We are at a strange moment (to say no more) when we come to our annual celebration of Mother’s Day and the most shown video tape of a mother in action and the most commented on mother-child image is that which involves a mother slapping around her teenage son, and doing so with such energy that “beating up on him” would not be much of an exaggeration. How many times over the past week have we seen the scene of Toya Graham in Baltimore laying into her sixteen year old son, driving him out of and away from a violent street demonstration he was obviously intent on joining and participating in.
She was immediately hailed as a hero and “mother of the year” material, and almost as quickly criticized as abusive and unmindful of her son’s dignity and welfare. Not surprisingly, one’s reaction to the screen image seemed to depend a lot on one’s political leanings, broadly speaking. A lot of the commentary obviously took the briefest look at the interaction between mother and son, and then pushed past them to make other points about the Baltimore situation and the broader American scene. And within that wider context, one could make the argument that what happened between those two did not, not really, make much of a difference.
Only it did make a difference to them, and the camera let the rest of us, even forced the rest of us, to see them up close. Everyone will have a different take, and for me the most memorable part of the scene was not the slapping across the face, but rather his demeanor and her sense of direction. In the old BBC television series, barrister Horace Rumpole usually referred to his wife, Hilda, as “she who must be obeyed,” and it was crystal clear from the kid’s body language that he knew, absolutely knew, that his mother was she who must be obeyed. Surrounded by a bunch of friends and strangers who would have loudly supported his decision to defy his mother and remain a part of what was developing on the street, he knew that the only person that mattered was his mother, and she was the only one that he was going to be listening to. And then there was her sense of direction. She wasn’t simply knocking him about, heedless of where he was headed or ended up – she pushed, and pushed him consistently so as to put an ever greater distance between him and the crowd he had been a member of.
Whence came her authority over him? Was it her rage, her anger, that he did not dare to challenge? Perhaps, but we all know that love has a fierce aspect as well as a tender one, and maybe that is what was in play. And her sense of direction and purposefulness suggest that this was so. The main point was not to physically punish him so much as get him out of danger, to push and push and push him all the way to safety. The authority of love can be a fearful thing.
Mother’s Day, for most of us, is a day for flowers and gifts and meals out, signs of appreciation for lives spent in dedication and devotion to the long and often lonely work of raising children into adults. So THANKS to all who are and who work at being mothers. Happy Mother’s Day!
Fr. Bob Sprott, O.F.M.