My mother passed away today. I should feel really sad, but that isn’t what has overtaken me. Rather, I feel that I can go back to seeing my Mom, in my mind’s eye, as I have always known her, and not as the extremely infirm and ill person whose hand I held and who looked me in the eyes without recognition when I visited about a week ago. That was only what was left of my Mom when cancer had taken its hold.
But let me tell you about the Mom that stupid cancer never knew.
I can sum up who she was with one brief story. It carries a simple yet profound message. I remember during my second year of teaching, I was talking with a rather small-for-his-age seventh grader in East Orange about getting teased and picked on by his peers. We were out in the parking lot between the school building and the playground, and he was close to tears. I told him that my mother had always told me that when people say hurtful things to you, it’s got nothing to do with YOU, and everything to do with THEM. People pick on others to deflect attention from the things they dislike in themselves. They try to make themselves feel bigger by making others feel smaller. And when you know that, then you know it doesn’t work, and you actually feel a little bad for the other person.
The thing is, I don’t think I ever really thought about the things I learned from my mother until that moment. I was not yet a parent myself, and I wasn’t all that far into my second year as a teacher. I was 22 or 23 years old, and I can promise you that despite what I may have thought of myself at the time, I did NOT have any kind of life experiences of my own to be spouting wisdom at the next generation. But what I did have was my mother’s wisdom.
My Mom’s father died when she was 3 years old. Her sister was 2 and her brother was 1. Her parents had only been married for five years and one month. And then her mother died when they were 17, 16, and 15. They lived with an uncle and aunt and cousins until they each went off into their own adulthoods. My Mom came to America just a few years after her mother passed. She met my father within her first year and she immediately fell in love with him and his parents. They saw her as another daughter, and I know she was grateful to have a new chance at having this kind of family. She called them Mom and Pop, just like my Dad did.
Just like with everything, she didn’t miss out on what this new opportunity brought her. When I started researching my family history, and I asked my parents about their ancestors, Dad would often be surprised at things Mom knew about HIS side. When he asked, “How do you know THAT? I didn’t know that!” She would respond that his Mom told her, when they spent long hours talking while he was away in Texas and Korea with the Air Force.
That’s just how Mom always was about everything. She got involved. She did for others. She didn’t expect anything special in return. She treated people with respect and kindness, and as my Facebook wall can now attest, they remember her well for it.
My mother was humble.
When I was born, the youngest of four kids spread out over ten years, my father was working three jobs to support our family. When I started school, my mother went back to work. At Burger King. Then she worked at Roy Rogers. Then The General Store behind the counter and in the deli section. She worked for many years at Ralph’s Pizza, and she only gave that up to take care of my niece at my sister’s house. She later did a stint as the person in charge of overseeing Social Security for people in my home town. Throughout these years, she was also super involved in our local schools, through the PTA, various clubs and other efforts, and eventually served on the school board of my high school. One of my proudest moments was when my mother got to give me my high school diploma at graduation, because she was a school board member.
You see, Mom didn’t even have the equivalent of a high school diploma. She left school, as one did in her homeland of Scotland, at age 16. It was rare for someone of her background to stay longer than that. She had grown up poor in Glasgow, and then she had to be all grown up before she was even 18. But she didn’t feel sorry for herself; she just learned to DO. And to BE. To be a really great and giving person.
No friend ever came to our house hungry and left in the same state. We may not have had much, but we could always share. I wore clothes, played with toys, and read books that had been passed down from three siblings (and perhaps more people outside our family). Mom did not waste. Anyone who ever tried to use a pen in our house will know that it was really hard for my mother to part with anything if there was still hope for it. The cup of pens that could each only scrawl one letter is a subject of many a joke through the years in our house. To this day, I have to have my husband throw things away when I am not looking, and I can’t throw food away. My mother was the Queen of Leftovers.
Little things I remember about my mother still make me smile or even laugh out loud. The notes she always left, on the back of papers that had been notices from school or old homework, to let us know where she was (usually work or a meeting) and when she’d be back. Or to take something out to defrost. Or for us to leave our own whereabouts. That time my brother and I made a ringing noise, handed Mom a banana and told her it was for her, and she had the banana to her ear before she realized we were messing with her. Walking across town to the supermarket every Friday, where my Dad would pick us up after work and pay for our groceries with the wages he had just gotten.
My mother taught me the value of hard work, compassion, and laughing at yourself even when life gets crazy. Easygoing through everything life threw at her, as long as there was a cup of coffee -- or better yet, a cappuccino -- to be had. It was Mom who, after losing the love of her life, helped the rest of us gain perspective: “We had fifty wonderful years together, and most people never have that.”
I think my favorite things about my Mom, though, are how much she loved us all and valued family, and how easy it was for me to make her laugh. When I think about everything she went through in life, it’s easy to see why family was so important to her. Even though four of her seven grandchildren lived thousands of miles away, she always sent a card and asked for annual school pictures, and she always had everyone’s important dates written on her calendar. She kept in touch with loads of people across the ocean each year at Christmas. And when she could travel to see us, or with us to Britain or elsewhere, there was always time for laughter. Just being alive was cause for celebration and smiles.
So all those things about myself that I love and treasure -- those come from my parents. My sense of humor, and my love of family and heritage. My need to do for others simply because I can. My patience and my positive outlook. I can’t take credit for any of these good qualities. I can only count myself lucky to have had amazing role models in my parents. And my gift to them, now that they are both gone, is to share their gifts with everyone I meet.