Sunday, May 8, 2016

Thank You, Mom (Part 2 of 4)

This is for my first-and-always mother, Eleanor. 

I have plenty of second-hand anecdotes and fragments of my early life, including snow bunnies and snow dolphins, mountain walks identifying iconic Northwest plants, and little sailboats made of Tupperware with clay mast-steps and leaf or paper sails in the rare California rains.

The earliest memory that I clearly recall is her absence.

While she was giving birth to my next sister, at home, I was sent to the neighbors across the way for the night.  It may have been my first night away from home (surely at 2 years old, there would not have been many sleep-overs yet? Unless you count being born, myself, in a hospital).

I know this is my first memory, not my mother's, because I remember something she never knew: not fear, nor just separation or strangeness, but CANDY.

These well-intentioned neighbors had an ENORMOUS jar of COLORFUL candy - I believe it was something like Jelly Bellies.  Throughout the night, I seem to remember being allowed to choose one more candy from the jar a COUNTLESS number of times.  Countless as only unforseen abundance can be to a pre-literate child - a candy jar taller than oneself, like a magical apparition to a child accustomed to firm, healthful, and thrifty limits.

I don't know if I actually fell asleep.  But regardless of the fussing and screaming that I'm sure they put up with, they would probably be pleased to know that the glow of hindsight they are remembered for their kindness and generosity (with CANDY!).

In later years, I have given up sugar and candy.  And I have discovered and begun appreciate a number of things about my mother that were not obvious to a child's perspective.  

A few highlights that I've been appreciating lately:

Brilliance: anyone who knows my mother will tell you she's highly intelligent.  This intelligence lends itself to practical problem-solving, prudent planning, and an endless creative study of the world.

My mother is an avid student of languages, literature, and education in its original Greek sense: how to draw forth the best in people.

I had the luxury of being raised by an expert in child development and adolescent psychology, and later getting to "talk shop" around the table.

I think she would have been a darn good natural mother without all that the extra book work, but the combination of practice and theory made her both an excellent teacher and an excellent mother.

Although I'm sure I was occasionally sullen, I feel like I somehow missed my "rebel" phase due in part to her savvy and respectful handling of potential discord.  Somehow it got into my head as early as 16 that my privileges came with responsibilities, and it would be... ill mannered? dishonorable? disloyal? to sneak out without permission after being trusted with the car keys and a room near the back door.  I remember shocking my cousins at a lakeside vacation by letting my aunt know we were going for a midnight swim.  It hadn't occurred to me that they would NOT inform their guardians about such things, or have their consent; and it hadn't occurred to them that I would need to be told not to "tell."

So many families seem to have a merry war between the generations; but somehow I felt like my mom and I were always on the same side.

In addition to speaking three or four languages well enough to be certified to teach them at the high school level, my mother routinely picks up another language, either for teaching, or for travel.  After taking her translation abilities for granted in childhood, I didn't study these languages with her beyond a few months' dabbling. To my chagrin, at 22 years old, I finally realized I might one day want to travel without my mother along as a translator. 

My mother also studied how to bring out the best in herself: to find a peaceful center from which to ride out life's troubles.  God knows there were many hurts, and I know more of them now, despite both my parents' relative success in shielding us from them early on.  I remember her practising stretches from aikido class, and showing me how to find lines of force, or do rolls on the living room carpet.  She taught me a number of meditation and comfort techniques that I still use today: massage or back-scratches, melting oneself from the toes all the way up to the head, imagining one's 'house of the soul', poetry and prayers, counting one's blessings.

My mother was young, and has always remained beautiful.  I was born when she was 21 years old.  It's strange to think of myself as "older than my mother," though of course in another sense that will never happen.  But now that 21-year-olds seem young to me, I notice a number of remarkable ways my mother was mature for her age.
- the courage to set her own path: perhaps not surprising in a child whose family marched her up the glacier-peaked Cascades at age 12, she knew in her teens that she wanted both a career and a family, and undertook both with great success.  When she married my Catholic father, the bishops had their hands full dickering over her conversion.  She always held authorities to a higher standard of integrity, with the same gentle firmness with which she confessed her "disappointment" in our childish ill deeds.
- the grace to be an excellent mother, and to accept help from others, after her own parents' untimely deaths.  Her father died suddenly when she was 13; her mother died at 59 before my brother was born.  Even before Grandmary passed away, my mother was on firmly friendly terms with my father's mother Enid, and I remember her later treating her as "Mom," a mentor and confidante.  They remained steadfast friends, if a bit more circumspect, even after my parent's divorce 24 years later. 
- the brilliance and perseverance to complete a Stanford bachelor's degree in 3 years, and follow up with a Masters while raising 4 children;
- and the practical sensibility to fix a garden gate, mend or sew as needed, and generally apply her gifts in a spirit of generous service.

The Spider Says: But was she a "perfect" mother?  Nobody is, of course.
If I had to pick a tragic flaw in my mother, it might be her self-imposed standards of excellence.

There is no cost to tickle a happy baby; it's emotionally rewarding and politically correct.  My mother can coo at babies with the best of them, but hand her a fussy one, and not only will she take it - she will most likely change the diaper or find the pinching pin, rather than just hand it back.

Being a diaper-changer in a cooing world can get exhausting.  If she can't be at her best, with enough energy to help, my mother will withdraw for some quiet time to herself.  It's usually healthy self-preservation, unless it's not.

When my parents divorced, I realized that I could not remember hearing them fight or argue through most of my childhood.  And I suddenly realized that might not be such a good thing as I had imagined it to be.  Maybe someone had tacitly turned a blind eye, or given up on some things, somewhere.  Maybe some of those things were important enough to fight for.

I remember actively seeking out other families who could indulge in a good loud fight without threatening their relationship, to see how they did it.  (They did it in various ways, not necessarily any healthier than my parent's intense "discussions." But I did learn there are ways to fight fair, and am gradually learning to practice them in my own marriage.)

I'm grateful to have absorbed the practice of lifelong learning, of delight in words and ideas, and the pragmatism to cope with whatever life throws at you (while doing your best to provide fairness and decency for others).

And I'm extremely grateful that my own parents are still around for weekly phone chats and visits, so that I can enjoy the beloved sound of my mother's voice, or the imprompetu intimacy of a walk in the rain.

So happy Mother's Day, Mom. 
A virtual walk in the woods, with May flowers, especially for you.