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.