Through New Eyes: How I Discovered My Mother—and Myself


A special place, long hidden away in my memory, came to life recently as I sorted through some old family slides. They had been in the bottom drawer of my nightstand for several years. Now, as I sat projecting images from my childhood onto my living room wall, tears came easily.

There was the old red wagon in front of the first house I can recall, and there was daddy’s rose garden beneath my bedroom window. And there was the little blond girl that I once was—dirt on her nose, doll hanging from under an arm, and one sock lower than the other.

But one image brought my entire present life into fresh perspective. It was a picture taken in the living room of the home I grew up in. There was the entire family, minus one not yet born, sandwiched between the huge arms of the pink overstuffed couch. Dad sat on one end with the baby on his lap, Mom on the other. Between them were three near-teenagers with smiles spread across their faces.

At first, it was not so much the people as the things that held me spellbound. The grey walls that had once seemed so beautiful, the flowered carpet I had vacuumed so many times, looked different now. Projected on my wall, the old room looked so small; I had remembered it so much wider, so much longer. How did seven people ever fit into that tiny room? And there was the narrow hallway where my brother and I would crawl on hands and knees past our parents’ room to raid the kitchen early on Saturday mornings. It had all been so beautiful to me then. Yet I realized now that there was not one piece of furniture in that room that was anything other than plain and simple. The scarcity of truly beautiful things reflected years of financial struggle.

Then my focus settled on the smiling face of my mother. She looked so young, so happy, so unburdened.

It was then that I began to see my life with new insight. There she was, my mother, close to the age I am now. And beside her were four children near the ages of my own four children. Looking back, I can remember very little other than love and happiness and just plain feeling secure. But the problems and frustrations my mother faced in her struggle to provide peace and sustenance for her family must have been much the same as those I feel now. Suddenly, I felt a part of a great cycle, the eternal cycle of motherhood. Now I was playing the role my own mother had played all those years ago, experiencing the same joys and sorrows, giving and loving, praying and growing as she did.

My mother must have had moments of despair and disillusionment, times when she questioned her own worth and purpose. I know she endured terrible financial hardships during my growing-up years. Yet the pancake dinners that were a necessity were one of the delights of my childhood. She felt frustrated by my father’s inactivity in the Church, tormented that the Melchizedek Priesthood was not active in our home when five children needed it so much.

I know she experienced feelings of helplessness as she rocked one sick child night after night, nursing her back to health—only to have the illness strike another.

I recall our senseless quarrels over my hair. The night my father trimmed my hair to reveal long-hidden eyes, I vowed never to speak to either of them again. Then there was the time I carved my brother’s name in the new stereo set my parents had waited so long to buy. Mother never said much to me, but the pain in her eyes reached far deeper than any punishment could have.

Now, as I sat on my own not-so-fancy furniture, in my fairly typical house, I realized, with a newly intensified love, how well she understands me. I remember her knowing smile as I deposited my last fifty cents into my bank account to cover my grocery bill. And I remember her expression when I told her how my own unthinking child had broken my most treasured vase. I remember her comfort as I sat for hours beside my tiny son in the newborn intensive care unit, where he struggled to live.

I thought of when she had to send me to the temple with my grandmother to get married because she did not then hold a temple recommend. As I see my own children approaching marriage, I know how torn she must have felt. How deeply she must have worried when my husband struggled with his testimony, and how joyful she must have been when he grasped the gospel with both arms and soared.

Now, as I attempt to teach my precious children, I often hear myself repeating the words my mother once said to me. As I try to explain to my beautiful, fresh thirteen-year-old why she doesn’t need to wear makeup or why I place the demands on her that I do, it is my mother’s voice I hear coming from inside me. As I cook pancakes once a week, I smile as I remember those pancake dinners of so long ago.

As I walk from room to room checking my sweet children each night, I feel what my mother must have felt. I feel joy and contentment in knowing I am doing something of value, and I feel uncontained love. And I know that my children will one day look down at their own offspring and understand this love as well.

Two recollections: Following my father’s death, my mom became very active and went to the temple for her endowment. Shortly after, we performed Dad’s ordinances and were sealed as a family. She was the catalyst in the process she had desired her whole married life, and finally she had her dream fulfilled.

I thank my mother for loving me enough to tolerate me when necessary, for nurturing me, and for guiding me through all those years with patience and determination.

[illustration] Illustrated by Robert Noyce

Karen Madsen, mother of four, is the Mia Maid adviser in the Grants Pass (Oregon) Third Ward.