I have often berated you for all the things I thought you did wrong in raising me. Since our relationship over the years has fluctuated between close and very distant, it has been easy to find fault with your decisions. I have made it very clear that I was not happy. But as we have our space from each other again (and we both know that the quality of our relationship has been in inverse proportion to how close we live to each other), I am coming to see just how many things you did right for me. I keep hearing myself saying, “Oh, my mom taught me …” and I am seeing now just how ungrateful I have been.
When I was a child, one of the first decisions you made for me was to stay home and raise us kids. I know this caused a lot of financial hardship for our family, but you provided a sense of security and stability for us. Even when we were effectively homeless, you provided consistency and created “home” for us in the RV, wherever we happened to park. You were a backbone of our family, making sure everyone was warm, fed, clothed, safe, and loved. Thank you.
Another very early decision you made for me was to breastfeed me. I know that when I was a baby, most babies never got any breastmilk. Only about 40% of mothers even tried, and at 6 months, only 17% still nursed at all. How many of those mothers exclusively breastfed, we don’t know. But you made the commitment to nurse me exclusively, giving me a major advantage in my health over my peers. You didn’t hide your nursing, and I watched you nurse my brothers, which normalized it for me. When I started having my own babies, I didn’t even consider not nursing. I remember reading all of your old books on the subject. Thank you for your courage and bravery when breastfeeding was so taboo. Thank you for giving me the best start in life for my health.
As a small child, you made a point of reading to me every night. My favorite book was The Poky Little Puppy, and you would read it to me as I lay in bed. It was supposed to read, “And they all went roly poly, tumble bumble, pell mell till they got to the bottom of the hill.” But you would mix it up, and I would laugh and correct you. You read to me so much that I was reading fluently by the age of four. I loved reading. I remember you, Daddy, and me sitting around the table after dinner when I was ten, taking turns reading from The Hobbit, and all the other fantasy novels that the library had on their shelves. Literally, all of them. You gave me a love of good literature, and I have in turn passed that on to my children, who are now far exceeding their peers in reading skill. Thank you for that inheritance.
We always teased you about your cooking skills as we were growing up, but you taught me how to read a recipe and cook with real ingredients. Although you didn’t require me to practice such skills, you did give me the foundation that later enabled me to learn how to move away from boxes and cans and get creative in the kitchen. I have since developed a passion for cooking real food that nourishes my family (when they will eat it), and it started with your teaching me teaspoons from tablespoons and baking from boiling. Thank you.
I remember when I was 7 years old, you gave me a pair of knitting needles and some yarn. You taught me how to knit and purl, cast on and bind off. Very basic skills, but they are the foundation for all the knitting that I can imagine. I remember thinking you gave me size 7 needles because I was 7 years old. Of course, it was probably because that was what you had handy. I remember knitting up headbands and wristbands in basic garter stitch and being so proud that I made them myself. In lavender acrylic yarn. That basic foundation blossomed into many hats and mittens, and later into lace shawls and bridal veils. Thank you for teaching me how joyful knitting can be.
Another craft you taught me that has stayed with me all these years is sewing. You taught me how to thread a needle and make a knot by rolling the thread over my licked finger. You taught me to make short, straight stitches at an even distance from the edge of the fabric. A set of old sheets served as my practice material. They were white with yellow polka dots and became little pillows, and doll sleeping bags. As a senior in high school (having skipped many intervening years by not sewing), I made a superhero cape for my hamster for a school project and got an A. That launched me into sewing clothing for the next 23 years, a hobby that I love and cannot imagine living without. Thank you for sharing this skill with me.
As I grew up, I found myself clashing more and more with you. My own daughter, now the same age, does the same to me. I see my relationship to your reflected in her relationship to me. I suspect this might be common between mothers and their daughters. Not necessarily the difficulty, but the reflection. Through all the times I pushed you away, you remained there for me until you nearly broke and had to set a boundary. When the house I was renting sold and I had two weeks to find a new home, you took us in. You stayed with me at the old apartment until 4 am on Monday morning after a grueling weekend move to help me clean it up while my husband slept at your house.
When I got divorced a few years ago and was emotionally lost at sea, you were still there for me. I remember calling you up and asking you to come over because I couldn’t deal with things anymore. When you arrived, I was crumpled on the floor having a nervous breakdown while the kids ran amok. You came and you took charge of the kids and established a sense of order from all that chaos. You picked me up, literally, and held me as I sobbed in despair.
Strength of character
Through all the years, you have demonstrated an incredible strength of will. You have always done whatever it took to keep our family going. When Daddy was suffering from an extended period of soul-crushing depression, you stayed with him. When you were told that you could not qualify for welfare if Daddy was still with us, you chose him, even though it meant financial insecurity. You took a job milking goats twice a day for three hours each time for $10/day to supplement our food stamps. What incredible resilience! People tell me how strong I have been in dark times of my life. It is only because you demonstrated that strength to me when I was a child.
When my brother was in prison and I had no car, I remember your coming over and picking me and baby M up to go visit him every week. Every week you would visit him until he had finished his sentence, and for a long time, you took me, too. For all of our adult lives, you have tried to nurture good relations among us children, even when it was a lost cause. I find myself doing the same with my own children, though most still live at home and it is still easy with them. Thank you for modeling loyalty and devotion.
I want to thank you for all you have done for me. This list is by no means complete. I don’t think I could ever make a complete list, if I am honest. You taught me the basics of the skills that became my passions as an adult. You taught me the skills I needed to excel in life and gifted me with a hunger for knowledge. You have supported me even when I didn’t want you to. The things I have judged you for have been my motivation to be a better parent to my own children. I have had mixed success, and I am sure that my mistakes will motivate them to do things differently with their own children, and so on down the generations.
Thank you for being my mom. I’m sorry it took me 40 years to say it.