Last Sunday was Mother’s Day. My mother was never a huge fan of the holiday. She said that she had children because she wanted them and didn’t need a holiday to honor her for that decision. Still, whenever Mother’s Day comes along, I think of her soft gray eyes and hearty laugh and wish for a way to celebrate her impact on my life. She taught me many things; here are a few.
Ten Things my Mother Taught Me
1. Don’t do anything half-assed. This colorful phrase was one of the few instances when Mom used cuss words. I’m not sure where the phrase originated, but I knew it meant slopping something together without taking the proper steps to do it right. Mom detested doing a half-assed job of anything and did not tolerate it from her children. We were taught to make beds with square corners. We were taught to press the seams open when sewing. We were taught to prime before painting.
When I was eight years old, it was often my job to dry the dishes after dinner. One evening after dinner, there seemed to be an unusually number of dishes draining in our big two-sided sink. My brothers and sisters were playing, my parents watching the evening news, and I was left alone to dry and stack. I finished the glasses and plates, but the pile of cutlery seemed enormous. Instead of meticulously drying each utensil, I decided it would dry on its own and proceeded to dump the whole lot into the deep drawer were the silverware was kept. I smugly closed the drawer and ran to the back yard to play kickball with my siblings. Ten minutes later, my mother called me to the kitchen.
“What is this?” she asked, pointing to the dripping drawer.
“Um…er…” clearly I had no answer.
She pulled the huge drawer from the wall and dumped all of its contents into the sink. Filling the sink with hot, soapy water, she instructed me to wash all the silverware, dry it and put it away properly. Every time I am tempted to take a short cut I remember how it took me three times as long to finish my chores than it would if I had done them right the first time. Half-assed I will never be.
2. Kids do stupid things and they do not know why. The spring of my sixth year, I was to have my First Holy Communion. My mother was an ambitious seamstress and she bought snowy white fabric and yards of tulle to make my dress and veil. I do not remember the act, but apparently I thought I could help, and while the unsewn pieces of fabric were lying on the dining room table, I took my mother’s fabric shears and sliced the skirt down the middle. I do not remember being punished for this, nor do I remember hearing my mother chastising me, and at my First Communion, the dress was flawless.
I should have never been entrusted with scissors again, but in second grade I decided that the best way to deal with the tuft of hair that kept falling from my hairband was to cut it. I took the tuft in hand and with a pair of fingernail scissors from the bathroom, lopped it off at the scalp. To my horror, the hair that was left stuck out straight, like the top of a crew cut. My mother dried my tears, and taking a razor, gave me a pixie cut that hid the shorn spot on my forehead until it grew out.
3. Forgive one another. God did it, so should we. Enough said.
4. How to squirt water with your hands. One of my favorite memories is watching my mother teach my children how to cup their hands together and squirt water through the little opening where their thumbs met. They took such glee in squirting the brine of the Atlantic into her face and she took such glee in watching them do so.
5. Off color songs. Actually, it is one song. My mother’s family was not prim and proper, but they were classy, and rarely spoke in ways that were not appropriate for all audiences. But for some reason, my grandfather taught her this song when she was a child; “I love to go swimming with long legged women and swim between their legs.” She loved my shocked expression when she sang it to me, and I daresay I have repeated it to my children, relishing their wide eyes and gaping mouthed reactions.
6. Stand straight, shoulders back. Mom was a large woman- tall and big boned. She embraced her height and admonished us to do the same. When the circumstances of her life threatened to bow her head in humiliation and send her scurrying for secluded refuge, she pulled herself up to her full height and greeted the world full-face and smiling.
7. Just because something isn’t easy, it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. When she was in college, my mother was terrible at mathematics. She nearly failed a required class and out of kindness and her promise to never teach math, her professor passed her. Several years later, she taught seventh and eighth grade math and she was a favorite teacher of many kids who struggled with the subject, probably because she taught in a way they could understand, and with the kindness and empathy only learned by one who had been there.
8. Put it to music. Whenever there was a chore to be done or a lesson to be learned, it was much more pleasant when set to music. At Mom’s instruction, we memorized times table, the books of the Bible, and spelling lessons by putting them to rhythm and music. Dishes were washed while signing Girl Scout camp songs. We dusted and polished furniture while listening to La bohème and Aida. Music made every task more fun, every challenge more easily met.
9. People aren’t here to live up to our expectations. Mom taught me a lot about acceptance. This did not always come easily to her- she worked at accepting people, and as she aged, she became more tolerant and less judgmental. She looked past dirty faces, foul language and bad attitudes and recognized the beauty inside. Social stature, wealth, notoriety and education did not change people’s worth. People did not need to change for her to love them. But often, because she loved them, they changed.
10. Love is always the answer. I learned from my mother that love is a verb that functions much like a muscle; put it to work and it becomes bigger and stronger. Fail to exercise it, and it becomes weak and ineffective. The harder it is to love, the better at loving we become.
In the last few hours of my mother’s life, I sat with her in a small room in the Hospice House. All the things of this life had faded away. Nothing mattered- not her education, not her possessions, not the pets she raised, or even the children she reared. In those final moments, when she hovered in that place between life and death, I watched her struggle to raise her arms up to God. Her last act was an attempt to embrace Him. To love Him.