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.
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.