Writing an accolade to honor my mom was far more challenging than I expected. A Mother’s Day tribute should be sweet and easy, a nice change from the usual post, I thought. Not so. I’m late with it because I labored more over this blog than most. Why? Because I want this to be worthy of this extraordinary woman, my mother.
I talked with Mom early Sunday morning. We have reached that wonderful stage in the mother-daughter relationship of being exceptional friends. I enjoy her company. Trips home to see my parents are too rare, highly anticipated, and never long enough. Mom and I can talk endlessly over a cup (or many cups) of coffee about anything, from life-changing world events to making baby quilts for the next addition to our growing family. It wasn’t always that way.
Mom was born in Des Plaines, IL. Her first year of life was touch and go as she had one major surgery after another. The hospital stay and her recovery were lengthy, but she survived and came home to two older brothers. Two sisters and one more brother joined the family in the ensuing years. The family traveled a lot, following Grandpa (her dad) from job to job. The Depression years were rough, but through it Mom learned from her parents how to make ends meet. Mom worked her way through college using her sewing skills. (My grandparents made a down payment on her first sewing machine in college, then told Mom if she wanted it bad enough, she would have to figure out how to make the monthly installments. She did…on both counts!) While in college, she met my dad. Dad was a member of the Harley Davidson club at LA Tech, and had a crush on Mom. Mom wouldn’t date him, however, unless he went to church with her. The rest is history.
Married in 1951, twins in 1952, and two more children in short order, Mom was (and is) one of those women who could handle anything. She raised babies while working in the local hospital (lab technician) to put Dad through seminary (Duke Divinity School.) Their early lives were financially lean, but rich in spirit, friendships, passions and love. After Dad’s graduation, we returned to Louisiana and small, culturally rich, southern towns. Mom continued to work and nurture the family.
My most memorable recollections about our Louisiana years revolve around family camping. Mom and Dad wanted to take vacations, however the cost of motels and travel was rather prohibitive for a family of six on a country preacher’s salary. Camping was the solution! The first two or three years, we camped in a little baker tent. We had great fun from the get-go. We saw this country from coast to coast through camping…but not in the baker tent. Mom and Dad decided to construct a teepee modeled after a traditional Sioux teepee. Don’t ask me where they got the notion…this was before “hippie” was cool. Mom ordered yards and yards of nylon material, and Dad felled dozens of Louisiana Pine trees on his father’s cotton farm. We kids had the joy of helping them construct the tent. We learned that stripping bark from trees is nasty work. We were also gifted with the experience of helping Mom rip out a seam that was 60 feet long! You read right–60 FEET. This was a family project, but Mom was the powerhouse behind getting it done. Eventually the teepee was finished, and what a beautiful sight it made when we finally “raised” it for the first time! Dad made a frame for the car so that the poles could be transported over the highways. He also built a trailer to haul all of our camping gear. From the time I was in third grade until I left home for college, we camped in that teepee every summer, from the mountains to the plains to the coast, and back again. After the four of us kids left home, Mom and Dad retired the teepee and took up backpacking. As with the teepee, they have traveled together across this country with their backpacks in tow, and have many adventurous stories to share. They still camp, by the way, but gave up the backpacks a couple of years ago.
After years of hospital work, Mom took a few years off to be a full time mother. During that interval we relocated from Louisiana to Kentucky. The move, full of upheaval and chaos as we left the familiar for the unknown, marked a traumatic time for our family. Initially Mom considered returning to lab work, but nixed the idea because she had been out of that constantly changing field for too long. So, Mom’s “in the meantime” work (till she figured out what to do) was substitute teacher. Decades later, she retired from a very successful and rewarding teaching career (7th and 8th grade life science) with many accolades to her name.
My problems with Mom began about the time we moved to Kentucky. During early adolescence, a time when I was becoming interested in boys and pop culture, etc., I began to question Mom’s suitability as a mother. In my book, parents knew nothing, and worse yet, could do no right. What an embarrassment! Years of tension lay ahead for Mom and me. From what I’ve read, and from discussions I’ve had with friends, this is not unusual. Not surprisingly, though, many things that I resented then, are the things for which I am thankful now. She MADE us eat a hot, nutritious breakfast every morning before going to school….yes, MADE us eat it. Mom insisted that a good breakfast would help us do better through the day. That’s not all. Mom insisted that as long as she was paying for my piano lessons, I must practice every day for 45 minutes to an hour. When I reached high school and began to develop a busy social life, too much so for piano, Mom gave me an alarm clock so I could get up and practice before going to school each morning. (By the way, I got a small piano scholarship when I started college.) She made clothes for me rather than buy the latest fashions off the rack! NONE of my friends wore “home made” clothes! We even had bed times long after my friends were allowed to stay up as long as they wished. My life was sooooooo embarrassing during those years, thanks to Mom! And when we camped, each of us had chores to do to set up camp BEFORE we could go swimming or hiking or exploring. My worst, worst, worst experiences, however, happened when Mom substituted at my high school. A time or two I even had to sit in her class. Mortified is the only descriptive for how I felt.
Mom could make do with anything–another embarrassing tension for me, a “young woman” who desperately wanted to be “cool.” If Mom saw an old, beat up piece of furniture out by the road for garbage pick up, she would get one of us kids (or maybe Dad) to help her haul it to our house. She would then tear it apart, repair broken parts, and re-upholster the piece to be used in our home. The final product was always beautiful, and no one would have guessed where we got it! Mom would also go down the street looking for yard clippings to add to our compost pile, or to mulch the vegetable garden. Embarrassing, yes. On the other hand, we never lacked for veggies and jellies in the winter, all canned or frozen and from our garden. Mom never let anything go to waste.
As the years wore on, I left for college, married and raised children of my own. Mom and I continued to have our differences, only now
those differences grew out of my feelings of inadequacy. Now, instead of enduring the embarrassment of having a mother who “knew nothing,” I was saddled with a Mom who was bright, creative, inventive, optimistic….a woman who could do everything! How was I going to live up to that? How would I measure up as a mother? My life took many twists and turns as I tumbled through crisis, and suffered the pain and consequences of poor choices. Through all those years, however, Mom was Mom, and she loved me….always.
Eventually, there came a time in my life when I took responsibility for my own choices and began to make conscious decisions for the good. I reached a crossroads. I could choose to travel the road of bitterness and anger, something no one would fault me for given my circumstances. In fact, there was a woman I knew quite well who had made that choice for herself years before I met her. She was lonely, bitter, and angry. Looking at her life, even though there were disappointments and upsets, her experiences were no worse than the experiences of any of the rest of us. The other choice I could make was to succeed and thrive, despite the pain of my overwhelming loss. I looked at the life of another woman, a woman filled with hope and joy, a woman who loved life and nature, a woman who made the best lemonade out of the many lemons life had dropped on her lawn, and I decided I wanted to take the path Mom had taken. I chose to see the good, to make the better, higher, holier choices as I moved forward. This was not easy. I looked to the end of life and asked “What kind of a life do I want to look back on when I take my last breath?” That was the moment that my relationship with Mom began to heal. That was the moment when I began to appreciate all that Mom had given me, and is still giving me. That is when I began to see that Mom’s life, too, was littered with disappointments and heartache. AND, it was filled with joy and success because she chose to make it so.
After Mom retired from teaching, she became a naturalist at a state park, The Falls of the Ohio. We all thought it was the coolest job anyone anywhere could possibly have! So did Mom. This was her “little” job to bring in some income and to keep busy. She intended to do this for only a few years. She repeatedly told us that she was about to “retire” for good. ..and kept telling us….and telling us…..for years. Finally, at the age of 80, she did retire from that job. Now, for her present job….
Today, Mom makes doll clothes for homemade dolls that her “group” makes to give to children who are hospitalized in the Louisville, KY area. She also chairs the Mission committee in her church of over 30 years. She makes all her own jelly, cooks from scratch, and until a year or two ago, raised all her own vegetables for canning and freezing. Sunday morning when I called her to wish her a happy mother’s day, she was busy preparing a Sunday School lesson. Mom is awesome.
It would take a book to say all there is to say about this wonderful woman. She has lived an extraordinary life because she chose to see the beauty in the ordinary. The one thing that has sustained Mom above all else is her spiritual connection to the holy. Mom is a learner and a prayer. Mom’s belief in G-d is unshakable, and faith has sustained her through losses that would break a lesser person. For this, more than anything else she has given me, I am thankful.
Mom, I love you. I love the you that you became through the years. You taught me more than how to survive. You taught me how to pick myself up, keep going, and to thrive. You taught me to recreate myself when broken. You taught me to be thankful for everything in life. You taught me to seek the authentic over the “plastic.“ You taught me to be bold. You taught me to follow G-d. You taught me that the material is nothing compared to the spiritual. You taught me to appreciate and enjoy life and nature. You taught me how to be a mother, a wife, a woman in all her intricacies, sensitivity, and strength. Thank you.