Archives, Pondering

Remembering Ma

Tonight I find myself thumbing through my very worn copy of Grapes of Wrath. I have another “clean” copy downstairs on my respectable living room bookshelves. The one resting on my desk was already used when I bought it, and is now held together with tape. But it bears the markings from the first time I read this incredible novel in my mid-40’s. I return, over and over again, to the extraordinary wisdom, confidence and buoyancy of “Ma.” John Steinbeck’s initial description of “Ma” through the eyes of her eldest son continues to inspire (and convict!) me. Oh, Lord, strengthen my heart, my responses and my actions! May they reflect you in the good times and hard ones.

“Tom stood looking in. Ma was heavy, but not fat; thick with child-bearing and work. She wore a loose Mother Hubbard of gray cloth in which there had once been colored flowers, but the color was washed out now, so that the small flowered pattern was only a little lighter gray than the background. The dress came down to her ankles, and her strong, broad, bare feet moved quickly and deftly over the floor. Her thin, steel-gray hair was gathered in a sparse wispy knot at the back of her head. Strong, freckled arms were bare to the elbow, and her hands were chubby and delicate, like those of a plump little girl. She looked out into the sunshine. Her face was not soft; it was controlled, kindly. Her hazel eyes seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a high calm and superhuman understanding. She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt and fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials. But better than joy was calm. Imperturbability could be depended upon. And from her great and humble place in the family she had taken dignity and a clean calm beauty. From her position as healer, her hands had grown sure and cool and quiet; from her position as arbiter, she had become as remote and faultless in judgment as a goddess. She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever really deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall, the family will to function would be gone.” John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, Ch. 7)

Can we have literary mothers (and fathers) in the faith? I most certainly believe so. Steinbeck’s description of “Ma” stirs up deep longing in me to want to rise and take firm hold of “the inadequate materials” in my life. Vision turns to prayer before the words have had a chance to settle. Tis a gift I do not take for granted.

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