May 8, 2007
Mother's Day: The Memories We Forget
by Gregg Krech
Imagine spending several days in quiet reflection, facing a wall, and making a list of all the specific things your mother did for you as a child -- thinking about the lunches she made for you to take to school and the homework help she provided, and calculating the number of diapers changed and the loads of laundry washed.
In 1989 I spent two weeks at a retreat center near Kuwana, Japan, doing this kind of reflection, playing back the tape of my life in my own private mind, as best I could remember it. This intense and fascinating practice called Naikan, (pronounced the way we pronounce the camera) changed the nature of my relationship with my mother in a way that has remained with me to the present day. During this process I revisited the significant relationships of my life, using a structured framework that begins with my mother -- recalling all that I received from her, what I had given in return, and how I had caused her trouble. During the first day my memories came slowly and were somewhat vague, but from time to time a vivid image would surface -- she washed my muddy little league uniform, played the piano with me and got me my first job as a stock boy. Why is this important? After all, aren't these the kinds of things that mothers are supposed to do for their kids?
Many of us have come to define our childhoods by the dramatic events that occurred from time to time, rather than by the predictable day to day care that we received or the special acts of generosity and love that our parents demonstrated. We may remember and even report to others about the times our mom let us down, but never give a thought to the countless times she maintained our wellbeing with her time, energy, money and attention. Much of what is required of mothers is not very exciting, which is why those gestures are overlooked so often. Such images and vignettes aren't full of drama like the ones heard in therapy sessions or on talk shows. In fact Naikan stands in stark contrast to the mother-bashing assaults that are common in the US.
"Mother, you were too busy with your charity work. You never had time to tell me you loved me. You paid attention to me only when I was sick or when I was playing the piano and making you proud. You only let me have the feelings that pleased you. You never loved me for myself."
This letter, written by a woman in her 70's, is quoted approvingly in John Bradshaw's best seller Homecoming. Bradshaw is in the forefront of a cadre of talk show hosts, authors, recovery programs and therapists, all encouraging us to take an honest look at our childhoods and then take aim at our moms. Of course we take time to send a card or make a call on Mother's Day to the woman who gave us . . . life. But this small detail, and many others, are lost or forgotten admidst an array of people and programs who see mom as just another casualty on the road to self-realization and self-esteem.
By the time I completed my Naikan retreat, my relationship with my mom was forever changed. I can rarely talk with her on the phone without remembering some of the excavated memories from my time in Japan. Now that I am married I have a chance to witness my wife caring for my daughters in many of the same ways I was cared for. Being on the other end I have a much better sense of what kind of energy, time, inconvenience and love it takes to care for a child who is completely dependent on the world for everything.
Come to think of it, that's still a pretty good description of me. The mother that raised me lives far away, in Chicago, but her role has been assumed by others -- my wife, my friends, my teachers, the supermarket clerk, farmers, the people who make fresh apple cider down the road and the person who I call when I can't get the computer to work. I'm still mothered and cared for, but there was one woman who got me started as a seedling and made sure I was firmly rooted until I could transplant myself. As my way of honoring your service today, mom, I think I'll fold some laundry for my kids.
Happy Mother's Day to moms everywhere.
Gregg Krech is the author of the award-winning book Naikan: Gratitude, Grace & the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection (Stone Bridge Press, 2002) and the editor of the publication Thirty Thousand Days: A Journal for Purposeful Living. His work has been featured in SELF, Counseling Today, Experience Life and Tricycle magazines and he has been interviewed as a guest on Public Radio in Alaska, New Zealand and the program, To the Best of Our Knowledge at Wisconsin Public Radio.