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.”
“Let me help you put your coat on.”
“Time for bed.”
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.
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.”
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 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.