This is the end — the last day of the year, the last installment of my mother’s birthday project, and the last entry on this blog for 2014. My mother is 80 years old today. Here is a list of 10 Inspirational Instructions that she has embodied throughout her life. They are also serving as my New Year’s Resolutions for 2015. My mom is indeed an inspiration, and I hope she’ll keep breathing life in for many more years.
1) “Trust God, but do your homework.” This quote she always attributed to her own mother. I think it’s a great motto to pass on from generation to generation. In essence, it acknowledges our humility but does not absolve us from responsibility. We are not in control of all things, but we are in control of some. When you’re able to dance on that line with grace, you’re living wisely.
2) Regularly make the effort to right-size and divest. This comes from her organizational practice, and it’s a great reminder at the end of every year. I’ve watched mom go through “weeding out” stages my whole life. She systematically keeps her possessions under control: clothes, books, papers, housewares, pantry stock, music, everything. Steve & I are furiously reducing inventory at the book business now. Part of the fun is putting those things you divest into the hands of someone who will use and appreciate them. Recycle generously!
3) Gather experiences, not things. I remember my mother answering all inquiries about what she wanted for a gift with some version of this philosophy. She wanted something to live, not something to dust. I hope she gets lots of what she wants for a long time.
4) “Look wider still.” This is a Girl Scout challenge from International Thinking Day… “and when you think you’re looking wide, look wider still.” My mother loves this slogan. It applies so well to being broad-minded, tolerant, open and forever learning. It’s a big world. Even after 80 years, there’s a wider view to see.
5) “Only connect.” This phrase became the name of a BBC quiz show in 2008. It is derived from E. M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End, where a character says, “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.” The phrase has also been used to describe the liberal education, which celebrates and nurtures human freedom. I just learned these references from Google. From mom, I learned that rush of joy, that flush of understanding and the pure delight of living that shows in her face when she utters this phrase at the end of a stimulating discussion. That I learned years ago.
6) Don’t disown your own. “Only connect” applies to people, too, even and especially those near and dear who have a greater capacity to disappoint us. Looking wider than our expectations and our attachments allows us to see that we do not exist in isolation except by our own dogmatic choosing. Long after I learned this from watching mom, I heard it echoed in the writing of Thich Nhat Hahn. “We inter-are,” he says. The cosmos is held together in inter-being. Acting as though we’re separate and separating in judgment is an act of violence against the Universe. Peace is understanding there is no duality.
7) Let go; let God. My mother has always had the capacity for anxiety. She likes to do things “the right way”, she pays attention to details, and she fears the usual things from failure to death. So do I. Face it, we live in a pretty neurotic culture. Mom showed me by her example how to recognize this in yourself and then to strive to be a “non-anxious presence”. That doesn’t mean she was good at it. It means she practiced. That’s inspiring.
8) “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” This one comes straight out of the Bible (Ephesians), and it was a practice that she and my father adopted religiously. Every night, I’d hear them from behind their bedroom door, talking in low voices and then praying in unison. Taking responsibility for your emotions and communicating them is another inspiring example. Own your anger; it is about you. Talk about your anger to someone else. Then you are re-connected and at peace. It’s not magic; it’s useful.
9) “Underneath are the Everlasting Arms.” This also comes straight out of the Bible (Deuteronomy), but in the very next line, those arms are thrusting out against enemies and doing violence. The everlasting arms that my mother referred to were supportive. They were secure and safe. If I am to grow out of my neuroses at all, I think I need to begin to trust that the World is a good place. I belong here. Even though I myself and everyone I know will die, we end up right here. That’s the way it is, and there’s nothing wrong.
10) “Let nothing disturb thee, nothing affright thee. All things are passing; God never changeth. Patient endurance attaineth to all things. Who God possesseth in nothing is wanting. Alone God sufficeth. ” Teresa of Avila, translated by Longfellow. Mom had these words written up in her small hand and pasted on the inside of her desk cubbyhole door. It was like a secret she showed me when we were worried about something. All things are passing. This fear, this problem, this moment. Patience. Change and movement is how Life is, and it is well. I really believe that and strive to remember it. I think that all of Life is embraced in that dynamic, including God.
All things are passing, year into year, life into life, microscopically and macroscopically. We are so fortunate to be aware of our experience of it! I am ever grateful to my mother for sharing her life and her awareness and so many of her experiences with me. I look forward to more!
May each of you be happy and at peace in this year’s ending and in the continuation of Life in the New Year!
The birthday project continues. Yesterday’s was a rather heavy topic. I had to take a nap after writing it! So today, I’m offering Silly Sayings to lighten things up a bit. My mom was an English major in college and has always exhibited a droll, rather British wit. She loves word play and puns and arcane literary allusions. So here’s a list of some of her rather unique utterances. We’ll start with terminology and end up with occasional quips.
1) Zans. This is a kitchen gadget commonly known as a bottle opener, but thanks to Dr. Seuss, my mother refers to it as a Zans. “Have you a Zans for cans? You should!” (from One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, of course)
2) Doo-hickey. This is a twist-tie for closing a plastic bag. She saves them in a little dish on top of the oven to re-use.
3) Cupeliar. It’s like peculiar, only more so.
4) Slip-go-down. This is any food that you can eat without making an effort to swallow it. It’s served when you are sick with a very sore throat. An alternative for brand-name gelatin, if you will.
5) Posbiculate. Otherwise known as brain-storming, logistic cogitating, or ‘work-shopping’, if you speak Biznish (that one’s mine; I came up with it when my IT husband would start using computer terms at home). How it’s used: my brother is now engaged, but there is no wedding date set yet. We’re still posbiculating.
From this sampling of terms, we now move into occasions.
6) The one great hour of swearing. This is when my mother feels an urgency to clean house. She swoops down on us in a flurry of instructions, frustrations, and activity making everyone uncomfortable…but only for a short time, because it’s all accomplished quickly and efficiently. Then she can say…
7) “It’s all a merciful blur.” I get this response a lot when I ask her to recall the details of how she managed something painfully emotional and/or difficult. She prefers to remain positive.
8) “I haven’t had this much fun since we nailed the baby to the floor!” Now, calm down. Mom’s not got a sadistic bone in her body. Picture this instead: a baby dressed like Swee’ Pea in a Popeye cartoon with a trailing nightie. Nail the nightie to the floor, and the baby will crawl forever and not get into any mischief. So, now you can!
9) “Enuff zis luff-makink. Let’s eat!” This is how Mom moves a gathering of chit-chatting guests into the dining room to actually sit down and begin the meal before it gets cold. I kid you not, she said this as we were standing around in the courtyard of the columbarium at my father’s memorial service, too. Dutifully, we all burst out laughing and headed in to the Parish Hall to start the reception.
10) “Here’s champagne for our real friends, and real pain for our sham friends!” This toast comes out periodically. She said it over the phone to me on Christmas just a few days ago. Now you’ve heard it just in time for New Year’s Eve, her birthday. I leave it up to you to quote…or not.
My grandfather’s little tax deduction for the year 1934 arrived on New Year’s Eve. Anne Louise McFarland, my mother, grew up believing that all the fireworks and shouting every year on this day was in honor of her birthday. I grew up believing something very similar. My parents didn’t dress up and go out on New Year’s Eve…they dined at home on champagne and escargot and caviar and other delectable treats while listening to “The Midnight Special” on WFMT or to “Die Fledermaus” on TV or video. When I was old enough to stay up with them, we would sometimes catch the Times Square celebration and then declare East Coast midnight and go to bed an hour early. But the reason for the season was my mother, not the march of time. In my late teens, I didn’t go to other people’s parties, I still stayed home…and my boyfriend (soon to be husband) joined us. We enjoyed the best food and champagne and music and silliness and company without ever having to contend with drunk drivers on the roads. My mom lives 2,205 miles away from me now, but I am still planning to stay home and drink champagne and eat salmon and listen to wonderful music and think of her. She is still reason enough for all the joy and love and delight you might see tonight. I’ll show you why:
This is my mom and dad at her college graduation. That’s right, she graduated from Radcliffe, the female component to Harvard, at the age of 20. The woman has brains. With her late birthday and having skipped a year in elementary school, that means she went to college at age 16, all naive and nerdy with bad teeth and a lazy eye and glasses, but with a curiosity and charm that matured and eventually proved irresistible to my father, who, with money and pedigree and a Harvard degree, was “quite a catch”.
So, by 1965, she’s a mother of 4 little girls (that’s me, the baby, blonde, aged 3), running a household, volunteering with Eastern Star and the church and a host of other things. So stylish, so Jackie! This was Massachusetts, you know.
And she’s not afraid to go camping, either. This was a picnic picture taken by her mother-in-law. That would explain the handbags and the dress. My grandmother was never seen anywhere without a handbag and make-up. My mother was…often!
Fast forward 13 years. My mother gave birth to a boy when she was 38. She had 4 willing babysitters surrounding her and a handsome husband now sporting a beard. She’d also picked up a Masters degree in Church Music. We moved from Chicago to California where she became more adventurous in cuisine and hiking and music and new volunteer opportunities. This photo was taken the last Christmas that all her children were alive. My sister Alice (far left) died the next August.
A month after she’d turned 50, my mother became a grandmother for the first time. She’d also survived breast cancer by electing to have major surgery, something her own mother had done 10 years earlier. She was housing and caring for her barely mobile mother and raising a pre-teen son at this time as well. Do you see a grey hair? No? Neither do I. My mother is amazing.
Mom turns 55. She has 4 grandchildren, a 16-yr old son, and her mother has just died. She’s volunteering as a docent at the San Jose Historical Museum, a position she will hold for more than 20 years, specializing in their music department.
Here, she’s 60. My husband and I are traveling in Europe for our 10th anniversary, and she and Dad take our kids to the beach cottage for a few weeks. My husband survived double bypass surgery on his heart two years earlier. Yeah, Mom came out then, too, to take care of the kids…and me. Who has the energy to be with 4 kids (aged 3, 5, 7, & 9) at the beach for two weeks at the age of 30, let alone twice that? My mother. Although she did let me know (graciously) that it wasn’t easy.
In 2007, Mom came out with my sister and brother to see my daughter graduate from college. We all went to the cottage together again. This was my husband’s last trip: he died the following February. My father is not with us on this vacation. He is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease, a condition he had for 7 years before his death. My mother visited him several times a week while he needed skilled care and played the piano for all the residents, jogging memories with old popular tunes and supporting the hymns during chapel services.
My father died in March of 2010. I had been widowed for 2 years. My kids and I flew back to California for his memorial service, and Dad’s ashes were buried next to my sister’s and my husband’s. My mother invited the family back to her house and we gathered around the piano again. She played and sang and laughed and cried, and I did, too, right by her side. My mother and I are alike in many ways, and I am so glad, proud and grateful to be a woman like her. I see her smile, I hear her voice, I taste her cooking and her tears, and feel her spirit flowing around and through me all the time. We’re going to party tonight, Mom. Miles be damned! Happy Birthday! I love you!