My mother wasn’t famous. She wasn’t college educated. She hated politics, and, to my knowledge, never even registered to vote. She never flew in a commercial airplane or traveled farther away from home that the states that border North Carolina. She was a woman who didn’t form superficial friendships or socialize for socializing’s sake. She preferred a cheeseburger at home (charcoal-esque in its doneness) to dinner in any kind of restaurant. In fact, people who didn’t know my Mama well might make the mistake of thinking she was thoroughly unremarkable.
But there is nothing farther from the truth. My mother was an extraordinary human being.
Despite lacking formal education, my mother was exceptionally intelligent. Intellectual curiosity, study, and love of learning were fostered in us early on. My childhood was full of books, local museums, math workbooks–anything my mom could get her hands on to push us to learn more. Instead of candy or toys, my mom rewarded successful trips to the grocery store with Little Golden Books. When book fair time rolled around, she found money somewhere to buy us things to read. More importantly, Mama was a reader, and we grew up watching her devour books. Neither of my parents attended more than a few community college classes, but all three of their daughters have university degrees, and my youngest sister is about a year away from a doctorate.
My mother didn’t communicate love through words or things. We didn’t have a ton of money growing up, and she never showered us with name-brand stuff or the same amounts of spending money our friends had. My mom loved through action, through the works of her hands, through the things she did for us every single day. From the interminable soccer practices and games she sat through (one season Sandra’s team scored only one goal–in the opponent’s net), the trips we made to the beach in the summers, the dinners she cooked, and the clothes and quilts she made for us, Mama’s actions, more than any words, told us we were loved.
My mama wasn’t overly demonstrative or showy with affection. I never heard her yelling from the sidelines during my soccer games, but she watched every single play–even when I sat on the bench. She didn’t leave notes in my lunch box or write long, emotional letters to me on my birthday. But she had this way, of pulling you against her side, under her arm, as you sat on the couch watching TV at night, that made you feel like the most loved, protected child in the world.
Sometimes I felt like Mama was the hardest, strictest, most inflexible parent in the world. I had an insanely early curfew, wasn’t allowed to stay out all night at prom, couldn’t wear makeup until essentially high school, and never went out on a date with a boy who didn’t come into my house and meet both my parents first. It took me a long time to realize that all these rules were Mama’s way of communicating to me how incredibly precious I was, how concerned she and my dad were about raising us right and trying to save us from potential hurt and heartbreak. Before we knew enough to love ourselves, Mama loved us–fiercely and protectively.
My mom chose her friends carefully because, at heart, she preferred quiet time alone to social settings. She didn’t hang out with my friends’ moms, didn’t belong to the Junior League or anything more socially obligating than the church choir when we were kids. But the friends she chose–she had an eye for people and was an excellent judge of character. The women my mother counted among her friends are every bit as amazing as she was, She was fiercely loyal to those she considered friends, and she taught us volumes about what friendship means. She knew how to listen to people, how to find the best in them, how to meet their imperfections with kindness. She knew the value of holding her tongue and of judging others tenderly.
My mama loved children–anybody’s children, even bratty ones and especially babies. Mama had this way of understanding the world from a kid’s perspective. She made trick or treat bags for all the neighborhood kids at Halloween. She made toy bags for my younger cousins to entertain them during family functions and weddings. Kids trusted her and loved her, and she knew how to make them feel special.
The last–and hardest–lessons my mother taught me were about strength and dignity. About facing an uncertain future with calm and bravery. About not letting fear, pain, or loss make you curdle up inside or forget what joy is. About valuing quality over quantity.
My mother’s last coherent words were “yes”, spoken twice to two separate questions my father asked her: “Do you love Kelly, Joan?” and “Do you know that Kelly loves you?”. At her funeral, the sentiment was echoed over and over from people who knew Mama: “She loved you girls.”
That kind of love, its fierceness and intensity and power, is transformative. It defies death. It sees you through the obstacles you encounter in life. It builds families. It wraps itself around you and keeps you warm and safe on days like Mother’s Day, when you miss her so much there’s a dull ache in your chest. It flows out of you, like little beams of light or currents of electricity, into everyone you ever touch, into your family, your friends, your students, your niece and nephew (her grandchildren), complete strangers.
And that is the mark of an extraordinary human being–the little ripples their life makes in the lives of others, the millions of tiny ways their love continues to move in the universe long after their physical presence is gone.
It’s everywhere, always.
Filed under: Uncategorized Tagged: Family, Mother's Day