Memory is like a pile of mosaic pieces, tiny tesserae: thousands of fragments, millions maybe, and you can only choose a few to create your image. Mamma named me after her beloved mother, I could tell you. She read aloud to me in the afternoons, sat beside the bed folding toys out of newspaper pages when I was sick, and always made my birthday the best day of the year. Mamma loved me very much.
Or this: By the time I was three, Mamma had wrecked her vocal cords screaming at me. When I was five, they tied her to the bed because she thought she could fly. She never let me have a friend over, ever. And in my early teens, she kept me up at night sometimes, threatening to kill herself, expecting me to talk her down.
It’s hard to know which image is the true one.
The Fragments that Make a Family
Other families seem so much easier to categorize: the neighbors I hear yelling at each other all summer long through their open windows. The couple that strolls together hand in hand every evening. It’s the difference, I know, between seeing their family from the outside and my own from the inside. But even families in the Bible, the ones we see from the inside, have always seemed as tidy and two-dimensional as an opus tessellatum, a mosaic in which the tesserae—the small tiles that make the mosaic—run in symmetrical rows or columns. I’m realizing, though, that these ancient families aren’t as simple as I imagined.
Take Abraham and Sarah’s family: they’re wildly dysfunctional, some of the most deceptive and manipulative people you’d ever want to not meet. Abraham passes Sarah off as his sister, first to Pharaoh, and later to the king of Gerar. Incredibly, their son Isaac runs the same con a generation later, with his wife, Rebekah, on the current king of Gerar. Rebekah and Jacob trick Isaac into blessing Jacob instead of Esau, and on and on it goes. Laban deceives Jacob, Jacob deceives Laban, Rachel deceives Laban . . . eighteen breathtaking, heartbreaking lies told across four generations, culminating in Joseph’s deception of his brothers.
But this summer I noticed something else about this family of congenital grifters. Despite being cheated by him repeatedly, Jacob stuck with his father-in-law for over twenty long years. Nobody would have blamed him if he’d taken his promised bride and left after Laban very publicly conned him out of this woman he loved and had waited years for. Or after the first time Laban lowered his wages. Or after the fifth time. But Jacob continued to live in relationship with this difficult old man, through one humiliation after another, for twenty years. He only left when God told him to return home.
Where, I wondered, had Jacob gotten the idea of patient endurance in the face of mistreatment? Leafing back through Genesis looking for clues, I almost missed the three brief chapters devoted to his father. Isaac seems almost a nonentity in the biblical account, a faintly-limned place-marker between the action-filled lives of his father and his son, famous primarily for narrowly—and passively—escaping death by sacrifice. But he did something else as well, and Jacob watched him do it.
First, Isaac re-dug a well that had belonged to his father, Abraham, only to have his neighbors claim the water rights. Digging a well is an expensive undertaking in the semi-rainforested Pacific Northwest where I live. Surely it was at least as expensive in the ancient Near East: an arid region, a labor-intensive era. And Isaac was the most powerful man in the area, so powerful that the local king was nervously making covenants directly with him, a private citizen. Isaac could have fought for his water rights. Instead, he ceded the water and re-dug another of Abraham’s old closed-up wells. When his neighbors claimed it too, he again ceded it, moved his entire household to a new location, and dug a third well.
Isaac, too, was a peacemaker—perhaps because he, in turn, had watched his father, Abraham, cede a huge land claim, to the entire and very fertile Jordan Valley, to a younger relative. Although Abraham was the older man and entitled by the mores of the culture to take the best for himself, he had given his nephew, Lot, first choice, and settled in the dry hill country.
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob: they were reflexively dishonest, and they were peacemakers who mirrored the coming kingdom, continuing to work on difficult relationships they had reason to sever. And Jacob, in turn, passed the peacemaking on to his son Joseph. Don’t be grieved, or angry with yourselves, Joseph told his brothers, who had sold him into slavery as a teen. God sent me before you to preserve life. And years later, when their father died and the brothers again feared retribution, he spoke to their heart, the Bible says, and comforted them: Don’t be afraid, he said. I will provide for you and your little ones. And he did.
Forsaking a Singular Experience
I crave an either/or life story, an uncomplicated narrative that illustrates a single point. I sort through the pieces of my past wanting to fashion a single uncluttered image, regularly-shaped pieces in neat rows, with no rough edges: “My Mother.” But the Bible is often both/and, showing important things from multiple, and sometimes contradictory, perspectives: two creation accounts, two angles on the truth in a psalmic couplet, two genealogies of Jesus, four gospel accounts. And why should I expect singularity, after all, if the irreducible deep core of the universe is not one person but three, who are somehow one? How could my story be anything besides an opus palladium—a “crazy paving” of irregularly shaped pieces placed asymmetrically—when we’re all broken, and we’re all image-bearers?
My picture of Mamma is becoming less Andrew Wyeth, more Picasso: Mamma held me on her lap once when I was sad, and she swung at me when she was angry. Sometimes she was scary and hurtful; sometimes, despite her chronic pain, she showed creative and unconditional love to a daughter very unlike her. Sometimes the truth is made of a thousand tiny pieces.
Cover image by Alice Mîndru.