Shaming. It’s an ugly word, an ugly deed. Though she doesn’t let on, way too many of my comments to my mother must make her feel small. I don’t mean them to. Or do I? I have thought of it as teasing, a trait from my father, who—along with his siblings—was quite the teaser. If I mean it in good humor and she doesn’t laugh, is it funny? Any sense of humor Mama might once have had is lost to her, so I know there’s no chance she hears my comments as good-natured ribbing. I just looked up “tease” in the thesaurus: mock, poke fun at, ridicule; nothing funny about any of that. It sounds suspiciously like shaming. It’s not who I want to be.
I was thinking about shaming this week when I passed what was called in my childhood the Calvary Tabernacle. The board reads: “Choose the bread of life or you may become the toast.”
Many times in my father’s letters to my mother, written during World War II, he writes something belittling, and I’ve been cringing as I read them, hearing myself. He frequently implores her not to be who she is, which I do as well, over the very same personality traits: endless catastrophizing, endless obsessing over everything imaginable. But it wasn’t until a letter this week that I suddenly saw it for what it was.
“Didn’t I ever tell you about the ‘Meritorious Service Unit plaque’? You mentioned it in one of your letters. And then asked me what I’d done. You must have been trying to embarrass me. You should get over the idea that I’ve ever done a thing of importance or merit in this war, because someday you’ll be deflated. Nearly everyone in the army has one.”
It looks like a small thing, but its familiar tone—from my own mouth—stabbed me. He undoubtedly didn’t know he did it; as I said, he was a teaser. But it’s cumulative I see now. And my mother has been the recipient of too much of it for too long.
She seems to ignore my comebacks. She’s accustomed to it, I suppose, which is sad. She deserves better from her daughter. I get so much so wrong—she spent several minutes the other morning telling me I’d left the water in the tub running when I filled her humidifier the night before—but I can stop the barrage by not sending the shaming back her way. (I didn’t tell her last night she had left the coffee pot on all day. Or mock her when she expressed some ridiculous concern about her birthday party—man, will I be glad when that’s over.)
Does a tendency to “tease” run in families? Passed down through generations? My mother’s shaming was in the form of criticism, and I worked hard to praise rather than criticize my children. But I have always had a tendency toward sarcasm. (Yes, I just looked it up. It has the same synonyms.) I certainly do remember my father’s shaming look from over his newspaper when my sisters and I didn’t “hop to it” when Mother called us to help in the kitchen. I have passed the tendency on too, I’m sorry to say, in spite of thinking I wasn’t. My daughter occasionally does it to me, and it hurts. (I note that I keep quiet about it like my mother does. No back bone.)
In spite of the shaming, mostly I experience my father’s letters as love letters, nearly 600 of them in three years. Here’s another love story from last week.
I hired a crew to cut down three dozen small dead trees and cut them into fire wood and chip the small stuff. The first two people I called, who have done work here before, didn’t return my calls. I found Mike through Brandon, who worked on our roofs twice in the past year. I found Brandon through Chris who has been mowing for Mama for a decade or more. (I also found a sprinkler technician through Chris.) I love the connections. Anyway, Mike answered the phone on the third ring.
When he came to see the job, we bonded over stories of our families. He moved here from Mexico 27 years ago, his younger son is in college. He’s clearly proud. He was amazed that my mother is 100, that I moved here to care for her. He dropped his estimate $200 after we chatted.
He sent his crew of three last week to do the job. I’m pretty sure two of them didn’t speak English. The quiet cute one looked too gentle to be a logger. They did an outstanding job, cleaning the ground, neatly stacking the wood for the fireplaces Mama won’t allow to be used. Maybe it’s time for an outside fire circle like we used to have.
When Mike came to get the check Sunday, he told me to make it out to Jesús, and told me his story. His wife was recently killed in a car accident. Their 8-month-old daughter survived. All the money for the job is going to him. My throat got tight. Who does that? Four people were involved, three of them for the entire day. Only one was paid. I wish I’d added that $200 back in.
The bank called yesterday; they needed me to verify the check. I was close by and just ran into the bank to do it, which saved Jesús a fee. I was glad to shake his hand and thank him for a great job. My heart hurt.
This is the bread of life. This love. Jesus doesn’t shame us, just opens our eyes and our hearts.