Ten Things I Learned from my Mom

The clouds are low and heavy over Quebec this morning. The drizzly rain is a contrast to the brilliant blue of the Rocky Mountain sunshine I’ve enjoyed for the last week. Trees in varying shades of budded red and orange mixed or bright new-leaf green, dotted with white floral explosions whiz by in a blur of impressionistic springtime.

The cornfields have pushed back the thick down comforters of winter snow and the sky, somewhat bleak and pessimistic this morning, is reflected in the puddles between mushy stalks.

It is Mother’s Day, and I’m on my way home to see mine.

This year is a mile marker on my own maternal path. It is the first year that I’ve spent the holiday without my own children. All four of them are off on their own adventures this year, scattered across the continent, living, working, adventuring and building forward. This is good, and as it should be. All four had checked in with me before finished my first cup of tea this morning. I’ve entered the stage where their orbit widens, and the physically taxing phase of tiny dervishes whirling through the house to the maternal mantra of, “Stop… Don’t… Quit…” has given way to the more emotionally harrowing expansion of, “Goodbye… Be careful… Have fun…” All things my mother still says to me, every time I kiss her goodbye.

I’ve been spending a lot of time this week considering the gift that my mom handed me, wrapped with a silver bow, of eighteen years of her undivided attention and the very best beginning any girl could hope for. I didn’t appreciate it nearly enough, I suppose no one does, until they become a parent themselves. And the longer I am a parent, the more I appreciate the depth of the gift.

In honor of Mother’s Day, I’d like to share ten things that I’ve learned from my mom over the years and why they matter to me:

1. Keep a Meal in the Freezer

I’d bet twenty five dollars (in any currency) that at this very moment in her freezer my mother has two pans of homemade lasagne and two batches of homemade rolls. They’ve been there my whole life. Not the same two pans, obviously, but she’s kept a rotating supply in the ever present expectation of guests arriving without warning. My dad was famous for calling from the ferry boat to announce that he was bringing someone, or, just turning up with a van full, unannounced. Out came the lasagne and rolls, and dinner was served.

We’ve long made it a habit to have an open door, to practice hospitality, to invite guests to dinner at least a couple of times a week. Even when we were cycling for a year we carried two extra sets of plates with us so that we could have guests on our picnic blanket. I learned this from my mom, how to maintain an open table, to share whatever we have and welcome the lonely, the stranger, or just the new person on the block.

A couple of winters ago, when my mom visited us in Guatemala, she arrived home off of the boat one day and announced, “Dad and I invited some backpackers for dinner! I don’t know if they’ll come… I hope you don’t mind!!” Of course we didn’t mind, that’s exactly where I learned it!

2. Maintain a Creative Outlet

My mother is an artist. She always has been. When we lived in the forest when I was tiny she made little birch bark canoes to sell to tourists. Then, she learned to paint flowers on bread boards. Later she would crank up the generator after we’d gone to bed to run her soldering iron as she learned to make stained glass. Over the course of my life she’s filled an entire church, and more with windows, and filled homes with lamps, and sun catchers. After I left home, she went back to university and got an art degree; now she paints.

I think this is how she kept her sanity when we were little and life was nothing more than laundry, diapers, laundry, nose wiping, laundry, whining and laundry… by hand, with a wringer washer, hung on a line, even in winter.

I have four kids now. Thankfully, they’re no longer toddlers and I can sometimes even go to the bathroom without someone “Mom”-ing me. Sometimes.

My mom showed me the value of keeping a little part of myself alive. A little slice of my personhood that was not related to taking care of my husband, or my kids, or the old widowers down the road that we used to visit and take cookies to on Sundays. She showed me that it’s not only “okay” to do that, it’s absolutely, vitally necessary to remaining sane and whole and vibrant as a mother. If we don’t nurture ourselves, what will we ever have to give to our precious families?

I can’t paint, so I write.

3. Teach Kids to Sleep

I was, perhaps, five when my mother put two marks on the analog clock by my bed. One at the “12” and one at the “7.”

“When the big hand gets to the 12 and the little hand gets to the 7, THEN you may get out of bed, and not a minute before!” Was the instruction given.

I was one of those dreadful 5:00 a.m. wakers.

We always went to bed at a reasonable time, 7:30 or 8:00 p.m. in elementary school, 9:00–9:30 p.m. as teenagers. Later on weekends or special occasions, but my mother valued our sleep, and her peace. She was right to do so.

Research now backs up what my mom intrinsically knew, that teens need as much sleep as toddlers. In addition, it gave her time to be with my dad, be by herself, nurture that afore mentioned creative outlet and just get a hard earned BREAK, for cryin’ out loud.

I took that page out of my mom’s book. My kids went to bed early. They always have. Even the teenagers, who no longer had bedtimes, were relegated to their own space after the littles went to bed because mom was “off the clock.” I’m so thankful my mother modeled this for me and that, as a result, I have no guilt in taking time for myself and knowing that it’s a good thing, for everyone in the family.

4. Bite Your Tongue

My mother is the most patient, gentle spirited person I know. If you’ve met her, you know what I mean. I have RARELY heard her use a sharp tone and I can’t remember her ever speaking badly about anyone… she must have, at least once in my life, but I cannot remember it, if it happened.

I am exactly the opposite.

“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say ‘nuthin’ at all,” was something quoted to me more than once and is something I aspire to.

Kind words, gracious words, words that build each other up, these are all things my mother is liberal with and things that I seek to grow in every day. What seems to come easily to her, keeps the end of my tongue bloody!

In addition, she’s never one time criticized me. She corrected me, as a child, of course, but that’s not the same thing.

She’s never uttered one critical word about my choice of husband, my home, how I raise my kids (and I’ve invited her to tell me where I need to improve on this front) or in any other way.

When I listen to my friend’s stories of push and pull with their mothers I’m SO THANKFUL to never have been through that with my mother. I’ve made a conscious mental note to give the same gift of grace to each of my children as they grow up and make their own choices in life.

5. The Value of “Quiet Time”

One of our favourite family stories is of one particularly difficult night, parked in the middle of nowhere in Central America with my brother and I (and the dog) bouncing off of the interior walls of our camper van. My mother is remembered to have said, at the end of her wits, I’m sure, in her NICEST, sing-songy mama voice, “Okay children, quiet time! QUIET TIME!!!”

“Quiet time!” was a phrase often heard at our house. My mom has a low tolerance for crazy noise. Coincidence: So do I!

What a gift my mother gave me in the idea of Quiet Time. It’s OKAY to ask crazy kids to settle down, to ask loud kids to quiet down and to ask anyone in general to sit, reflect, and be silent for a few minutes. Kind of like mini-meditation, or a time out when you’re not actually in trouble (yet!)

Quiet Time. I love that.

6. Play Scrabble

She’s a vicious Scrabble player. Truly. She’s been known to beat me, hop up and bounce around the sunroom crowing over her victory and then call my brother on the other side of the continent to announce her victory. It’s terrible.

Still, we play every chance we get. It’s a time to sip iced tea, shuffle tiles, chit chat about the island news and giggle a little.

I get to really look at my mom when we play Scrabble, usually because it takes her so long to find just the right word that will use the triple letter score and the J and Z at the same time. I get to appreciate the shape of her hands (mine are more like hers every year) and to study the perfect grey green of her eyes behind her half moon glasses. My mom is really pretty.

7. Keep Driving

When I was 8 and Josh was 6 my dad threw us all into his ’64 Ford Econoline Van, hooked a boat trailer to it (loaded with the boat he’d built in the upstairs of our house instead of finishing the bedrooms that first winter) and we took off on a long drive toward Central America.

My parents had backpacked and road tripped plenty before we were born and dad’s wanderlust didn’t diminish with our arrival.

My mother was less enthused.

There was some “discussion” as we headed south, about how the trip would go, who would be left sitting on the beach with Josh and I (who could not even swim at that point) and who would be off snorkeling and enjoying the ocean.

Somewhere in Texas, it came to a head. My dad climbed in the back to have a nap and declared to my mother, “Alright, fine. When I wake up, if we’re driving south, we’re driving south and if we’re driving north, we’re driving north, but that’s the end of it.”

When he woke up, we were driving south.

What ensued were some of the best months of my childhood:

  • Climbing ruins
  • Learning to swim and snorkel
  • Capturing hermit crabs on the beach in the dark
  • Keeping a shark in a tide pool for a few days before we ate him
  • Learning Spanish
  • Drinking coconuts
  • And having the tiny spark of wanderlust lit that would burn for the rest of my life

My mom’s tight lipped determination to live out my Dad’s dream, to give us the experience, no matter whether she had any fun or not, spoke volumes to me, both then and now. As a gypsy mama myself, I can appreciate how hard it is to travel with little kids, to keep people fed, rested, learning, and happily moving forward in two or three languages at a time. I know what that cost her.

Her example taught me a lot about what it means to be a partner, to put my own momentary desires second to what someone else is passionate about and to throw my own resources behind another’s dream. A counter cultural concept, to be sure, but it’s one of the things that makes long term partnerships work.

My mom taught me that marriage is not about the give and take, it’s about the give and give some more.

8. Sew Jammies

Life is in the little things. When my kids were babies she started sewing them a set of matching pajamas every Christmas.

When there were just two of them, this wasn’t such a chore. By the time there were four of them and she was having the cartilage replaced in both of her thumb joints due to the years of stained glass work, it was more of a project. She bought electric scissors that year.

Years later, when the children, aged 8–14 (well past the matching jammy stage, one would think) arrived, fresh off of the road from our six month stint in Guatemala, what do you think was the first thing they did?

They dug out their “Grammy jammies” and put them on… from two Christmases ago, the red ones with the white sparkly snowflakes that were, by that time, four inches too short on all of the boys because they’d grown so much. For years they refused to sleep in anything else. We schlepped Grammy jammies around the planet.

When we surprised Gabe in Antigua a year and a half ago, as he finished his first trans-Med & Atlantic crossings, when we caught a first glimpse of him on the deck of his sailing ship, he was wearing his last pair of Grammy jammies, cut off into long shorts, flapping in the sea breeze.

Her intentional gifts weren’t limited to “Grammy Jammies” though. There was also:

  • An ornament each at Christmas to build their collections for “someday”
  • Heart shaped chocolates taped to pink cut out hearts on Valentine’s day
  • Ice cream every single night after dinner at her house
  • Having worms in the fridge without being reminded so that the kids can fish the INSTANT they arrive
  • Letting them lick the salt block for the deer when they took walks as toddlers along the paths

My mom is the mistress of fun and funky little traditions that make all of the difference in the world: Snow ice cream, craft projects, iced cookies for every occasion, raspberry pie instead of cake for my birthday, mint sticks after dinner for Thanksgiving and Christmas, the list goes on and on.

For those of you who wonder why I do all of the little ridiculous things I do: This is why. I learned from the best.

9. Ignore The Miles

My mother must have known, whilst raising us, that we’d be spread far and wide before it was over. I moved out of the country a week after I turned 18 and it took me more than twenty years to return. My brother barely made it through university before he was on his boat and around the other side of the planet. We’re nomads at heart. We get that from our dad.

My mom has never once, NOT ONCE, complained about this. She’s never guilted us into coming at Christmas, just the opposite, in fact, she always says, “You don’t HAVE to come, you know, your dad and I are fine.”

  • When I’ve had my babies, my mother has been there before I’ve been out of the hospital, every single time.
  • Once, my parents drove 1,100 miles, one way, over a weekend to deliver a carved rocking elephant my dad had found for Hannah, she was only four months old and not nearly big enough to sit on it!
  • They’ve flown across continents to camp in the freezing cold on the sands of the Sahara with us and do crazy things like cheer on a fox hunt and ride camels for Christmas instead of remain tucked into their cozy log cabin like sensible people.
  • They’ve ridden chicken busses up and down volcanos to find us tucked into a highland lake in Guatemala.
  • They’ve come and camped in a downpour on the New England coast to celebrate Ezra’s 8th birthday with us and put up with 40 of our closest friends joining us for the occasion.

My mom has the wonderful gift of being able to ignore the miles and ignore the money it costs and instead to focus on the memories we make. And she always arrives with a suitcase full of love, no matter how far she has to fly to find us.

10. Let Them Go

In the past couple of years, as my birds have started flying the nest and are often scattered across several countries at once, people have started asking how I feel about this. Whether the “empty nest” is bothering me. Particularly this winter, as Tony and the boys have been off sailing. Hannah is adulting and Gabe is off getting his sea legs.

My answer is, in a word: No.

Perhaps it would feel different if someone was really struggling, or up to no good, or causing trouble of some sort. But they’re not. They’re all of learning, growing, building lives that matter to them, pushing towards big dreams and making their own rain. They all seem to have a decent sense of their role in the community, both our little family community and the larger world one, and to that end they seem to be keeping one eye focused on their roots as well as their wings. I’m proud of that.

Gabe called me on Thursday to wish me a happy Mother’s Day. He was sure it was a Thursday holiday. I laughed with my friend when we hung up and mentioned, in passing, that I don’t expect my kids to check in on Mother’s Day or acknowledge it. When my mother let go and released us to the world, she did so with no strings attached and she has never, not once, in the twenty five years of my adulthood guilted me about anything. Ever.

As I let my kids go I’m fixing my will tenaciously on that goal. I’m quite sure the joy I find in my relationship with my mother now is in direct proportion to the freedom she has always extended to me. I’m determined to give that same gift.

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Maybe some people think that I’m over the top in how I talk about my parents, but anyone who’s met them in person knows differently.

They really are everything I make them out to be, and far more. Words aren’t adequate to describe my gratefulness to them both, but since it’s Mother’s Day, especially to my mom for the gift of my life, their selfless devotion to my growth and development, their tireless cheerleading of my cause, their undying support of my little family and their continual encouragement of my dreams.

I hope, one day, I can grow up to be just like her.