in life when they were babies.
I was the
oldest son in our family, so I suppose I got more of the academic attention
from my mother. It is true that I read early and often and I was intent on
reading all of the classics, even from Middle School. What I didn’t really
understand is that my mother had more learning potential in her than she was
able to develop as a woman in the South in that era. Every time I read a great
book like, ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, my mother would
read it too. We didn’t hang out and chat in High School but when we did talk,
it was reflections on great literature.
When I went to
Wake Forest, they required you to read broadly, starting with “Meaning and
Value in Western Thought” that opened with the ‘Iliad’ and finished a couple
years later with Ludwig Wittgenstein. I would send my syllabus home from philosophy
class or Brit lit and my mother would buy all the books and read them with me.
didn’t talk very much as I was deeply committed with the entire generation to
independence. But I found letters that I wrote home and an astonishing number
of them suggest a passage from Erasmus ‘In Praise of Folly’ or Machievelli’s ‘The Prince’, a book I was fascinated to
discover. I majored in philosophy and politics, so there were a lot of these
letters. My father, of course, thought I should study accounting or marketing
and he was probably right but I didn’t do it. My mother always acted like
learning was an end in itself, something good would just come of it somehow.
When I got the
chance to travel to Europe and see western history and art for myself, my Mother
told me, in effect, to go live an adventure that she never would, including
calling her from JFK airport and asking her to retrieve my ticket and dash
across the Triboro bridge
because I forgot it- not a promising start.
I did a masters
and a Ph.D., doing poorly in one language after another until I could butcher
the grammar of 7 different tongues. And eventually, I was able to visit
archeological sites in Greece, Turkey, Jerusalem, Sicily, and stand in the Church pastored by St. Augustine in North Africa, atop the ruins of ancient Carthage. It is always
quite an adventure just getting to these places, and then I’m full of
discovery, with other interesting people… Sometimes I just know that I’m
fulfilling something she wanted.
privileged to use my education really every week, not just in my vocation, but
also just living my life.
And the other
day, I went to visit one of my kids that is still in
college. I couldn’t interest this kid in academic study when he was young and I
almost gave up trying. But I didn’t. And by hook and by crook he is talking to
me about ideas from his Psych 101 course and Macro-Econ. I’m hugging him
goodbye in front of Low library, in the middle of his Junior
year, realizing that I got my way (and he is becoming educated), and so did my
Mother, even though she will never know it.
I think that is
the way that it goes with our blessing. We can’t really pay it back to the
previous generation but with a little luck and the grace of God, we might be
able to pay it forward down a generation or two.
When the Emmy
Awards gave a lifetime achievement award to Mr. Rogers, he surprised everyone
by stepping up to the mike and asking them to envision someone that had shaped
them as a child: a parent, a teacher, a coach, a neighbor. Then he asked them
to keep some silence for a full minute to give them opportunity to remember, to
give thanks, and to reflect.
We are going to
do that right now. I’ve asked Mark to put something together musically for our
reflection. We have lights here. He is going to play while you envision someone
who shaped you. After some time, if you would like, you can come to the altar
and light a votive candle, and place it perhaps in one of our stained glass
You know, in
our stained glass windows, we have pictures of the Saints, people that the
Bible says did heroic things, sometimes superhuman things, people that we hold
up as heros. They inspire
us. As we take a votive, we remember those that have actually inspired us and in gratitude we remember our place in the bigger picture, what
we are to be about in our short time here, and we offer up a candle of hope for
the future as well as the past. This is the meaning of this season. May
gratitude fill you and may peace be upon you. Amen.