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.


One Winter Afternoon in Chicago: MY FIRST KISS

One Winter Afternoon in Chicago: MY FIRST KISS

Early college and we are inseparable.


FIRST KISS–1960’s style.

Picture a young teenage couple in the dining room of the girl’s home. There’s a record player there and she puts on a 45 and it begins to play HEY HEY PAULA. But there’s also a large bay window in this dining room and this is Chicago—houses are close together. So as the sun begins to sink in the western sky, Mrs. H, the girl’s neighbor and the best cook on the block, stands at her kitchen sink doing some food preparation. She has a great view of the girl’s dining room and is familiar with the young teenage couple. When she looks up from the chicken she is cleaning at the sink—she gasps!

The couple is there, in the window, dancing. They are very close together and the girl has nuzzled her face into the boy’s shoulder. After a while, Mrs. H realizes the water she is using to clean the chicken has become very hot, it’s burning her skin, maybe even cooking the chicken. She turns it off, but stays by her post. She can’t turn away. She needs to be a good neighbor and report to the girl’s mother everything she witnesses.

The couple is still dancing, slowly, barely moving, trance-like. And then the girl moves back slightly so she can look into the boy’s eyes. Mrs. H holds her breath. And then, and then—they break apart—only to carefully pull down the shade that covers the bay window. Back in each other’s arms the kiss begins, tentatively at first, then with more involvement, a little more passion, working on that learning curve.

Mrs. H finishes preparing her chicken.

When the kiss is over, there is laughter and hugging. They know they have something and it is thrilling and wonderful. Their first kiss! One of millions to come. So they remain as they are, holding hands, smiling into each other’s eyes as the sun goes down and the room grows dark.

But finally, with thoughts of homework and the routine of their lives calling, they turn on lights, he finds his jacket and she walks him to the front door. But it has begun. And those moments will be vivid and tender memories for both of them throughout their 44 plus years of marriage.

And Mrs. H? She went to their wedding, lent them her fancy car to get them to and from the church. She shared some of her furniture with them as they created a house and home. I guess you could say, Mrs. H was the first witness to a love that–though she didn’t see it–was sealed with a kiss.

One Winter Afternoon in Chicago: MY FIRST KISS

We’re married, cuddling in the back of Mrs. H’s car!



One Winter Afternoon in Chicago: MY FIRST KISS

A street on the south side of Chicago.


Thanks to WBEZ 91.5

and family photos!



When I Was A Kid…

When I Was A Kid...

At the tender age of 23, my husband and I had a couple over for dinner—new friends. When I started to say something about my mother, the woman interrupted me: “I don’t want to hear anything else about your mother. Don’t you know that not everyone in this world loves their mother?”

I was awestruck. No, I actually did not know that. Was I fortunate or just naïve? Actually both. Somehow we got through that dinner, but from then on, I appreciated even more how awesome my mother truly was. When I was a kid, I knew that every moment of my life.


We bring with us to adulthood so many small experiences that build and make us who we are. And now as a mother of adult children and a grandmother, I want to believe that when we raised our children, we gave them a foundation to help them love life, seek knowledge, succeed with struggle, use their brains and creativity to bring joy to their lives and others’ lives—and to always know that being kind and helping people supports both the body and the soul.

And it all starts at the very beginning, it all starts with one’s early life.


Below are a few snippets from mine, things that I know without question, formed who I am. I could have written pages and pages, but then none would stand out. And I tried to choose from different phases of my early life and to represent family, friends, neighborhood, church, school, social development, exposure to a world that wasn’t perfect.

Some of what I experienced was normal for the time–but should not have been. And of course my early life experience is strongly connected to time and place—in the past.

For from generation to generation we have to and learn to adapt and change. Change is not always positive—it can sometimes morph into new challenges, and the question arises—did those very early experiences prepare us for such a challenge? Yes and no.

Yet change is often totally positive and  awesome, and in the process, we learn a major lesson that we then pass on to our children. As a result, they become better people than we were.

The events below are part of who I am. They formed my initial reactions to life around me. Then I grew. Like all humans, I was a seed that sprouted and changed. But what fed me in the beginning—what awakened questions, thoughts and fears will always be a part of me. It’s in there–somewhere.


When I was a kid, I had no father. He died when I was 3; I barely remembered him.

When I was a kid, I was afraid of all dogs, didn’t know any cats and once had a turtle for a pet.

When I was a kid growing up on the southside of Chicago, the milkman and the eggman came to our back door with deliveries on a regular basis. We had a telephone and radios. We got our first television when I was in grade school.

When I was a kid, we had indoor plumbing, everyone we knew did. But one family across the street let their little boys urinate under their front porch.

When I was a kid, the lonely wail of the Rock Island train sang me to sleep on many nights.

When I was a kid, my mother typed in our dining room to pay the bills.

When I was a kid, we had borders who lived with us and paid rent—a Sioux Indian from South Dakota, two Irish nurses from County Cork and a teacher from Wisconsin—not all at the same time!

When I was a kid, I was afraid of men; I was afraid of new things. When I started Kindergarten, Mom had my friend Greg walk me every day. He was my age!

When I was a kid, I had surgery on my left eye. I was five. After that I wore glasses and I had clunky shoes, pale eyebrows and thin hair!

When I was a kid, confession on Saturdays, Latin words and hymns, the smell of incense, and booming organ music were a normal part of my life.

When I was a kid, our cleaning lady walked to our house from the bus; she changed her clothes in the basement and sat by herself at lunch. I did ask questions about this.

When I was a kid, an infrequent treat was a chocolate bakery cake that sat on a hard cardboard circle and was decorated with one hard red cherry.

When I was a kid, I had to ask my teacher how to complete a form, what to put in the blank space that read FATHER. She said curtly: put deceased. What did that mean? She didn’t even tell me how to spell it.

When I was a kid, I didn’t like Daddy-Daughter breakfasts or dances, cause I didn’t have a daddy.

When I was a kid, I was afraid to answer the telephone and even in the 3rd grade I did not know the difference between a quarter, dime and nickel. My mother taught me about coinage and made me answer the phone.

When I was a kid, our backyard felt so big my brothers and I could get lost in it. A lean-to shed, a jumble of bushes, or the space behind the garage—all made great forts.

When I was a kid, my friend Jean and I pretended her mother’s rock garden was a vat of boiling oil and we would push imaginary witches and bad people into it. Or pretend we were pushing kids we didn’t like.

When I was a kid, there was a box of pennies in a cabinet in our dining room. My mother said my dad left it for us. It never ran out of pennies.

When I was a kid, my mother let me and my brothers walk a few blocks to the candy store for penny candy. Our known world was actually small, but we felt it to be big and bright and safe.

When I was a kid, we played hopscotch, Mother May I, Freeze Tag, and Hide ‘n Seek. When adding together the children that lived in the two houses across the street from us, we had 10 children of various ages to play with.

When I was a kid, I had a green JC Higgins two-wheeler bike that I pretended was a horse. Jean and I rode around the block numerous times a day. I wore handed-down clothing, except for the dresses my aunts bought me for birthdays and Christmas.

When I was a kid, I wrote a few paragraphs about a tornado. I was in 4th grade and decided that I would become a writer. I still have that piece of paper.

When I was a kid, Bing broke his arm on our back porch, Vinnie had to go to a special Children’s Hospital, and Charlene’s parents had her taken to the local hospital’s psych ward only because she was a teenager and acting like one. True story.

When I was twelve, my mother, in a very motherly fashion, told me about sex.

When I was twelve, I took over the task of cleaning our house. Mom helped. I also planted a garden.

When I was twelve, my mother went to work downtown and my younger brother and I became latch-key kids. We walked home from school for a lunch that I made. We did fine.

When I was twelve, I noticed that my future husband lived in our neighborhood. I also was allowed to ride my bike a mile and a half to my future high school to take piano lessons. The high school girls made fun of my bike.

When I was thirteen, a girlfriend told me a joke with the f-word and I laughed but had absolutely no idea what she was talking about.

And when I was teenager, life changed, opened up. I embraced high school, walking a long distance to school with friends, being exposed to new ideas, boys. I learned how to draw on my eyebrows! But everything above was still part of me. And still is.

Thanks for reading. Please share a snippet of when you were a kid. You might have a list of supportive, joyful memories and you might have a very negative one that caused you to go in a totally different direction when you were old enough to make your own choices. Joyous, sorrowful. Confusing, simple and embraceable–it is all still part of you, it’s still in there. We move on, we change, we grow. It’s life. It’s way beyond WHEN I WAS A KID.

When I Was A Kid...

Thanks, Mom.

When I Was A Kid...

Crinolines under our dresses was all the rage. That’s me, center right, in the dark dress and glasses, of course.


When I Was A Kid...

The 99th Street Station for the Rock Island was just a few blocks from my house.



Hospital Corners and Home Ec

Hospital Corners and Home Ec

Just follow the directions!!

Recently, Barbara Brotman, a Chicago Tribune writer that I have admired for many years, wrote a column about the talents that we still have, but often do not use.  She challenged today’s young generation to read a map, rewind a tape of your favorites to the right song, and defrost a refrigerator.  But the skill that she still uses often is this one: I still make a bed with hospital corners, as if no one had invented duvets. When I tried to teach it to my daughters, they looked at me as if I were starting dinner by rubbing two sticks together…this little domestic ability deserves respect…isn’t it possible that the rarity and frequent uselessness of old-school ways also give them a kind of cachet?

Yes, Barbara, they do. And your piece made me remember that in seventh grade my best friend Jean and I organized and ran a Home Economics Schoolfor the younger, sorry to say, just girls in the neighborhood.  I don’t think any boys asked if they could attend, but our consciousnesses were not raised yet.  It was 1960!

We taught our five pupils how to make a bed, using hospital corners, how to dust and vacuum, how to sew—that was a big challenge and my mother had to help—and how to cook a simple meal.  Jean’s mother, who had eight kids of her own, was the hero for this class.  She let us turn her backyard into a small restaurant where on a balmy summer day we fed the neighborhood children PBJ sandwiches, chips, and milk.  For free!  What were we thinking?

We actually had a graduation ceremony on my front porch where we gave one of the five pupils, Sherry, an award for being the best student.  Thinking back, I see it more as a subtle bribe—she was the neighborhood handful.

The entire process, brochures listing the classes and dates, assembling things we needed, getting parental permission, was a huge undertaking.  And our own dear mothers were so cooperative, interrupting their own work to accommodate our classes.

I ask myself now—what if I had run with this idea starting right then?  Maybe I would have become another Martha Stewart.  But there were just too many wonderful things to learn and explore.  Why settle on one?

Like Barbara Brotman, I too still use hospital corners.  As for sewing, forget it!

Thanks to Google Images