When I was in the seventh grade, my parents bought a van. A big, green, eight-seater, like the kind that shuttles travelers to the airport and nursing home residents to their weekly YMCA outing. It was terrifying on the snowy mountain roads and even worse in the city, mostly because of who might see the Pro life/guns bumper stickers and the white-ribbon decal with Pope John Paul’s face in the middle. The driver side door wouldn’t shut properly, so you’d always know when my mom arrived because she would have to slam it several times, employing that defined bicep muscle she always seemed to have without ever actually working on.
She still has great arms.
I dreaded missing the bus because it rendered me dependent on a big green van ride from my mom. Regardless of what the weather was like, I’d make her drop me off at the bottom of the winding driveway that led to West Jeff Middle School, where the very possibility of being noticed by an eighth grader or elite seventh grader struck terror down my spine. I’d seen how cruel these kids could be, and I knew that being even loosely associated with a van like my mom’s was more than enough to warrant social ruin.
As we approached Barnes Avenue, I’d say, “That’s close enough mom, you can drop me here,” and she’d argue, reminding me how cold it was, or that I had too much to carry. I’d feed her some line about parking lot back up and she would eventually relent, let me out at the bottom and turn around, sight unseen. I was naïve enough to believe she didn’t know why.
My mom has always had an acute sense of other people’s feelings. Like the time I broke my back when I was in Switzerland and she curled up in the living room in a blanket I’d given her, crying and praying as if the break was her own. And while that might be understandable for someone she gave birth to, it’s not so far off her response to any story she hears of sickness or discomfort, or even a well-timed Hallmark commercial.
“All that I am or ever hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.” Abraham Lincoln
Her ability and willingness to feel things deeply not just with you but for you makes her an amazing friend and a horrible grocery shopping partner. At the Safeway center in Conifer, Colorado, she will without fail run into someone she knows on nearly every aisle, and rather than the polite, ‘Hi how are you please move out of the way of the frozen peas’ or total avoidance, like I’ve mastered, she is unable to not take the opportunity to try to connect, encourage and introduce, genuinely believing each run in is a small gift, one to be delighted in, grateful for and savored.
She has never once come home on time and she has never once let someone believe, even for a second, that they are not more important to her than crossing something off a list she’s never been able to stick to anyways.
But don’t let her warmth fool you – my mom’s skin is as thick as her heart is soft. She was able to kick smoking after 15 years of a pack a day, and 20 years later to give up drinking without rehab or AA. She’d decided it was a problem she had to fix, and started locking herself in her room when she’d get the white wine craving and meditate until it went away. Against the odds, it did.
Even without the alcohol, my mom never had it all together. It wasn’t unusual for the house to be messy, for no one to know where my little sister was (playing in a drain pipe, we found out years later) and to arrive late to everything ever, even the most important events. Actually especially to those. But she helped us to see that most of the stuff I’d let stress me out, like laundry and homework and schedules, weren’t as important as eating a good meal with people you love, stopping to smell (and to trim and vase and deliver to a friend) the flowers, and being available to the people God has put you here to be available for.
I am still trying to learn these lessons and she is still teaching them to me, every day.
If I could go back to middle school for a day I would, just so I could sit shotgun with my mom, bobbing up and down in the front seat of that sputtering conservative van and proudly pull up to the front of the school at the peak of passing period and hope that everyone could hear the talk radio and slam slam slam of the door so they’d have the chance to see and maybe even meet Nancy Canty. For there’s not a person in this world who wouldn’t be better for it.
Happy 60th Birthday mom. I’d ride with you anywhere.