By Faith J. H. McDonnell (@Cuchulain09)
A longstanding tradition on Mother’s Day is to wear a carnation in honor of your mother. Wearing a red carnation means that your mother is living. Wearing a white carnation means that your mother is dead.
When I was little, I always felt sad when I saw people wearing white carnations on Mother’s Day. Even old people. I remember seeing a dear old man at church — probably 75 or 80 years old — wearing a white carnation in honor of his mother, and bursting into tears. When my mother asked me what was wrong, I said, “Mack’s mommy is dead!”
As I observed the men and women with white carnations on jacket lapels or dresses, I couldn’t imagine life without a mother! Who would take care of you? Who would make your birthday cake (in my case, yellow cake with chocolate/peanut butter frosting)? Who would make your bed? (Yes, I confess. My mom made my bed for me until I was in high school!) Who would hold you and comfort you when you got hurt or were sad? It’s been almost twelve years since my mother died, and its been a lot longer than that since I lived with my parents, but I still miss my mom here to be the answer to those questions.
For me, wearing a white carnation means not getting any more of the sweet little cards that my mom used to send me, always signed “Lots of love, Mommy” and completed with a line of xoxo’s. I still keep one in my Bible – in which my mom reminded me to “keep close to Jesus” and told me how proud she was of me.
Wearing a white carnation means not smelling the cologne my mother loved: Coty’s “Muguet des Bois.” It was simple, inexpensive, and smelled like Lily of the Valley, my mother’s favorite flower. My mother wore “Muguet des Bois” all her life. It was a lot like her — not complex, just sweet and without guile. And, in fact, for me that Lily of the Valley cologne symbolizes some of my mother’s best qualities.
As a teenager I thought it was embarrassing and old-fashioned how “naive” my mother was. Good heavens! She didn’t even know what an orgy was! I told her it was an all night prayer meeting, and she said, “I would like to go to one of those.” Now, after working at The IRD for over 18 years, and encountering evil and experiencing broken humanity on a daily basis, I envy my mother’s innocence. She was in no way sheltered. Her father had abandoned his family and her mother was stricken with crippling arthritis when she was a little girl. She and her brother had even been sent to a children’s home until her uncle found out, went raging after them, and brought them home. And as a Salvation Army officer wife, she encountered a lot of broken humanity herself. But with all that, my mother seemed the epitome of the verse in James 1 that talks about keeping “unspotted by the world.”
My dad always used to joke about “saving up” to buy a present for my mother, but the truth was, she had very simple tastes. Just as she would choose a cologne that cost about $10.95 in the 1970’s over an expensive perfume, when my dad bought her a new watch, it would be a Timex. I don’t think that she could even comprehended someone spending hundreds, never mind thousands, of dollars on a timepiece! She was appreciative of and took delight in very small and simple things — like rice pudding (no raisins) and really sour dill pickles. Vacation for my mother and father never went beyond renting a cottage for a couple of weeks at the beach in Rhode Island until we sent them on a cruise to Newfoundland when they retired from The Salvation Army.
My mom laughed very easily, and kept my father from taking himself — and everything else — too seriously. We would always try to get my mother to laugh herself silly and then ask her to “talk Irish.” This was an Ulster (Northern) Irish accent, that had to be spoken between clenched teeth, and was the voice of all her family on both sides that had come to Manchester, Connecticut from Portadown, County Armagh. It was especially entertaining if her sister, my Aunt Dot, was there and they could do it together, while laughing so hard that tears rolled down their cheeks.
But beyond her sense of humor, my mother had a deep sense of joy that sprang from her love for us and for her Lord. She was adored by and adored my father. She loved her children and grandchildren. I know that I broke her heart several times — but her love was unconditional. Even though she was a Salvation Army officer, she always believed that her first ministry was to her children. I never had the experience that some children with parents in the ministry have of feeling neglected or coming second. But she also had a wonderful ministry to others, as well. I particularly remember the young servicemen — sailors, Coast Guards, etc. — that would seek her out for prayer and a mother’s love when she and my father were in charge of The Salvation Army’s club for servicemen in New London, Connecticut during the Vietnam War.
When I was a baby, my mom sang me to sleep with some very unusual lullabies. One of my her favorites, and one which I inflicted on my own daughter as well was “When the battle’s over, we shall wear a crown.” For my mom, the last battle was late onset Alzheimer’s. Mercifully, the disease only had her in its grip for about two years before she was Promoted to Glory, as dying is described in The Salvation Army. Wearing a white carnation means knowing that for my mother, the battle is over, and she is wearing a crown.