Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés

The Mother Ship: When A Good Mother Dies

In elegies/ obituaries, The Good Souls, Uncategorized on May 8, 2010 at 6:15 PM

I think sometimes this day, called Mother’s Day is all the more poignant for those of us who never had a mother or who had a good mother, a good-enough mother, who is no longer with us in the flesh, but certainly in spirit.

For those whose good mothers have died…

…for those who were lucky enough to have had what I call, “a beautiful, imperfectly-perfect mother,” but one who too early passed from this world, especially hard when she has been the ground note for her sons and daughters.

Some of us did not have a mother we can remember without fear, but even that doesn’t keep us from recognizing that special bond between many mothers and their children wherever we see it– and blessing that such bounty came to pass for them.

This is just meant to place a hand on the shoulders of those who might miss their mothers, just to take a moment to say, even though your mom is gone or leave-taking in some way, there was and is presence of her still. As long as you are here, she is here.

In some good way, she is here.

Not physically, and I know too, like you, how deeply we humans can be made completely undone by the loss of the physical person to embrace, hear, sit next to, smell, touch, laugh with, argue with, listen to, ask questions of, and love, just love.

Yet, in some way, if one looks and listens, the loved one is near. I tell my children about those they have lost, look for the signs. There will be signs. The souls will let you know. Love is not severed by death. Grow more astute to read the signs.

One of my dear friends just buried her mother, and another dear friend’s mother is ‘disappearing’ from Alzheimer’s— there are many other ways to lose one’s mother… including long-standing estrangement for good reasons, or sometimes foolish reasons, sometimes just a long mismatch or misunderstanding.

Nonetheless, even though you and I don’t know one another face-to-face, even though I write for The Moderate Voice– in the main a political and cultural blog– and The national Catholic Reporter, a religion and news blog, and here at AfterMidnight Writer, I think this comes under ‘culture’ and ‘politics’… culture, because of what in Spanish we call, cultura cura.

Cultura cura means the culture carries cures that help, all the way from a tiny bit, to a great amount… if we will dare to bring them, apply them, speak them. I find speaking about inestimable love bonds is also writing about politics, for isn’t it a dearth of sustaining mercy and love, and alternately, the application of mercy and love– that seem to make some notable difference between going to war, versus walking under the banner, “Live and let live?”

Thus, many of us who are living mothers and grandmothers (and fathers and grandfathers, and just plain souls who scan the world with prayer every day)… we are thinking of you today, the sons and daughters whose mothers have sailed…

This then… just as a blessing on your head this day

When I say, ‘My mother has died’,
I mean my ‘most beloved’.
Leave me to myself now,
for I am a ship who’s
lost her riggings;
come unmoored.

My mother has died;
She has earned her rest now,
waiting only, and proudly so,
for her sails
to be taken down.

I, the daughter,
see to the mending of my mother’s sails;
I seek her
worn and broken
threads of light,
reweaving her dazzling linen.

And though there be broken threads
not able to be rewoven,
I will gently pull the edges together
and stitch one side to the other…
and if not able to be mended,
then I will patch with parts
from my own most earnest life
over the places where my mother’s life
was worn through,
. . . or never was.

Over time, the sails of the mothership
will be fitted to the daughtership;
raised up on the mainsail,
and the final touch –
the red ragged flag – hers –
will be flying topmast of my ship.

I’ll be let down into the waters then,
I, the daughter, will glide again…
but this time, under the best sails
inherited from my mother…
and all the mothers of the motherlines
before her.

Ay, Mother, let me tell you
my treasured dearie-dear,
one last thing I have learned
from your spirit passing through me
as sparkling shadow passes
through darkening shadow,
on this open night-sea journey…

I am learning to navigate
by the mysteries of the farthest stars –
the ones that the great wake of your passing
has revealed to me
for the very first time.

“When A Good Mother Sails From This World,” is an excerpt from a libretto called woman.life.song commissioned by Jessye Norman, played by the New York Symphony Orchestra and sung by selfsame great mezzo-soprano Miss Norman; musical score by Judith Weir, British composer. The libretto was written by what some have since called, Las Tres Lobas: Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Clarissa Pinkola Estés.

We each wrote a part. I wrote about loss of the good mother. And, I wrote about the first time a girl gets her breasts. Dr. Angelou wrote about the elder years. (Imagine her huge booming voice). Dr. Morrison wrote about coming of age about first love. (Imagine such a sweet voice talking about first broken heart).

Together, we debuted woman.life.song in music, song and spoken word performance at Carnegie Hall in 2000. The libretto with “When A Good Mother Sails From This World” and “Breasts!!” and all else, was performed at London’s Prince Albert Hall, and at the Salzburg Festival. The full libretto is licensed and performed by various orchestras, singers, and poets worldwide. It has an agent music company, but I can’t recall the name at the moment. I’ll try to look it up later.

What was not publicized about the performances, was that during rehearsals, when the members of the orchestra and stage hands came to “When A Good Mother Sails From This World,” the violinists, percussionists, horn players, wept while they played. The mother, despite all caricatures to the contrary, is root stock and water for many hearts.

WHEN A GOOD MOTHER SAILS FROM THIS WORLD (excerpt/ rev.) © 1980, 2000, 2007, C.P. Estés, Ph.D., All Rights Reserved, is printed here at TMV, under Creative Commons License. This fulfills agreement with music licensing company.

The detail excerpted in the above image, is from a painting, “Mending the Sails,” by the master, Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, a Spanish painter of the 19th century who, I think, must have painted with a brush made of light. He and his sister, a year younger than he, lost both their parents when Sorolla was two years old. Their parents sickened and died, it is believed, from cholera. Sorolla had a great compassion for human beings, and his portraits are bold and empathic at the same time, more than just a trope on image alone.

  1. I am putting together an anthology of writings by women who have been involved in care giving for a mother or father. This poem beautifully captures the love we feel for the one who mothered us. I would love to include a portion of this poem in the beginning of the anthology and want to thank you for giving us the perfect title: Threads of Light. I am wondering how to get permission to use a part (or all) of this poem. Thank you so much for your writing and inspiration.

  2. On this morning 26 years ago at the age of 42, my good mother set sail. I was 15 and one of six children. I came across your poem a few weeks back and like all your soul writings it moved me and moved within me deeply. You give words so beautifully to what my tender heart cannot. I hope one day to be able to perform your beautiful words. After so many years of crying out for my mothers presence I feel I am slowly beginning to trust she is still here. Yes, as I cook a meal for my family, as I listen deeply to anothers story, as I move through the world with as much grace and love as I can. With heartfelt thanks for your words and wisdom.


  3. My mother passed to the next life just a year and a half ago. Since then, due to some family struggles, I was imagining myself channeling her as I took the place of the matriarch in the family…leading, loving, and nurturing the extended family through difficult times. Your poem has put words to my experience inthe most comforting and empowering way. Thank you for sharing this gift.

  4. “In some good way, she is here”

    I am deeply grateful that in so many good ways, you are here.


  5. Thankyou dear Dr E, my forest enclave sister, my ‘little mother’, my wise and treasured teacher and learning partner….

    This is lovely…as you know maybe from DOW I lost my Mum to a brain tumour in 2006 when she was just 53. Imperfectly perfect and all that she was …shadow and light….she was my Mutti…

    lots of love, Roni x

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