Today is another day of great celebration. Umpety-eight years ago, an event occurred without which your humble author would not be here to tell his tales. Yes, I am speaking of the birth of my mother, Josephine, in Bronxville, NY, the marking of which I am so sorry not to be able to share with her in person.
Though born in New York, my mother spent most of her childhood nestled in an 18th c. farmhouse with her mother, grandmother, and older sister in the idyllic town of Woodstock, VT. Today, Woodstock is like a Museum of the Quaint; then it was authentically quaint. They raised angora rabbits, grew vegetables, baked from scratch, hunted small game (my grandmother apparently learned to be quite a shot from the denizens of her father’s California gold mining camps – long story), sewed and knitted their own clothing, and enjoyed the country’s first ski tow.
My aunt went off to Swarthmore College and, at her suggestion, my mother boarded at the very progressive, Quaker-run George School, and from there attended Vassar College, where she majored in English literature and developed a love for both poetry and Princeton boys. To be literate in my family is just about the highest virtue; I grew up surrounded by books and I can’t think of a single family member who isn’t a clever writer.
Ultimately, none of the Princetonians made the final cut, perhaps to the chagrin of my grandfather (Princeton ’15). My mother married a Harvard man, Kent Fry, and, after a brief stint in the unlikely location of Detroit, my father landed a gig with W.R. Grace that flung them to the unlikelier location of Lima, Peru. It was there that my mother gave birth to my two sisters, Sarah and Laura, and my father became fascinated with the nascent industry of international air travel. He moved on to Pan Am, which shifted the family briefly to England and then for ten years to Germany, in both Stuttgart and Frankfurt.
The final European move brought the family to Paris, where yours truly was born on the last day of 1965. It was not long thereafter that my parents’ marriage finally collapsed, and before my third birthday my mother and I left France to stay for a time with her sister who had resettled in Bronxville and, strangely enough, to set up house in Princeton, NJ. I often joke that I became a Buddhist monk in order to purify whatever karma caused me to be born in Paris, but raised in New Jersey.
The sudden transition to independent life was difficult for my mother, to say the least, and I didn’t help much by growing into a confused, angry teenager who developed a passion for the punk rock scene and all its attendant vices. If you think I’m exaggerating, this photo is me, in London, age 17. One weekend in my early 20’s, I paid my mother a visit just to formally apologize for those years and chop a winter’s-worth of wood as penance.
My mother found her groove as a librarian, and endured New Jersey (we had moved from Princeton, which is actually quite lovely, to East Windsor, which is actually not) so that I could finish prep school. Once I shipped off to Brown, she returned to Vermont to be near her sister and live in a place that held cherished memories. She settled in Brattleboro, found employment at their public library and, though now retired, cannot shake her addiction to the written word and still makes time to volunteer there.
Given my current vocation, I’m often asked if I grew up in a religious household. Not at all, I reply, and…um…thank God. But I grew up with ethics. My mother and her sister consciously rejected the racism of their parents, an attitude I naturally absorbed, and my own sisters, both wonderfully strong women whom I adore, helped me develop an innate sense of gender equality (I think I may still have the bruises to prove it). So I learned from these women, as Martin Luther King suggested, to judge myself and others solely on the content of our character. The Quakers must have also influenced my mother, because she abhors war and violence and strictly forbade me to have toy guns and the like.
My mother possesses a host of virtues, too numerous to mention. But one which resonates for me in a Buddhist context is her unconditional love for her children and concern for their welfare. Time and again she has made personal sacrifice to benefit us. Recently she revealed to me that, during my difficult birth (I was being strangled by the umbilical cord), she begged the doctors to let her die if it would only let me live. I’m in tears even now thinking of the profundity of that. The Buddha teaches that at one time or another in our endless cycle of rebirths, each and every sentient being has been our mother and loved us in exactly such a fierce way. He counsels us to strive to repay their kindness by living a life dedicated to the total liberation from suffering of all of them. He has provided methods by which we vow that no matter how long it takes we will gain the wisdom and power of enlightenment, and not rest until each sentient being is established in that same bliss, free from all sorrow. I use my own mother’s example to help me in this task.
Therefore, it was one of the happiest days of my life when my mother took me to a dinner in Maine that had the air of a Special Moment. She and I, as you may have guessed, are very close, and I had been sharing with her all along the marvels of my personal awakening to the Dharma since meeting my lama in the summer of 1990. This included the afternoon of July 31, 1993 when I called and said, “Hi, Ma! Guess what I did this morning? I renounced samsara, shaved my head, and took the robes and vows of a Buddhist monk for the rest of this life. So, how is it up there, hot?” She actually wasn’t so shocked. It seems that during these years, quietly, she had been pulling Buddhist books from her library shelves and sparking her own inner fire.
“So,” she asked me over dessert that evening in Maine, “how does one officially become a Buddhist?”
“You mean so you get the laminated wallet card and the sew-on patch? Well, there’s the small matter of the fee paid to any monk to whom you’re related by blood.”
“Are you asking in the abstract,” I wondered, “or for yourself personally?”
Oh, my heart sang! I ordered another coffee, quit with the jokes, and explained about the Refuge Vow, through which one enters the gate of the Dharma, and the Bodhisattva Vow, through which one enters the sublime path of the Mahayana. That sealed it, and shortly thereafter I had the indescribable pleasure of witnessing my mother, who traveled to Maryland expressly for this purpose, take these vows with Jetsunma. She has grown beautifully as a Buddhist practitioner ever since, further deepening her path by entering the Vajrayana through empowerments from HH Penor Rinpoche and HH the Dalai Lama. Now, she even hosts a weekly Dharma study group in her home and when she visits KPC, the monks and nuns no longer use her given name – they just call her Dharma Mama. It’s beyond amazing.
We’ll return to Mongolia on Wednesday. But since I know it pains my mother to be so physically distant from me right now, I wanted to span the gap with this love letter, and reveal a small fraction of what a marvelous woman she is. Knowing her as I do, by posting the following photographs I risk losing the warm feelings these words may have generated. Nonetheless, I think she’s beautiful, and I know you will too. One is her and me at the Grand Canyon and the other is her with all her children celebrating a previous birthday in Ogunquit, Maine.
Happy Birthday, Ma. I love you, and pray that we may share many more years to come. May all motherly sentient beings swiftly know complete liberation.