Like mother, like son

As I progress through my 50s, I can see the source of my personality and character with greater clarity. I was blessed to have good role models in both of my parents throughout my life, and I have tried to exhibit Mom’s and Dad’s best qualities.

I credit Mom with my strength, determination, unselfishness and patience. I wouldn’t date blame her for any of my shortcomings. Here are the other key traits I believe I inherited from her:

I have always credited my mother with my academic success. She was a high achiever and stressed the importance of doing your best in the classroom and making good grades. She majored in math and minored in English in college, which strikes me as atypical. She likes and understands structure. Logic helps her navigate the world, and her intelligence and problem solving serve her well. As she raised her three boys, Mom alternated between working full time in computer programming and staying home with her babies. Her career culminated in teaching high school math for more than 20 years, combining her ability to teach and nurture with her love of math and order.

Wearing a tuxedo on his wedding day, Lance Wallace stands with his mother, Sharon Wallace, hold hands in a church with a lit wall sconce in the background of the church sanctuary..
Here we are on my wedding day 25 years ago. Mom hasn’t aged a day, but I’m no longer that fresh-faced, naive youth ready to take on the world.

Mom has a high tolerance for discomfort and puts others’ needs before her own. She always made sure we were well fed, received good medical care and were equipped with clothes and school supplies. She looked after our needs even while balancing the demands of her career and her responsibilities at church. She was our biggest fan and responded with an empathetic ear when our challenges threatened to overwhelm us.

My mother is a creature of habit. She builds and relies on routines. She spends time in prayer and scripture each morning, and in the past few years, she begins and ends her day with exercise. When she set her mind to losing weight so she could have knee replacement surgery, she well exceeded the 40-pound goal set by her doctors, and she has successfully rehabilitated from having both knees replaced, maintaining a healthy weight with self-control and discipline.

She is the ideal preacher’s wife. Mom understands that she has to be “above reproach” and makes an effort to not only do what’s right but also avoid “the appearance of evil.” She knows she isn’t perfect, but if people see her that way, she derives satisfaction from knowing she is doing her part to support my father’s ministry and the work of the church.

Mom loves her family and enjoys seeing her children and grandchildren succeed. It gives her joy to know when we are doing well, and it breaks her heart to hear about our setbacks and sufferings. Her resistance to showing emotion also extends to conflict, and it can be difficult to know when she is upset. Restraint is part of her discipline, though her capacity for love and affection is strong. She doesn’t force physical affection, but in her older years she has grown bolder in insisting on hugs for greetings and goodbyes. She doesn’t hesitate to say “I love you” at the conclusion of our phone calls now, but our tradition growing up was not as showy about our emotions.

Like my mother, I crave structure and maintain a regimented schedule, even when on vacation. I rise at the same time every day, seven days a week, and begin my day with coffee, Bible reading, reflection and prayer. I exercise six days a week, track my calories on a smart phone app, and strive to be disciplined about my health, seeing my primary care physician for an annual physical, visiting the dentist twice annually and making regular eye appointments.

I, too, prefer to put other people’s needs and wants ahead of my own. It is rare that I have a preference about meals or where we eat out, and if someone wants to taste what’s on my plate, I have grown comfortable with sharing. I usually don’t mind being inconvenienced to benefit a friend or family member, and I routinely yield the right of way in traffic and play a supporting role in my relationships and career.

I don’t mind discomfort. Everyone has a breaking point, but I try to ignore or push through mild aches and pains without medication. I have worked to internalize one of the seven habits of highly effective people: seek first to understand before seeking to be understood. I prioritize listening over speaking, though my gregarious nature can overtake me at times.

My career in public relations demonstrates my deeply internalized “above reproach” philosophy, and I care about and understand how my words and actions are viewed by those around me. I am a preacher’s kid, and, like Mom, I have worked to not undermine my father’s leadership in our home or in our church.

I am not overly emotional, but I have learned to be more expressive with my affection. Hugs aren’t second nature to me, and I am conflict averse. I have my mother’s capacity for restraint, but it can slip when stress builds up.

In these and many more ways, I am like my mother. I am grateful for her and hope the world is better because she passed on the best of her qualities.

My mother’s voice

I can’t remember the last time I heard my mother sing.

I’m sure it was during a visit to my parents’ church before my dad retired, but that was four or five years ago now. I didn’t realize I missed hearing her sing until a clear childhood memory of Mom practicing a solo for our church’s presentation of Handel’s “Messiah” recently came back to me.

Sharon Wallace seated surrounded by her three sons and her husband
Mom and her boys, circa 2002

Mom always sang in the church choir. She played the piano in church on a fill-in basis when we moved to Florida in 1982, and for a time she was the full-time accompanist. But her strong soprano voice was needed most in the choir, and she often sang what our church called “Special Music” before the sermon. There were even occasions when Dad would spontaneously call on her to sing a particular solo he had in mind before he delivered his message. No rehearsal. No lead time. No preparation. No heads up. Just, “Sharon, would you come and sing ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness’” or some other hymn. She always sang beautifully from the heart.

From my birth in 1970 until 1982, my family attended the First Baptist Church of Richland Hills, Texas, located in the heart of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. In my memory, it was a large church, but in actuality, membership probably ran 200-300. Music was an important part of the church’s worship, and the choir director, Paul McPeek, was a stickler for well-rehearsed, traditional choral music. The choir rehearsed on Wednesday nights after prayer meeting, and when I outgrew the nursery, I sat in the auditorium while my parents participated in choir practice. At the time, sitting still through an hour-plus of rehearsal seemed arduous to me, but I managed to learn all of the great hymns of the faith, including Handel’s “Messiah” by osmosis.

Each Christmas season our church offered two special services, usually both on a Sunday night. One was the Christmas program featuring some re-enactment of the Christmas story that included us kids. The other was a cantata presented by the church choir. In my memory it was the “Messiah” every year, but they may have performed other works as well. I know they performed “Messiah” multiple times during my formative years between six and 12. “Messiah” is such a lengthy and challenging work for amateur choirs that rehearsal usually began during the summer. I remember how odd it felt to be in the sanctuary listening to Christmas music with the Texas heat soaring above 100 degrees outside.

My mother often sang one of the soprano arias “He Shall Feed His Flock Like a Shepherd” or the recitative, “Then Shall the Eyes of the Blind Be Opened.” This required extra practice on her part, both at church with an accompanist or at home with a tape. The sound of her practicing at home gave me great comfort and became part of the soundtrack of my childhood leading up to Christmas.

Mom grew up singing, taking voice lessons even into adulthood. She has a structured, classical style with vibrato that has always sounded sophisticated and operatic to me. Despite my father’s Spirit-led, impromptu requests for solos, Mom preferred rehearsal and a good warm up before singing in church. She confessed nerves on occasion, but those bouts of stage fright were rooted in a lack of preparation. If she was nervous, you could never tell it in her performance.

Like most small kids, I believed my mom to be amazing and infallible. She was the most beautiful, the best cook and clearly the best singer. To my ear, there was no better sound than her voice. Mom’s singing is an indelible part of my childhood. Listening to her at home and at church strengthened our bond in a profound way neither of us understood or appreciated fully at the time.

The last time I saw “Messiah” performed in its entirety was in the mid-1990s in Macon at The Grand Opera House by the Mercer University choir. They did a marvelous job, and the performance moved me. In the opening notes of “He Shall Feed His Flock Like a Shepherd,” I was surprised by tears welling in my eyes. The work, the performance, the atmosphere touched a memory that only now do I understand as maternal love.

Whether I ever have the opportunity to hear Mom sing formally again, I will count myself lucky to have had hours of sitting through rehearsals. Those experiences built a bank of memories of her voice which will sustain me for a lifetime.

Call your Mommer ‘n ’em

Mom, a.k.a. Sharon Wallace, showing off a prized photo.

As long as I can remember, my mother has been “Mom.”

I’m sure when I was just a babbling little baby she started out as “Mama.” There was probably even a “Mommy” phase that ended at about the age of 8.

It wasn’t until I got to college in Troy, Ala., that I routinely heard adults refer to their mother as “Mama” and for the first time heard the phrase “Mommer ‘n ‘em”. There were the “yo momma” jokes back in the 1980s, but otherwise, “Mama” or “Momma” weren’t appellations I encountered until after I left urban Texas and central Florida for the deep, traditional South.

Shakespeare wrote in “Romeo and Juliet” the famous line “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” but what do all the derivations of “mother” mean? In analyzing my own speech patterns, I think I did have different meanings behind each form.

For example, “Mom” was common, everyday usage. It was conversational, and in a lot of ways, for my two brothers and me, it was her name.

“Mommy” was employed when I faced life’s scariest moments, usually involving blood coming out of me somewhere.  It was used when there was great need or when I was just greatly needy. It could imply urgency, depending on the volume and pitch, but mostly it was just whiny. I’m sure Mom didn’t particularly enjoy it in either case.

“Mother” was too formal to ever be used. It just seemed too detached. There was no affection in it. I can’t remember a time I have ever called her “Mother” during a conversation that wasn’t an attempt at humor.

“Mama” just sounded so country, that for a city boy, even from Texas, it was out of character. I guess in my glossary, it means the same as “Mom” but with a more down-home, primitive feel. “Mama” sounds like a big hug to me.

Mama, a.k.a. Cynthia Barron, showing off prized artwork from her grandsons last Mother's Day.

Now that I have two mothers – the woman who gave birth to me and my mother-in-law – I have grown comfortable with adopting my wife’s name for her mother. It wasn’t even that big of an adjustment. “Mama” just rolled off my tongue. Maybe it’s because the name fits her so well or maybe it’s a throwback to my first vocalizations as a child.

In my case, I’m blessed to have a supportive and encouraging Mom, a compassionate and considerate Mama and a wife who is living into motherhood for our three boys in a beautiful and nurturing way. While they call her “Mom” sometimes, it seems that right now, she’s mostly “Mommy” or “Mama.” I wouldn’t dare call her any of the names for “mother.” I know plenty of husbands who do, particularly as they age together with their wives. I just don’t think my wife wants to be my mother.

So, on this special weekend dedicated to remembering the contributions and sacrifices of our mothers, it doesn’t really matter what you call her, just be sure to call her, especially on Sunday.

Happy Mother’s Day!