My mother didn’t have a “real” birthday except during leap years, which means that when her death certificate recorded her age as 80, she was still technically only 21.
In the months before the sudden heart attack that ended her earthly life, there were beginning to be discernible signs of age, such as the slight bend in her slender frame. But the challenge her grey-blue eyes tossed back at the world, even then, always made her seem like a feisty young adult. And whatever her age, she was always an initiator of welcoming hospitality and reaching out to others.
Mothers truly are our first teachers, which may explain why we can feel so inexplicably alone once they’re gone. With each passing year, so much of what I value can be traced back to my mother, a military spouse whose life didn’t turn out anything like her 21-year-old self imagined it would.
During the years my dad was at war, my young British war-bride mother held down the fort in her family’s home not far from England’s Lake District. She cared for my newborn older sister, along with an elderly relative in the last stages of cancer, plus several children who’d been evacuated from London. Somehow, she also found time to hook rugs to generate income to compensate for the meager wartime rations on which her crowded household had to subsist.
Having been a young mother myself, I now wonder how she ever found the time to do these things — that she took in those young evacuees at all. She knew, however, what kind of life they’d face back home in the city during wartime, because her young face already wore nasty scars from her service as a fire warden during the infamous “Blitzkrieg.”
If anyone modeled for me how to welcome change gracefully, it was my mother, who came to a new culture to meet her Boston-Irish in-laws, then proceeded to make a home for her family — over and over — in locations all over the world. Her dedicated “nesting” efforts gave every place we lived that consistent feeling of home, however often we were uprooted and forced to start over.
Life in a military family meant I had to keep making new friends, and my mother, as with most everything, encouraged me in this endeavor and did her best to turn it into an adventure. She made it easier to nurture friendships by always welcoming playmates at our house and utterly charming them with her warmth. (They usually loved her accent, too.) Friends still talk about how inviting it was at our house, while I grew up believing that’s how it was everywhere.
Because she was such a canny yet unobtrusive ally in assisting our friendships, my sister and I now find it easy to make friends wherever we go, to be the one to go talk to someone standing alone at a party, as we often saw her do. With her lively mind, she always had friendly, interesting questions that would gently coax people into the nicest conversations, even if she had to ask them in a language she was struggling to learn.
Long before the days of what the sixties would label Women’s Lib, military spouses like her were already demonstrating women’s versatility and capability, strong models for their daughters — and sons. When you’re so often the only parent on the scene, there’s simply no room for the kind of thinking that’s limited by gender bias.
Among other invaluable gifts, she was able to listen in a way that made you feel that hearing you was the most important thing in the world. She also taught me how to value and use my own time — not just to be efficient and accomplish things, important as that is, but to also savor and enjoy something worth enjoying.
It makes me more than a little sad that I recognize these things now that she isn’t here to thank in person. “A father and mother endure the greatest troubles and hardships for their children; and often when the children have reached the age of maturity, the parents pass on to the other world,” the Bahá’í writings acknowledge. “Rarely does it happen that a father and mother in this world see the reward of the care and trouble they have undergone for their children. Therefore, children, in return for this care and trouble, must show forth charity and beneficence, and must implore pardon and forgiveness for their parents.”
After my mother’s death, the one thing I heard most consistently from the many who loved her was how much kindness she’d always shown them. Thus, it’s quite clear how I can best honor her memory. Her modeling of kindness and generosity is likely the most important lesson my first teacher ever gave me.
Adapted from Life at First Sight: Finding the Divine in the Details.