Today is my Mom’s birthday. She would have been 87 years young. She was born in Butte, Montana just a couple of years before the Great Depression and about 11 years before the start of World War II. Being Irish Catholic meant that she lived on “the wrong side of the tracks” in Butte but her Dad worked for the railroad and had a “good job” at the time and her two brothers and her lived in relative comfort in her early years.
My Mom never talked much, or perhaps I never listened, about her childhood until we travelled to Washington DC together when I was an adult in January of 1993. To my absolute delight as we wandered places like Arlington Cemetery and The Museum of American History she started quietly opening up and sharing pieces of her life before she became “Mom”. It was like being fed lifesavers when you are travelling in the car with no meals in sight; small, delicious bits just here and there to be savored and remembered. She showed me in the American History Museum her bike that she road all over town and disclosed how her mother used to caution her against “riding like a boy”. She admitted to sneaking out to follow her two older brothers and riding like a wild banshee down steep hills until the nosy neighbor lady reported her transgressions and her Dad took to locking the bike up in the shed. She pointed out the old-fashioned bristle hair soap brush and razor that her father used every morning when he was getting ready for work as an Engineer. She showed me a leather book bag that she said was identical to the one she lugged up and down the hill every day when she walked to the Catholic school and after some prodding admitted to being afraid of the kids from the public school who would throw rocks at her and call her names for being Irish Catholic.
At the Arlington Cemetery I became teary eyed watching her cry in front of Kennedy’s grave. She told me that his assassination was one of the worst days of her life. I thought about all that she had lived through; The Depression, watching her brothers go off to the war, moving with her widowed mother to Seattle during that war and raising seven children with a husband who had post-traumatic stress syndrome from fighting in the Philippines (something we did not ever know or label until well after his death), and care taking for my father who had multiple sclerosis, going back to school when she was in her forties to get a book-keeping certification so she could work and support the family as well as her daily battle with rheumatoid arthritis. Hearing that JFK’s assassination was still one of the most memorable hardships of her life was mind-boggling to me and I think I began to truly appreciate both history and our elected officials more at that very moment.
We continued through Arlington Cemetery where she proceeded to completely upend my world by telling me that her great-grandfather had been the personal Aide De Camp to General Robert E Lee during the Civil War. How had I known this woman my entire life and not known this? I had always heard the vague stories about predecessors coming from Ireland way back when, but apparently there was this whole other family history dangling tantalizingly out there that I had heard nothing about! We proceeded to look up his name in the register and drove out to the area of Arlington Cemetery where he was buried. It was one of the oddest days of my life and I made a mental note to follow-up on this information. I regret that we came back to Seattle and my life became busy with establishing a career and having a family and my piqued interest became overwhelmed by day-to-day life matters. I do not even remember this distant grandparent’s name. Do not ever think that you have all the time in the world because it is not true. My mom passed away five years later and I never had the chance to ask her all the questions which now have no one left to answer.
I’m not writing this to get misty eyed and regretful. I am writing this because my Mom, in her quiet and unobtrusive way, taught the seven of us so many lessons in the way she faced the world and today in honor of her birthday, I want to remind myself of them and give a toast to my Mom and her legacy of seven children, twenty-two grandchildren, and sixteen great-grandchildren. (Perhaps seventeen great-grandchildren by the time I publish this! More babies!) I am also a list person and I think that it would help me in times of angst, crisis, joy and laughter to remember these lessons; particularly when I am trying to parent my own tenacious young men.
What I Learned From My Mom.
#1. Be Kind. Mom was unerringly kind to everyone from nosy neighbors to the scraggly kids we dragged home from school to the paper boy. When she was in the hospital one time during an emergency I thanked the nurse for taking such good care of her. The nurse took my hand in hers, looked me in the eyes and said, “Your Mother is the sweetest patient I have ever had. It is my absolute pleasure.” I know plenty of nurses. They do not say this to all their patients children. So remember to be kind to everyone all the time. They may end up being your ER nurse.
#2. Listen. When I look back on how my mother dealt with my teenage histrionics (yes, I admit to one or two), my college age dramas, and my various siblings life crisis’s I remember not so much spoken advice as much as I recall that she listened with her full attention and respected everything one had to say. I am not sure she ever actually told us how to handle a problem as much as she let us talk until we came to our own conclusion. Whether or not she agreed with our ensuing actions she did not necessarily say, but you did inevitably know that she loved you irrevocably and would be around to pick up the pieces if your decision was boneheaded. (I will point out that my Dad was DEFINITELY not without opinion so my Mom got to hear everything. Maybe she was deaf from all those years of hearing the constant whining of seven children and could not even hear what we were saying but the impression was that she had all the time in the world to listen to not only we her children, but her friends, our friends and the lady walking past the house who stopped to chat.) The lesson? Put down your electronics, turn off the gadgets, look people in the eye and hear what they say. Most people simply want someone to hear them.
#3. Love dogs. Mom always had a dog. She even loved that nasty cocker spaniel they got after I went to college. I think perhaps dogs were the one living creature in the house who did not repeatedly ask her where things were. (Mom – where is my math book? Mom – where are my tennis shoes? Mom – where is dinner?) She did not like cats although my cats inevitably flocked to her whenever she came to my adult house. Cats did not impress her at all, but dogs teach you how to love unconditionally – which my mother was the supreme expert at. At her funeral people I had not seen in decades showed up to honor my Mom and told us that they had been stopping by to visit her for years because they knew her door would always be open to them. So be kind to the animals, this kindness will reflect on how you treat all the world’s inhabitants.
#4. Things are not important. Mom lived through the Great Depression as a teenager,
had a husband who was disabled and unable to work by the time she was 45 and coupon clipped for as long as I remember. Every summer we would pick bushels of apples from the Gravenstein apple tree in the back yard and thousands of coffee cans of blackberries from the woods up the street and she would patiently wash, slice and cook this free windfall from heaven for days on end and stockpile it into the chest freezer the size of a mac truck that was built into the back porch so that we could be fed
throughout the winter months. We did not have lots of “things” when we grew up, but we did have family dinners together every day, milkshakes or root beer floats on Sundays during Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom on TV, game nights around the giant dining room table and our favorite cake with her homemade buttercream frosting every birthday. My two children still refuse to eat any frosting that is not “Grandma’s buttercream frosting”. Let’s face it –when you think back on all your birthdays you will remember that you always indulged in Grandma’s buttercream frosting, but you won’t remember exactly which year you got the new iPhone which you dropped in the toilet a few months later. Memories are much better than things.
#6. Love Unconditionally. After all seven of us had become adults (at least legally, there is still some question as to whether all four of my brothers qualify for that status) it became harder for the entire clan to gather for Christmas. Being the unselfish person that my Mom was, she chose to pick a weekend date a week or two after December 25th so that none of her offspring would feel obligated to choose between in-laws, their own growing families or other complications on Christmas day. It worked beautifully and nearly every year all seven siblings, their spouses and significant others and offspring would converge en masse to eat, drink and be jolly. At one point we started renting a hall to accommodate the masses. My Mom would be positively luminous throughout the entire day. I often noticed her just gazing around in wonderment at the chaos as if amazed that she had unleashed so much energy upon the earth. At Family Christmas Calamity each grandchild was made to feel individually special through some specifically chosen small gift and she always would quietly ensure that no one felt awkward or left out. Whether you were family by blood, adoption or marriage, it made no difference whatsoever to my Mom. If one of us loved someone enough to introduce them to the Family Christmas Calamity, that was good enough for her and she welcomed them tranquilly and expected them to return. Sidebar – Bringing a significant other to the Family Christmas Calamity is not an easy thing. I held up photos for months in advance and quizzed my “Usually Lovely Husband Who Was Still Just A Boyfriend” until he could name the nuclear unit clearly and without hesitation. It was definitely a test. Just remembering the deluge of names is hard enough but there is also the pressure of showing up with the youngest sister and the pointed questioning disguised as convivial chat he had to endure from six protective older siblings. He got a little sweaty but he obviously passed. We still uphold the tradition of meeting en masse on a weekend after Christmas to laugh, eat, drink and be family. I have no doubt that my Mom still watches this unfold with joy and wonderment.
#7. Expectations are what you make them. My Mom was the girl who rode her bike at break neck speed all over Butte, Mt, tried out and made the boys hockey team because there wasn’t a girl’s hockey team and was the star of the girls’ basketball team in high school in an era where sports were not necessarily considered proper. She was one of the first women to enter the Pharmacy School at the University of Washington and studied for two years before she dropped out to marry my Dad. She reinvented herself in her forties and became a bookkeeper for a small company to support the family at a time when women were just really beginning to start pushing on the glass ceiling. Without question none of us have ever felt we need to live up to anyone’s expectations but our own. My siblings are a pretty amazing bunch and my Mom never had a doubt that success was ours to define and was always within reach.
#8. Education is important. Mom graduated from high school at age 17 and moved to Seattle to attend the University of Washington. Although she chose love over finishing a degree and instead supported my father while he finished his Bachelor’s Degree, she never stopped learning and never let us forget that school came first. She always had her nose in a book or a newspaper and taught us early on that the library was a place of great wonder. In our family the expectation was that one graduated from high school and immediately went to university. I did not even know there was a different path. My one brother who rebelled and went into the Air Force instead still gravitated back to college after serving and got a four-year degree. After I graduated from University, Mom hosted a brunch at a local restaurant and celebrated a “Seven out of Seven” party. I think that was one of the most proud moments of her life. She could not stop smiling all day. I often wonder what she would do with the wealth of information that is available in this day of electronic googling and fingertip knowledge. I can picture her on a computer following the daily Mariners happenings, reading up on American History and following Alex Trebeck’s blog all at the same time. (She LOVED Jeopardy and watched it nearly every night once she and Dad became empty nesters). The world is a big and interesting place. Don’t stop discovering it.
#9. Everybody is Equal. Perhaps it was because she came from a childhood where she bore the burden of prejudice, perhaps it was because she was just a kind person, but there was no discrimination around my mother. When I travelled off to college I was absolutely stunned to learn that women were not paid equally or given the same opportunities. Glass ceiling? What kind of bull shit was that? At our house males and females alike had chores that were non gender biased. We each washed dishes, pulled weeds, mowed lawns, dusted furniture and helped with meals. Jobs needed to be done and there was a zero tolerance policy for slackers. Obviously this lesson has stuck with us because all my brothers married independently minded women themselves and there are now three generations of females who are perfectly capable of kicking some ass when provoked. Mom could care less about skin color, sexual orientation or where you came from. Her one weakness was a tendency to want all of us to marry a Catholic. Sorry about that Mom. Striking out six out of seven times was a bit of a disappointment I know; however, she universally loved everyone we ended up marrying. She admitted to me once years after the fact that she actually couldn’t stand my college boyfriend. I was shocked. In hindsight I wish she would have informed me of that during the relationship, it would have spared me some wasted tears. She had unerringly good judgement when it came to people but she was also a firm believer in letting you learn your own hard knock lessons. I hope I can be as calm if my prodigies ever date someone I know is completely wrong for them. Sidebar – my mother adored my U.L.H. and God forbid I ever randomly complained about him in casual conversation with her. She would quietly listen and then give me “THAT LOOK.” I withered every time. I swear he must have been slipping her chocolate.
These are just a few of the lessons my mom bestowed upon me. I am sure that each of my siblings could come up with their own list about my mom and each of you could come up with a list about your Mom. If you stop and think about it, the lessons from our moms are generally subtle. Their voices still pop up in our heads when we least expect it and most need it. We grow up thinking we are full of fresh ideas and our own kick ass independence, yet really – these are likely seeds that have been planted one way or another by a mom in your life. It may not be your biological mom’s voice that you hear, but my guess is that there is an unobtrusive mom type influence that echoes in your conscience and guides how you operate within our world. Your challenge is to decide whether to listen to that voice or not.
When my mom died, my sister was lamenting that she would never be able to talk to her again. My niece, wise beyond her years at age sixteen, looked up and said, “Yes you can. You just have to listen harder for her reply.”
I’m still talking to you Mom. Thanks for listening all these years.