I answered on the second ring to hear, “She’s crying because you stood on her stomach? With all your weight? No wonder she’s crying. Apologize, sit down, and eat your cereal without touching your sister!” I smiled and waited until I heard one of the best mothers I know say, “Hey. I’m not sure if my kids will kill me first or if I will kill them. How are you doing this morning? ” As I tried to answer, my son screamed and banged a metal pan. I wanted to find adequate words, but only an image came to mind. My mind’s eye was filled with the famous picture, Immigrant Mother, but it was now in color and the mother wore a stained t-shirt.
As my son completed his shriek I answered her question with a laughing, dramatic voice, “We WILL survive the best years of our life. We have to survive…” Although my mind completed the phrase, “We have to survive for the children”,my brain overrode my sentence and I stopped without giving a reason. I then asked, “I wonder how many women over the course of time have survived simply for the sake of the children. Then again, I wonder how many women have survived in spite of them.” We laughed, regrouped, declared our love and commitment to our kids, and battled on. I mentally gave an encouraging nod to my 2012 immigrant mother.
The image “Immigrant Mother” is ranked as one of the world’s most famous photos. I read this caption on the photo today: For many, this picture of Florence Owens Thompson (age 32) represents the Great Depression. She was the mother of 7 and she struggled to survive with her kids catching birds and picking fruits. Dorothea Lange took the picture after Florence sold her tent to buy food for her children.
Despite the differences between Florence and I, I consider the common questions of all mothers, no matter their circumstances: I am sure the questions that ran through her head have also run through mine, and perhaps yours. “What will I feed my children?” “What kind of life will my children lead?” “How can I balance shielding my children from the struggles of life while still teaching them how to overcome hardship with honor and endurance?” “What if I fail in providing what my children need?” “What will they do if something happens to me?”
These deep questions are often buried in a barrage of others, such as, “How did you fit that whole thing in your nose?” “Are you physically incapable of keeping your hands to yourself?” “How did you make the vacuum into a potato cannon?” “Could you please NOT tell people how big you think my underpants are?”
Thankfully,these struggles span the generations. On Sunday we drove about an hour for a family gathering. With 10 of us around the table, one uncle began telling family stories of generations past. I realized how similar each generation of boys are in their mischief making and enjoyed the accounts of all my ‘greats’ had survived and accomplished. As we sat around the table, I heard an old family story for the first time. The Reader’s Digest version is that one day while my great-great grandpa and the farm hands were threshing, a gang of horse-thieves rode to the house. They had been on the run for days and forcefully demanded the fried chicken lunch that had just been laid out on the table. Long after the dinner bell should have rung, the men started for home and saw the thieves’ horses at the house. As they ran to the house the gang fled. My tearful great-great grandmother explained and set about killing and preparing more hens for lunch. As she cleaned up the remnants of the ‘free lunch’, she discovered a gold $20 piece under a napkin, left by one of the thieves. My uncle finished the story with, “The coin stayed in the family until everything was lost in the Great Depression.” At those words I imagined the desperation that must have plagued my family at the time – probably at the same time Florence was struggling to feed her children. Now the three generations sat at the table employed, well-fed, and free, less than 100 years later. Just like the great-Allens, we have had to improvise meals, deal with the unexpected, and try to overcome difficulties out of our control. While most of us won’t have a gang of horse-thieves ride up to steal our fried chicken, we can let our circumstances steal our perspective and our joy.
When surrounded by life’s ‘Great Depressions’, we don’t have to be greatly depressed. When I struggle with impatience, anger, and conditional love, I must remember that these are common struggles. If we are Christians, we too are immigrants in a strange land. We are told to be “in the world, but not of it” as ‘strangers in this land’. As immigrant mothers told their children about their homes before arriving in America, they recounted things their children could not relate to. I am sure Jesus felt the same way trying to describe the ways of God to those who sought to follow Him. It’s no wonder Christ spent so much time talking about “The Kingdom of Heaven” and what God is really like. Perhaps it is like facing today’s financial difficulties and trying to relate it to the Great Depression. Our trials are no less real or valid- we are just trying to relate to something we have not seen.
As immigrant mothers told their children about their homes before arriving in America, they recounted things their children could not relate to. I am sure Jesus felt the same way trying to describe the ways of God to those who sought to follow Him. It’s no wonder Christ spent so much time talking about “The Kingdom of Heaven” and what God is really like. Perhaps it is like facing today’s financial difficulties and trying to relate it to the Great Depression. Our trials are no less real or valid- we are just trying to relate to something we have not seen.I realize that during my more challenging motherhood moments, I am guilty of comparing what I see to what I have not seen. I have not seen perfectly well-mannered, sinless, spotless children- ever. I have not seen a marriage that didn’t battle life’s strains. I have never known a friend who has not suffered loss. When I dare to compare to a reality we don’t know, I lose the joy within our reality- my messy, sticky, milk-spilling, laundry piling, traffic-filled, frustrating, glorious reality.
My great-great grandmother believed she had been held up and robbed. She then discovered a treasure that came from the experience. There must have been great sorrow when the Great Depression claimed the gold coin. Loss is another common thread in the human condition.
I am reminded of Luke 15—the parable of the woman who lost her coin. She turned that house upside-down, searching in every crack of the floor (probably dirt and rock) with the desperation of a mom trying to find her missing keys after a toddler has clicked the automatic engine start. When the woman finds her missing coin, she calls out and celebrates with her friends. Interestingly, the word used for friends in the Greek is feminine; this woman called her girlfriends to rejoice with her. Is this not unlike calling girlfriends to say, “My husband’s tour of duty is almost over!’, “I obeyed the commandment “Thou shall not murder” today!”, “I got through the whole service without being paged by the nursery!” or “I found a maternity dress that doesn’t look like a circus tent!” Our losses and victories are meant to be shared.
The fact is, sometimes we lose things. We lose our keys, our hope, our patience, our gold coins. Just as we celebrate with loved ones when we find what we’ve lost, God celebrates when we gain greater treasure. He is the ultimate banker, multiplying what we give him and returning it with interest. Matthew 6:20 tells us “to store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
When our immigrant mother had nothing else, she had love for her children and the immovable determination to endure. As I studied this photo tonight, I saw something I’ve never noticed before. Florence’s children have their weight on her shoulders, but they are embracing her. Amid all she has lost and the evident weariness she endures, this is a woman with gold coins and family treasures. Come to think of it, so am I. I just need to find them and put them where they belong.