Like the child in the painting, my children had no idea how their mother struggled to keep them aloft. Perhaps my sister had noticed this in them, too. Why forgo the funds and endure the hassle to raise them to new heights when my children would be content on the ground? Why not provide them with a bare-bones version of what they needed and spend the rest of my energies on myself?
Now seated at the dining room table where I could better study the image, I propped my face in both fists and mentally smiled at my sister for asking such questions. As I watched the flight of this mother-child pair, I thought of how my sister — or any outsider — couldn’t know about motherhood until she experienced it herself. I didn’t think that my sister could know that the ignorance I saw in the child’s face could also be innocence.
In humility, he let his mother pull him — just as my children let me — proving him everything King Benjamin required: “submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, and willing to submit to all things which (his mother saw) fit to inflict upon him” (Mosiah 3:19).
In devoting my days and nights to my children — the sort of individuals the Savior had said made up the kingdom of heaven — I might teach them all that I knew, but they would teach me many, much more important lessons through their childlike nature. We would lift each other.
Considering the symbiotic relationship between this mother and child, I found the use of the plural “these” in Blake’s title to be profound: "Teach These Souls to Fly." It would be impossible to convey to my sister all the flying I did as a mother.
I could mention that I had taught my daughter to read, but my sister couldn’t know how it made my own soul soar to see the wonder in my daughter’s face when she read her first book. My sister could marvel to hear my 3-year-old identify a particular waltz on the radio, but she couldn’t experience the earlier lift of listening to Strauss for hours with that little one. Until she turned back to teach a child she loved to fly, my sister couldn’t know the profound joy I felt to hear my children lovingly and patiently teaching one another.
The interesting thing about this painting was that it wasn’t particularly beautiful or technically impressive. Still, the longer I looked at it, the more the mother in me responded to it. As I watched the young child in the painting, I felt with a sense of urgency that he had entered a fallen world, and, but for the guiding hand of his mother, he would sink into the blacks and reds toward the bottom of the painting.
The protective shield of light and truth his mother provided for him — a safe haven from the world around them — relieved me. I felt a kinship with her efforts to guide her child into the airy blue expanses that this world also extends.
This powerful woman reminded me of the counsel from Elder M. Russell Ballard of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve: “As mothers in Israel, you are your (children’s) first line of defense against the wiles of the world" (see "Mothers and Daughters," Ensign, May 2010).
I couldn’t provide my children better protection against darkness than to teach their souls to fly above it, to teach them to rise above the middling, the tawdry, the base and follow me into the beautiful, the exalting the holy. Satan ensures that the reds and blacks always will be there. In her position as her child’s first defense, the mother must identify the blues and yellows, and she must teach a child how to fly to them. “Teach These Souls to fly”— the sacred duty entrusted to mothers, a sacred opportunity afforded to women.
I finally laid down the book with a feeling of reverent awe. “Who wouldn’t want to be a mom?” I wondered. A career in motherhood had its elements of drudgery, but so did any other. What other career could claim as its end product the elevation of a human soul? Not just the enlightening of a mind or the development of a body, but the improvement of every aspect of a vibrant child of God? I, at least, wanted to be a mother because I believed, with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints President Harold B. Lee, that the most important work I would ever do would be within the walls of my own home.
I chose to be a mother because I wanted to teach souls to fly.
Lia Suttner Collings is a Brigham Young University graduate. During her undergraduate years, she worked as a researcher on the Joseph Smith Papers Project. She and her husband, Justin, live in New Haven, Conn., with their three daughters.
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