A prodigal’s postcard

From a kid’s point of view, my mom was born on an unlucky date.

It was just a few days before Christmas, which meant that her birthday often got rolled into, or drowned out by, His Birthday.

It also meant presents came all at once. No special time in March or July or September when she was the focus of all attention and got cake and presents to boot.

Somehow, mom bore up well under this injustice. She gave birth to eight children, and seven of them lived to adulthood. She had a happy marriage to a man of genuine kindness with a good sense of humor. A happy marriage makes up for a host of ills, and she was happy.

This weekend I am flying back home to join the celebration of her 90th birthday. She is not really happy about this birthday. She has been a widow for many years now, and she has said goodbye to many friends. She suffers the indignities of age with as much grace as she can muster on the good days.

Three times a week, she still goes in to my sister’s Catholic Charities office to volunteer. We tell her she has a mean boss who makes her work at her age, but in truth it keeps her going. When you get to be 90 years old, just being needed by someone makes up for a host of ills too.

Although I am the oldest of her children, I am in some ways the prodigal, since I am the one who moved farthest away and has been away the longest.

Recently I wrote about some Catholics being like the eldest son in the parable of the prodigal son, and a few folks complained.

What I’ve come to realize, thanks to a beautiful meditation by Father Henri Nouwen, who authored more than 40 books on the spiritual life, is that each of us at different times in our lives is likely to be the prodigal, the eldest son and the merciful father.

Being the oldest, I can certainly relate to the resentment of the oldest son who sees the big party being thrown for his shiftless brother. It took me longer to see those times when I’ve been the prodigal — insensitive and absent.

Returning home is always an emotional trek. When it comes to my mom, the challenge is to just enjoy the moment. It is the one gift I can give, but simply being present doesn’t come easily to me. With a smartphone on my hip and laptop full of work, I’m always more Martha than Mary. Being truly present is a difficult present to give.

Being present to my brothers and sisters and a brood of nieces and nephews is a trick as well. For so much of the year, I operate in a world that is in large part of my own making. When I come home, I am besieged by memories that have gone on to live their own lives just fine without me providing even a drop of Eldest Brother Wisdom.

As soon as I step into my parents’ house, I feel as if I’ve stepped out of Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine, but something isn’t quite right.

It’s home, though not quite. It’s changed over the decades since I’ve left, though not quite: Pictures of my dad and mom, my dad’s endless rows of books, the globe that forever shows India as a British colony — all there.

And still there, changed but not quite, is the genial, gentle matriarch of our messy, mischievous clan.

The psalmist always reminds us of how fleeting life is, how we flower and we fade. But he also reminds us to be grateful for our blessings.

This weekend my brothers and sisters, grandchildren and in-laws, will gratefully celebrate the fruitful life of the matriarch who made all the rest of us possible.

It turns out her birthday, for us, is the luckiest date of all.

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.