Leaf of the Tree

Finding the Divine in the Details

My first teacher is still 21


Photo on 2-17-14 at 7.48 PM #2My mother didn’t have a “real” birthday except during leap years, which means that even when her death certificate recorded her age as 80, she was still technically only 21.

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.

MumDuring the years that the war ravaged Europe, my young British war-bride mother held down the fort in her family’s home in England’s remote north. She cared for my newborn older sister, along with an elderly relative who was in the end stage of cancer, plus several children who’d been evacuated from London. Somehow, she also found time to hook rugs in order to generate income to compensate for the meager wartime rations on which her crowded household had to subsist. She had compassion for those young evacuees, both because they’d had to leave their families, and because she knew the life they’d face back home. Her own 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 this woman 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, wherever her husband’s military orders took us next. Her dedicated “nesting” efforts gave every place we lived that consistent feeling of home, however often we were uprooted and forced to start over.

Schwan73586_10201817493622394_728135709_nLife in a military family meant I had to keep making new friends and my mother, as with most everything, encouraged me in this and did her best to turn it into an adventure. She made it easy to nurture friendships by always welcoming playmates at our house and charming them with her warmth. (They usually loved her accent, too.)

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 would come to be called Women’s Lib, military spouses were already demonstrating versatility and capability, offering strong models for their children. Their spouse’s presence was often shadowy and intermittent, which tended to make these wives adaptable and decisive, and give their children resilience, as well. That’s very likely why I wound up marrying the son of such a mother.IMG_0433

Among her many gifts, my mother was able to listen in a way that made you feel as though listening to you at that moment was the most important thing in the world, the only thing in her world. She also taught me how to value and use my own time—not just to be efficient and accomplish things, but also savor and enjoy something worth enjoying.

“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. 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,” the Bahá’í writings acknowledge. “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 and help she had always shown them. It’s very clear, therefore, how I can best honor her memory. Her kindness and generosity are the most important lessons my first teacher ever gave me.

So, thanks for everything, Mum. You’ll always be twenty-one, to me.


Adapted from Life at First Sight: Finding the Divine in the Details:


12 thoughts on “My first teacher is still 21

  1. Hi, Phyllis:

    My book Being Local in Hawai’i is being printed right now in Medford, Oregon. I will be flying to Berkeley to pick up some copies since the transportation to Hawai’i by book rate will take about 3-5 weeks.

    I will do readings in the Bay area before returning to Honolulu in about a month or so. Thank you for inspiring me to write at Spirit of Children….the fruit of the Spirit is a reality. Much aloha, Julia

    Sent from Windows Mail

  2. Thank you, thank you for this. I read a long time ago that it is a lucky child who still has one or both parents by the time they are in their 60s. I am lucky–mine are still here and doing well. Your gift of this story touched me deeply, especially about how we women resonate to the vibration of our mothers. It is a relationship like no other. The account of the many gifts your mother gave you is a testimony of that mother-daughter love and appreciation. Thank you so much for this.

  3. Loved this post and the accompanied photos painted pictures in my head. Had to look up “Blitzkrieg.” Sounds horrible. My favorite was this: “Among her many gifts, my mother was able to listen in a way that made you feel as though listening to you at that moment was the most important thing in the world, the only thing in her world.” I am working on this, it’s not always easy but it really makes an impact on those who you give your attention to. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Phyllis’
    This is such a testimony to your mother’s legacy – the woman you are. I nodded my head through much of the piece as my mom was similar – kind, a good listener, self-reliant. Gratitude for the unconditional love that spawned me saves me time and time again, keeps me going through my life with my arms wide open, holds me accountable to give back what I have been given. Thank you for this lovely piece that opened my day. I am ordering your book today. Love, love.

  5. Beautiful and inspiring. It makes me want to read posts of yorus I’ve missed due to busy-ness and them being on a google section I rarely look at.


  6. Thanks for sharing your mom with me,Phyllis. No wonder you’re so amazing! Luv, Barbara Ann

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