Mom Lessons: How to Lead a Good Life

Mom Lessons: How to Lead a Good Life

When my mother would gaze out at the late afternoon light, the golden afternoon she often called it, (a reference to a song lyric), she often become sad. “Why?” I once asked, and she explained that she would see the fathers coming home to their families, and those moments in the day, more than any of the others, reminded her–she was doing this all alone.

My mother was widowed at the age of 34, my father dying too young, leaving her with three children under the age of six, and the possibility that she would pull into herself, wish for a vastly different situation and let sorrow and anger fuel her life.

She did not. My mother taught us responsibility, loyalty. 

Her complete love for us became her focus, her sadness more and more remote. With creativity and love, she took on every challenge, big and small. When I look back on how she raised us, loved us—there was no better role model, ever. My mother became one of the first working mothers in our neighborhood, and like everything she did, she excelled.   

She taught us the rewards of a consistent, well-organized routine—today we would say she was multi-tasking.

To pay the mortgage and feed us, she worked at home, typing insurance policies in our dining room. At night, after dinner, she did what she called “processing” of the work she had completed during the day. She would sit at a card table in our living room, pull the copies she had typed apart, sort them into neat piles. This required paper clips, staplers, pens, glue and often her signature. While doing this, she could monitor our television watching, help us with our homework, even comment on the books we were reading.

My mother taught us that all you really need for entertainment is books, art and music.

As we grew, our living room vibrated with classical music, jazz, opera, musical comedies, The Beatles, The Beach Boys…my mother encouraging my older brother to read the Schwann catalogue and order recordings from the local record store; (in college he had his own classical music program on the university’s radio station); she encouraged my younger brother to learn how to play the guitar; (after college he moved to LA and within a year was on his way to a career in recording and promoting pop and contemporary music.)   

From the moment we all could sit still, my mother read to us, shared storybooks, later colorful art books with glossy photos. When we learned to read, there were weekly trips to the library where we checked out stacks of books, my mother modeling the importance of reading for knowledge as well as enjoyment.

And there were chores. Each of us had an assignment to keep our home clean and efficient. We made up songs, created lyrics to get through doing the dishes, though sometimes those lyrics were created to tease our youngest brother. We got in trouble for it.

Our mother taught us that when feeling sad, you might try singing.

Our mother had a beautiful voice and whenever we traveled she would sing while she drove–another way for us to learn popular music and how it just made you feel good. Crayons, paper and water colors were always available in our home to encourage creativity and to celebrate birthdays, holidays or just to say thank you.   Mom loved receiving the tree and house drawing that were my staple–and the I LOVE YOU message with X’s and O’s.

Our mother taught us responsibility, and that it was wise to save money. 

All of our lives, we were witnesses to good mothering—our mother, grandmother and our wonderful aunts. They challenged us, helped us look to our futures so that we might learn to dig in, contribute to the pace and satisfaction of our shared lives. We put up storm windows, mowed the lawn, raked leaves and planted a garden. I always cleaned the house. There were days when we fell back into kid-like behavior and Mom wasn’t all that happy: found us laughing at cartoons on a Saturday morning (two of us in college) while she came stomping up the back steps loaded with groceries. She got over it. She was human too.

Our mother was frugal, always driving used cars and buying her clothes on sale. She saved money for those things that brought true meaning into our lives. Thus we had a piano, and eventually a good turntable and speakers, as well as hundreds of books and framed watercolors on our walls.

Mom, through her example, taught us how to be kind and generous.

We learned that acceptance leads to happiness, contentment, though our mother certainly felt anger and disbelief when my father died suddenly, when she had to realize that she could make her life about us, about helping anyone else who was experiencing sorrow. She replaced her sorrow with gratitude, and whenever a friend or acquaintance was ill or had died, my mother was there to provide comfort. Our mother could give—but she could also receive.

Our mother taught use to accept gifts graciously. 

The doorbell would ring and there was Gen and her daughter with a box of hand-me-down clothing for me. There was also a friend who actually worked in a toy store and once a year he’d arrive with very expensive toys in three huge boxes—one for each of us. We were thrilled.

When you accept the generosity of others, the upside is giving back. Mom always had a bag or box or envelope for the people who cleaned for us or did repairs. Thank you were two words often heard in our home. We took them with us, bestowing them on others throughout our lives.

Other gifts…

Our mother inspired our desire to travel, to experience the world. She took us on a train trip from Chicago to California. She drove us to Washington DC and back, widening our vision and future goals. She sang as she drove, love songs reminiscent of my father’s courtship days—The Man I Love, Someone to Watch Over Me, Night and Day. I watched the land flow and listened to her beautiful voice, realizing that the songs brought back comfort and the powerful memories she cherished. I will always be grateful she shared them with us.

Our mother’s gift of freedom….

Our mother never married again. When she wasn’t busy caring for us and then for her grandchildren, she continued to work as a secretary in downtown Chicago. She always loved to travel—her last trip flying to Prague in her late eighties. Everyone who knew my mother received a gift from her—a note, a letter of encouragement or a series of prayers said with her worn rosary beads. Mom’s gifts were endless and enduring and I was gifted when she allowed me to hold her weary hands as she took her last breath.

Her final gift: she taught us that we could go on living without her.


Three Million Dollars

Three Million Dollars

At Christmas, I always miss my father.  But though he died many years ago, our family has a comforting story about that loss, that sad time.  I have ghost-written the story, as if my mother were telling it to you.

I took the children to the park that bright summer morning.   As John, six, reluctantly held three-year-old Beth’s hand, I pushed the stroller, eager to lose myself in the beauty of the shade trees that lined our street.  I had to escape the basket of soiled diapers and piles of regular laundry.  I wanted to forget the ever-present box of thank you notes that I owed those who attended the wake, the funeral or brought food or watched my kids during those dark days.

Had only a month gone by since Al’s death?  All the sleep-deprived nights with my baby, Bill, and the days of trying to explain death to my other two, made the time feel like years.   I was free-falling, grasping for a sense of order and purpose after   Al’s sudden heart attack.   Yet even though I knew I should focus on the positives of my situation, I felt abandoned and lost.

Yes, I had two wonderful sisters and my mother living near by.  And I had a friend in our parish priest.  But Al left me with three small children to raise, a house we only rented, and a life insurance policy.  Because he was a dentist and it was 1950, I couldn’t get social security, and I knew the insurance money wouldn’t last forever

I would get a job, of course.   I had to.  But who would hire a widow without a college degree, no particular skills, and three kids?  At the wake, a woman had whispered in my ear that she could find a family to adopt Bill if I was interested.  I suppressed her words, wiping tears away and struggling to remember the names of Al’s patients who kept coming through the line.

One night, weeks later, I picked Bill up to feed him.  He smiled at me and gurgled as if to say: Let’s have a conversation, Mom.  I felt peaceful just holding him and yet in that moment the words of the woman from the wake came back to me.  I looked over at our empty bed, the sheets rumpled on only my side.  No, I said aloud, no. She had proposed an unspeakable idea.  I held my baby close to me, praying intensely for God’s help.

“John hold Beth’s hand,” I said now as we reached the crossing to the park.  We made our way into Little Ridge where Beth liked to play in the sand and John would usually find some friend he knew from the first grade.  I pushed Bill’s stroller over to a park bench and gratefully sat down to watch them.   The sun felt warm on my face.  I needed this.

But moments later when I turned my gaze from the sandbox, I was startled by a woman standing just on the other side of the stroller.  She was looking down at Bill.  I had never seen her before and an unexpected shiver flowed through me.

“Nice day,” I said, my voice cracking.

“He’s beautiful,” she said, looking down at Bill.  “Two boys and a girl, perfect.”

I nodded, my hand reaching for the handle of the stroller and my eyes darting back to the sandbox where John and Beth still played.

“You are so fortunate.  Even though your husband died, he left you three million dollars. ”

I wanted to protest—who was this woman who was so ignorant of my financial situation? How did she know about Al’s death?  What right had she to say such a thing to me?   But I said nothing.  I stared at her.  What did she really want?

Slowly she reached into the stroller and lightly cupped Bill’s downy head with her hand.  I didn’t move, watching her hand, listening to her coo to my child.  Bill stirred slightly, his eyes in a dream behind long blonde lashes.  Silence.  When she withdrew her hand she smiled at me.  I will never forget that smile—it transformed her plain, ageless face.   Then she turned and looked at Beth and John who were piling sticks and rocks in the sand.

I finally released my breath, my chest shuddering.  The warmth of the sun was intense.  I stood up.  “Yes,” I said, my voice clearer now. “Yes.  My husband did leave me with three million dollars.”  And I looked over to meet her eyes again, to say something else, maybe even ask her if we had met before.  But she was already half-way up the path that led out of the park, her body in dappled light from the overhanging trees.

I lifted Bill from the stroller and held him tightly against my chest.  I walked over to the sandbox praising John and Beth for the fortress they were building.

I never saw the woman again.  But all my life I have never forgotten her.  The gifts of my three children have been and still are the greatest gifts of my life.

Dr. Albert G. Pfordresher DDS of Chicago, Illinois died of a massive coronary in his living room on June 4, 1950.  He left a widow and three children.  My mother, who is 94, raised us entirely by herself.  We are: John C. Pfordresher, a professor at Georgetown University, William F. Pfordresher, a song writer and music producer, and Beth, a writer and mother of three amazing children—who wrote this piece.