Word of the Week
In honor of yesterday, our Word of the Week, close to my heart and I suppose also close to your hearts, my readers, is mother. One of the mysteries of motherhood is that we’re born not from the body of the big strong father, but from the smaller and gentler body of the mother. And any man who is present when his children are born, as I was, can feel as off-center as the backstage man keeping one hand on the lights while the stars have everyone’s attention. If the father stands guard on the ramparts or in the precincts of hearth and home, it’s so that the mother and her children can be at the heart of it all, in security and peace. If he’s first in the order of law, mother and children are first in the order of ends.
If you see a picture of Debra’s Granny and Poppy, you’ll see a regular mountain of a man standing proudly, big belly and all, beside a determined little lady who never reached five feet tall. Yet she was the mother to twelve children — the ones that survived infancy, and all her children loved her, especially the boys, every one of whom could have slung her across their shoulders before they even began to shave. Of course, she’d not have wanted it any other way. But it is a mystery, isn’t it? I think so, at least.
Most of my earliest memories are of my mother, pottering about the kitchen in our tiny and quiet home, “the old house” as we later called it when we built a new one two blocks away. She might be singing to herself as she washed the dishes. She might be standing at the stove while the cutlets sizzled in the pan. She was there: and the world was good. It meant that I could be wholly absorbed in drawing pictures, or reading the Bible — I taught myself to do that, she says, when I was three; or playing with my toys. One day I took a crayon and, before she knew it, wrote all across the wallpaper. It hadn’t occurred to me that that wasn’t a thing to do. Oh, my mother shouted about it, but not much, nor when I stuck some chewing gum on the hot radiator to see what would happen. (It liquefied, then turned into a fruity-smelling charcoal.) If she told me, “Don’t do that anymore,” I didn’t do it. It wasn’t because she stood for law and order. It was just because I wanted to make her happy. My own children, now grown up, are that way too. They know that Debra loves them with a sweet, strong, unshakeable, devoted love, and I can’t begin to number the many things she has done for them and still does, most of which it would never occur to me to do. The heart, as Pascal says, has its reasons that the head does not know.
The English word mother is made of two parts. The second comes from an ancient Indo-European suffix that suggests kinship, and it shows up in daughter, father, brother, and sister, too. But the first, the root, also in our ancient parent language — which gives us Italian madre, German Mater, Greek meter, Welsh mam, Russian mat’ — comes ultimately from baby-talk! So you’ll see very similar words in languages that aren’t in our big family, because, of course, babies make the same first sounds with their lips wherever they are, sweltering in the jungle or snuggling in a blanket in the Arctic: ma-ma-ma. It’s one of the easiest sounds to make. So we have Basque ama, Zulu umama, Maltese omm, and so on. Well, it’s not always m; sometimes it’s n, or something else, but m seems to be the most common.
God bless my mother Jane, my wife Debra, and all mothers everywhere!
Word & Song by Anthony Esolen is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymn, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber. Learn more about our subscription tiers by clicking the button below.
Your writing often strikes heart strings. This did today. Inspired me to leave a comment...
Thank God for selfless mothers everywhere. During the month of May we celebrate Mary the Mother of God. She shared in the poverty, pain, and loss experienced by all humanity. She is the mother we seek in time of difficulty knowing that her Son responds to her every plea. This month the faithful especially honor her by hymns, and crowning ceremonies with a garland of spring flowers circling her head. She is Queen of Heaven and Earth, Angels and Saints, and Mother given to us by Jesus when He spoke from the cross.