What my mother did right…

My mom and I when we visited the butterfly museum last summer.

I have often complained that I inherited the worst physical attributes of both of my parents. My dad’s acne and digestive issues. My mother’s weak knees and strong chin. But in the personality department, I got the best attributes of both (although, from this one sentence, you must think “modesty” was not among them). Because of my parents, I am both a leader and a faithful follower, both a socialite and a philosopher. Personalities often considered polar opposites are part of who I am; yet I am not conflicted. I am simply a blend of my parents’ best. The personality traits I treasured in each parent have become apparent in me.

That my parents weren’t perfect, I can recognize. That my parents raised me right despite that, I applaud. And as I head toward Mother’s Day, I wanted to reflect on what my mother did right. I learned a lot about what makes a great mother by living with one.

She was omnipresent

My mother had a unique way of being present in my life even when she wasn’t actually present in our home. She worked and often wasn’t home when I got home from school, but somehow her presence was still there. (Must have been the list of chores she left for my sister and me each day.) Actually, that list of chores kept us on the straight and narrow. We took clothes from the washer and hung them on the clothes line. We folded the clothes that had been left to dry. We got the mail, straightened the house, snipped the green beans, and otherwise helped to prepare dinner. We still had time for homework and play, but the jobs she assigned gave us significance. We felt necessary to the functioning of the family, and this gave us prestige rather than a feeling of being put upon. My mother always made it clear that she wanted to be with us, rather than at work. That, I think, made the difference.

She gave her time

My mother always took time for me. No matter what she was doing–I remember her typing away at her electric typewriter or sewing on her machine (a talent I did not inherit)–she always stopped what she was doing to listen. No matter how big or small the heartache or dilemma, my mother would listen and advise. She would act when necessary, but often what I needed was a listening ear. She never made me feel I was burdening her with my small problems or even that I was interrupting her from something more important. She made me feel I was important, more important than whatever she was working on at the moment.

In addition, she included us in her work whenever she could. My sister and I were her constant companions on her reporting duties for the local newspaper. I remember being with her when she interviewed the owner of a chimpanzee, probably because my sister got bit by the chimp and a big “to do” followed. When the circus was in town, we toured behind-the-scenes and were with my mother when she interviewed the various performers. As a reporter she wrote so vigorously on her little Steno pads that she often ended up with ink all over the front of her shirt. We found it amusing. We experienced the perks of being a newspaper reporter’s daughters, joining in on her interviews and often appearing in photographs in the local paper–because my mother knew of the events and had access to the participants, us.

She was my biggest cheerleader

When I was on the swim team, my mother attended every meet. She drove groups of us swimmers to the away meets, stayed in a motels with me (though we could little afford them), packed lunches and snacks, made sure I had proper nutrition so I could perform, sacrificed weekends on end so that she could be there, cheering me on. When I played softball, she was always in the stands. To this day, I can hear her saying, “Umph, Sara, uumph!” as I pitched my flat but non-speedy pitches that barely had enough force to make it across the plate. (I was successful because I was dead accurate, producing pitches flat enough to be legal in my fast-pitch league but slow enough to torment even the best of batters.) It was my mother’s cry of “umph!” that got my pitches across that plate.

Even today, she is my biggest cheerleader. I call her to give the latest updates on our family’s life. She is especially interested in the details of my schooling and teaching. If I have a paper to write or a project to produce for a class, she wants to hear all about it and assures me I will do well. She is never surprised when I do. I have tried to tell her about my failings in life, but she will have none of it. She manages to see the best in me when I fail to be my best or see the good in what I do. I need that.

She sacrificed joyfully

I don’t think I realized how much my mother sacrificed for me until I, the youngest of five children, went away to college and found that my mother had started college classes too. She loved to learn, had always shared that joy of learning with us kids, and taught us to delight in the world around us. Once she was in school, she pursued her bachelor’s degree and then her master’s degree and doctorate, eventually teaching at the community college, creating and recreating her lesson plans as she joyfully shared her new-found knowledge and her passion for her subject. I learned that she had put her college dreams on hold when she started having children–and then the other sacrifices she had made became clear to me. She wore her clothes long after they bore holes and were unsightly–to make sure we kids had what we needed. She often made our clothes, and she created delicious dishes (not that I always appreciated them) that stretched the budget. I do remember babysitting and throwing newspapers to earn money to purchase my own clothes and car and to fund my youth group and recreational activities, but I never looked at that as a negative. It was a rite of passage, the route to independence paved through increasing responsibility. My mom made life’s trials an adventure; I didn’t feel the sacrifices or the lack. She never made me notice her sacrifices offered willingly.

She forgave

When I was in grammar school, my family often went to Turtle Beach in Sarasota, grilled out some hot dogs or hamburgers, and took a family stroll along the beach down to Midnight Pass, where Mote Marine Laboratories once resided. One time, my mother chose to stay at the picnic table, and my dad walked with my sister and I without her. Mote Marine had vacated the premises, and we were able to walk around the old deserted tanks and see the remnants of what had been. As we walked back, the three of us decided to tell my mother that Mote Marine had vacated–but left some of the dolphins and sharks in their tanks. My mother–always the serious one–was horrified and asked us lots of questions, which we thought we answered with great cleverness.

And then I forgot all about it, until the next day when I was at the local Girl’s Club, and I got paged because my mother was on the phone. She asked me where, exactly, we had seen the dolphins and sharks in the tanks, because she had sent a photographer and a reporter to investigate and they had found nothing. Oops. Of course, I confessed, and my mother had to face the real embarrassment at the newspaper. Once we were at home, I’m sure she scolded, but I think the profound embarrassment and sorrow I felt were punishment enough, and so did she. She forgave me.

She loved

I think the best thing my mother did was love–not just me, but, seemingly, everyone. Both of my parents were well-loved by my friends; they often called them Mom and Dad, though they had their own set. When I was in college and early marriage and at home for the various holidays, our house was always open to friends and neighbors. Though my mom had her standards, she never looked down on those who weren’t living up to them. She was loving and accepting. For example, I remember my older brother having a friend with long, unkempt hair. He hung out at our house enough that we all loved him; when he got his hair cut conservatively, my mother baked him a cake, and we sang “Happy Haircut!” When my siblings went through divorce, sometimes their estranged spouses ended up living at our house. They were always welcome.

I think what impressed me most about my mom’s love was how like Jesus she was. It’s not that she didn’t notice others’ flaws or recognize the oddness of housing a former son-in-law; it’s just that she took the opportunity to love.

She used her talents

Yesterday, as I was ending a phone conversation with my mother, she mentioned her desire to go back to school. At age 80. She realizes it is a dream and wryly comments that she probably couldn’t complete a kindergarten course at this point. But her desire to continue learning and growing motivates me. My mom had her various claims to fame, writing for the newspaper, holding a local political office, publishing a featured column in the religion section (“The Mustard Seed,” Sarasota Journal) for years, hosting a radio talk show (“Feedback with Barbara Souders,” WJIS in Sarasota, now the Joy FM), working on a novel (that she never published), pursuing an education when well into her 50s, teaching at the community college level (Manatee Community College, now State College of Florida), and teaching Sunday school. Even now, she prays that God will make her useful, to allow her to serve in these, her senior years, when so many are content to relax in their retirement. She is wise and a great adviser still. She makes me proud.

And my mother’s accomplishments are not yet over–not only because she is still alive and serving but because her legacy lives on in her children and grandchildren and great grandchildren and the many others whose lives she has touched.

Though I inherited some of her physical attributes and even parts of her personality, I can’t lay claim to being just like her. But I can aim high! My mother did a lot of things right. And I am better for it.

How has your mother made you a better person? Let her know!

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