My mother passed away recently at the age of 94. She went quietly in her room at my sister’s home where she had stayed for the past nine years, with her dog Tasha at the foot of the bed and the St. Louis Cardinals game quietly playing on the radio.
Every mother is remarkable, but allow me to tell you why I think my mother was truly a special woman, and one who touched the lives of everyone she met. One way for me to do this is to attempt to convey what I learned from her over the decades of being raised by her then later through the lens of raising my own son.
Consider the following Frances’s Life Lessons:
1. Don’t be judgmental: Be Open to Others. You could plop my mother in any situation and within minutes she’d be laughing and making friends with complete strangers. For a shy person like me it was almost magical. Being met at the airport she’d be chatting with strangers at the gate. Shopping at the grocery store required baking in extra time for her to talk to the cashiers whom she knew by name. It didn’t matter what station in life you were, what race you were, and even your sexual orientation or hair color (as some of my friends from high school and college could attest) she got along with everyone, and showed people kindness and fundamental respect that seems almost quaint in today’s hyperpolarized world.
2. Love What You Do. My mother was at heart a saleswoman, but not in the derogatory sense of the term. She loved engaging with people, learning what their needs were and then helping them to fulfill them with what she sold. She worked long hours for little money, but in the end she loved what she did and didn’t stop selling until her body began to quit on her 10 years ago. I attribute her sales career with increasing her longevity and maintaining her mind that only began to fail within the last few years.
3. Work even if you don’t feel like it. I remember going through puberty and asking my mother what I should do to avoid thinking about girls. “Get a job,” she said in all seriousness. Work was her great cure-all. It didn’t matter what your problems were. Depressed? Go to work. Tired? Work harder. Bored? Get another job. Hating life? Get a better job. My mother probably never met a Buddhist in her life living in the American Midwest, yet what she believed was very Zen – the “chop wood, carry water” philosophy of mindfulness through work that lays at the heart of Zen Buddhism. She personified it, and attributed her work ethic to the “scrubbing Deutsch,” German immigrants that she lived among while growing up on St. Louis’s South Side before the Depression. Her strong work ethic carried not only herself but her entire family through some bad times, and the success of her children (many of whom share her work ethic) made her proud.
4. Kids change everything. If you are selfish, don’t have kids. If you have kids anyway stop thinking about yourself and put the well-being of your children first. In today’s narcissistic culture her philosophy seems archaic, but I can tell you exactly where I was when I became a parent. It wasn’t when my son was born. It was well before that, early on in the pregnancy when I realized that what my dreams were, what my goals were no longer mattered. The moment was one of the most remarkable events of my life, when I realized, truly understood that I no longer lived for myself alone – that I had a deeper responsibility to my wife and the child growing inside of her. At that instant I felt a rush that was like being on the top of a rocket as it ascended to the stars, slowly at first, gaining momentum and speed until finally I was speeding on a trajectory into the unknown. That little event was more than figurative; it was transformative. It divides my life into Scott the individual and the parent of The Kid.
5. Never stop learning. My mother was not a book-reader of books, but she still devoured information. She read the daily newspaper until a few days before she died. She always watched the local news throughout the day and often watched cable news shows. Had she been born a generation or two later she would have loved the Internet with all the information she needed a few key strokes away, but hers was what we would call today the last of the “legacy media” generations.
6. Never stop. When my brother was born in 1944, my father was away fighting in the Pacific. Within days of bringing my brother home, my mother noticed something was not right about her newborn. She took him to see one doctor who said nothing was wrong with him. Another said it was likely a virus. But a third did some tests on my brother and determined that my brother had been born with a hole in his heart. “Take your boy home,” the doctor told my mother, “He’s going to die.”
After my mother had a good cry (she never was ashamed of tears the way my father was), she determined that she would find a doctor who would help her son. She found a doctor willing to help her try to keep my brother alive, and did so for 20 years thanks to the doctor and my mother. In 1967 my brother had open heart surgery, one of the first in the country to do so, and had his hole patched. He’s now 71 and retired after a successful career in the DoD.
My mother is gone but I think of her often as a good son should. And I’m still teasing out the lessons she bequeathed to me, but I have to get back to work…