Picture of Mother
In the only picture I have of my mother, she’s posed with her husband in front of their house. My mother is wearing a red t-shirt with the flag on it. He is wearing a white one with the flag printed on it. I believe each of them as several shirts with flags on them. I think they buy them after the holidays when they’re marked down.
This photo was probably taken on the 4th of July. Or maybe Memorial Day. Maybe Veterans Day. Maybe even the day before any of those holidays.
If you asked my mother if she’s a patriot, she’d undoubtedly say, “Yes. Of course.” After all, she has some shirts bought at Kroger at the after-holiday discount to prove it.
And she’ll say the same thing about loving the veterans. In fact, she says as much in the memes she posts about such things at the appropriate times of the year.
If you ask her what it means to be a patriot beyond wearing a shirt when it’s most appropriate to wear a shirt to display her patriotism, she won’t really know. I imagine she’d say something like, “It’s just a feeling I have.”
If you asked her what it means to truly love and honor our veterans beyond wearing a shirt and standing alongside a parade, she wouldn’t know, aside from the gesture and some vague feeling of pride as the parade rolls past.
Surely she’s never thought what it might be like to be raised anywhere else. She’s surely never considered what it would be like to be a patriot born and raised somewhere like Japan or Germany or Canada or Brazil. She’s surely never thought about how and why her thoughts and feelings might be different if her circumstances were any different.
If you ask her why she loves America she’ll tell you because it’s the best. In the particular ways of it being best, she won’t know. She might say something about freedom because she’s seen “freedom” combined with the flag on a lot of shirts on the 4th of July.
If you ask her why America’s the best and she’s got no answers, she won’t even turn the TV to the channel that will tell her why. She just knows if she’s a patriot and she loves her country and the veterans who’ve died for it, then that’s what she needs to think – America’s #1. So that’s what she believes and what she feels. And wearing the shirt is what she needs to do to affirm – to facilitate – the feeling of being a wholesome, morally upstanding patriot.
This is the only photograph I have of my mother – of her and her husband wearing their flag shirts on or before some holiday.
The irony, I realize, is the depth of her patriotism is no greater than her depth of understanding when it comes to all the other things that define her. The depth of her understanding of love and family are no greater than it is for her love of country. They too are mostly captured in trite symbols and gestures of what love and family are. They’re somebody else’s definitions. Trite definitions and vague feelings as hollow and shallow as patriotism being nothing more than a feeling from wearing a t-shirt or having a sticker of the flag on your car.
Her love of family is no different than her love of country.
And her love of Jesus and God is no different. It too is mostly symbolic. Mostly gestural. Being a Christian is going to church and singing. Being a Christian is reading the Bible. Being a Christian isn’t thinking about what a Christian is or ought to do beyond the gestures and feelings that go along with how a Christian’s supposed to think, feel and display. Being a Christian is declaring it on a shirt or a sticker on your car. The main thing is knowing what you are through a symbolic proclamation. The meaning behind the symbols and gestures is only secondary to the feelings they give.
Like a professed musician who knows of music only as he hears it, but can’t even play. A musician who knows songs are composed of notes and melodies but knows and cares nothing about musicianship through its application and composition in the language of notes, let alone melody. Caring nothing but for the feeling of what is to be called – to be perceived – as a musician defined by his instrument, which he can’t even play.
Like the professed anti-communist denouncing communism because it feels noble and righteous to despise it. Savoring the feeling without understanding communism and its antithesis with any more depth – any more nuance – than “one is good and the other is bad.” Caring nothing about what either one is, only how being the one, in opposition to the other, makes one feel.
All these things that define her – mother and wife and grandmother, patriot and Christian – all as shallowly, as tritely understood as loving one’s country by wearing the appropriate shirt on the appropriate day. Understanding the symbol gives a pleasant feeling cause it means something. It defines. And there’s an implied morality – an implied ethic – within the symbol, gesture or meme that feels good – feels moral and righteous – to get the rub from.
Complexity and nuance in concepts are the enemies of said concepts encapsulated in symbols, memes, titles and gestures.
The effort of memorizing passages and psalms displacing the effort in performing acts of what a real Christian might perform. The effort of memorizing displacing the effort of understanding. Memorizing in place of critical thinking about what’s being memorized.
At the end of the day – all throughout her life – she is defined by little more than symbols. Symbols and memes and titles. Words and vague, infantile conceptions of what it means to be any of the things that define her through their symbols. Concepts of what it means to be a mother or patriot or Christian as gross and tactless and inarticulate as a toddler’s conception of adulthood.
How do you relate to a person whose whole life has no more depth, complexity, subtly or nuance to it than the memes, titles, gestures and symbols that define it?
How to you relate, never mind love?
The only picture I have of my mother is this one she gave me. Somehow it’s ironic. Somehow it seems appropriate.