Mother to Mother

Having sent five sons to war, God opened the window to heaven for this mother.

“Honor your Father and Mother that your days will be long upon the earth.” It’s the seventh commandment, and the only one with a promise. It came to mind as I thought about my Siti, the Arabic word for grandmother. My Lebanese Siti, Anna Simon Cantees, had eight children, six sons and two daughters. The only time I remember seeing her without an apron on was when she was in church.

Mostly, she was in the kitchen, stirring, stuffing, sautéing. Always serving, always making sure linens and shirts were clean. No easy task, with three children still living at home and fifteen grandchildren running in and out of the house.

My grandfather, Jido, George Cantees, immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s, most likely for opportunity and religious freedom, from what was then Syria, and is Lebanon today. He soon sent for Siti, his wife, and their firstborn son, Sam. In the old country, they were Christians in a Muslim land, well-to-do and esteemed, but leaving meant they would leave all but their faith behind.

In America their family grew, from one son born in Lebanon, to five more sons and two daughters born in Williamson, West Virginia, where they eventually settled. Respect for parents was instilled in the Cantees clan from an early age. When Siti, or especially Jido, spoke, their children minded. Another thing my grandparents instilled was love for America. They relished the peace and freedom of their new country and of the promises it held.

However, as the years passed, September, 1939, was upon them. Newspaper headlines echoed chaos in Germany and other European countries. With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, five of their six sons enlisted and served overseas during World War II—Sam, Harry, Kamal, Johnny, and the youngest, Cullen, my father, only seventeen years old. He is shown with Siti and Jido above.

Siti was distraught, more than half her children opposed an enemy fortified to fight the world. Slight of stature with waist-length hair styled in a bun, she seemed less matriarch and more mother, cooking grand Lebanese meals and keeping the remaining family intact.

She prayed daily for her sons.  One snowy afternoon, meditating on her porch, a glorious apparition appeared.  As the story was told, Siti kneeled and bowed her head, humbling herself, ignoring the cold, in anticipation of the answer she had prayed for. The holy mother of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, was her caller. “Don’t be afraid,” Mary had said, “All your sons will survive the war.” The prophecy was truth.  In what was surely a miracle, all five sons survived without a serious injury.

It was a story I heard often growing up. Thinking of it today, I wonder how Siti must have felt with five sons at war. She was proud of them, of course. They had volunteered because of the love she and Jido nurtured–love of family and country. But now that love could easily turn to heartbreak.

I think of another mother’s love, the Virgin Mary. Her son, Jesus, was obedient, not only to His heavenly Father, but to His earthly mother. When Mary instructed Him to turn water into wine at a banquet, before He felt His time had come, He respectfully obeyed, honoring the seventh commandment and his mother.

Jesus Christ was a rabbi, a nurturer, a healer, and a heavenly king. and remarkably, in His human incarnation, our Creator began his ministry on a prompt from his mother, the Virgin Mary.

Mary certainly understood a mother’s heartbreak. Three years after that first miracle, Jesus’ death looked like history’s darkest moment as she sobbed at the foot of the cross. And, so, who better for a merciful God to send to make Siti this coveted promise?

Today, more sightings have been made of the Virgin Mary than any other heavenly being. Why? Perhaps because our heavenly Father knows who needs to see the vision of a mother.

Siti was one of the blessed who saw her. One mother comforting another.