Ten Things I Learned from My Mother

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 high 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.

5Off 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 singing 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.

And so Connie Madison, I honor you by carrying on your lessons to yet another generation.  You taught me well.  I hope I can carry on your legacy.  Happy Mother’s Day.

All the Same, or Different?

Are you an “all the same” or are you a “different?”   Confused?  Let me explain.

When I was a little girl, we rarely had matching dishes at the dinner table.  I think that somewhere in the beginning of their marriage, my parents had matching dinnerware, but as their family grew and their finances did not, our meals were served on a mishmash of different china and stoneware.  The same was true for glasses and cutlery, and on evenings when it was my turn to set the table, I would carefully choose my favorite plate and fork, and put them at my place at the table.  I never felt guilty about this- all of the children in my family did the same thing.  We all had favorite spoons, or cups or plates, usually the oddest shaped or most colorful, and the person setting the table had first dibs on the most coveted cupboard items.

Indeed there was cheating, and it was not unheard of to reach for the favorite spoon after the food was blessed, only to find that a sibling had slipped a quick exchange while everyone else’s eyes were closed.  My parents would tolerate no fighting at mealtime, so the sin was dealt with by dirty looks and perhaps a swift kick under the table.  But by the time the meal was over, and the dishes piled into a sink full of soapy water, all was forgiven.  After all, another meal was right around the corner.

The eclectic décor of our dinner table was continued throughout the rest of the household.  The living room was furnished with an old couch and easy chair that were handed down from my grandparents, the dining room table from an auction held in the playground of South Main Street School, and the bedrooms filled with dressers and beds of different sizes, with blankets and comforters of myriad colors and patterns.  Nothing in our house matched.   But nobody seemed to mind.  Our home was always filled with people who didn’t seem to care about the broken furniture or the peeling wallpaper.  They crowded around the dinner table on mismatched chairs, their backgrounds and conversations as varied as the plates from which they ate.

By the time I was in elementary school, I became aware that my friends’ homes were far more harmoniously decorated.  They had matching sofas and chairs that coordinated with carpets and draperies.  They had table cloths that were not frayed and dishes that all looked the same.  Their rooms looked like pages in the Sears catalogue with chenille bedspreads and curtains of the same color.  I dreamed of the day when I would have my own home and everything would go together.  Everything would match.

As a newlywed, I was excited to decorate our first apartment.  We were given a set of beautiful blue and white china as a wedding gift, and during the first few years of our marriage, I would carefully set the table with matching plates, cups and saucers.  Although our home was filled with hand-me-down furniture and curtains I sewed from reams of bargain bin cotton, I worked hard to create an atmosphere of soothing sameness with color and texture.

Then children happened.  Kids barfed on the bedspread.  They chipped china. They took spoons from our wedding cutlery to school and lost them in the black hole that contains socks, hair ribbons and little green army men.  Our kitchen cabinets held plates and bowls of various sizes and shapes, as Tupperware replaced stoneware and sippy cups replaced coffee mugs, and for years, nothing matched.  And when my children set the table, they put their favorite fork or plate at their place, cherishing the moment of use, knowing that at the next meal someone else might be using it.

When the kids grew up and my marriage ended, I saw the move to my own apartment as an opportunity to create the harmonious living space about which I had always dreamed.  For my room I bought a comforter the color of the sea, with matching shams and bed skirt. I chose hues for the living room that blended and coordinated.  And I bought a set of clear glass dishes that would never clash with anything on the dining room table.  Every space had its own color combination.  The rooms flowed from one to the other in calm coordination.  It was spa like.  It was beautiful.  It was…boring. 

I slowly came to realize that dreaming about a perfectly decorated home is much more fun than living in one.  I missed the chaos of mismatched prints and texture.  I missed colors that clashed but somehow worked together.

This summer I will fill my home with the people I love. They will bring the people they love. They will have hair of brown and red and yellow and black.  Some of them will have white skin and freckles. Some will have accents from another country.   They will crowd around the table, sharing ideas as new as green leaves, laughing in bursts that make blue and brown eyes sparkle and dance.  They will not care if they drink from matching coffee cups, or eat from matching forks, or drink from matching tumblers.  They will add the spice and the color that has been missing from my life, and I will cherish spending time with them, like the special plate or spoon in my mother’s cupboard.

Apparently I am not an “all the same.”  I am a “different.”  Anyone in the market for a set of matching glass dinner plates?  They go with everything.

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