The older I get, the more I realize my profound luck in having the parents that I have. Sure, there are ways we could have been better to and for each other. But overall, my parents gave me some profound gifts that have helped strengthen me in so many ways.
Here are some of the gifts my mother gave me:
--She encouraged my love of reading. Maybe it's my work with the Reading Pals program that has helped me understand how rare this gift can be. Maybe it's because I'm an English major of the old school variety, but I truly think that children who don't learn to love to read will be handicapped their whole lives.
One of my earliest memories is from the early years when it was just my mom and me at home. Our family had one car, which my dad took to work. I remember being in the child's seat of my mom's bike and going to the library; I remember her back and the red-checked shirt she wore. Later, when we lived in Montgomery, the public library only allowed children to check out 5 books at a time. My mom checked out books for me.
I was allowed to read widely and deeply. I was the "One more chapter!" kid. It must have been irritating at times. Now we complain about kids with their faces glued to screens; we'd love to have a kid with a nose stuck in a book. But regardless of what's calling the attention away from what must be done, it must be maddening for a parent. I was often allowed to read beyond the time limit. I'm grateful for that.
--I was allowed to explore the gift of cooking. One of the first things I made: biscuits. Later, I'd become a vegetarian, which my mom encouraged. I made wonderful vegetarian meals for the whole family, instead of being the vegetarian who ate a solitary meal while the rest of the family ate burgers.
I remember a summer when we baked bread together. We had seminarians who loved bread baking, and they were coming over for dinner. We baked our first batch of bread, and I was hooked.
For the most part, I had free reign in the kitchen, as long as I cleaned up--another valuable lesson. I have since had housemates who didn't mind cleaning up a mound of dirty dishes if they got some good food, but my mom taught me the value of cleaning up after my projects.
--My mom encouraged every sort of creativity. My mom is a gifted musician. I wish I had more of her talent. I wish I had cultivated the musical talent that I do have. It's not my mom's fault. She never told me I couldn't sing--no, there were other forces in the world who were happy to do that. She always implored me to practice the piano. I have a friend whose mom banned piano practice during much of the day, which curtailed my friend's creativity. That was not my mom.
We had all sorts of art supplies in my childhood home. I remember creating a house out of appliance boxes in the garage, and my mom telling the babysitter to let me do that until bed time. I wrote and illustrated stories, and no one in my house said it was a waste of time.
--What I love most about my mom is that she encouraged my sister and me to be the kind of woman we wanted to be. My mom did not require me to be a girly girl, which would have frustrated us both. I was a tomboy (do we still use that word?) and that was O.K. And yet, if I wanted to clean up a bit, she encouraged that too: we got good haircuts when we wanted them, and if we couldn't always make our hair behave, well, we learned to live with that. We went to Merle Norman and the Clinique counter for make overs. I hated the way I looked with heavy make up, and my mother, to her credit, didn't insist.
We live in the water of our culture, and we'd have liked to have been thinner, my mom and me. We have the same pear shaped body. We tried different diets together, but happily, when we couldn't live in those restrictions, we let it go. My mom and dad both encouraged the pursuit of thinness through athleticism: for a time, we were a family of runners. There was never a suggestion that I'd hurt my reproductive system through a fierce workout, although others did suggest that. In high school, I ran long distances, 6 miles day after day, and that was O.K.
I am still learning to love the body I have, although it gets easier. These days, I focus on what I can do, since so many of my friends have trouble with basic tasks that require strength and agility. These days, as friends are being laid low by cancer, I'm grateful for my glowing good health. I'm happy for parents who laid a solid foundation for that health by teaching me about nutrition and exercise.
I could go on and on about the gifts my mother gave me, but let me stop with these. I am lucky that my mom has been one of my biggest fans and most solid supporters. I have been out in the world for many decades now, and I know that many people can't even count on this basic of motherhood. I've seen mothers who won't let go and mothers who let go far too early; I've seen people whose moms left, either by death or divorce, and I've seen how difficult that can be.
I'm happy to have my mom still, an example of a healthy, happy woman--one of the best gifts she gave me, that one can be a woman and find fulfillment in all sorts of ways.