3 Things My Mother Taught Me

My mother turns 88 today—September 13, 2009. Born in 1921, she grew up through the Depression, taught school, married a dashing World War II bomber pilot and hometown boy, raised six kids, had a brief stint as “Mother Trucker” working with my dad in a truck dispatching office after his retirement from a lifetime working for Potlatch, had some seasons as a snowbird heading to Death Valley with Dad and going on an Alaskan cruise—and got dementia.

Now everything from her long life is gone, except for her love for my father.

The number of her children and our names and faces: Gone. When I visit, my father does a good job of saying hello in a way that reintroduces who we are and how we fit into her life. She always smiles her best hostess-y smile when we arrive, but it’s clear that she doesn’t really recognize us.

Her actual age and what has and hasn’t happened already in her life: Gone. Sometimes she refers to her mother , dead in 1986, as still living. Sometimes she talks about whether or not she and Dad should have children since they haven’t had any yet. Sometimes she’s living in Spokane, although they’re in Lewiston. Sometimes she lives in the big house they used to own outside Lewiston, instead of in the dementia unit at Guardian Angels.

What she just said and where a normal conversation would go next: Gone. I like to describe it as running a lot of laps around a very short track. (I've written a bit before about what this is like. This means I'm repeating myself. This is of some concern.)

Her looping would be familiar to anyone who has spent some time with a dementia patient. As soon as she finishes a sentence—if she does, and if she uses English rather than throwing in a few Klingon words created by the strokes that cause her dementia—she might pick up that thread of thought and start all over again. And again. And again.

Fortunately, the thing she repeats more than anything is how much she loves my father and how well-suited they have been for each other through nearly 65 years of marriage. She repeats things about how they met or things they did together, and often gets those right: “He was always such a good dancer,” with an arch look and a smile.

If she has to forget everything else and repeat just one essential element of her life ad infinitum, at least it is love.

This essay is my birthday present to her, although I don’t know if she can still sustain enough cognitive continuity to read much.

How sad that makes me, when she turned me into an incredibly fast, retentive reader with her teaching skill. She posted names of things on flash cards all over our house so that I learned to see words as entire and intact units, rather than painful constructs of sounded-out syllables. This makes me a good proofreader because I know at some subconscious level that the shape of the word is wrong, even before I can tell you where the typo is.

The best gifts she gave me, though, were lessons in how to lead my life. Because of her, I have these qualities:

I’m a feminist. She told me stories about my grandmother—to be told here another day—to illustrate why I should be able to take care of myself as an independent woman before I married. Admittedly, she did assume I would marry and have children. Her wish for all her children was that we have a marriage as happy as hers (we all got there eventually).

I believe in service to my community. Long before I ever heard of the notion of privilege or paying it forward, my mom gave me both those concepts. She told me how lucky I was, to grow up in a home with two parents who loved each other, plenty to eat, never any fear of losing the roof over our heads, a college education.

More important, she told me there are lots of people who don’t have all those things and because of that, they may not be able to do and be everything they want in this world. So I need to use the gifts I’m given and whatever talent I have to contribute, because I can and because some doors will open for me that may not open for others.

I try to be kind, and I look for the good things that abound. Kindness is underrated in this world. My mother was kind and she taught me empathy.

If we saw someone who had any kind of problem that made life more difficult—say, someone with a disability, or someone who was morbidly obese—Mom said something like, “Oh, life must be so difficult for them. Think what it’s like just to try to go see a movie” (or whatever seemed relevant).

This wasn’t said in a patronizing way—it was said to help us put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.

My mother was almost always cheerful, too, and I have her sunny optimism most of the time. My dear and sometimes brooding husband knows I’m his Sally Sunshine. (Every marriage should have one.)

Thanks to Mom, for me the glass isn’t half-empty, it’s half-full, or maybe you need a glass that’s a different size, or we’ll get something to drink later instead of right now. The lines “We’ll just make the best of it” and “Things will turn out all right in the end” can carry you through many of the bumps in life’s road.

These were good lessons. Thank you, Mom.

Where have you BEEN, anyway? It’s been far too long.

It’s called Real Life. That thing we do with family, friends, projects and causes that matter to us. That thing that slows down the tweet stream, drops the rate of Facebook updates from multiple ones every day to once or twice a week—the thing that stopped my embryonic blog for five months.

I don’t have anything dramatic to report for my time spent in four-dimensional life. Bike to Work Week got pretty all-consuming about the time I last blogged in late March, so that was the first bump in the road. My work chairing that committee is on top of a full-time job, kids, sweetheart, all the rest, so it does command a lot of those late-night hours I might otherwise use for a creative outlet.

That’s not the only board or committee I’m on, and most of them cut a pretty wide swath in my in-box. If I’m lucky, they don’t all peak at once—Bike to Work Week fortunately doesn’t take place at the same time as the Spokane River Clean-up (coming up Sept. 26—have you registered yet?), or the executive search committee I was chairing for a foundation board I'm on. I run Twitter and Facebook accounts for volunteer efforts like Friends of the Falls and Bike to Work Spokane. My work as communications director for WSU Spokane also involves tons o’ email, Twitter & other electronica. Keyboard fatigue, pure & simple.

I got past Bike to Work Week, I did some other board work, then Eldest Daughter graduated from high school. This was huge. She naturally thought it was blogworthy. I agreed. But what would I write?

Something to sum up her evolution as a young woman and her life to date? Reminiscences about her life as a Legislative Baby, my little political parade companion wearing a sash that said “Future Governor” while waving to the crowd, and knock-‘em-dead songstress in every talent contest she ever entered? A look ahead to her college life and her plans to be a bilingual civics teacher? Reflections on my divorce from her father and how I could have done a better job as her mother but now it’s too late?

Too much pressure. Couldn’t do it justice, so I didn’t do it. That took me from mid-June well into the really nice part of a Spokane summer—and we have beautiful summers here.

The fact of the matter is that I had let online time cut too big a chunk out of family time. Things that ranked higher on my priority list than blogging for the past few months:

  • Being madly in love with my husband and spending every minute together that we can
  • Celebrating our two-year wedding anniversary in early July with dinner at Mizuna, the most wonderful restaurant in downtown Spokane for vegetarians and the carnivores who love them
  • Long bike rides with Sweetheart, usually with a nice little coffee stop at the halfway point like On Sacred Grounds in Valleyford or the Rocket Bakery on Argonne
  • Walking in the evening holding hands with Sweetheart, heading to Press or Lindaman’s for coffee or just around the neighborhood
  • Sleeping in on a few Fridays off just to start the weekends early, then lingering over the newspaper with hot French press coffee sprinkled with cinnamon and brown sugar
  • Walking holding hands with Sweetheart on a Saturday morning to Rockwood Bakery for quiche & buttery-good pastries (oh, and coffee—is there a theme here?)
  • Yoga classes at Twist, taught by my best friend Betz, and coffee with her once or twice a week (I hear that theme music again)
  • Reading fiction in actual books picked out at the downtown Spokane Library, with its wonderful view of the Spokane River
  • A week at the family lake cabin in August, where there is no Internet connection and only spotty cell phone service
  • Having The Engineer (boy age 11) and Movie Sponge (girl age 9) with us for five weeks straight
  • Fierce board game head-to-heads: Monopoly, Pente, Parcheesi. Eldest Daughter isn’t one for board games, but the rest of us are always game for a game
  • Teaching #2 Daughter to play gin rummy, and losing to her badly more than once. My father would be so proud.
  • Movie nights with fresh popcorn
  • Hosting a fundraiser for a political candidate I believe in
  • Walks to a neighborhood park (we have several—thank you Olmsted Brothers for Spokane’s park plan) with the little ones, where they climb trees and play on swings
  • Cheering Eldest Daughter on through her job search, which resulted in several interviews and two part-time jobs in a tough economy (she has been offered almost every job she has ever applied for)
  • Ditto for her preparations for college--she starts next week with a "preview" one-week intro-to-college class
  • Cooking up the occasional storm trying out recipes from the wonderful World Vegetarian cookbook, my mother’s old recipe box, and other sources
  • Finally finishing a sampler afghan I’ve knitted away at over the years, and starting on a sweater for fall (back & right front done, almost done with left front, sleeves & finishing after that)
  • Seeing my daughters through a rough patch involving a breakdown in their father’s health
  • As a consequence of said health issue, surviving the experience of my 18-year-old and 15-year-old daughters leaving on their first cross-state road trip
  • Cheering at Sweetheart’s bike races--he placed second in his category for the series he raced, and moves up to race at a higher level next season
  • Sitting out on our back patio on summer evenings listening to the frogs shrilling their little froggy hearts out, holding hands and sipping a glass of something with my Sweetheart
  • An epic hike with the little ones in Liberty Lake County Park: 3 miles up a steep forest hillside to the waterfall and back down again
  • Feeling the season start to turn as the temperatures drop, the air becomes more mild, and a few yellow leaves start drifting to the ground

This is real life. Pretty sure I made the right choice. But now I’ve broken the log jam and I’ll get back in the groove—without sacrificing any hand-holding walks with Sweetheart.