Friday, November 13, 2009


When I was small and we were living in Pleasant Hills, PA in the Tudor house on Old Clairton Road, I came home from school on a Wednesday afternoon in early May. It only matters that it was Wednesday because Wednesday was Library Day at Pleasant Hills Elementary School, and I had a new book in my canvas book bag. I loved Library Day, maybe because it felt freeing to my brain to not have to stuff information in there for a half hour, and no one was going to test me on anything. More likely because a library, especially one full of children’s books, is that beautiful balance of aesthetic and information: order mixed with stories mixed with color and design.

These were the blessed days of my childhood, when our mother answered our Hello’s when as walked in the front door. When there was often something stewing on the stove top or the aroma of fresh laundry wafting up from the basement. I recognize that this was a sweet spot in my life, that I am fortunate to have had a mother who was at home for some space of my childhood. By my teenage years we had to wait up till very late at night to see her; weary from long days working for a paycheck.

The book in my bag was called My Mother is the Most Beautiful Woman in the World. It caught my eye because of the title. I had not had enough time in the Library to read it completely, so (here’s the sweetest thing of all) my memory of that book has the sound of my mother’s voice reading it to me. I love my mother’s voice. I recall falling asleep to it when I would go in to ask her something and she was on the phone. Like a lullaby, it lulled me to rest, all comforting and steady. When I was in fifth grade and my teacher, Mrs. Jackson, declared that I was a poet, it was hearing those silly little poems I wrote falling from my mother’s lips that made me believe it.

With my sisters gathered around me, and perhaps my brother, (though he may have been off inventing something,) Mom began:

Varya was a peasant girl….

The story unfolded sweetly; about a small Ukrainian girl who fell asleep in a pile of wheat during harvest and when she awoke her mother was gone. Varya searched the fields but could not find her. Crying by the side of the road she asked the workers making their way home from the fields if they had seen her mother. “What does she look like?” they asked, and she answered, “My mother is the most beautiful woman in the world!” So searchers scanned the villages all around and gathered the most beautiful women into the town center. Varya looked at the gathering of ladies and began to sob. Finally a voice called from outside the circle as a short lump of a woman with a toothless smile and a scarf wrapped tightly around her sweaty forehead made her way into the center. “Varyachka!” she called! “Mammachka!” cried Varya, and they fell into each other’s arms. In the end the mayor of the town turns to the people and reminds them that we do not love people because they are beautiful; they are beautiful to us because we love them. Most people see with their eyes. Varya has taught us the truest things are seen with the heart.

I had the book for a whole week. We read it over and over. Like scripture. Like scripture because somewhere down inside the center of me, deep behind the belly button, I knew it was true. We all did. Not that our mother was not physically beautiful, but that it did not matter whether or not she was.

These days Mom sits in the seat next to me when I drive on our “outings”. I look over at her striking profile, 86 years in the making. Her long slender nose, her snowy white hair, her well defined lip line and sparkling eyes. She is as beautiful as any woman I have ever seen, or will ever see.

At night, during the remaining years I lived at home with Mom, my sisters and I called from our beds before we turned out our lights; a response to her telling us to sleep well: “Good night Mammachka, I love you.”

How blessed we are to be able to say that still; to hear her voice comforting us; feel her hand touching us; find peace in the rhythm of her breathing as she rests.

Today is my mother’s 86th Birthday. I thank the Lord for her, today and every day. She is, and always will be, the most beautiful woman in the world.