The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, May 8, 2009

A Beautiful Woman

In Memory of My Mother (1/2/1928 – 5/5/2009) on this First Mother’s Day without Her

When we were arranging for my mother’s funeral, one of the decisions we needed to make was whether to have an open or closed casket. There were arguments for both options. We knew people would want to see mother again, especially if they had not seen her recently, and it would help provide closure for them. On the other hand, my mother was always a private person, who could be more than a little self-conscious about her appearance.

However, my father was adamant that it be open and one thing factored above all others into his decision. “I want people to see her,” he told my sister and me, “because your mother was a beautiful woman.”

And, of course, my father was absolutely right.

It caused me to think about exactly what made my mother beautiful. She was obviously physically beautiful. I doubt most people who saw her walking down the street would have guessed her to be in her eighties. The problem with physical beauty alone, however, is that individual tastes vary so greatly.

The old saw runs that a man does not fall in love with a woman because she is beautiful; rather she becomes beautiful because he has fallen in love with her. This sentiment is sweet in its way but also somewhat condescending to both the man and woman involved. My father did not mean that my mother was beautiful to him alone but to the world. He was not expressing a subjective opinion but stating an objective fact.

Psychologists did an interesting study once in which they superimposed the image of one human face on top of another and then another and another. Over time, the features of all the different faces tended to smooth out and create an average, “normal” human face. Surprisingly, the psychologists found that most people viewing the composite face found it more beautiful than most/all of the individual faces making it up. The more faces added to the composite, regardless of their relative attractiveness, the more beautiful the composite became.

From this, I suppose we can deduce everyone has some beauty in them but that also seems trite when compared to what my father was saying. He was not calling my mother a “little beautiful” or “sort of beautiful.” Instead, he was saying she was breathtakingly, souldrenchingly beautiful. So the question remains as to the source of her beauty.

The novelist Thomas Wolfe once remarked, “There is no sight on earth more beautiful than that of a woman cooking dinner for someone she loves.” I think he begins to capture my mother’s unique beauty with this observation. The point here is not some outdated ideal of feminine domesticity but the act of selfless love involved. Some of my earliest memories of my mother are her fixing dinner for our family, so that a meal would be on the table when my father got home from his job.

My mother took enormous pride in her home and her family. In many ways, she defined herself by them. She always worked hard to keep our home clean and attractive, a characteristic she inherited from her own mother. However, she tried to go beyond this and imbue it with her own flair and sense of style, a gift she passed on in great measure to my sister.

My mother took pride in her home as she took pride in her own appearance. But just as she was never vain about the former, so it was always more important that family and guests be comfortable in her home than impressed by it. This is one aspect of a beautiful woman – she can make the barest hovel seem like a palace but also make the most grandiose yet sterile palace seem warm and inviting. My mother could do this because my mother was a beautiful woman.

She was never ostentatious or addicted to the style of the moment. Her tastes were classic and plain. She preferred pewter to silver and beige to gold. However, she always admired and cherished quality, care, and craftsmanship in anything she owned.

I think she understood people were like that as well. Ornamentation and frills bought by wealth were mere facades that could rust and tarnish and peel away but real quality in a person or a thing remained and improved with age instead of diminishing from it. She wanted her children and her grandchildren to be people of quality.

There was one big difference in my mother’s approach to her home versus her family. She was never entirely satisfied with her house, constantly changing, rearranging, and improving it. With her children and grandchildren, however, she was always content with them just the way we were.

She was a mother, so she set rules and standards. She could ask us, “You’re not going out dressed like that, are you?” Yet if we were wise enough to go back upstairs and change our outfit to her approval, she would then tell us with absolute sincerity, “You’ll be the best-looking one there” – not because she believed she was perfect and infallible but because she believed we were wonderful.

Perhaps this came from her own experience. My mother was an only child, raised principally by a single parent, her mother, my grandmother. They were not rich and other aspects of her childhood were less than ideal. Yet rather than succumb to these shortcomings, she chose to rise above them because my mother was a beautiful woman.

If she had lacked money, she would make up for it with a strong sense of self-worth and personal style. If she had ever felt afraid or unloved, she would be the strong rock for her family, sheltering them from the world’s woes and evils.

My mother loved Christmas above all other holidays. She did everything to make Christmas as magical as possible, especially for the children in the family. The sociologist Robert Lynd once said, “Were I a philosopher, I should write a treatise arguing that Christmas Day in the company of children is one of the rare occasions during which adults become entirely alive.” My mother was no reader of philosophy but she would understand this premise implicitly because my mother was a beautiful woman.

My mother was one of the best listeners I have ever known. You could tell her about your victories or your defeats, your hopes or your fears. You could speak seriously or excitedly or just plain nonsense to her – she would simply smile and you knew that you were loved but, what was more, you knew that someone believed in you absolutely. She could do that because my mother was a beautiful woman.

Another beautiful woman, named Alice Foote MacDougall, wrote the following words in 1928, the year of my mother’s birth. They might well have served as a creed for her life.

“It is . . . to my children [that] I owe my very being. In attempting to fulfill my duty to them as a mother, I met the challenge of their helplessness, their innocence, their dependence. Despising cowardice in others, I wished to prove myself no coward. Believing in the good, the gentle, the beautiful things of life, I addressed myself to the sweet duty of keeping these attributes for my children’s sake and my own. And in striving to provide a living for them, I found success in creating a life for myself beyond my wildest dreams.”

True beauty, it seems, does not sit in the window of a high tower, admired by adoring crowds below. Like love, it reaches it highest fulfillment when it comes down to Earth and walks among us. It is like that composite photograph, with the beauty of the individual adding to the greater beauty of the whole.

My mother walked among us for eighty-one years. We have said goodbye toher Earthly body but we know she can never be really gone from us. So much of her heart remains behind because she gave it so freely to others; most of all to my father, who loved her and whom she loved for over fifty-three years. But their love did not end with her death nor will it end entirely with his. For true love, like true beauty, transcends the grave and abides by the strength of those inner qualities my mother so admired.

In his Essay on Beauty, Ralph Waldo Emerson declares, “Beauty is the mark God sets upon virtue. Every natural action is beautiful. Every decent act is heroic and causes both the place and the bystanders around its occurrence to shine.” My mother shone for eight decades and she still shines within the hearts to which she gave so abundantly and unreservedly of her own.

My father was absolutely right. My mother was . . . my mother is a beautiful woman. The greatest proof of that is the way I and countless others during her lifetime were ourselves made more beautiful by having known her, and having loved her, and having been loved by her.

Let your beauty sleep now, mother. Let it rest until all the shadows pass away that obscure our vision of it. Let it slumber until each of us are ready, in our own time, to see it fully again. For now we see it as though through a glass darkly or in a mirror dimly . . . but then, once more face to face. Until then, Rest in Peace.

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