Thanks for Caring

deckNew England has been hammered with heavy snow and frigid temperatures for the past several weeks. Boston has been practically shut down and even New Hampshire, where snowy winters and subzero temperatures are common, has been challenged by the relentless cold and drifting snow.

After the fourth blizzard in as many weekends, I woke Monday morning and checked the news for the  temperature.  It was five below zero with wind chills at least four times as cold.  After a hot shower and two cups of coffee, I layered a scarf under my coat, pulled on my boots and trudged through the snow to my car.   It reluctantly but thankfully started, and shivering all the while, I drove to work.  The parking lot at work looked like something from a science fiction movie, with twelve-foot snowbanks and snow-covered paths.   Trying to ignore the wind that bit at my face, I locked my car and hurried into the shelter of the building, where I bumped into the smiling face of one of my coworkers.

He is a favorite of almost every employee where I work.  He is in his early twenties, with spiky red hair and a perpetual grin.  He comes from Project Search, a program that places high school graduates with developmental challenges in the workplace.  He has been at my workplace for several years, and often stops at my office to chat. He tells me his favorite video games and the movies he’s watched over the weekend.  He asks my favorite football team and laughs at me when I admit to not knowing how a fantasy team works.  I know he usually walks to work and back, even though he lives a couple of miles away.

“Are you walking home today?” I asked, concerned about the subzero wind chill.

“Nope.”  My dad drove me here and he’s picking me up.”  He replied.

“Great.  Have a good day,” I smiled, and started for the elevator.

Right before the door closed, I heard his voice, “Thanks for caring.”

Thanks for caring.

I’ve thought about this all week.   How often do we say thanks for caring?  How often does someone say it to us?  And, is caring such an anomaly that it deserves special recognition?

It was by watching my mother that I learned that acts of caring are generally free, but their value is more precious than gold.  She was one of the most caring people I have ever met.  She checked in on the neighbors during storms.  She baked bread and mended clothes for people at work.  It was a rare dinner when there was not an extra place set for a visitor. And she was never too busy to offer coffee and sympathy to someone who was sad, or hurt or just needed an ear.  She always took time for a hug.  She never walked past a stranger without smiling a hello.  She stayed up late when her eyes were heavy with fatigue to finish sewing a costume or a dress that was needed the next morning.

When she became ill, Mom gave me a list of people to contact for her.  She asked me to write letters she was too weak to write by herself. They were letters of kindness that expressed her regret of a moment of carelessness, a word of encouragement, a gentle and final farewell.  And the night she passed away, she took a long look at me and said, “I’m worried about you.”

“Me?  Why?  I’m fine!” I replied, hiding the fear that the lump in my throat would choke the very life from me.

“You’re all alone,” she stated, her eyes filling with tears.  We didn’t speak of the real truth.  Where my siblings had their elderly-handsspouses, I was divorced.  Alone.  She knew she wouldn’t be there to comfort me, to guide me, to help me bear the sorrow in the days to come.

“I’m fine,” I lied.  “I have wonderful family and friends.  I’m never alone.”

Her gaze relaxed and she smiled.  Releasing her from her responsibility was the last gift I could give her.

You taught me well, Mom.  Thanks for caring.

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.

Where Your Treasure Is- Lessons From a Mermaid

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  Matthew 6:21

When I was a little girl, I was given a garnet ring for my birthday.  Garnet was my birthstone, and I loved its fiery scarlet hue and the way it sparkled in the sun. I wore the ring every day, never taking it off.  That is, hardly ever. 

During the summer following my birthday, I went swimming with my family at a small nearby lake.  My sisters and I pretended we were mermaids, searching the lake bed for hidden jewels. I never swam with my eyes closed- I loved the way rays of sun shone through the water’s silt and glinted on objects lying in the sand.   At the ocean, we filled empty soda cans with sand and threw them into the deep, diving after them in a contest to see who would be the first to recover them.  In the calm of the lake, we did not have to contend with the tide, so we tossed smaller objects in order to make the search more challenging.

Toward the end of the day, my sisters tired of the game, and went to shore in search of treasures of the edible persuasion, leaving me alone in the darkening lake water.  I tossed a small white stone a few feet away and pretending it was a rare opalescent pearl, ducked to the bottom to find it.  Lost in my fantasy, I dolphin-kicked my way to the deep, searching the sand until my lungs burned for air.  Each time, I found the stone and each time, my swagger grew greater.  I  imagined that perhaps I was a real mermaid who could find any treasure in my magic lagoon.  But the rays of the sinking sun were weakening, and the pebble looked less and less like a treasure and more and more like a plain old river rock.  I needed something more beautiful- something that would catch the light and glitter like a real jewel.   In a moment of foolish daring, I slipped the garnet ring off my finger and dropped it in the water close to my feet.  I plunged into the water to retrieve it but after searching the sandy bottom until I was out of breath, came up empty-handed.  Again and again I searched, but my ring was not to be found.  Realizing I had made a terrible mistake, I began to cry.  After tearfully explaining to my father that I lost my precious garnet, I nervously watched from the shore while he trolled the lake bed like a submerged submarine.  For several minutes he searched for the ring, but it was hopelessly lost, and I cried most of the trip home, sick over the loss of my most prized posession.  I never replaced the ring, although I still love the warm claret color of a garnet.

That day taught me several life lessons.  I learned I was not, nor ever would be a real mermaid.  I learned to not allow confidence to overshadow discrimination.  But mostly I learned to hold on to the things I love.

Now that I am no longer a child, I have come to realize that the real jewels of my life are the people in my path, who work by my side, who live in my heart.  Like a faceted russet stone that glitters in the sun, they reflect light, bouncing rainbows across the room, adding dimension and beauty to my life. 

I thought of this while I was talking to my youngest daughter this week.  As mothers and daughters do, we sometimes struggle to agree, and in my frustration, I was tempted to speak harshly and sarcastically.  But she is my garnet ring, a precious gem of scarlet and gold and I realized to speak unkindly to her is to toss her into the deep, trusting that I can find her again later.  What if I were to lose her? What if I were to dive deep, swim until my lungs scream, search the sandy lake bottom, and come up sputtering, unable to find her gleaming in the light? 

Thankful for the reminder, I bit my tongue and choose my words carefully.  Words of love, laced with kindness.  Words that are warm and full of light. Words that hold her close and tell her that she is my treasure.  Because she is.  And where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 

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