An unusual epitaph speaks to the crucial legacy of mothers

Mother’s Day is near and dear to nearly all of us. Most of us will either honor our mothers on that day or remember them fondly.

Unless our mother was like the woman whose children memorialized her with an epitaph on a headstone in a Sedona, Ariz., cemetery.  A friend of mine who walks her dog there can’t stop wondering about this family:

“To Our Mother, Mona Herold Vanni, October 14, 1912 to April 11, 1996.

“You spent your life expressing animosity for nearly every person you encountered, including your children. Within hours of his death, you even managed to declare your husband of fifty-seven years unsuited to being either a spouse or a father. Hopefully, you are now insulated from all the dissatisfaction you found in human relationships. —Buddy, Jackie and Mike”

Ouch! Pain carved in stone.

I referred to this in a sermon on Mother’s Day 2014. I recently received an email from Mike, the son who oversaw the $10,000 installation of the tombstone for their mother memorialized above. Apparently, Mike did an Internet search and read my sermon that included my allusion to this. He wrote to share some backstory to the epitaph that was fueled by agonizing memories of his childhood.

Mike wrote his memoir, “Predestined for Reformation: My Lifelong Quest for the Noble Path,” under a pseudonym, Tony Roletti, because of the “somewhat unkind references to living members of a Christian church who have been, in my view, less than honorable throughout their lives.” That pains a pastor’s heart.

The author is 77 years old now, and although he has had a successful career, he still bears the scars of a childhood filled with domestic horror and lacking in expected gentle and generous maternal care. The book tells of his watching his two older sisters enduring their mother’s beatings and terror, until they ran away from home to find safety. Mike himself left home immediately upon high school graduation.

Mona’s son has struggled with anger management throughout his life and has always held authority figures with suspicion and disdain. He was never able to function well in a team-oriented structure and has struggled to embrace the world with love and compassion, despite his work with young people as a teacher and sociologist.

Mothers provide us with our first hint that the world is a friendly place and we are welcome in it. Or, they don’t. For those with mothers like Mike’s, it’s a lifelong challenge to overcome a start with a malformed heart.

Mothers who do their work of love and nurture forge solid souls in their kids. They teach us to be tough and tender both, and when to be which. Mothers who are themselves deeply damaged will deeply damage their offspring, unless they find the healing and help they need in time to parent well.

A mother bears her children, and forever thereafter her children bear their mother. Bearing our mothers can be a burden or blessing. Let’s all pray for blessings to abound.