She gave birth to sixteen children in nineteen years – a formidable feat for any woman hoping to create a large family. Even though in more recent history Mother’s Day dates back to the 1600’s, I doubt this mother had much time for celebrating in 1737. She gave birth to her first child when she was just 20 years of age with an entire Habsburg Empire cheering her on.
As the daughter of Emperor Charles VI and Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, Maria Theresa Walburga Amalia Christina wed Franz Stephan of Lorraine to save the Habsburg royal family. The couple were in love, which was unusual since royal marriages were forged to preserve or expand political alliances and royal bloodlines. However, Maria Theresa was anything but usual.
Maria Theresa was the only woman to ever rule the Habsburg dominions and reigned as empress for 40 years. It was assumed her husband would take the lead as King, but this 2017 commemorates the 300th anniversary of Maria Theresa’s birth and Vienna is throwing a party in honor of her unexpectant and successful rule. Life as an empress and mother of a large personal family was certainly more demanding than anything most women will ever experience.
My tenure as mother is much less dramatic, serving as referee to children squabbling over toys and teenage girls navigating dating, clothes and growing up. My family dynasty never needed to mount a defense against German cousins and allied French and Bavarian troops. When Prussian King Frederick the Great challenged Maria Theresa’s reign after her father’s sudden death in 1740, she endured eight years of war to preserve her Austrian Succession.
Unlike Maria Theresa who centralized her government while ushering in administrative and civil reforms for Austrian and her Bohemian lands in 1750, my biggest legislative feats were fortifying family values and ensuring my children understood compassion, justice and kindness. My ability to change diapers with lightening speed in tight spaces while juggling loads of laundry, grading English papers and cooking dinner in a crunch hardly compares. But, like Maria Theresa, I dreamed of a better life for my children, hoping they would grow to be healthy and enjoy the riches of faith, purpose and love. These territories are common terrain for all mothers.
Like Maria Theresa’s marriage to Franz Stephan, I too am blessed with a happy marriage and anticipate the joys of grandchildren. I have felt the grief of losing a child but this pales in comparison to Maria Theresa; ten of Maria’s sixteen children survived into adulthood but she lost three children (two daughters and a son to smallpox) and another two daughters during childbirth. The death of a fifth daughter who passed away in infancy was devastating as was the sudden death of her husband in 1765. After his passing, Maria Theresa spent the remainder of her life in mourning and dedicated to fulfilling her royal duties.
Like all families, Maria Theresa experienced the joys of motherhood and tumultuous challenges in life. Of the ten children who survived her, Maria’s eldest son Joseph became the Crown Prince and next Emperor. Several daughters went on to rule or marry Dukes, but the most famous of Maria’s daughters, Marie Antoinette, became Queen of France before meeting the guillotine during the French Revolution. Maria Theresa died three years before Marie Antoinette met her fate in 1783, but many mothers share similar though less grandiose struggles. Motherhood is a very personal path for every woman that transcends time because we influence our children in more ways than we could ever know; whether or not we outlive them, or maintain a constant or happy relationship with them.
I was reminded of this profound influence before I traveled to Vienna and retraced the history of Maria Theresa’s life. Whether it was traversing the same cobbled streets, adoring the city’s monuments to her, sailing down the spectacular Danube River or visiting the summer Schönbrunn Palace where Maria Theresa loved to be, I tried to imagine how my life intersected with hers.
Last fall, I spent 10 minutes with an airline agent who reminded me of a mother’s influencewhen she processed my youngest daughter ‘s airline bag. My daughter had spent the weekend with me in Toronto; a stay that was two parts Toronto Maple Leafs (attending the hockey game with my husband and middle daughter), and one part obligatory hello to mom.
We were at Toronto’s Island Airport, Billy Bishop Airport, and I struck up a casual conversation with the airline agent at the ticket counter as Kelley checked a bag for her trip back home to Chicago.
A smiling, freckled faced agent was so casually dressed that I looked over at the agent beside her to see if this was a typical uniform. The relaxed Canadian demeanor and sharp wit were something we were used to, having grown up in Toronto, but the very personal story she shared about her mother surprised us.
“So, are you both flying to Chicago?” she asked.
I responded, “No, it’s just my daughter, Kelley. She’s anxious to get back home.”
The agent took her time tagging the bag as Kelley tapped her foot.
“What is so important back home?”
“She misses her dog Timmy, and of course, there’s the boyfriend who’s been all alone while she’s been away.” I think I shuffled my feet too, sensing Kelley’s impatience and her “here goes my mother babbling on with every stranger she meets” look.
The agent grinned, tilting her head sideways for a moment before turning to put Kelley’s bag on the conveyor belt behind her. She stopped to check the label and left the bag balanced on the metal edge preventing it from moving along as she replied,
“They can wait, don’t you think? Wouldn’t you rather be with your mom?”
Kelley rolled her eyes laughing politely, “Yes but I’m on school break. It’ll be good to get home.”
“But won’t you miss your mom?”
Kelley tapped my shoulder with hers, the way she does when she’s teasing me into buying her something she really wants.
“Oh, my mom’s a world traveler so I’m used to missing her.”
“But you just never know. Take it from me,” she said still smiling, “Spend as much time as you can with her. My mom was my best friend and not a day goes by that I don’t ask for her advice. I’ve made peace with her leaving me but we still go shopping every Saturday.”
I could read the light go on in Kelley’s face, “What the heck? How could she go shopping every Saturday still? Impossible.”
The agent’s profound connection to her mother was the stuff great love stories … the rare bond of love between a mother and a daughter.
I never did learn the agent’s name so let’s call her Lily; a flower symbolizing devotion. Lily told us she was an only child and that every Saturday, from the time she was 5 years old until the week her mother passed away, Lily and her mother went shopping. Shopping was their thing even when Lily’s mother had to travel for her work. If they were separated on a Saturday, her mother snap a picture of herself next to a landmark so Lily knew she was thinking of her. She always promised they’d have a chance to go back there to shop when Lily was old enough.
Lily grew up cherishing their real and future shopping adventures. Pictures of her mom standing by the Eiffel Tower or next to the London Bridge were part of a mother-daughter tradition to explore and enjoy the world. Saturdays were special and Lily never felt lonely.
But they never had the chance to travel to many of these places before Lily’s mother passed away. We didn’t learn how she died but Lily said she is still very much alive. Lily honors her mother’s memory by shopping every Saturday and Lily even traveled to all of the places her mother had been so she could take the same photos of herself in the same spot where her mother once stood.
Lily has amassed an entire shoebox of pictures celebrating her mother’s legacy, which has taken her round the world from Las Vegas to Rome. So I couldn’t resist asking her if she felt her mom’s presence when she took all of these pictures.”
“My mother still sends me signs so I know she’s with me,” Lily said. “Crazy thing is she was all about feathers, and I can’t begin to tell you about the number of truly incredible incidents I’ve had with birds and feathers flying down out of nowhere. I know she’s watching over me.”
Lily’s smile stretched over the counter and past the career that likely took her taken on this quest for peace. Kelley and I stood for a moment, transfixed. As a mother, I wondered if I could ever inspire this kind of love and passion. Lily’s story was generous and flew in the face of rational logic like a prayer lifted up to the heavens. It hung in the air long enough for me to add my own.
I pray for all mothers everywhere, and for all the daughters who will someday be mothers. I celebrate my mother and mother-in-law because they grace this good earth with their unconditional love, strength and selflessness. I promise to slow down and savor the gift of motherhood, never taking it for granted and making an effort to be a better mother with each passing year. And I bow in respect for all mothers, whose journey may be as great as the adventures of Maria Theresa or as humble as the one that I enjoy. As mothers we move mountains with the promise of our children’s happiness and, for this, I am eternally blessed.