A Little Less Than God: A Tribute to Mothers 5/13/2012
-Winfred B. Vergara
“My Mom is a never-ending song in my heart of comfort, happiness,
and being. I may sometimes forget the words but I always remember the tune.”
- Graycie Harmon
Of all God’s creatures, none could match the mothers as the closest representation of God’s tender loving care. That is why God premised His promise of everlasting love by saying, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Yet even if this is possible, I will not forget you.” Isaiah 49:15) Jesus, in expressing his compassion over Jerusalem, lamented by saying “How often have I wanted to gather you together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings!” (Matthew 23:37)
Whenever I have time to reflect upon my life, I am always reminded of the words from Abraham Lincoln, “All that I am, or hope to be, I owe it to my mother.” I am sure these words are also true to most of you out there. So let me, on this Mother Sunday, pay tribute to my mother on how she had made an impact on who I am, what I am and hope to be. May my words inspire you to pay tributes to your own mothers too.
A Little Saint
My mother, Clarita (1922-2008) was named after a saint and seemed to have lived like one. “Clarita” (Little Clara) refers to St. Claire of Assisi, the female counterpart of St Francis, the patron saint of peace-loving people. Many of you have not seen my mother, but if you have known me, you would have known my mother also. It is because all my good traits, I learned from my mother. The not-so-good ones, I submit, I learned it by myself. What are the traits I learned from my Mom? Let me name just a few:
The first trait I learned from my mother is the traditional Asian respect to the elderly. The word mother in Philippines is “Nanay,” and my mother had the habit of calling elderly women as “Nanay” and elderly men as “Tatay”--- and I carry that tradition in my own life. The fifth of the Ten Commandments says, “Honor thy father and thy mother” and this is the only commandment with a promise---“that you may live long on the earth.”(Exodus 20:12). My mother was the eldest and only daughter in the family of six children and she also lived the longest. Her siblings died before they reached sixty but my Mom was eighty-six years old when she died. I believe she had received the promise of the 5th commandment. Why? Because she honored her parents! I remember growing up, that my mother was the one who really cared for my grandfather and grandmother when the latter were old, blind and had Alzheimer’s. It was not an easy task for a woman who had to take care of six children herself, but she persevered in taking care first of grandpa, and later of grandma. while not neglecting her own children.
Love of learning
The second trait I learned from my mother is the thirst for education. While she herself did not finish Grade School because of World War II, she had always inculcated in us the value of learning. Education is one of the equalizers in Philippine society and Filipino parents would sacrifice to great length to send their children to school. For our family, that was very hard. We were six children (the 7th died at childhood). My father was a veteran but did not receive any pension. It was because just after the War with Japan in 1940-1944, he was conscripted to proceed to the Korean War but my mother insisted that he did not go. My father resigned from the military and worked as a tailor but his income was not enough to send us all to school. So when I reached High School, I stowed away in a ship bound for Manila, became a street kid and finally worked as a janitor-houseboy in exchange for school.
What motivated me to risk leaving my village and struggled against all odds to obtain education? This is the story: At age 7, my mother enrolled me to Grade 1 at the barrio elementary school. At that time in 1957, there was a nutrition feeding program for the children of indigent families and I was one of those who belong to the category. So at lunchtime, we would line up with our glass bowls to receive nutritious corn pudding and milk, courtesy of CARE, a program in our barrio, introduced by the Peace Corps volunteers from America. In one of those free lunches, while I was given the pudding in my glass bowl, it was too hot that I dropped it. The bowl fell on the cement floor and broke into pieces. I went home crying because that was our only glass bowl. So my mother made me a bowl made of coconut shell! I went back to school but my classmates made fun of me. In our village school, a glass bowl or ceramic bowl was like a badge of social status; a bowl from coconut shell was to be the poorest of the poor. I was ridiculed by my classmates and some would bully me because of my coconut bowl. So from that time, I hated school but my Mom would patiently talk me to it. And when I became stubborn, she would spank and practically push me to school with a broom made from coconut sticks! Then she gave me an advice which I will never forget: “My son, you can be more than what your classmates can be, if you study hard and get education. Do not be ashamed even if you are poor. Most important is you are good in class and you get education. But if you don’t go to school, my broom will spank you forever!”
Today, I could say: I finished Grade School, I completed High School, I obtained two Bachelors degrees, two masters’ degrees, two doctorate degrees--- and I have visited the classrooms of some of the best universities in the world---all because of my Mother’s Broom!
Survival and entrepreneurship
The third value I learned from my Nanay is plain survival. In our barrio, during my childhood, there were only five wealthy families. Philippines was largely feudal and my barrio was one example of the encomienda system which we inherited from Spanish colonialism. The five families were the owners of the farm lands. The rest were farming tenants, fisher folks or poor families. There were only two seasons: planting season and harvest season. The agricultural months of the year were divided into these: June-July-August were planting months; November-December-January were harvesting months; February-March-April were festival months, where the harvested rice are often consumed. Did I miss three months? Yes, they were August-September-October. They were called “the lean months.” During harvest season, the poor would join harvesting the rice and for which they receive a share of the harvest. If you harvested twelve bundles of rice stalks, the eleven go to the farm owners, one would go to you. The shares you get would then be stored in rice barns and later dried in the sun and be pounded with mortar and pestle and converted into grounded rice. The rice supply would last for a few months and during lean months, what should we do to alleviate hunger?
First, to economize on the rice, my mother would cook rice only in half of the caldero (pot) and put chopped cassava or sweet potatoes to fill the other half. Second, we would walk miles to go to town and line up for the government’s emergency rice program. At one time, I almost got crushed in a riot of people rushing to obtain what we called the RCA rice. RCA (Rice & Corn Administration) had a characteristic smell (like a chemical to make the rice last longer) yet it was good rice. Third, she went into cassava cakes business. At night, she would cook cassava cakes; early in the morning, she would go to the fishermen’s wharf and barter the cakes with fish; before noon, we would go up the mountain and barter the fish with rice from the farmers. So as a child, I would carry for my Mom a large basket of cassava cakes to the pier; two pails of fish to the mountain; and a sack of rice back to our barrio. That must be the reason why I did not grow up taller! (?) I carried heavy loads to the shore, up to the mountain and down to the valley. That was the time when child labor was not a crime but simply a family survival tactic.
Finally, the fourth value that my mother taught me was sacrificial love. I remember a story popular in our farming village. It was about a mother and her son. She was a loving mother but he was a stupid son. He fell in love with a woman on the other side of the mountain who told him, “I would accept your offer of love if you can give me the heart of your mother.” Maybe it was just a figure of speech or that the woman was wicked. The boy however thought about it and in a moment of madness, took a knife, stabbed his mother and took her heart out. He then ran towards the mountain to offer the heart to his object of affection but he stumbled on the paddies and the heart fell in the mud. He scooped the heart and as he was wiping it, the heart spoke:” Son, are you hurt?”
That story was like a horror movie to me then but when I became a priest, it dawned upon me that it powerfully illustrated God’s love. God also forgave our stupidity in that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Christ’s suffering and death (like that of the mother’s) was a substitution for our own suffering and death. The prophet Isaiah said, “He… was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, upon Him was the chastisements that made us whole and by his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53).
I remember how my mother suffered every time one of us children got sick. Once I was very ill with “El Tor,” a form of dysentery. I lay dying but did not have the strength to take medicine. I would vomit it every time it was spoon fed to me. Then I heard my Mom praying, “God, let the sickness be upon me, for I can’t bear to see my son die.” I was thankful that God, in His wisdom, did not grant her naïve prayer but it surely motivated me to take the bitter herbal medicine (boiled leaves and bark of star-apple or kaimito tree!) and cooperated with the healing process—and I lived to tell the story. “
A Mother’s Legacy
My mother did not leave us with any worldly inheritance; she and my father brought us up in their own poverty. But she taught us how to live with honor and dignity. She left us with a legacy of values which can not be bought. She taught us faith and hope and showed us the power of sacrificial, unconditional love. Maybe that is why three of us brothers became ministers: Pepito became an elder of Jehovah’s Witnesses; Alberto became a priest of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente and I became an Episcopalian priest.
“Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children,“ wrote William Makepeace Thackeray, I daresay of older children of God too. A Jewish proverb also says “God could not be everywhere so He invented mothers.” Of course, God is everywhere but He must be glad that mothers are there to share His tender loving care to God's children.