My amazing mother is 82 today.All through our years together, she has been my best friend, my confidant, my constant star. I know who I am because of her. She made sure that I knew that I am part of a long line of extraordinary women; strong, tough and independent . To this day, I can face any obstacle with the strength of all those women who came before me.
Mom married at 18 and had me when she was 19, and I always felt as if we grew up together. Mom claimed that she was still reading Dr. Spock as they wheeled her into the delivery room. Perhaps she didn’t feel that she was “officially” ready to be a mother, but what I remember is that she did just fine.
Mom always hugged and kissed me and told me how much she loved me. I don’t know what it’s like to grow up without love because I was given so much.
She made a scrapbook of black and white photos that I cherish to this day–she had written captions for all the pictures of me that were both funny and dear. Every little milestone was captured, and she even kept my first tooth. The baby book she kept was like a little novel about me, and from the time I could read, I read it over and over again.
Mom taught me everything that a person should know in life. She taught me how to wash a wool sweater without shrinking or stretching it, how to clean any surface until it shone, how to thread a needle, how to polish furniture, how to bake and cook (I balked at that one, but I now love cooking!), how to pickle, how to make preserves, how to iron, how to mend clothes, how to write letters and thank-you notes, how to answer the phone properly, how to sit like a lady, how to pray in church, how to dress well (she always looked like a model–and still does), how to make change, write a check and balance a checkbook, wrap a gift, how to care for my skin and apply makeup artfully, how to speak well and how to graciously accept a compliment. She also taught me how to respect others and myself.
When I was in grade school, she worked during what is now called ‘mothers’ hours’ as the local newspaper office so that she could be home for me when I came home from school. We had tea and talked about our day. I could ask her anything about anything. She always made time for me.
During the summer, Mom would often give me 50 cents and ask me to run down to our local bakery, the Yum Yum Shop, and buy four glazed doughnuts for breakfast. We would sit in bed, eating them and laughing. Also, for four magic weeks, she made it possible for me to go to camp, where I had the time of my life. I made new friends, learned crafts, camped out, told ghost stories at night, sang camp songs, went hiking and swimming, cooked over a fire, fished and paddled canoes. It was so much fun, but as much as I loved being there, I loved coming home.
How well I remember those summer nights when she and I would go to shows at the Rochester Music Theatre! We drove home in the warm night, singing all the songs from the show, laughing again at the characters and telling each other what we liked best. My dad was a successful photographer and often attended overnight workshops, leaving the two of us to our own devices. We would stock up on deli food, and giggle together at how naughty we were, not eating a “proper” dinner.
By the time I moved out of the house to go to college, I knew how to take care of myself and my belongings. I knew how to function without her, which was the point of all that training. She was unfailingly strong, purposeful, loving, kind, firm and direct. I always knew she told me the truth. More than that, she and I both knew that the training never ends.
I was in my sophomore year of college when I fell in love. I was so focused on what I was sure was the true love of my life that I put him first instead of my courses. I began to skip classes and notices were sent to my parents. It wasn’t easy for them to pay my tuition, and getting these notices were a slap in the face to their sacrifice. I was called on the carpet and told in no uncertain terms that they could no longer afford to pay for school if I was going to fool around and not take it seriously. If I wanted to graduate, they said, it would now be up to me to pay for it.
That was hard to hear, and I know now how hard it was for them to lay down the law. I pulled myself together, got a waitressing job during the semesters and also waitressed during the summer. I managed to pay for my last two years of school, and the day I graduated I was proud to have made it. My parents did not bail me out; they challenged me to succeed. I learned later how badly they felt and were so tempted to help me, but they knew that I would not learn what I needed to without this lesson. I have thanked them over and over again for being strong. It was a lesson I have never forgotten. Each time a new challenge comes into my life I hark back on that and know that I can pull through.
Mom became interested in genealogy and, with a distant cousin, began working on our family history. Bear in mind that this was well before the computer age–all research was done in libraries, telephoning relatives, hunting through graveyards to copy information from headstones, and traveling often to Fredericton, New Brunswick to speak with relatives and record their stories. She organized a huge reunion of relatives, some of whom had no idea that they had so many relatives. We found that we had relatives as far away as Alaska, and got to meet them.
She worked painstakingly to put together a fine book that featured not only photographs, history and stories, but a beautifully rendered genealogical chart done in her own calligraphy (another interest of hers). She self-published it, and now many copies reside in the homes of relatives near and far. She devoted herself to this labor of love until she felt she could go no farther. This book inspires me to this day, and I want to quote the epilogue she wrote with such love and care here:
“How I wish I could write a book” my grandmother would sigh wistfully as she concluded an evening of recollections about her early life in New Brunswick.
In the dusk of summer evenings and in the lamplight that softened winter nights, Nannie rocked in her chair and re-lived her life aloud. I was her frequent listener – often a willing one – sometimes bored, but like all children, encouraging the diversion to postpone bedtime.
“Nannie’s stories” imprinted my childhood with second-hand memories of people, places and events. Nannie’s life became almost as real to me as my own.
Was I with them as children when she and her brother tethered little field mice to sticks and pretended they were their cattle? Was I berrying with them when the moose chased them? Did I cry when her only sister died? Did I touch the silken fabric of her garnet wedding dress? (It was patterned with tiny rosebuds.) Did I feel the homesickness as a young bride far away from home, and the sadness of the loss of m firstborn child? Did my bones ache with fatigue after long days of cleaning, washing and cooking for a family and a crew of hired men? Was it my laughter or hers that pealed at the antics of a neighbor or the comical expressions of a relative? Whose joy at births…whose sorrow at deaths?
Who really wrote this book?”
I am way beyond my college years now, and I still need my mom’s perspective, her good opinion, and advice. She is the first person with whom I want to share any news. Hers is the laugh I love the best, and hers is the voice I need to hear. Dad always says that the sound he loves best is the two of us laughing together.
I could spend years recounting the endless acts of pure love and kindness she has shown me, as well as generosity and love beyond measure. I can’t begin to recount the many ways she has given me the oft-said roots and wings that helped me grow and fly.
I have howled at her jokes, her sayings and her take on life in general. She had a tough growing up and was strong because of it. It is said that we chose the parents we need before we are born; they may not be the easiest but they give us exactly what we need to learn. I know that I have chosen well.