Mary, Our Mother (and Kathi, my mom)
Letter to the Editor | Friday, April 30, 2021
In my grandparents’ home, three pictures hang over the mantle.
The bottom of this triangle is a sepia family photograph. Grandma sits with a baby on her lap and cat-eye glasses on her nose. Beside her is Grandpa, wearing the tired smile of a man with more kids than he can keep track of. Behind them, a litter of children beam at the camera, each white-blonde perm worse than the last.
Above the framed photo, two paintings face each other, forming the Alliance of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Together, the hearts (Jesus’ Sacred, his mother’s Immaculate) face the viewer with graceful smiles and hands extended in invitation.
These pictures are the earliest introduction to the Catholic faith I can remember. Even today, if you say “Catholic,” my mind will immediately jump to two hearts framed above a DIY Brady Bunch. Given this image, I grew up with a faith in Christ that didn’t make sense, didn’t even exist without his mother; in fact, it didn’t make sense without my mother either.
I won’t split hairs with you. My mom is not the Blessed Virgin draped in a shawl atop a silver moon. You’re more likely to find her pushing the speed limit on I-70 and complaining about the pick-up tailgating in between sips of Tab Cola. She’s not exactly delicate, either, but she is a boss on the tennis court. I’ve spent many a blistering July day on the other side of the net, terrified of taking a volley to the face.
If you can picture the Blessed Virgin slicing a wicked forehand at the Christ Child cowering behind his racquet — well, my point is that Kathi Keeven is not the Mother of God. She didn’t grow up 2,000 years ago. She didn’t run into any archangels. And she certainly didn’t give birth to the world’s savior. (My sister is great, but I don’t think the second coming of Christ will be a Missourian copy editor in an acapella group.)
Kathi Keeven isn’t Mary. But it would be a lie to say Mary’s love doesn’t live in her.
She embodies the radical grace of motherhood, not some stereotype of the ever-serene parent with perfectly behaved toddlers and Instagram maternity photoshoots, but the resilience to say yes to what life (and her kids) threw at her.
Given the spiritual relationship I see between my mom and God’s, I’m frustrated by how the Church tends to depict our heavenly mother. The Mary that appears in the homily is rarely that symbol of radical love, but rather an embodiment of the impossible standard to which women are held. For centuries, women have heard that they’ll never be as holy, as pure, as full of grace as Mary, yet we’re still instructed to strive towards that goal anyway. How can we love ourselves while constantly trying to measure up to the Queen of Heaven? It’s an injustice to Mary, too, diminishing her awesome virtues and revolutionary role in salvation history to little more than baby-maker and domestic servant.
As we enter the month of moms and Mary, I’m going to give you a challenge: Cast out your false idols of “meek and mild.” Reject the male gaze which paints motherhood as soft and silent, as immaculate and composed. Embrace Mary and mothers who serve as liberators, as justice-seekers, as caregivers of the unhoused and the oppressed, as women who won’t sit down and shut up. Look her in the eyes (look in the mirror!) and recognize the radical love that lights up her soul.
Not everyone has a mom in their life by the traditional definition, and that’s OK! Nevertheless, I hope everyone reading this has at least one motherly figure in their life. For many, it’s an aunt or a grandmother. It could be a family friend, a neighbor or that professor who brings cookies after the midterm. The only requirement is that they give freely, love unconditionally and remain committed to the hearts and minds of the people around them. They embody the love which shines from Mary’s Immaculate Heart for her Son as well as every sinner and saint.
This May, I encourage you to reach out to those people who serve as mothers to you — regardless of how you define that role. Return the love they so generously give to us. And never forget that you yourself are capable of Mary’s radical love and sharing it with others.
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.