For many of us, Mom is our first and best teacher. Celebrating my mother’s 80 years brings to mind crucial life skills that she patiently nurtured in me. Here’s a list of 10:
1) How to make a friend. My first friend was the boy who lived next door. He was a year younger than I, and I don’t remember much about him except that we called him “B” even though his name was Todd. I was only 4 when we moved. Our next house was much larger and our next door neighbors didn’t have children. I remember sitting on the front steps feeling lonely when a boy from up the street walked up our driveway. I ran inside to tell my mother that someone was in our yard. She came out with me, greeted him, and asked him his name. He rattled off 4 names so fast it made my head spin. She asked him to repeat it, slower. With her coaxing, we finally learned his name, that he lived 2 doors down, and that he was a year younger than I. I had my new friend!
2) How to take a break. My mother enforced nap time, even when we were on vacation. I was 10 when the family went to Hawaii. My 3 older sisters and I wanted to go swimming in the hotel pool as soon as we got settled, but Mom was pregnant and jet-lagged, so nap time was enforced. We squirmed around for an hour in our room but didn’t sleep, insisting we were too old for naps. By dinner time, I was face down in my coconut chicken. I have been an avid napper ever since.
3) How to join a community. My mom was my first Girl Scout leader. She eagerly got involved in meetings, field trips, camping, and promoting the Girl Scout way. I stayed with Girl Scouts through my senior year in High School, traveled to New England on a National Opportunity, learned to ski, and served as cookie chairman for my troop. I made a lot of friends, gained a lot of skills, and finally developed some self-confidence. It wasn’t always cool to be a Girl Scout, but it turned out to be a useful path to awesome for both of us.
4) How to make a pie. This is a skill that goes beyond simply following instructions. Pie crust is tricky. It crumbles and breaks a lot, but it’s supposed to. You must treat it delicately but not too tentatively. At first, my job in pie-making was to “pie pray”. That meant that my mother would tell me to pray as she was lifting the rolled dough up into the pan. She wasn’t ready to let me actually handle it. Eventually, I earned the right to do the whole process. Making a pie involves a lot of decisions. Making a pie with an apprentice involves a lot more. What and when do you delegate? When do you give up control? It’s as much about negotiating as it is about baking.
5) How to iron…or not iron. My father insisted on using cotton handkerchiefs his whole life. He did not use Kleenex. They were washed in hot water and ironed to sterilize them. He cycled through hundreds of handkerchiefs in a month, and my mother had all 4 of her daughters taking a share of the ironing. We also learned to iron our own clothing and were expected to keep our ironing pile under control. I ironed weekly throughout junior high and high school. When I got to college, the iron was stored on my top shelf and was only used on my choir uniform. My museum costume gets ironed, otherwise I’d probably not even own one now. Just because you have a skill doesn’t mean you have to use it.
6) How to study. My mother and I have similar learning styles. We retain organized information easily, and we never forget a song. The most detailed and peculiar stuff can be absorbed if we draw up a study chart and create a mnemonic device. This is how I got top grades and a B. A. in music. Write it down; make it up. Works for us!
7) How to interview for a job. The hardest thing for me to learn in this area was not to disqualify myself in the first place. I really wanted a job as a camp counselor when I came home from college my sophomore year, but I had a million excuses in my way. I didn’t want to be too far away from my boyfriend; I didn’t know how to drive very well; I didn’t have a car; I didn’t have enough experience or a resume. My mother lit a fire under me. We found a camp just up the mountain listed in the Yellow Pages; she copied an article from Sierra Club News that had a picture of me playing the guitar to a bunch of kids to show the interviewer; she drove me to the interview and sparked up an enthusiastic conversation with the director. The rest is history. I worked there for two years and the director was a bridesmaid in my wedding. It’s still true that my biggest limitations are the ones I imagine in my own mind. I’m grateful that my mother doesn’t live in my head and can draw me out of it.
8) How to be appreciative. One of the greatest gifts we have to give the world is our appreciation. It’s a win-win activity. It makes others feel good that we’re feeling good about something. It’s easy to do, really, because there’s so much in this world to appreciate. The trick is not to be shy. Take a risk, show your appreciation, and be specific. When I first attempted to make bread in Home Ec class in junior high, I brought a slice home, wrapped in a napkin. I have a distinct picture of my mother sitting on the side of her bed, tenderly unwrapping it and remarking enthusiastically on its texture and its smell and then finally taking a small, leisurely bite. “Oh! It’s like Anadama bread!” She showed such pleasure that I was grinning all afternoon. She is not a bread-baker, but I find it one of the simplest, most rewarding things I do now.
9) How to be tolerant and open. It’s easy to throw judgments about other people around, habitually, casually or accidentally, and even easier to harbor them in your own wounded psyche. My grandmother and my father, though near and dear to my mom and me, were both guilty of rejecting others and treating them unkindly. It was very confusing to me to see these people whom I liked and admired showing such prejudice, but my mother was good at including and befriending others despite her mother’s or her husband’s disapproval. I don’t remember any big arguments or scenes, just that my mother kept up her associations loyally, somehow, nevertheless. My own sister was not welcomed by my father for 25 years, until Alzheimer’s made it impossible for him to recognize her. She always had a place in Mom’s life, though, and we would visit together while my dad went out. I can only wonder how these differences were discussed between my parents.
10) How to keep learning. Stay open, stay interested, stay enthusiastic. I trust that my mother is delighted by something new each day. I hear about the new people she’s meeting at her senior living community and her discovery of the binder containing their biographies. She relates bits of fascination every time we talk. She is always making connections between people and stories and places and ideas like she’s weaving a great, joyful tapestry together. I hope I’m like her when I’m 80!
If you’re just visiting this blog for the first time, you’ve stepped into the fourth day of my birthday project for my mom, who is turning 80 years old on New Year’s Eve. Today’s list of 10 things is about Parenting Principles. My mother is, naturally, my primary example of mothering. She and I both became parents for the first time at the age of 22. She raised 5 children to adulthood; I raised 4. Wisdom doesn’t come with numbers or statistics, though. Wisdom comes in the actual practice of decision-making in love. It’s not about adopting a “right way”, it’s about living out of your values and making choices that you deem appropriate. Keeping that in mind, here are 10 ideas of mothering that Mom communicated to me over the years.
1) Your marriage comes first. This piece of advice she always attributed to her mom. The simple logic is this: your family starts out with just the two of you and will end up with just the two of you. That twosome is the foundation for all that happens in the middle. Obviously, this arrangement isn’t what everyone chooses or how events transpire for all. But in the throes of child-rearing, it helps to keep a perspective on who you want to be. If you want to be all about the kids, then it’s likely they will grow up happily at center-stage and leave happily stage left, and you’ll be left standing unhappily onstage with a stranger. Keep the action going between you, and let the other characters come and go.
2) Learn to feed yourself before feeding your family. This is like the airline adage, “Place the mask over your own nose and mouth before assisting other passengers.” After her wedding, my mother immediately took up the challenge of feeding her new husband “in the manner to which he was accustomed”, meaning that she taught herself how to make recipes handed down from his nurse/nanny, Agnes. Her time of early experimentation and solid study in the culinary arts led to her success as an accomplished gourmet later. I had planned to have 5 years of marriage under my belt before attempting motherhood, but I got pregnant 4 months after the wedding. I was immediately nauseated by the smell of food before I’d even learned how to cook on my own. I lost weight in the beginning of the pregnancy and rapidly after the baby was born. Postpartum depression reduced me to 98 pounds while I was trying to breastfeed. I was literally struggling for survival. Bottom line: learn to cook and eat, even if it seems like the last thing you want to do.
3) Prepare for delivery. My mother is a model of responsibility in many ways, not the least of which is her health. She educated herself about her body and her options in childbirth and made her decisions with my father, I’m sure, but not based on his participation. He was not ready to be one of those Sensitive New Age Dads who goes to Lamaze or presides in the delivery room. He stayed at home in 1957, 1959, 1960, 1962 and in 1973. I’m sure he had other options by the last birth, but his choice was to let my mom “carry on”. For her first four births, she had her labor induced. Why? Well, she was living on the Marblehead Neck and could be separated from the mainland by a storm at any time. She prepared.
4) Breasts have a clear purpose. In America in the ’50s, scientists tried to impress society with ‘modern’ and ‘better’ ways to live. It was all about innovation and technology and product placement. Sound familiar? Mom wasn’t buying. She was also not washing and sterilizing and mixing formula. She had the correct equipment already on hand, thank you. And she intended to use it. And when she turned 50 and the doctors told her that her equipment was sprinkled with carcinoma in situ, she said, “Well, I’m not going to worry myself into a state while that progresses in any way. I’m done using them. Take them away.” She’s 30 years cancer free. A survivor, a pragmatist, an example of responsibility to me.
5) Cotton is best. It’s natural, it breathes, and it doesn’t irritate your skin. Use cotton diapers, cotton balls and cotton clothing. No plastic diapers or synthetic wipes or flame-retardant coating. Following Mom’s advice, I used a diaper service that delivered fresh, clean cotton diapers to my home every week when I was raising babies in California and Illinois in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I was amazed to find 4 years ago that there are NO diaper services AT ALL in metropolitan Milwaukee any more.
6) There’s always room for one more, especially in your heart. This is an attitude of abundance and inclusion that is very generous and non-anxious, which I like. However, with 7 billion people flooding the global eco-system these days, it begs careful examination and consideration. Make your decisions accordingly. Mom gave me some “outside of the box” advice when baby number 4 came along while we were still living in 1050 square feet of house in Southern California. Lacking another bedroom, another crib, or even another bassinet, The Domestic Engineer suggested we could always pull out the bottom dresser drawer and line it with blankets or use the bathtub.
7) Don’t think you’re too old for one more, either. My mother gave birth at 39 to her last child. The gap between me and my brother is just 3 days short of 11 years. Everyone was surprised, even Mom, but the pregnancy was never ‘an accident’, and she finally had a son. You’re never too old for one more plot twist as well. I became pregnant after my husband had had a vasectomy, when my youngest was 6. It was certainly unexpected, but I was thrilled. I had a miscarriage at 10 weeks, which was not entirely anticipated, either. Stay light on your feet.
8) Never miss a teaching opportunity. When my brother was borne home from the hospital, I was 11 years old and my sisters were 13, 14, and 16. We were ripe to learn babysitting skills at least and mothering skills for the future. It went over well with prospective employers to tell them that I had been helping care for an infant at home for a year before I started babysitting other children. As my brother grew, I watched my mother’s parenting from a different perspective. I noted how much time she took with him, reading to him, letting him explore, listening to his talk, getting involved in his schooling, etc. I saw patience and willingness and diligence and, yes, worry. Parenting is not easy; it is complicated, and it requires effort. But it is rewarding on many levels.
9) Even worst case scenarios are teaching opportunities. My mother has survived the number one stress on the parenting list. On any list. The death of a child. Alice was technically an adult at 20, but she was still my mother’s child. She was driving from California to Ohio to begin her senior year at college. Alice fell asleep at the wheel in Nebraska, going 80 mph on Interstate 80, rolled the car and was killed instantly. I was her only passenger. I saw my mother’s grief first hand, also her capability. She flew out on several connecting flights to reach me the morning after the accident. She comforted me in my confusion and shock and made all the legal and practical arrangements to get us back to California. She navigated the complex waters of all of the ripples and storms caused in that one, tragic moment with grace, with authentic grief, and with compassion for everyone affected. Somehow, she did all this without a therapist, too. I think she’s always been good at knowing herself, at learning and communicating, and at being patient and allowing healing to arise. That makes for good parenting, for your children and for your own inner child.
10) Trust yourself. A happy family isn’t beyond you. Just remember, you have to allow your idea of “happy” to be fluid. My mother came to the dinner table one night before my sister was killed, and recounted a visit with some door-to-door evangelists. She had told them proudly that we already had a “happy Christian family”. Many things changed beginning that night and afterward that challenged that idea, many more than I can go into here. Nevertheless, my mother remains happy with her family. That is her, again, taking responsibility. She is not a complainer. She is not dogmatic about attachments and expectations. She allows herself to create, co-create and re-create happiness as life unfolds. Her progeny goes beyond the children she has produced to a host of other projects. Parenting is about life-giving and life-nurturing, a worthy work for a lifetime. I think my mom is doing a great job….still.
10 Family Foods. 10 Fabulously Festive Family Foods! (Ah, ah, ah…*thunder and lightening*)
Is this a Muppet Count-down? No, not really. This is Day #2 of my mother’s birthday present. Yesterday’s post introduced the project and 10 Background Bits of my mother’s life. Today being Christmas Day, I want to tell you about my mother’s culinary talents. This is a day that we would spend feasting and in high spirits. Christmas Eve Mass having been accomplished and Mom’s choir commitment completed, she’d turn her attention to Christmas dinner. There’s so much I could write about, but I’ll keep it down to 10 things, and I’ll limit them to things that I have actually made myself. Except for this first item…
1) Fruitcake — You may shudder, but wait! My mother’s fruitcake is a triumph of dark, rum-and-brandy-soaked cake popping with candied fruits and savory nuts. The recipe is from Julia Child herself. Mom used to make it weeks ahead of Christmas in a huge, plastic tub (which later served as an infant bathtub for my baby brother), wrap it in cheesecloth, douse it with brandy and let it age. A dozen foil-wrapped parcels went out to the most appreciative friends and neighbors. Now my sister Sarah makes it, and if I’ve been good, I may get one in the mail this year, too. I have NEVER attempted this on my own. I doubt I could live up to the legacy.
2) Roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and gravy from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook — Fannie and I have become good friends, and though my original copy is pretty trashed, I am partner to a bookseller and have a few new editions at my fingertips. Yes, I can make this…and have!
3) Cran-orange relish — The recipe is on a postcard my mother sent to me when I moved back to the Midwest from California. It simply says, “1 bag cranberries, 2 navel oranges, 1 cup sugar. Grind and enjoy!” I should mention that I’m still using Grandma Marion’s food grinder from the 1940s. I’ll probably keep using it until that worn out cord and plug start a fire.
4) Pecan pie (and mince pie) — Again, from Fannie Farmer.
5) Lobster — When we lived in Massachusetts where I was born, Mom learned how to cook a live lobster. I didn’t end up cooking the first one on my own until we were living in California, and I was in college. My fiance Jim drove home from the fish market with the live lobster on his shoulder just to freak out passing motorists. I showed him how to hypnotize the lobster by holding it head down and stroking its tail. When it was limp, dropping it into the pot of boiling water (don’t forget a bit of Vermouth!) was a cinch.
6) Roast leg of lamb — Make slits in the outside and insert slivers of garlic cloves before putting it in the oven. I like rosemary and gravy more than mint sauce with it. I have a picture of myself one Christmas with a Lambchop puppet on my arm; we’re both looking aghast at the serving platter.
We can’t feast like Christmas all year long, so here are some samples of every day fare.
7) Soup — My mother kept a stock pot in her ‘fridge all week. On Wednesdays, when she’d be going out to choir practice, she’d make a batch of soup from leftovers and stock that we could eat ‘whenever’ and clean up without her supervision. To this day, she makes soup every week for the Food Pantry. Steve and I have dubbed her “Our Lady Of Perpetual Soup”.
8) Chili — The family recipe is pretty mild. Steve adds Tabasco and cheese and oyster crackers, and if I let him really indulge his Milwaukee roots, I’ll serve it on spaghetti noodles. Texas folk, please avert your eyes!
9) Chicken and rice — Basic dinner memories: the smell of onions and mushrooms sauteing in butter as the sun goes down. Add the chicken, rice and liquid to the same pot. Season with your favorite flavor combinations.
10) Brownies — Not from a box! Made by melting Baker’s chocolate and butter on a double boiler and adding it to the creamed butter and sugar. Then add the eggs and the flour and dry ingredients. Memorable mishaps: pouring hot, melted butter and chocolate into the creamed butter and sugar AFTER having added the eggs and watching bits of cooked scrambled eggs emerge. And my sister putting in half a cup of baking SODA instead of half a TEASPOON of baking POWDER. The brown, bubbly stuff spilling out of the pan and all over the oven resembled lava! Cool!
Tomorrow, for St. Stephen’s Day, 10 Musical Memories…
In the late 1960s, a couple with 2 young children bought their first house in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
There were small trees in the back yard that grew and grew…
The trees shaded the house and the garden. The children played beneath the trees, and the mother and father planted flowers in the garden so that they could sit outside and enjoy their color and fragrance.
As time went on, the children grew to adults and moved away from the house. The couple lived there still, and grew older together. Then the father died, and the mother lived there alone. Finally, she decided to sell the little home to another young family with small children…and a baby on the way. So she and her grown-up son said ‘good-bye’ to the place together.
The Weekly Photo Challenge prompt invites us to interpret the theme “Between”. This response is dedicated to my oldest, Susan. When she was a little girl in Kindergarten, she memorized a poem by A. A. Milne (the author of the Winnie the Pooh stories) and performed it for the K-3rd grade Speech and Oratorical Contest of her elementary school. Here is the poem:
Before Tea by A. A. Milne
Has not been seen
For more than week. She slipped between
The two tall trees at the end of the green…
We all went after her. “Emmeline!”
I didn’t mean —
I only said that your hands weren’t clean.”
We went to the trees at the end of the green…
Was not to be seen.
Came slipping between
The two tall trees at the end of the green.
We all ran up to her. “Emmeline!
Where have you been?
Where have you been?
Why, it’s more than week!” And Emmeline
Said, “Sillies, I went and saw the Queen.
She says my hands are purfickly clean!”