Many years ago, I occasionally sang for patients at a physical rehabilitation center — a welcome change from the often grueling weekend sets I played in area bars. Unlike the rowdy Saturday night patrons, the patients actually listened, and none of them threatened to throw beer bottles if I refused to play “Sweet Home Alabama” for the third time in a row.
In the quiet of the patient lounge, I could also perform pieces that no Budweiser crowd would tolerate, and so I was delighted at one such engagement to indulge in a tune from a bygone era: “Just Before the Battle, Mother” by American composer George F. Root.
Although he initially distinguished himself as a music educator and choral instructor, Root is probably best known for his Civil War songs, and of them all, this particular number from 1863 — the final words of a soldier to the woman who gave birth to him — resounds most poignantly. In fact, many still know Root’s piece today, thanks in part to country music legend (and World War II combat veteran) Marty Robbins, who recorded it some 120 years after it had been penned.
Root’s composition struck an especially plaintive chord in me, since I had learned it from my own mother, a Civil War history buff. Sadly, she and I were usually engaged in battles of our own, due to our family’s troubled dynamics, but even amid our icy silences, the memories of learning the piece while seated next to her at the piano thawed my heart. Summoning that warmth, I closed my eyes and poured myself into the familiar notes:
Just before the battle, Mother, I am thinking most of you,
While upon the field we’re watching with the enemy in view…
Farewell, Mother, you may never press me to your heart again,
But, oh! You’ll not forget me, Mother, if I’m numbered with the slain.
And a few minutes later, with the last notes from my guitar fading, I looked out on the small audience in horror: a man in one corner, normally the most jovial of the group, was weeping. A nurse laid a consoling hand on his shoulder; the remaining patients looked wistful and pensive.
Flustered, I quickly began strumming an uptempo tune, hoping to restore some sense of levity to the gathering. After the short performance, I sought out the tearful man and apologized for upsetting him.
“Oh, please don’t,” he said graciously. “Mothers are like that. They go to the heart of you.”
Indeed they do, and battlefield medics have sometimes heard dying soldiers calling out for their mothers. A nurse who had served in the Crimean War later recalled she and her colleagues “thought it curious that the last words of a great number of men were of their mothers, though many of them must have left a wife and children.”
Our mothers are written into our very bodies, imparting not only their DNA, but living cells from our time in the womb. Through a process called “fetal microchimerism,” those cells are exchanged in both directions between mother and baby during pregnancy, and can remain in each for the rest of their lives. Even when a mother suffers a miscarriage or has an abortion, cells from her child remain in her. Little wonder, then, that the bond between us and our mothers is so mysterious and powerful.
That intimate connection becomes still more unfathomable when we look to the Mother of us all — Mary, given to us as Christ expired on the cross. When our earthly mothers have left us in death, or when (as I know all too well) they are lost to us through human frailty and strife, Mary’s arms open still more. Through her complete surrender to the Trinity, she can look into the very mouth of hell without flinching, for she beholds its conqueror: her Son.
With Mary, we will never be left alone on the battlefields of our lives. She is with us always, leading us from this wearying world to our final deployment — the heaven her Child, our Captain, has won for us.
And for that, on this Mother’s Day and always, I salute her.
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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