That day, the end of May and her twenty-sixth birthday, she came over and we had waffles with white sauce and strawberries, and the meal was delicious and the conversation warm and pleasant, but I’ve forgotten other details that writers seek for their narratives such as the weather and the table setting and bits of dialogue and gestures or if we lit a candle for lunch. She asked for a story time later, I do remember that, and the fact that she fiddled at the computer with her stories until we sat down to eat, instead of hanging about the kitchen as she usually did when she visited us.
I don’t recall the details of the next hour either, only the broad feel of it, the three of us seated in the living room, she in the chair in the corner, her father opposite, and me in the loveseat kitty-corner to them both, and it was the feel of Andrei Rublev’s Trinity, the most famous of all Russian icons, which I purchased as a souvenir reproduction on a small block of wood while on a tour to Moscow and St. Petersburg. Also called The Hospitality of Abraham, the icon portrays three angels who showed up at the old patriarch’s home to tell him that he and his wife would have a son. The angels symbolize the Holy Trinity. I love the fresco-like blue green brown tones of the piece, its muted but palpable unity, the understanding that seems to ripple within the circle of figures even though the scene is utterly still. Each head tips downwards and towards the other in a powerful humility.
In my memory, our being together that afternoon had the same solemnity, the same leaning in. We parents listened as our daughter told us her stories—fragments, really, of her childhood and youth—and how they formed an arc to an identity we’d not known about or expected.
Queer, she called it. Though she didn’t particularly care what word we used. Gay was fine if we preferred.
We assured her of our love. We said, We loved you before, we love you now. Maybe even more, certainly not less.
But if I claim the icon’s gravity and harmony for the occasion of our daughter’s coming out, I certainly cannot claim its serenity. She was nervous. She spoke slowly and carefully, consulting her papers, and beneath my held-calm exterior, my guts were roiling as I grasped what she’d said.
That evening, my husband and I had to attend a barbecue with friends at Birds Hill Park but it was impossible for me to make cheerful party talk. I was heavy with thought and the need to be alone. I wandered away to Pope’s Hill, as it’s called, where John Paul II conducted a celebration of faith decades earlier, in 1984. I saw that someone had left a bouquet of white roses at the hilltop’s commemorative altar. The flowers were fresh. They seemed intended for me. I broke one rose off its stem and held it. It felt plump and cool in my palms, it was spectacular in its perfection. Oh my dear dear beautiful girl.
And its creamy whiteness—hadn’t she always seemed in her essence like alabaster?
I cradled the rose, then pressed it with a prayer into a crevice in the grey altar stone.
I’d released my fears via the rose, but then I took them back with me too, and that night I slept poorly, worrying over our daughter’s news, hurting over what gay must have meant for her during its long secret existence in the Mennonite environment in which she’d been raised, not to mention our home’s blithely heterosexual assumptions. I ached over what her truth—now finally spoken aloud—might mean for her, for us, for me.
I’d realized immediately that her coming out, as well as our affirmation of her, would put us at odds with our church community. The branch of Mennonites to which we belonged wasn’t even fully persuaded of women in ministry leadership, never mind same-sex attraction. Even worse, I was filling in for the editor-on-leave of the denominational magazine that year, I was part of the church’s institutional bureaucracy.
Since she’d decided to come out gradually, first to us, then siblings, then friends, her identity could remain my secret too for the rest of the year and I mostly kept quiet when the so-called homosexuality issue was raised at work. But I was now keenly alert to what was being said. Discussion on the matter generally involved a defensive doubling down on the traditional church position in the face of culture’s growing acceptance. There were reminders to be kinder to gays, yes, but the dreadful word abomination still echoed like oily backwash in their wake.
One leader declared that if the denomination ever affirmed same-sex relations, he would leave. Another told me, almost breathlessly it seemed, about a young pastor-theologian who’d written a paper re-interpreting the Book of Romans verses that belonged to the church’s seven-text anti-gay arsenal, and it was going to be published in a theological journal, and what in the world could be done about this? I was struck by his agitation, his near-panic.
An irrevocable wedge opened between me and the formal apparatus of our church on account of our daughter’s news. While I experienced a crisis of church, however, there was no crisis of faith. Not this time. I’d had several such crises already, as I moved through an evangelical Mennonite upbringing into adulthood, through a pilgrimage that both embraced and let go. I’d (mostly) relaxed into more ambiguity. Mystery. I’d discovered practices not learned as a child. Practices like Lectio Divina in which one considered Scripture—the Word—not as rigid theological superstructure, but alive and whispering and intimate, fresh for today, individually specific. Practices like listening in prayer, rather than just kneeling and jabbering on and on, then getting up with high expectations and another daily duty done.
It may seem surprising—even ironic—that I now drew my profoundest consolation from the very book usually wielded to condemn people like my daughter. But my maternal energy—fierce, protective, stubborn—had geared into overdrive. I studied the seven bludgeon texts, quickly accepted better interpretations, then left them alone. Arguments about them seemed as useless as the question of how many angels dance on the head of a pin. Theology might be a magnificent endeavour in the abstract but it was personal now, autobiographical, as author Frederick Buechner once remarked. I grabbed for the deeper, wider truths I’d learned from my earliest memories, heard them with other ears, seized them—for her, for us—with a certitude approaching vehemence.
The psalmist had written, You knit me together in my mother’s womb… I am fearfully and wonderfully made… How precious to me your thoughts, and I heard no distinctions there, the words were surely inclusive.
And the womb being referenced was mine.
When our daughter said, I had to be willing to lose everyone and everything to be who I am, I thought, that sounds like the gospel’s notion of conversion. When I read at Sacred Space, an online prayer site, The narrow gate is the gate of love which leads to life, I thought, yes, of course, this is the meaning of the narrow gate! And, When we enter into the world of love, we find that it is a wide world, with its own energy, strength, and beauty.
Don’t interrogate her, my husband cautioned, but I did. I had so many questions. I needed to hear our daughter’s stories again, as if by absorbing them I could enter the past, be present with her there, but wiser than I probably would have been if she’d voiced her intuitions as a child. I longed for her to be, say, four again, so I could gather her onto my lap. Longed for her to be in junior high, in high school. I wanted to hold her through university and her architectural technology studies. I could hardly bear the pain of knowing she’d been alone in the unique complexity of her coming-of-age. If I’d failed her by ignorance then, I would not fail her now.
Like many gay kids raised in a religious community, she’d agonized before God. She’d pleaded, she told me, for a way to reconcile her feelings and the negative attitudes of her environment.
And, she said, God never answered. So she’d reached a place of self-acceptance, and now that was answer enough.
But I was her mother and I would continue to plead on her behalf. My parental assignment, after all, had flown at me from the pages of Isaiah, chapter 58, where it says that God’s acceptable fast is justice—to break yokes, free the oppressed, clothe the naked, and never turn away from your own flesh and blood.
And one day I’d looked up from my computer in my home office at the painting of the Madonna and Christ-child hanging in front of me. I hadn’t really noticed it for some time, as tends to happen with the pictures on one’s walls. The Madonna stared at me, her expression formidable, earnest it seemed, and I stared back and her gaze continued steady and piercing, as if to say, Yes, be mother.
One evening after tea at her house, my daughter and I sat and talked on the floor because she didn’t have a sofa. I ended up crying a little and she comforted me. I asked if I could hold her, and she said I could, so I put my arms around her and rocked her retrospectively for all her twenty-six years, for everything she’d borne on her own.
The floor was hard, the position uncomfortable, the rocking could not be sustained.
You need some furniture, I said. Both of us burst out laughing.
In December I booked a weekend retreat at Saint Benedict’s Monastery near Winnipeg to mark the end of my editorial stint at the denominational headquarters. Besides my responsibilities at the magazine, besides the knowledge of our daughter that brooded inside me, there’d been other challenges those months: the deaths of two sisters-in-law to cancer; another relative’s suicide; my elderly mother’s surgery and subsequent immobility and her needs and demands; the relentless toll of my father’s Alzheimer’s disease. (He would die less than a month later.) I’d travelled to Paraguay to cover the Mennonite World Conference, I’d done final edits on my upcoming novel. I needed to re-group.
On the morning of the retreat I made the mistake of checking the denominational online forum, where I encountered a rant about the “slippery slope” from women in ministry leadership to homosexuality in the church. The writer’s language, bluster, confidence distressed me. Once again I felt defensive, and in turmoil with this community. I borrowed a line from the psalms, wrote My bones burn like glowing embers into my journal.
But evening arrived and our daughter dropped me off at the monastery and I slipped into the circle of retreatants, ready for whatever. A song played in the background. I couldn’t catch the words except for a line about the loveliness of my soul and before I knew it my eyes had overswum with tears and I thought, Uh oh, I think I’m going to be crying again this weekend.
I was assigned to Sister Catherine as spiritual director for the retreat. When she asked what I’d come about, I said the future, the switch from outside employment to writing at home.
No, I admitted, it was actually about our daughter and what she’d told us. And the church, I continued, isn’t really good with that.
We need to pray for the church, the Sister said. Her voice was soft but very sure and the sentence startled me with its recognition and sympathy. The church wedge was a pain but she was on my side of it. With her I would be safe.
She gave me a text from the prophet Zephaniah and told me to ponder it, pray it, record any movements—of spirit and Spirit—that I experienced.
I left her and read the passage. It disappointed me. I tried again but I couldn’t rouse any mood to respond to it. I was too wrung out, too tired. I went to bed.
The next morning I found myself a cozy room facing south, the best light possible on a bleak wintery day, and I read Zephaniah’s words again.
Shout for joy, daughter of Zion, Israel, shout aloud!
Rejoice, exult with all your heart, Daughter of Jerusalem!
Yahweh has repealed your sentence… Driven your enemies away.
Yahweh is in your midst…. Have no fear…
[ Yahweh] will exult with joy over you…
dance with shouts of joy for you as on a day of festival.
I could not shake my resistance, however, could not surrender to the joy. My head ached. I talked to God about being a mother, the standing between it involved. Then I was prompted to speak the Zephaniah words over my daughter as if she were in the room.
She was a gift, it was as simple as that.
I went for my second meeting with Sister Catherine and she blessed what I’d done in praying the motherly love of God upon my dear one. But she probed. What did I want?
Suddenly I knew. Mother was inescapable. Necessary. Praiseworthy. Mother was me and I could never—would never—abandon it. But I was at the end of my strength with mother. I was exhausted with mother. I wanted to be child.
What is it like, Sister Catherine asked me then, to be a child?
Not worried, I said. Happy.
So ask, she said. Ask to be a child. Joyful, trusting, without concern.
The gentle Sister sent me off with another text to ponder and pray: the Magnificat of Mary in the Gospel of Luke. She told me to notice how much the Lord desired me to have what I wanted.
I did what she said. I came to the text as a child and this is what I heard: Mother God is mighty. Is merciful. Lifts up the humble. Sings over me. Quiets me. Delights in me.
Relief, release, my dormant joy gave way. I felt like John, who’d been wild and unfettered even as a fetus, who’d leapt in her womb, his mother Elizabeth exclaimed, when Mary had greeted her.
How distant they seem now, these events of eight years ago. Our daughter flourished, and her father and I have too, I think, in our roles as allies and advocates, and if I’ve written here of the churn of beginnings rather than the contentment of endings, it’s because those early months were, for me, intense and spiritual. Too much carrying and wrestling, I notice, but spiritual nevertheless—soulish, I would call it—where strongest memory sits down and resides.
And looking back I see the triads, shadowy imitations of the Trinity in our story-time unity, and if we never achieved the delicate serenity of the Rublev icon, there was a bending towards the other, and a current of love. She and her father and I that first afternoon. Then she was tucked along with me, as it were, into my St. Benedict’s retreat, both of us a child and both of us wombed in our Mother, we three leaning, listening, leaping, laughing.
A revised version of “Mother and Child” appears in Return Stroke: essays & memoir