My mother has always been a beautiful, generous and loving lady with a smile that sets children at ease. Not only did she raise her own nine children, but for years she held day care in her home where all the little ones called her “grandma.” In looking back at the things she taught, most of the lessons were from her example and have impacted all of her children. I’m sure if we each made a list of seven, there would be 63 lessons learned. Here are some that influenced me:
1. My mother stretched the dollar by sewing for her children. I had many play outfits when I was young that coordinated with my older sister. And I still remember our pink or blue dresses with the ruffle down the front. One Easter, years later, we all marched into church in gingham dresses. Mom’s and the baby were in pink. Then each big sister matched a younger sister in blue, green or yellow. My mom even sewed our swimsuits when we were little. But as her family grew, and the need to sew for her seven daughters became increasingly demanding, Mom spent many late nights at her machine that was later moved to the basement. There, in a dark corner of a room with a cement floor, she diligently sewed. A couple of times we rose the next morning to find her still there, finishing up a dress for my sister to try on so that Mom could get it hemmed before the dance that night. Years later I sewed dresses for my own daughter’s dances, and my older sister is an amazing seamstress. Other sisters sew, one can sew without patterns. But the lesson wasn’t about sewing, it was service. I learned that parents give to their family even when nobody else is aware (sometimes when everyone else is sleeping.)
2. My mom liked pretty things. Not just to see her daughters in pretty dresses, but to have a lovely home. She painted our kitchen cabinets and sewed curtains for the windows. Once, after admiring a painting my uncle had done of a covered bridge, he gave it to her and to this day it hangs in their living room. My dad brought home a large set of China from Japan after his tour of duty during the Korean War. Mom often used the China dishes on special occasions such as Thanksgiving. She also pulled out her silverware kept in the hall drawer. Everything was white, silver, and shiny. To this day, I like pretty things, especially a pretty table scape.
2b. It was clear however, that meals are more about family than the table settings or the food. There were a few rules: If the phone rang, it was answered because my dad might be needed as an ecclesiastical leader, but all other calls went something like this, “Susan is eating right now, may I take a message and she’d be glad to call you back.” Also, nobody ate until after everyone was served and the blessing was said. And finally, you didn’t leave the table without asking to be excused. Each supper, Mom and Dad dished up the plates one at a time, then passed them down the table, serving the youngest first. Tacos were a favorite, but they were simplified. Mom put all the ingredients into a large bowl and tossed the meat, cheese, tomatoes, etc. with ketchup. Then when it was time to serve, she spooned them into the shells and passed it down. To this day I prefer ketchup on my tacos. But beyond the rules, and the task of serving food to a big family, the atmosphere was most often light-hearted. We often laughed, joked, told secrets, and bonded around the table.
3. Birthdays were special. We could choose our favorite meal and our favorite cake. It seems one sister often chose spaghetti, and one year she wanted a popcorn ball cake. Mom molded it into a large bowl, inverted it and stuck a doll in the top so that the “cake” was a dress. One year I announced in the summer that I wanted fried fish and corn-on-the-cob for my October birthday. That year the trout from summer fishing trips were frozen as was the September corn from a garden. My favorite cake was often a spice cake. My mother’s was a Hot Water Sponge. I passed this tradition on—my children chose their favorite meal and cake. Then (as a child and as a mother) after the candles were lit, we turned out the lights and sang to them. The effect was so fun that the candles were often relit and the lights turned out for another moment of blowing them out. And again. Until the wax was melted into small rings on top of the frosting.
4. It was not right away, but one day I realized that being a parent is not often convenient. I’ve shared many of my stories, particularly this one, because the example of my mother’s love was so strong. This one happened the spring when I returned to the high school on a tour bus with the band after being gone for a week. I’d had some experiences that left me very homesick. As the two buses pulled up in front of the school, we were all awakened from our uncomfortable sleeping positions. It was 3 a.m. Most of the students went inside to call parents for a ride home. As I was gathering my suitcase, my friend said, “There’s your mom, Susan.” Mom had stayed up, listening to the radio so she’d know when we arrived. She was waiting for me at the curb in the family station wagon.
5. My mother always sang to babies and the little ones while she rocked them. From her I internalized that that is what you do: sing to children. Recently I returned from a long afternoon with my daughter while she had her bridal pictures taken. Going home, I rode in the backseat next to my granddaughter’s car seat. I began to sing to her. She became instantly quiet, closed her eyes and laid her head against mine while the sky darkened and I sang softly about trying to be like Jesus, and walking by lilac trees.
6. Be prepared. One rainy day, Mom drove us to school. We lived almost a mile away from the school and it saved us from getting drenched. She dropped us off and was about to return home when the car died. She’d run out of gas. Mom was in a robe and slippers that morning, but she had no choice but to solicit help. Thankfully a man in a pick-up helped her out, but she was terribly embarrassed. She told us about it with the admonition that we never find ourselves in that situation.
7. Being a family should be the best part of life. At our house “use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without,” was in our blood. Hand-me-downs were a fact of life for our younger sisters. We wore out our toys, then repaired them and wore them out again. Mom didn’t drive us from place to place, we rode our bicycles or walked. But during it all, I was rarely aware that we were “economically challenged.” To me, being a family meant always having someone to play with. It was playing “quicksand” by climbing around displaced chairs while mom mopped. It was tuna sandwiches stacked into a bread sack for a Monday night picnic. It was sitting on the living room floor with mom and a couple of siblings, playing Monopoly. It was listening in the hall while she read The Wizard of Oz at night to my little sisters.
Mom, thank you for the good times and for your example.
Today she celebrates her 77th birthday. Happy Birthday Mom!