Almost everyone knows the words by heart: “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.” While some believe Mother Mary refers to the Virgin Mary, Paul McCartney has clarified several times in interviews, that the song was inspired by his mother, Mary McCartney, a midwife, who passed away when Paul was only 14. Paul described his mother’s tremendous work ethic: “She was very hardworking, my mum,” Sir Paul recalled in an interview a few years ago. “She wanted the best for us. We weren’t a well-off family – we didn’t have a car, we just about had a television – so both my parents went out to work. At night when mum came home she would cook so we didn’t have a lot of time with each other but she was just a very comforting presence in my life.” He recalls how she would cycle to work at three in the morning when the streets of Liverpool were covered in snow.
Mary was diagnosed with breast cancer at 47. The day before she was scheduled for surgery, Mary had cleaned their modest home from top to bottom, and laid out the boys’ school clothes so that they would be ready for the next morning. She confided to her sister-in-law, “Now everything’s ready for them is case I don’t come back.” And sadly, she didn’t. During the operation, she suffered an embolism and died. It was a huge shock to Paul, his younger brother Mike, and his father, Jim, a cotton salesman and a self-taught pianist. Even harder than losing his mother, was witnessing his father’s profound grief: “That was the worst thing for me, hearing my dad cry. You grow up real quick, because you never expect to hear your parents crying. It shakes your faith in everything. But I was determined not to let it affect me. I carried on. I learnt to put a shell around me.”
Paul found comfort in two things: his music and his deep friendship with John Lennon, who had also lost his mother at a young age (John’s mother died when he was 17). This shared loss was a profound bond between them. Over the years, they would be sitting around and recall their mothers and feel the pain of that loss; Paul shared that “we’d have a cry together.”
Fast forward to 1968. The Beatles were an international success and sensation; but their different visions for their music and bitter arguments foreshadowed the inevitable break up of one of the most popular bands in history. It was during these turbulent times, that Mary reached out to her son in a dream; Paul explained: “One night, somewhere between deep sleep and insomnia, I had the most comforting dream about my mother. There was her face, completely clear, particularly her eyes, and she said to me very gently, very reassuringly: ‘Let it be.’ It was lovely. I woke up with a great feeling. It was really like she had visited me at this very difficult point and gave me this message: Be gentle, don’t fight things, just try to go with the flow and it will all work out…. So being a musician I went to the piano and started writing a song: ‘When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.’ The song, released in 1970, quickly climbed the music charts, becoming one of the band’s greatest hits — and their last one, as a band.
In a recent interview, Paul reflected on the personal and universal meaning of the song: “So those words are really very special to me because not only did my mum come to me in a dream and reassure me with them at a very difficult time but also, in putting them into a song and recording it with the Beatles, it became a comforting, healing statement for other people too.”
Today, Bookshelf honors all the mothers who have stood calmly and resolutely during their children’s times of trouble — when they lost their way — and whispered comforting, healing words of wisdom so they can sail on through life’s tempest-tossed seas.
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