Live Long on the Earth
by Walter Wangerin, Jr.
The commandments have not expired. Nor have the holy promises that attend them been abolished.
When, therefore, I am asked regarding the future of some human community, some family, some nation—or the church, the visible church itself! —straightway I look for obedience to the commandments of God. Particularly I wonder regarding the one which urges honor for the parents: I look to see whether someone is singing songs to his aged mother —and if I can find him, I say, “The signs are good.”
This is no joke. The best prognostication for the life of any community—whether it shall be long or short—is not financial, political, demographic, or even theological. It is moral. Ask not, “How strong is this nation?” nor “How many are they? How well organized? With what are armies and resources?” Ask, rather: How does this people behave?
See, there is always set before us life and good or death and evil. If we walk in the ways of the sustaining God and obey his commandments, then we have chosen life—for the Lord is life and the length of any nation’s days. This is flat practicality. How we are defines whether we shall continue to be.
Do we as a people honor our mothers and our fathers? Do we honor the generation that raised us—especially when it sinks down into an old and seemingly dishonorable age? When our parents twist and bow and begin to stink, what then? When they harden in crankiness, what then? Do we by esteeming them make them sweet and lovely again? The question is not irrelevant to our future, whether we shall have one or not. Its answer verily prophesies of That it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.
The Hebrew word here translated earth may also be translated land, meaning more than just soil, meaning country. The promise attached to this commandment is precise: so long as the Israelites honored their parents, they would continue to live in the land that God had provided for them. If ever they began to neglect their parents or, worse, to scorn or in some way to hurt them, that break between the generations would break the people from their land as a sick tree breaks at the trunk and dies.
Even so we—as long as we sing to the mother who bore us the songs she heard in her youth, the same songs once she sang to us in lullaby—we may live long in the land.
I have seen the signs. In Wisconsin. In quiet obscurity, where I went to visit a friend of mine who lives with his mother in the farmhouse her father built one hundred years ago. She has a wasting disease. My friend cares for her.
M. is a studious man. In the evening he reads by a low lamp in the corner of the parlor. The light casts shadows on an ancient florid wallpaper, on heavy furniture, on the bed in the farther darkness where his mother sleeps. He reads through half-glasses, his head bent to the page, fingers at his chin. He reads very late because his mother may murmur softly—too softly to be heard from any other part of the house—and this is his signal to serve her.
But when he welcomed me to the farmhouse it was daylight. He opened the door and grinned with thin lips his genuine pleasure at my coming and immediately invited me to the parlor.
The house smelled sweet and brown with cinnamon, tart with apples.
“Your mother’s baking?” I asked as we walked.
“No,” he said and ducked his head a bit, an apology. “No, she doesn’t do that anymore.”
“Oh, well,” he said. Sheepish. “I see to the necessary things.”
We entered the parlor, and so I understood.
His mother was sitting up in bed, a shawl around her shoulders, smiling. I, too, smiled and walked toward M. interposed, introducing us with a formal civility as if the woman were very rich, as if we had never met “Mother, be pleased to meet—“
In fact, I’ve known M.’s mother almost as long as I have known him. But now it became clear that she had ceased to know me, and I was startled by the change. Her face was round, slack, soft, white, and, except for the querulous smile, expressionless. My dear old friend who once wore an apron and cooked for me, her face had the glaze of a dinner plate. Her watery glance never found my eyes but dribbled down my chest to my hands as if she were a child looking for candy.
M. said, “Shake hands with mother.”
I did. As I reached, her right arm rose spontaneously. I took the powder-white hand that hung at the wrist and squeezed something like dough. She never ceased to smile, but questioningly. I stepped back. M. offered her a prune from a dish. She had a wonderful set of teeth. She was munching when we left the room.
We talked the rest of the day, M. and I. We strolled a sharp autumn countryside as the sun descended and the chill came down and the air smelled of crushable things husks and hulls and leaves and the scented fires that burn them.
All the farmland had been sold, except five acres and the house itself. They kept a small orchard—and that was floating on the cool air too, a winey aroma.
I have always enjoyed the probing intellect of my friend’s conversation: soft-spoken, forever undismayed, M. has a natural savvy which he has enriched with his reading. He could, if they would listen, counsel presidents.
Finally it was the night. I praised his apple pie and retired to my room and lay down and slept.
I tell you the truth—that very night I saw the signs:
At two in the morning I was awakened by a cry. I felt my stomach contract. I thought I heard a cat in the house, a lingering, feline wailing, inarticulate and mournful. It was a sort of creamed lamentation.
It seemed that someone was terribly hurt.
So rose and followed the sound downstairs—through the kitchen to the parlor. A low lamp was lit. I peeped in.
This was no cat. This was M.’s mother. Her head was thrown backward, her mouth enormous, all her upper jaw and teeth in view. She was yowling: Ya-ya-ya-na-naaaaah!
M. himself was crouched at her bedside with a pan of water and cloths. He turned and saw me in the doorway. He smiled and motioned me to sit. I sat in his chair, under his reading lamp, granting them the privacy of darkness—but by the odor in the room I know what my friend was doing.
He was honoring his mother, exactly as the Lord God commanded.
He was washing away the waste. He was changing her diapers.
And he was singing to her.
Softly, in his mother’s tongue, he was singing, Mude bin ich, geh zu ruh— Lullabies. The simple, sacred, everlasting songs.
An she was singing with him. That was the sound I had been hearing: no lamentation, no hurt nor sorrow, but an elderly woman singing with outrageous pleasure at the top of her lungs.
And lo: This old face was alive again. This old woman was as young as the child who first heard the lullaby, innocent, happy, wholly consoled. This old mother of my friend was dwelling in the music of her childhood. This was the face of one beloved, whose son obeyed the covenants and her—and kept her honorable thereby.
This boisterous singer is my sign. And the sign is good. Shall we endure? So long as such obedience continues among us, O my people, yes, it may be well with us. We may live long on the earth.