A launching pad, not a prison

Family portrait

Mother, my brother, and I shortly before the family break-up

Single mothers were rare among my circle of friends in Twin Falls, Idaho, but I was lucky. I got the best.

Mother was a good teacher. Here are four of her lessons.

1.  Decisions have consequences, for which I alone am responsible.

I hit the “terrible twos” at the age of three. Until then I’d been easy to parent. At three I learned the power of “no”.

“Come to dinner.”

“NO.”

“Let me help you put your coat on.”

“NO.”

“Time for bed.”

“NO.”

Mother worked five and a half days a week. She did not have time to negotiate every request. So she taught me about consequences.

“You can be a good girl, and everyone will like you. You will get to do all kinds of things. Or you can be a bad girl. People will not like you. You will be punished a lot. Which kind of girl do you want to be?”

For three days Mother held her breath. Then I made up my mind. “I’ve decided to be a good girl.”

For the most part, I kept that resolution. When I was a teenager, I sometimes wanted Mother to make decisions for me. Then I could blame her if things went wrong.

She wasn’t buying it. She would help me sort through the scenarios. But the decisions were mine. So were the consequences.

They still are, only now I’m grateful.

Mother in early twenties

Mother in her early 20s

2.  A rundown neighbourhood is a launching pad, not a prison.

The neighbourhood of my childhood did not produce many success stories. Some went to prison. Others should have. Most quietly struggled with too little money and too small dreams.

But Mother believed my brother and I would go to university and lead middle-class lives.

We lived in a stucco-sided house at the dead end of Jackson Street. It had a small kitchen, a living room, and one bedroom. There was no bathroom. We had cold running water and a garden path.

We also had roses. They grew in wild profusion up the trellis by the front door. Gooseberry bushes flourished in the weedy back yard.

We had healthy, mature adults who loved and believed in us. We had teachers who inspired us and friends who shared our values and dreams.

It was enough. Neither my brother nor I became wealthy or famous. We did get university educations and the comforts and satisfactions of the middle-class life Mother envisioned for us.

3. Integrity has its own rewards.

My brother and I loved raspberries. Our next-door neighbour grew them for market. We wanted them.

We sneaked through the fence when we thought she wasn’t looking. We filled our tummies with juicy raspberries and picked a big bowl of them for Mother.

When Mother came home, we proudly offered her the bowl.

“Where did you get these?”

We told her.

“That’s stealing. You will take them back.”

My fourth birthday

My fourth birthday, shortly after I decided to "be a good girl".

We were mortified. Couldn’t we just promise not to pick any more?

Mother was unmovable.

She marched us to the neighbour’s house. We could feel her eyes boring into our black little hearts as the door opened and we made our confession.

“We stole your raspberries.”

We were too ashamed to look up. So we missed the laughter dancing in our neighbour’s eyes. We also missed my mother’s quick shake of the head and her nonverbal insistence we pay for our crime.

“It was wrong to take my raspberries without asking,” the neighbour said as she took the bowl. “But now that you have told me, you may pick raspberries any time you want.”

We were the only kids in the neighbourhood with that privilege, and we were smart enough not to tell the others.

Integrity has its own rewards.

4.  Help those who need it, but don’t be a pushover.

Mother always figured you were not poor as long as you had something to give. So on Salvation Army’s Dollar Day, we would stuff a paper bag or two with coats, trousers, shoes, and blouses. Then we would deliver them to some family worse off than we were.

I’m not sure how Mother softened the inevitable humiliation that comes from being on the receiving end. Maybe she didn’t. But I remember feeling like Lady Bountiful when we distributed bags of used clothing.

Mother in her sixties

Mother in her sixties

Mother was always generous with her love, her resources, and her time, but she was not a pushover. For two decades she worked as bookkeeper for a seed company in Twin Falls, Idaho. When she resigned to move closer to her grandchildren, she was asked to train her replacement.

The new employee was a man. He was hired as a manager at three times her salary.

Mother refused to train him.

And now she is gone

My mother died in 1992, one week before she was to leave her little apartment in Napa, California, and move into a nursing home.

Alzheimer’s had robbed her of the last marker of independence, her own place. That was a theft she could not bear.

So she let go.

I miss her still.

On May 18, 2010, the journal Molecular Psychiatry published the results of a new study on the impact of caring mothers. It seems they serve as a shield against the negative health effects of growing up in poverty.

Thank you, Mom.

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8 comments for “A launching pad, not a prison

  1. Michelle
    May 9, 2010 at 6:01 pm

    What a beautiful woman, inside and out. I’m sure you must feel her pride as she looks down on you each day. xoxo

  2. May 11, 2010 at 9:57 am

    What a lovely tribute to your mother, Cathryn.

    Love, Yvonne

  3. May 11, 2010 at 10:54 am

    She was the best. At a Mother’s Day service Sunday, a woman said she and her husband figured when it came to mothers they had hit the lottery. I know just what they mean.

  4. Deepthi
    May 11, 2010 at 2:17 pm

    A beautiful tribute to your mom, Cathryn. Somehow, I could tell that an incredible woman had guided you…..just from knowing you.

  5. peggy
    May 12, 2010 at 9:52 am

    catherine

    i did not realize your mom had alzheimewords to live by god bless momsrs,
    how sad for you and eric. i knew she passed
    early ninties my mom passed in 96, broke her
    hip lived three months, i to miss her so many things to say no one to hear them her big thing was if you can not say anything nice do not say it at all. mom wisdoms, where would we be today. peggy b

  6. May 12, 2010 at 9:59 am

    We were both fortunate – wonderful mothers in our lives. I know just what you mean about having things you want to talk with your mother about and missing her presence in your life.

  7. May 12, 2013 at 10:13 am

    Dear Cathryn,
    What a beautiful story, so well told. You had a wonderful mother, and the proof is in the pudding!

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