On Mothers Day, my girls (with a little help from their dad) make a big deal of properly fêteing me. This year, for example, they made me waffles for breakfast, took me to brunch after church, showered me with gifts (small ones, but gifts, no less), took a long walk downtown with me after lunch (to check out the new city art project), and let me lie on the couch and read while they unloaded the dishwasher and tidied the kitchen.
It does not get better than that.
But this year, I am thinking of my own mother and all I learned from her. Because clearly, had it not been for her example, I would be no kind of mother myself.
Years ago, in a book group, I read The Kitchen God's Wife by Amy Tan. The discussion that evening turned to what we didn't know about our mothers. In the novel, the protagonist's mother had a whole life in China of which her daughter was completely unaware. The hostess told a story about an event in her own mother's life that she only learned of through another relative. And it made us all think about how our mothers were full and complete women before they ever became parents.
Sometimes, that's hard to see - and not only as children, but as adults. We see our mothers as existing solely for us. We don't think about their needs, their desires, their dashed dreams. When we're small they don't even have names of their own (her name is Mommmy), much less ambitions or plans that don't involve us.
My parents were young parents - not uncommon at all for the early 1960s. They were married in their early 20s and had a newborn by their first anniversary. I am the second born, and even the third child was born while they were still in their grad student days - my dad was working on his doctorate at the University of Nebraska, they lived in married student housing, and my mother worked. Sounds hard, but they've both commented that those were happy times. And why not - they were surrounded by friends their own age, all in the same circumstances. Rather than complain about what they lacked, they celebrated it.
My mother followed my dad in his career - once again, not uncommon. She took care of us, but she also worked. She stayed home for a time after my youngest brother was born, and then, when he was about 2, she decided to go back to school to finish her degree. She hadn't finished when she was younger - once again, not uncommon. So when I started fourth grade, she, too, went back to school.
Mostly what I remember about those days is how unremarkable they were. Meaning, my life did not change a lot. She was a full-time student, but our lives were affected very little. She still seemed to do all the housework (I don't recall my dad helping out that much), did the shopping, the laundry, and cooked dinner every night (not a lot of eating out was going on). She had some night classes, yet I was still driven to piano lessons and girl scouts; my brothers had basketball practice and play dates.
Though I do remember her studying, spending hours reading and typing up her class notes in the office she had set up in the corner of her bedroom.
She even had time to help out at school - at my fourth grade class Christmas party, she was there, serving cookies and punch, handing out the favors - snowmen made of marshmallows, wearing tiny top hats, that I know she made. Thirty of them.
She made mostly A's. She finished her degree a few years later, graduating with honors.
I could share hundreds, thousands of anecdotes about the kind of mother she was. Some would portray her in a flattering light; some ... well, not so much. Like most parents, she wasn't perfect. But who among us is? We all have to figure out how to handle this job without any experience. We go on what our mothers taught us, be it good or bad, even when the children we get are so varied, and the times in which we live are ever changing.
She taught me, along with how to deal with my own children (results still pending on tha one), how to be a daughter, as I watched her deal with her aging parents. This is a task she did mostly alone, as both her parents were ill at the same time and she is an only child. She handled it by herself, watching four children while my dad finished up a year overseas. And if she complained, I never heard it.
She was my go-to person when I needed a paper typed. She was not always patient with me, but I think she tried. And when I can catch her in the right mood, she shares stories of when she was not always such a well-behaved child herself - stories that make me smile and do help me fill in the blanks as to what kind of person she really is.
But my very favorite thing about her? What I remember the most? It's when I left a book I was reading on the coffee table. It was a novel based on a movie I had seen. The story was not bad, really, but the novel did contain several very graphic sex scenes. I had left it on the table, and my mother read it. When she was done, she told me she had liked the story, found it very interesting. There were some scenes she didn't think were necessary, but in general it was good.
I could have been mortified that she knew I had read that. Instead, the message I got was that I never had to hide what I was reading. I never had to worry that I would be reprimanded, that I would get in trouble. She talked to me, let me know she had read it, too, and that it was OK. It's a message I never forgot, and one I've passed on to my own daughters.
I love this photo - my mother is on the left, then my dad, then me, my Grandma Dorothy, and my brother John. My mom is hard to see - the old photo is so faded after all these years. She isn't in a lot of our family photos - she always hated having her picture taken. But in this one, she is smiling. It doesn't show up well in this image, but in the original it is clear. Childhood, for most of us, isn't perfect. But it's reassuring to look back all these years later and be able to remember it this way - like the image in a faded photo, where all the disappointments have faded away, and only the happier memories remain.
Which is how I like to look back on the example my mother set for me, now a parent myself. I prefer to overlook the shortcomings and remember the positive things she taught me.
Happy Mothers Day, Mom.