Mother’s Day cards just don’t cover it. There’s not a one on the market that’s sufficient to express my thoughts about the awesome Lady who made me.
She’s fully that (a Lady, that is) when she has a mind to be, having grown up in days when her Girl Scout uniform included white gloves and a girdle… She could out-maneuver Miss Manners, parse sentences in her sleep, and navigate the complexities of any obscure set of social rules you could name. She taught me early on about the ins & outs of social niceties—from rules of dress and speech to etiquette, table manners, and deportment—all the protocols and proprieties of courtesy and culture and comportment… She was the Audrey Hepburn of our little potato-farming hometown–a class act, through and through.
In short, this awesome Lady does Lady perfectly… But she also knows how to kick off her shoes! She does dancing-in-the-sand as beautifully as she does “strait-laced.” (Which is just as well, because without a hefty dose of humor and flexibility, Mothering me might otherwise have landed her in straitjacket lacings…)
I think she knew even before we officially “met” that I’d be trouble…. While she was pregnant, I used to get terrible bouts of hiccups that would set her whole stomach to rhythmic jolting—particularly distracting when she was trying to teach! She nick-named me Sam during my belly-dwelling months–a name that could apply to either a boy or a girl, though she says she was preparing herself for a boy because she wanted a daughter so badly. You know that saying about being careful what you wish for? Well, she got me. And although people are puzzled by the name’s lack of relation to anything on my birth certificate, she has always called me Sam.
She taught me all the Lady-Rules, and it’s thanks to her tutelage that I’ve been able to move comfortably in social circles among people whose social standing, status, or “class” were well above my own means. Manners can be a passport to any situation, and she made sure I had all the visas secured before I reached adulthood. With a cardigan over the tattoos and a quick shift to a different vernacular, I can hold my own in any environment–from the PTA to speaking in a Senate Committee on the Hill. Hand me any role, and it’s something my mother gave me the tools to carry out.
She modeled the fact that a woman can play whatever different roles she chooses. In her case, literally–she’s a natural ham and has been playing lead roles in community theater productions since her teens, beginning with the role of Anne Frank (who, like Anne of Green Gables and other denizens of stage and page, shared my mother’s stress on the spelling of Anne-with-an-E). I loved the black-and-white photo of her in a hoop-skirt as Anna in The King & I, I remember watching rehearsals of Oklahoma when I was young, and we often filled the time singing show tunes from her favorite musicals when we rode in the car.
My favorite of her roles was the Nunsense part of Sister Robert Anne–the Jersey-accented gym teacher with red Converse sneakers beneath her habit and a wicked penchant for causing trouble. And my favorite element of that role was her pre-show warm-up when she “worked the crowd” in character, signing up volunteers for an imaginary Catholic basketball team, teasing and joking, and enchanting the audience before the curtain ever rose for the scripted first act. I’m in awe not only of her ability to perfectly mimic any accent on the planet, but also her hilarious on-the-spot ad-libbing. The world lost a great stand-up comic when she went to law school.
A couple months after that show, the local GLBT community invited the theater group to put on a couple scenes from the play as part of the entertainment line-up for a fund-raising Drag Show. My mom volunteered me to take the place of an original cast member who couldn’t make it, which is how I ended up attending a drag show with my mom, both of us dressed as nuns.
Among her many other talents, my mother is the uncontested Queen of Crafts. She took fantastic photos and kept scrapbooks for each of us long before “scrapbooking” came into common use as a verb. She sewed almost all of our clothes, from Easter Dresses to play clothes and swimsuits. (Though I’ll say that my younger sister got the bum end of that deal; every time she grew out of her clothes, she’d get a hand-me-down set of the exact same clothes…) She made entire matching wardrobes for our dolls as well, and crafted every Halloween costume we ever wore. She baked our birthday cakes in shapes to celebrate a favorite item or activity each year, spent hours constructing miniature pieces of dollhouse furniture, and was the creator of many of our very favorite toys (sock bunnies & rice mice, just for a start!).
At Christmas she suggested we put out carrots & water for Santa’s reindeer, in addition to the brownies & beer for Santa himself (she pointed out that he was no doubt tired of milk and cookies). We would wake to find reindeer-prints around the emptied bowls, and personal letters from Santa along with our stockings. The Tooth Fairy also left notes, which developed into a full-blown correspondence with my sister, who asked for help building a mailbox so she could continue writing even when her teeth weren’t falling out. This is how we came to find out, among other fascinating details, that “Tooth Fairy” is a fairy-job, not unlike a paper route, which our particular Tooth Fairy accomplished by means of a flying toy-motorcycle, towing collected teeth behind her on a cloud. (Eventually her little brother took over her route, first securing my sister’s permission to use the canoe belonging to her dollhouse-family as his vehicle.)
Mother is also a helluva “handyman”–so when I got a house of my own, I always saved my DIY projects for her visits. She was far more useful than my first husband on these things, and we managed between us to replace ceiling lights with electric fans, install laminate flooring for the entire first floor, assemble a new barbecue, build garden walls, xeriscape the front yard, and various other projects. I never have been able to match her energy in the do-it-yourself arena. (Or any arena, come to think of it. I challenge any person to keep up with her at the mall! Sometimes I wish she could still put me in a stroller when we shop together…) I think about her summer garden and fruit trees (and the resulting dried fruits, canned vegetables, and rhubarb pies), the sewing machine in constant use, the impeccable cleanliness of our house, and the gazillion volunteer jobs she undertook–and I get tired just thinking about it. I have no idea where she hides her super-hero energy source.
She was determined that my sister and I would have the Girl Scout experiences she had enjoyed as a child and teen, so she started Girl Scouts in our hometown. Every girl in my first-grade class joined the Brownie troop she established, and she encouraged us in travel opportunities and leadership challenges as well as some of the “classic” activities like camping. Give me a Dutch oven and a (one-match) campfire, and I can cook outdoors like nobody’s business! (Strangely enough, I never picked up the corresponding skills in an actual kitchen… She had probably given up on me as a hopeless case by the time she sent me off to college with a cookbook titled “How to Boil an Egg”…)
No one I know can outmatch her outdoor skills, though. She used to lead two-week canoe trips through the Canadian wilderness, and her girls would “show up” the boys’ groups when they crossed paths, the tiniest girl in the group flipping a canoe above her head and trotting off solo into the woods on a portage while the boys struggled two-to-a-canoe… She and I used to giggle conspiratorially whenever we saw someone (sorry, guys–usually a man) struggling to control his canoe while actually making more work for himself. She’d taught me the finesse of various steering-strokes, and I carried on the tradition of “showing up” the boys on my own canoe trips, always borrowing her personalized paddle on which she’d painted a dancing Snoopy. Motherhood didn’t seem to slow her down any; even when I was a toddler, she and my dad would go camping and canoeing with me (and the cats!), wedging my baby-walker into the center of the boat and letting the cats roam in its bottom…
My mom has always had a wicked sense of humor, and she’s a prankster into the bargain. My parents’ stories from married-student housing (while my dad worked on his Ph.D. at University of Montana) nearly all involve the ongoing series of pranks on their downstairs neighbors, who would later become my godparents. For that matter, she can take a joke as well–after all, she still married my father after he sent her a package of shark fetuses (from his dissection lab) through campus mail! I always liked the story of how she handled her own dissection lab–she got tired of stitching up the animal at the end of every class… so she installed a zipper in her cat! That’s my mom for you…
I’ve written several times about my admiration for my mom’s storytelling, but she’s also a story-magnet. There’s something about her that just draws strangers to talk to her and tell her their stories. I remember standing on a street corner in West Germany–I think we had stopped to ask for directions–listening to a complete stranger pour out his heart about his wife who had been killed (with their unborn second child) in a car accident, and how he wore bright colors on the outside for his daughter’s sake, but wore black underneath. My whole life, I’ve been accustomed to turning around in the supermarket or fabric store to find my mother holding a stranger’s baby or listening to a stranger’s personal stories. She’s the kind of person who knows her seatmates’ life stories by the time she gets off a plane, or the history of the person behind her in a supermarket line by the time they get to the cashier. (One of her airplane-conversations, in fact, resulted in a new client who flew her to Fiji to work on his estate-planning there…) She takes herself on a dive vacation every year to some exotic spot–and never fails to forge friendships with other adventuresome folks, who sometimes meet up with her the following year at a new location.
I got my “travel bug” from both parents, and although our family was always comfortably well-off financially, we weren’t rich. Our travels were primarily the product of my dad’s amazing planning capabilities–he planned and prioritized and budgeted to enable us to enjoy the extensive travels we did. And within the context of Dad’s detailed planning, it was our extroverted mother who modeled for us the gems that stem from people-interactions on any adventure–the collected stories, the off-the-beaten-path recommendations, the new friends… In addition to our two “big” European trips, we road-tripped all over the continental U.S. and Canada, and made some hops over the border to the south as well. In Mexico, Mother was never shy about putting her somewhat-rusty high school Spanish to work to haggle over prices in an open-air market, or ask for suggestions on an unfamiliar menu.
As I wrote when I was describing the sailing trip for which she joined us, she’s the perfect companion for adventuring. When I was attending University of Hawai’i, she took me up on my spontaneous suggestion that she should come visit and hang out with me, and we had a terrific mother-daughter week of adventures. While I went to classes, she entertained herself in Hilo’s Old Town and hiked rainforest trails to the waterfalls, and when Friday rolled around, we headed around to the sunny side of the island. We found a room at a little hotel—full of character and right on the water—where the owners lived in one of the first-floor rooms and hosted breakfast (fresh tropical fruits and Kona coffee!) every morning on the patio by the saltwater pool. She hadn’t yet gotten her Scuba certification, but we snorkeled with turtles, visited sites ranging from an old Hawai’ian heiau (temple) to an intricately-painted missionary church, attended a luau, shopped along the Kona boardwalk, soaked up sunshine on the postcard-perfect white sand of Hapuna beach, and girl-talked till late at night with our feet propped up on our balcony rail above the surf, and a bottle of local wine between us… In many ways, that week was the turning-point in our transition from our respective teen-and-parent roles to the adult friendship we’ve enjoyed ever since. (Well, as “adult” as it’s going to get, anyway, for two women who both refuse to grow up!)
I was eleven years old when my mom applied to law school, and I’m still wondering how she managed. We teased about her study-habits, referring to her as a Mole who didn’t come out in sunlight, and to her basement-study as the “Mole Hole.” I made a poster for the door which read, “This is the Hole / Where dwells the Mole / Whose single goal / is to pass every test”–accompanied by a drawing of myself hollering, “Mommy, Mommy, the house is on fire” and her (nose in a book) responding absently, “That’s nice, Dear.” But in truth, she was as available to us as ever. I would come home from school, hoist myself onto the second desk in the Mole Hole, and regale her with every sordid detail of the day’s junior-high dramas. She had dinner on the table every night, continued running my sister’s Girl Scout troop, sang in the church choir, and kept dozens of other balls in the air… And all the while, she maintained her standing at the top of her class–to the dissatisfaction of male classmates who told her to her face that she belonged “at home with her children” rather than taking “a man’s rightful spot “in the class rankings! My sister and I knew better, though, because our mother has always showed us (not just told us, but modeled for us) that a Woman can do whatever she damn well pleases! Mother opened a private law practice, and fifteen years later my sister took her own place as Deputy Attorney General for the State of Idaho.
As a parent, I’m continually grateful for the “lessons in parenting” our mother provided (in the form of her parenting of us). She was strict but never harsh. She had high expectations of us, but always celebrated us when we met them. She always separated our deeds from our selves–she never told me I was a Bad Girl, only that my latest mischief was a bad thing to do. Manners were mandatory, hugs were abundant, imagination was encouraged. She had us each reading long before we hit Kindergarten, and she participated in every imaginable game of make-believe. She was reasonable and flexible (though my teenage-self would never have admitted it), but she never left room for doubt that SHE was the Mom. She is absolutely the model for my own Parenting.
When I told her she was going to be a grandmother, she decided that (although she was certainly ready for the grand-baby) she wasn’t “ready to be Grandma.” She settled instead on”Grandy“–an adaptation of her Girl Scout camp-name of Andy–and I can’t think of a better descriptor for her! She IS Grand.
I think my daughter was three or four years old when I styled my hair one morning in what has become my mom’s signature hairdo: a sassy, classy up-do. My daughter took issue with the imitation, however, and made her objection known in no uncertain terms: “You are NOT a Grandy. You are JUST a Mommy!”
Point taken–there’s no competing with the SuperWoman who is my mother. But I’m honored whenever I’m told I’m like her. In my world, there’s no higher compliment.