Saturday, June 13, 2015

Happy Mother’s Day!

Rocky Mountain Stroke Survivor
Posted on May 12, 2013

I’m finding that a lot of bloggers commemorate Mother’s Day by writing something about the one piece of advice they had from their own mothers that they have carried with them through their whole lives. There are even some ad campaigns going on that encourage you to do this on facebook or your own blog (and link to the product, of course).  With this floating around, I pondered what one piece of advice my mom gave me that has been there for me through all the tough times.  And I couldn’t think of one.  While other mothers were telling their kids to always wear clean underwear in case an ambulance picked them up, mine was leaving that one to chance.  I remember some things she said many times, but none of them were particularly noteworthy.  “If you are hungry, it will taste good,” is one I say to my own children now.  And “having sex with a condom is like kissing through a screen door” is one I think I’ll leave out as I’m hoping that if they don’t follow my advice to wait til marriage, they will at least use a condom and a pill.

I’m at an age where I’m starting to reconcile our differences with our similarities.  I remember many occasions on which my mom expressed disapproval of a woman who wasted her time trying to keep a spotless house instead of spending time with her children…me, I definitely do not keep my house spotless, but I have convinced my 4 year old that finding everything that doesn’t belong and carrying it to Daddy to put away is a really fun game!  He begs to play it the way other kids might beg for some extra time on the computer.  On the flip side, she worries daily about what her kids are eating…me, I stop worrying about it as soon as they are not actually sucking the nutrition out of my breast.  We both practice preemptive fretting; we believe that the mere act of tormenting ourselves with all the possible bad outcomes prevents them from occurring.

I will go without new shoes for the next several years if necessary but refuse to buy cheap ones; my mom will only get new shoes when absolutely necessary and would probably be horrified to hear how much I spent on mine.  Just this week, we were discussing keepsakes and I insisted that I do keep them and mom replied, “Yes, but we define keepsakes differently.”  Of all her children, I suspect I have the most opposite personality from my mom.  Even in the handwritten diary/book she gave me in which she wrote about parenting me up until I was about two, she marvels at traits that are still essentially me.   I think these differences have led to a lot of our friction over the years.  In many situations, we would make completely opposite choices, behave in completely opposite ways.

And yet, I’m still her daughter, was raised by her, and have learned many lessons from her.

So as I ponder the one most crucial lesson I learned, it is not a classic mom phrase.  In fact, my mom has never once told me this but has simply demonstrated it again and again: life is best understood through language and stories.  Whether through diaries, letters or essays, my mom was constantly turning our daily lives into something worth pausing to reflect upon.  Something with a beginning, middle and end.  A moral.  A metaphor.  We loved reading ourselves in her writing, like characters in a book.  Our real actions said something about us, about our family, or about our world.  When something upsetting happened, she’d write about it, turn it into a story or essay or letter.  Describe the details.  See the meaning.  If she didn’t want us to read a particular something, she’d just tell us not to.  But she often let us read her letters and diaries, sometimes illustrated with sketches.

I did not want my mom involved in my education and she willingly taught me to forge her signature in middle school so I wouldn’t have to keep bringing her stuff to sign to prove that she’d seen it.  There are only a small handful of times I remember my mom coming to talk to my teacher because of a concern she had and most of them had to do with my writing.  In seventh grade, I wrote about an event that happened when I was about five years old and my teacher insisted that I must have made up details for dramatic effect and should stick to the truth.  My mom was there before school the next morning to set her straight.  Another time I remember her coming to my defense when my teacher complained that my sentences were too long.  She wasn’t much help with my math or science homework, but when it came to my writing, she would stay up til midnight with a blue ballpoint pen helping me edit for clarity, language, or voice.

Through her regular storytelling, I have a set of tales to fall back on when the situation demands it.  Just yesterday when I caught my son shoving a pea in his baby sister’s ear, rather than scold, I started in on a story I’d heard many times before: “Have I ever told you about the time your ancestor stuck a bean in his ear and was afraid to tell his dad….”  The version in the family history is just two lines but my mom told it with descriptions of all the people involved, the reason for him not wanting to ‘fess up (his dad’s temper), the reason he told (it sprouted and he was afraid it would grow roots into his head), the outcome (dad laughed, bean was safely removed), and the moral, which always came clearly from her and was not part of the original story (never keep a guilty secret or it will grow into your brain).  So I learned, life is a story, describe it with detail, and look for the meaning.

What could be more useful in a crisis than a way to process it?  Three years of residency…just one volume in my memoir.  A stroke…that gives me a lot of great writing material.  Food stamps and Medicaid…an opportunity to be the next Barbara Ehrenreich (but without the effort of creating the experience from scratch for the purpose of research).

I’m scheduling this to post at 5am because I know Mom gets up early before my three brothers still at home.  So Mom, we may never agree on the definition of “keepsake” or the right amount of money to spend on shoes, but thanks for teaching me to write my way through life.

Happy Mother’s Day!

And for my readers: What did your mom teach you through her actions rather than words?

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