Retired pastor Sondra Willobee thinks back upon the women who have nurtured and mentored her, including her mother, a polio survivor, who taught her much about faith and life.
Retired Pastor, Michigan Conference
I have mixed feelings about Mother’s Day.
As a pastor, when I planned worship for Mother’s Day, I struggled with how to honor mothers without lapsing into sappy nostalgia or sloppy sentimentality. And the lectionary scripture readings did not address how Mother’s Day has evolved in our culture: a holiday driven by merchandisers and guilt, an excess of flowers, cards, candy, and mandatory visits that absolve negligent family members for the rest of the year.
I wanted no part of that.
And yet, what would we do without the tender, fierce, and formidable mothers of our faith? Hannah, Elizabeth, Mary, Eunice, and Susanna Wesley, to name a few. The mothers who showed us how to pray without ceasing and how to trust God even when times are hard.
What would we do without the women who, though not our biological mothers, have nurtured, corrected, mentored, and launched us?
What would we do without the women who dreamed of and worked for a better world? Women like Julia Ward Howe, who reimagined Mother’s Day as a witness for world peace, or Mamie Till, who insisted on a glass-topped casket for her fourteen-year-old son, Emmett, so that everyone would know what lynchers had done.
Like the mother of Jesus, Mamie Till knew what it was to mourn a son.
These women, too, inspire us from their place in the communion of saints.
My feelings about Mother’s Day are also influenced by my own mother, Mary Inwood Smith, a polio survivor, pastor’s wife, and public school teacher, who sometimes drove me crazy, and whose life was an amazing witness to her faith.
In 2005, when Mom was seventy-two years old, I visited her for her birthday. She told me what she was learning about post-polio syndrome, how the effects of the virus that had stolen the use of her legs still lurked in her body, increasing pain and weakness in other muscles as she aged.
Mom had spent almost all her adult life in a wheelchair, her knees knobby, her legs like sticks. During that birthday visit, I imagined what she’d been like before polio, a lively freckled farm girl with round forearms and muscular calves, strong enough to help her father bring in the hay. She’d told me she loved to roam the fields and pick wild berries.
She was twenty-one when polio struck in June 1954, a year before the Salk vaccine. Though the disease weakened the muscles of her legs and feet, the ligaments remained strong, pulling her left foot sharply back and down. The polio doctors at the University of Michigan Hospital broke her ankles and set them at ninety degrees to stabilize her feet. They gave her crutches and shoes fitted with whole-leg braces.
My mother raised four of us kids from a wheelchair. And she walked in those braces up the stairs at church, and from her car to Loon Lake Elementary School, where she taught third-graders for twenty-two years.
In later years, because of post-polio syndrome and arthritis, she was never free from pain. The pain—and the pain medications—sometimes made her cranky and self-absorbed. That, on top of her usual “inward stubbornness,” made it difficult to care for her.
But, during our birthday visit, Mom talked to me about how God answers prayer and how God was using her to encourage others in the facility. “Sondra,” she said, “I am surrounded by so much love.”
As she talked to me, her face just shone.
When I was a teenager, I asked my mother how to pray. She answered, “It’s like floating in a lake. You just let the water hold you up.” This was paradoxical advice from a woman whose life was so much hard effort and striving.
Okay, Mom. We deal with whatever life has dealt us. And we are held up, buoyed, supported, and surrounded by a Love much larger than us.
Thank you, mothers, for showing us that Love. Thank you for holding us up.
The Rev. Sondra Willobee is a retired elder, last serving as lead pastor at South Lyon: First UMC. She wrote articles for The Michigan Christian Advocate, FaithLink, and Linktionary, and is the author of The Write Stuff: Crafting Sermons That Capture and Convince (2009). You can also read her blog, www.sondrawillobee.com/blog.
Last Updated on May 10, 2023