Over the weekend, hip-hot artist Jasiri X posted this image on his twitter feed. It’s taken from the front page of the New York Daily News’ website. Note the screaming headline and the sympathetic caption: “Accused killer Dylann Roof had one chance at a stable family life — and his abusive dad ruined it for…
Sometimes I think Stephen Colbert and I lead parallel lives. Except for the part about him being rich and successful and funny and well liked and productive and insightful and a few years younger than I am …
But, anyway, like Colbert, I’m the youngest of 11, and I, too, was raised Catholic. So, there’s that.
And we have another thing in common. We both had mothers born in the 1920s – his in 1920, mine in 1924. Also, we both lost our mothers when we were in our 40s. My mother died in November 2010, when I was 48. Mr. Colbert’s mother passed away last week. He is 49.
Sadly, Stephen Colbert and I have another unfortunate thing in common: We both had siblings who predeceased our mothers, which means we both had to watch our mothers bury them.
Let me tell you something. There is nothing in this world sadder than watching your mother iron a shirt for her son to be buried in. There’s no memory you can have that’ll sear itself into your brain like that. Nothing.
But watching Stephen Colbert’s touching on-air tribute to his mother, Lorna Colbert, I’m reminded even more so about how amazing women like that were – women born in the aftermath of World War I; who came of age in the Great Depression; who sent the people they loved off to World War II and hoped to whatever god there may be that those people would return, more or less whole; and who were given so little by their own country, but still held such remarkable faith in it.
My mother did all those things, then raised 11 children, went back to finish her college education (graduating with my oldest sister), and embarked on a career as a middle school teacher when I was old enough to get to and from school with the aid of older siblings and other kids in the neighborhood. Oh, and in the meantime, she and my dad found the time to work on integrating our local public schools and to fight for open housing in our little suburb on Chicago’s west side.
More than any of that, though, Colbert’s beautiful eulogy reminded me that the most important details of my mother’s life, or of any parent’s life, are the mundane ones, the day-to-day kindnesses; the hilarious (and intentional) malapropisms she was famous for; the stories she told (over and over again) about growing up in Waukegan, Illinois, the home town of Jack Benny and Ray Bradbury … and the gentle, and sometimes not so gentle, way she’d correct us when we went off the rails. My mother was kind of a badass, given all that she did in her life; but I miss the ordinary things like having a cup of coffee with her and talking about nothing, and everything, the way you do when you’re old enough to sit with your mother and have a cup of coffee.
When my brother John passed away in 1991, my mother laid her hand on his casket and said, “When you bring a child into this world, you’re all alone” – that was true in her era; fathers and family members generally weren’t allowed in the delivery room – “but when you bury a child, at least you have your family around you.” So, too, when you bury your mother.
Anyway, what I really wanted to say was, thank you, Mr. Colbert, for bringing all that back to me. From one youngest-of-eleven to another, I wish you peace.