Things My Mother Taught Me
This is the first Mothers' Day that I will not be able to call my mother and wish her well, as the angels called her home last summer. I miss our weekly phone calls on Sunday nights. She would always ask about how my boys were doing in water polo or basketball and what country my girls would be touring in next. She'd tell me how she cleaned up in playing bridge that week, that she had "played the piano for the old people" (as if she, in her early 80s, wasn't one of them), or that she had written a zinger of a letter to the editor about the latest political hot button. She would tell me about my brother's kids, who lived nearby, how she was looking forward to seeing my sister soon, and when she would be coming to see us next, as we had moved 2000 miles away.
Mom with little me
We had a bit of a tempestuous relationship when I was younger, as is common with a lot of strong mothers and their daughters who are trying to figure out their own place in the world, but we figured it out sometime after I got married and had my own children (which by no coincidence was about the same time that I figured out that she was a lot smarter than I ever gave her credit for!). Here are some of the lessons she taught me:
1. Be honest and stick to your values
My mother was downright upright. She didn't tell even little white lies, and she had a very strong sense of right and wrong. She raised us with clear values and expected us to live by those, no matter how tough it got or what anyone else was doing. She walked the talk, and I never saw or heard her do anything that conflicted with her moral compass. She wasn't perfect of course, as no one is, but she had a very clear guide when it came to moral issues, and I could always trust that she was telling the truth and not candy-coating anything.
2. Keep faith and family first
My parents both came from large families, and they were close to their siblings. We went to family reunions almost every summer on both sides, and if we couldn't make it to the reunion, then we made the rounds and visited most of the relatives individually, even though it was a long trek from Calif to Iowa, with pit stops to visit more relatives in Phoenix and Albuquerque. I learned from this that friends come and go, but family is forever, and that went for both sides of the family. I had no sense of the inlaws being outlaws; both of my parents loved each others' families like they were their own.
Being Catholic, Sunday was church day, with no exceptions unless you were on your death bed. Our faith was the basis of our moral code, and it has become the rock for raising my own children as well. There is something comforting and timeless about being part of something greater than ourselves, and I am so grateful to have been raised that way. It is also the glue that holds us all together when the inevitable tough times hit, as they do for everyone at some point.
My mother had a collection of statues of the Virgin Mary (of which I now have a few); I am very grateful for her gentle introduction to our Blessed Mother, who is the best motherly role model of all! I find that I turn to her often for inspiration with my own children.
Part of my mother's collection of Mary statues
My parents had a very strong marriage. They were clearly best friends; they had many adventures together in the 12 years before I came along, and they continued to be adventurous for the rest of their time together. They put their faith first, and they kept their relationship strong, building the family on a very solid foundation. I have looked to their role modeling in my own marriage many, many times, and it's been so valuable to have that resource there.
One of the things I appreciated most was that she never meddled in my marriage or tried to tell me what to do in raising my own children. She wouldn't have appreciated her mother doing that to her, and she didn't do it to me. Always supportive, never intrusive.
Mom and Dad with Mike and me on our wedding day
3. Cook from scratch as much as possible
Mom was born in 1933, right in the thick of the Great Depression. They didn't have much of anything, and life was very difficult for many years, as of course, World War II hit on the back of the Depression when she was still a very young girl. She told me that everyone back then had a Victory Garden, which not only helped feed the family but also helped relieve pressure on the food supply, which was limited during the War.
Although that time was long past by the time I was born, we had a nice little orchard on our 3/4 of an acre, with apples, peaches, grapes, oranges, lemons, persimmons, nectarines, cherries, almonds, and berries, and we planted a vegetable garden every summer with tomatoes, lettuce, radishes, corn, onions, watermelons, squash, watermelons, cantaloupe, and pumpkins. I spent many hours every summer pitting cherries, husking almonds, and peeling apples for all the fruit that my mother canned, along with delicious pie fillings and jams and jellies.
And then there was the baking....my favorite part! Mom made the best homemade bread, including a special recipe for cracked wheat bread called "Johnny Bread" that she got from St John's in Minnesota, where my dad had gone to college for the first two years before he went off to Notre Dame. She also made amazing rolls, cookies, pies, and cinnamon rolls, and more often than not, the house smelled of whatever wonderful treat was in the oven. Not only was all of it delicious, but it saved a lot of money on food.
Mom with my brother and sister and me and the first of many Easter Bunny cakes, made from scratch, of course
4. Manage your money and be frugal -- "waste not, want not"
When I was a kid, I thought we were poor. As it turns out, we weren't, but I thought for sure we must be because I had very few clothes, and we never had a cool car like a lot of my friends. We always had the practical station wagon, and there was no cute little Mustang in sight when I turned 16. It was quite humbling to drive the old station wagon around when I first got my license, but it was better than sitting at home, so drive it I did. We hardly ever ate out, and when we went on vacation it was always either to relatives' houses or national parks, stopping at the cheapest motels with a cooler full of sandwiches and homemade cookies. Looking back, those are actually some of my favorite memories!
When I was six, my parents bought a cheap boat, and we all learned how to waterski. We found a lake nearby that was free to use with free parking, and we went waterskiing in the summers two or three times a week. The only cost was the gas in the boat, and it was the absolute best family time together. Sometimes we would invite a couple of other people to go with us so that we could all five ski together - the family that skis together stays together!
All five of us skiing. From left to right: Dad, my sister, my brother, me, and Mom
However much money my dad made as a crop-duster, he had learned early to invest it wisely. I remember seeing The Wall Street Journal come in the mail every day; my parents both played the stock market, each with their own portfolio, and they would compare notes every month or so. I never thought much about it, but my mom ended up being a widow for 27 years, and she was never in need of financial help from anyone. Being frugal and investing a little bit at a time while she and my dad were young kept her financially independent for the rest of her life through circumstances she would never have predicted.
5. Do things to the best of your abilities
The bar was always held very high for me. When I would get my report card, she expected there to be all A's on it, and if there weren't, I'd better have a darn good reason why. If I was learning a new piano piece, I'd say, "Hey, I learned this new piece!" Then she'd say, "Now memorize it!" Then I'd memorize it, and she'd say, "Now play it up to speed!" Then I'd get it up to speed, and then she'd say, "Now play it perfectly!" It seemed like it was never good enough, but in all fairness, when I would perform and hit a wrong note or have a memory lapse, she was nothing but supportive and brushed it off as no big deal. This was very helpful as I went on to get a Masters Degree in piano performance. If I didn't have the support during performances, I'm sure I would have never made it through the program.
Me at my senior recital (high school)
While it seemed like she was really tough on me at the time, I could see later that she was helping me build a strong work ethic and teaching me to set high standards for myself.
6. Be kind-hearted, and don't air your dirty laundry
My mom wasn't into gossip, and she didn't like to complain or "air your dirty laundry" as she called it. She preferred to talk about the bigger picture and big ideas, especially politics. When she did talk about other people, it was about something interesting going on their lives, not the petty backstabbing stuff.
"You catch more flies with honey than vinegar" was something I heard a lot, meaning be nice to people, whether you're trying to make new friends or asking for a favor. Now in all fairness, as she got older, her filters disappeared, and she had no issues with letting her grandchildren know how she felt about their ripped jeans or dyed hair. But then again, I'm sure I would have heard about that, too, had I worn ripped jeans or dyed my hair, but no one outside the family would have.
7. Cleanliness is next to godliness
While she wasn't germaphobic, she kept the house very clean and her garden weeded and pruned (as part of teaching me work ethic, I did my share of that cleaning and weeding!). We didn't have many toys or clothes, so it wasn't that hard to keep up with the mess. In the kitchen, she stayed on top of the dishes and taught me to be super sanitary while cooking: separate cutting boards for meat and veggies, wash your hands often, don't lick the knife while cutting the cake (yuck!), don't lick your fingers while decorating Christmas cookies, etc.
8. Be generous with your time and dollars
For as long as I can remember, I always saw lots of thank you mail addressed to my mom coming in from far away missions and other causes that she supported, as well as the church envelopes every Sunday. She also was extremely generous in volunteering her time for my activities and her pet causes, but never to the detriment of the family. When all of us kids grew up, she kicked it in high gear; she did prison ministry, visited a number of elderly people in nursing homes and played the piano for them and taught bridge lessons, and she was a relentless prolife warrior among other things.
St Francis Xavier, known for his missionary work
I miss my mom and our Sunday night conversations, but I'm grateful to have so many wonderful memories and traditions to remember her by. Happy Mothers' Day, Mom!
Mom with all her progeny a few years ago: my family, my brother's family (he only had a couple of children then), and my sister in the back (fourth from the left)
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