Wednesday, October 26, 2011

How My Mom Taught Me to be a Woman

Dear mature and affectionate readers, all of which had a mother, 

There's a lot I could say about my mom; not the least of which is that she taught me I don't need to capitalize nouns like "mom" or "dad" unless I am using them in a sentence where they replace a name, such as, "Good morning, Mom."  See, she's already teaching you, too! 

Musing back on my childhood, I can see more clearly than ever that she taught us kids by example more than anything else.  I don't recall ever hearing one single moralizing speech from her, I don't remember ever hearing her say anything that her own actions didn't agree with, and I don't remember her ever explicitly telling me things like, "You need to respect your husband," or, "A good wife takes care of her personal appearance."  

But she taught all of these things, implicitly.  Powerfully; in ways that stick with me and come to my mind almost every day.  I'll do something and think, "This is just what my mom would do."  Or if I am not sure what to do, I can think, "What would Mom do?"  

Like coming with my husband on this great Navy adventure - not sure what many other people would do, but I know Mom would do whatever she could to keep the family together.  Whatever it took to support her husband, my dad.  And, above all, she would not be deterred by what anybody said.  

Everything she did was with a quiet, firm dignity.  She did a lot of revolutionary things - she home-schooled her kids, she had eight of us instead of two and a half, she washed the dish towels separately from the rest of the laundry, she gave my sister rye crackers and carrots instead of ice cream for a snack when all my sister wanted was rye crackers and carrots and Mom's friends were appalled.  She delivered her babies naturally and kept a kitchen garden before it became vogue or "cool" to do so.  When she had her first few kids in the hospital, she got annoyed by the nurses taking them way to another room.  "But don't you want to get some rest?" the nurse asked with concern when she offered to take my newborn sister Melissa away for the night. "I'd rather have my baby with me, thanks."  I can hear Mom saying to herself, "I didn't go through all that work for nothing!"  In the end, she solved this irritating problem with efficiency as she always does, by simply having her children at home, where she could make all the rules.  Oh, and she let us stay up late sometimes.  Back in the early years, somebody once saw my older sister, who was very young at the time, playing happily at an event my parents were hosting in their home.  It must have been getting late, because they asked my mom, "Shouldn't she be in bed now?"  I can just see Mom smiling her secret smile.  That smile she gets when she knows what she's doing and she doesn't care that you disagree.  "She's having just as much fun as you," she said.  "Why should she be the one to go to bed?"

Her child-rearing was always contrary to popular opinion.  When two of us kids couldn't get along, for instance, instead of separating us she would have us rearrange all the bedrooms until the two fighters had to share a living space.  Then it was learn to get along, or die trying!  If us kids were in bed and supposed to be sleeping but instead talking on and on, she would come in and issue a warning to go to sleep.  If we kept talking (I know you don't believe it, but that did happen from time to time) she would come in, flick the light on, and rouse us out of bed.  Since we had so much energy, she would put us to work cleaning house until we were ready for bed!  (Recently, another mom put housework to good use here!)

In their habitual indifference of laissez faire, way people would comment on everything she did.  Snide remarks, predictions of doom.  "You can't home school your kids."  "You can't drive a motor home in downtown New Orleans."  "You can't let your kids play with each other and expect them to like each other."  I can remember countless times when a store clerk, a DOL employee, or some customer service representative would tell her something she needed was impossible, even when it was within the realm of their service.  She would reason with them and persist until they would get so sick of her, they'd finally do it.  "We don't have any in stock," a store clerk would report after disappearing behind a flapping plastic door too briefly to even look on the shelves.  "Really?" my mom would say.  "Why don't you look one more time?"  She bought my little sister a kids cooking book for the crock-pot, and they planned out some recipes my sister would make for school (handy how school can be so similar and applicable to real life).  But then the next day my little sister visited me at school with my mom, and somehow the book got lost.  What to do?  Mom did not despair - after they ripped the car apart and called the school and searched every possible place, she went to the store and bought a new book, copied the recipes, and returned the book.  

Once she went to the doctor to have some work done on her teeth.  They insisted that she be knocked flat out for the surgery, but she had already discussed with them the options for local anesthetic and decided that was the route she wanted to take.  The doctor cajoled and threatened, warning her that the pain could be significant.  "I delivered eight children by natural childbirth," she said calmly.  "I think I have a fairly high tolerance for pain."  (I question if she was referring to the pain of childbirth, or the pain of raising eight kids?)  Exasperated, the doctor continued to insist and as he talked on she realized it was simply more convenient for him to put her out - it fit his pattern, his usual modus operandi.  But she had already made her decision and there would be no budging her. Finally, she played her last hand.  "Listen," she said.  "You aren't going to put me out and that's that.  I ate breakfast right before I got here."  

She disagreed with a lot of common trends and she took flak for it all the time.  She tells the story that before any of us kids were born, people would harangue her: "When are you gonna have kids?  When you gonna start having kids?  Are you pregnant yet?  Why don't you have kids already?"  Then she started having kids, and people got tired of it pretty quickly.  "When you gonna stop having kids?  Don't you have enough kids?  Aren't you sick of kids?  Enough already!!"   As far as I ever saw, their comments rolled off her like water off a duck's back.  She knew her own reasons for what she did, and that was enough for her.  She was satisfied with her decisions and didn't need to explain, justify, or argue.  

People would stare at her and my dad when they took us kids places, when we would sit around listening to them and their adult conversation.  "Don't you want a little break?" they would say to my mom.  I never knew about this growing up, but people were shocked by the fact that she pretty much took us everywhere. "Don't you want to leave them at home?" they would say in hushed tones.  I am sure she smiled that secret smile again.  "I actually like my kids," she would tell them matter-of-factly.  "In fact, come to think of it, that's why I had kids.  I want to be around them.  They are people, too!"  Flattering words for me to hear, but I think this points to more virtue in my mother than to any quality us kids may have possessed.  Not that anything is wrong with calling in a babysitter, but to my mom's credit I don't remember her ever once bringing in a babysitter.  Occasionally my grandma would come over while Mom and Dad left for the weekend, but that was the extent of babysitters we experienced.  

She was an exemplary wife.  I've never heard her say an unkind word about my dad.  Plumb as I might the depths of my memory, I cannot remember once ever hearing one negative reference to him pass her lips - even when us kids were griping, or annoyed with him, or complaining about something he did.  None of my siblings can remember an instance, either (and between us all, that's 147 years of memory!).  She'd quietly explain the things we didn't understand - "Your dad is trying to close a really big deal.  He's been concerned about it for weeks now.  He hasn't had much time off because he's working overtime to get it done," - and even though we didn't always accept her explanation, we knew there was no way we'd get her to join our crowd of rebellion. 

Even though we must admit she was a bit of a rebel, herself!  She says she remembers growing up, one day she wanted a pie.  She went into the kitchen and made a pie.  Did anybody teach her?  Did anybody applaud her?  No, but she saw what she wanted and went after it until she achieved it.  Typical Mom!  

As any mother can testify, sometimes it can be hard to get motivated to hit the shower and spruce up for the day ahead.  Spit-up, slobber, puke, and dirty diapers can get ahead of the eau de toilette sometimes.  And of course there were days when life started out too quickly, when we would get up early and Mom would be working on the bills downstairs in her bathrobe and fuzzy slippers, and she'd charge straight ahead and finish the project without respite and take her shower after lunch.  Sure, those days happened.  Sometimes stopping to shower can break the momentum.  But overall, my memory is dominated by Mom taking the time every day to take a shower, put on her makeup, put on some perfume or scented lotion, and fix her hair.  She never told us, "A husband likes it when you dress for the day," or, "You feel better about yourself if you take a little pride in your appearance."  I didn't even realize that people existed in the world who didn't take a shower every morning regardless of the baby screaming angrily from his crib, or the phone ringing off the hook.  I just assumed that grown-ups were at the point in life where this was their job and the world would have to wait until the ablutions were complete.  I was always impressed with how perfect her make-up was and how soft her skin looked, and how good she always smelled.  These things, I learned years later, make the world go 'round! 

My mom was also a great one at finagling bills and accounts.  I always saw her with her little rack of bills - after we brought her the daily mail, she'd send us off with, "Here, go put this bill in the gold rack.  Put this in the black rack," - neatly sorted, filling out accounts in Quicken and hearing the "ca-ching!" of the little cash-register sound it makes whenever you enter data.  She and my dad would go over them together periodically - how often I don't really remember, because I was never involved in the process - and she kept everything in methodically sorted folders and filing cabinets.  My grandma tells me that Mom has been good with money ever since she was a little girl.  

My mom took great effort to create wonderful memories and experiences for us kids growing up.  My favorite tradition, I think, was that Christmas day was always spent at home, not rushing about to visit everybody.  I did not even know that such a possibility existed and assumed everybody spent Christmas day inside with family - I remember seeing cars driving outside and wondering where in the world they could possibly be going, since nobody goes anywhere on Christmas!  In our older years, we would go to my grandma's house, only a mile away, for a big carousing family dinner.  My parents jealously guarded the time they got to spend as a family together, and while my dad was in charge of "field trips" (read: camping, hiking, driving cross-country), my mom took care of making sure we had family experiences at home.  I can see that now - I don't think I realized it then.  She knew what she wanted: family time, no-stress holidays.  And no amount of poking, prodding, or snide remarks seemed to budge her.  My mom determined what was important for her family and then she stood firm in her decision.  

The other dominant memory I have of my mom growing up was that, pretty much every time I came downstairs in the morning, she would be sitting in her chair reading her Bible.  It was a quiet, unspoken commentary on her faith and her source of strength, but it had a big impact.  Our school started with Bible reading and study, and my favorite was the big maps of the Middle East that we hung on the walls and the salt-dough relief maps we made of the Red Sea and Egypt.  I don't remember her ever saying anything like, "You must read your Bible every day."  She never told us we had to be Christians.  She only told us everything she knew and loved about her faith, and we made the decision ourselves. 

Mom with her family at my wedding
She had a funny way of knowing what was important.  When we were just beginning to work with numbers, she taught us math with the old Eclectic Readers.  But she was clever in how she caught our attention.  Instead of saying, "Paul has five apples and Peter has four," she would say, "Rebecca has five apples and Andrea only has four!"  The stories became intriguing, mysterious, and entertaining.  Sometimes the talking bug would hit us girls and we would sit in the living room with mom and talk for hours.  The night would wear on into the wee hours, and I know there were plenty of times when she had to get up early, but the fact that she preferred to sit and chat with us rather than go to bed tells me now, years later, that she had already decided which was more important.  

Sometimes people would drop by and they could make comments - the laundry was stacked on the couch, the books were heaped across the floor, the dishes were still on the table.  But Mom took it all in stride.  The Invisible things, she knew, were being taken care of first - and that was more important to her.  She had priorities.  I've babysat and done housework in many a beautiful, pristine home, where unhappiness and discontent reign supreme.  It was always a relief to return home to a house that, although it was packed with people and busyness and floods of chaos, was also full of peace and satisfaction.  

And she has a funny way of defining patience.  People always look from her to us kids, and then to their two horrid children, and sigh heavily and say, "You must be the most patient person in the world.  You must be the most organized person in the world.  I could never home-school my kids."  
My mom always, always laughs at this.  She'll say, "I am the least patient, least organized person in the world!" Patience, she says, is being able to ignore the things that don't matter and only attend to the things that do.  

Believe me, with eight kids (and we were not always charmers although I am sure you think we were), that is probably what saved her life.  

My mom taught me a lot about being a real woman - about steadfast faith, unwavering devotion to your spouse, personal pride, dignity in the face of disagreement, firmly holding to what you know is right, and doing whatever it takes despite opposition.  She taught me that a woman is all this, and more.  She is strong, she is decided, she is powerful, and above all ... 

She doesn't have to say a thing - but everybody will know it

Mrs H

This is shared at Encourage One Another Wednesday with Deep Roots at Home



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