To the Lighthouse

My favorite book about a mother is To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf. I read it for the first time only recently. I couldn’t believe how powerful it was.

I have had friends who loved To the Lighthouse. They usually admired the character of Lily Briscoe, an artist and independent woman who seems to stand in for Woolf herself in some ways. In the book, Briscoe visits a British family, the Ramsays, at their vacation home on a Scottish island before World War I.

To the Lighthouse

Incredibly, to me now, anyway, my friends never talked about Mrs. Ramsay. I guess I can understand why they didn’t. Lily Briscoe was what we wanted to be at the time, serious women devoted to our art. Or at least that’s what we thought.

Mrs. Ramsay. Woolf doesn’t even give her a first name. Mrs. Ramsay is married to a celebrated intellectual who has come to Scotland with his favorite students. While he marches up and down the beach spouting great thoughts and obsessing about whether his work will live on after him, she is thinking about all the people in her home, her children and guests, and how she might make them happy.

Using the stuff of ordinary life, Mrs. Ramsay pulls off one magical evening in particular, even in spite of a number of glitches, that will stay with all of them for the rest of their lives, tying them with emotion and memories to that time and place.

I don’t want to trivialize a literary masterpiece, but that is what mothers do. Woolf is making that point, of course, that this woman who is almost part of the furniture to the people around her creates the moments that make their lives worth living.

I’m starting to think about Mother’s Day, and I hope you are, too, especially if your mother is still alive. Make that dinner reservation. Plan to give your mother something that will make her happy — flowers, a card, a phone call, a big kiss, or maybe a copy of To the Lighthouse.

Whatever your relationship with your mother, she is the only one you have.