Parent/Teacher Not Preacher
Three years ago on the summer solstice, I honored one of my mother’s dying wishes and planted her ashes beneath a flowering bush. My mom died in October of 2014 and while I still miss her terribly, I find the ache isn’t as visceral, more like a dull throb I’ve gotten used to over time.
My mom grew up in South Philadelphia where everyone took public transportation so she never learned to drive. When my parents married and moved to New Jersey she held firm, walking everywhere, that is, until I was 16 and she returned to work. Now she needed a license and it had been 20-odd years since she’d been in the workforce — two tough things to handle, especially at once. Most people would have thought it too late or hard or scary to get their license at 43. So did she, but what did that matter? She wanted to help pay for her kids to go to college so she needed to go back to work, and if she needed to work, she needed to drive. My favorite mom driving story: we’re in the Sears parking lot about to get out of the car. My sister and I are yelling at each other as we often did. My mom is trying to ignore it as she often did, but it’s making her nervous as hell. We all get out of the car and start to head inside when we realize the car is still running, locked, with the keys inside. As a new driver, my mom was mortified, but my sister and I thought it was hilarious. We laughed about it while waiting for my dad to come with the spare keys to unlock the car and for years after that.
My mother epitomized dichotomies. She was 110 pounds of unshakeable character and strong opinions which she often kept to herself. She’d do anything for her kids and when my first marriage failed and I was about to have a baby, she moved in with me and helped me hold it all together (my dad had died years before). She was an uber-mom before that was even in vogue. She could also freeze you with a look, and as a kid, I learned to avoid that look by doing what she asked of me. She wasn’t one to laugh easily, at least not until much later in life, but she appreciated simple pleasures and never took anything for granted. While I turned out more like my Dad with his easy affability and spirit of compromise, I inherited my mom’s tenacity and strength, traits I’ve had to rely on many times over the years.
When she 50, my mom was diagnosed with scleroderma, and it was her will that kept her going two decades longer than any doctor thought possible. Even while her skin hardened, her opinions softened, and I watched her morph over time into a more flexible and open person in spite of, and maybe because of the scleroderma. Rather than pity her lot, she embraced the challenge and doggedly pursued alternative therapy treatments, keeping whatever worked, discarding the rest. I’m convinced this exercise gave her years more life then if she’d taken the prednisone the doctors were recommending from the outset. Instead she chose acupuncture, NAET, shiatsu, massage, vitamin B therapy, aroma therapy, hypnosis, reflexology, and anything else that sounded promising. Sometimes, I’d be the guinea pig, trying out a particular modality first as I did with acupuncture to see if she could handle it. The experience changed the way I think about Eastern versus Western healing modalities forever.
My mom’s scleroderma never stopped her from continuing her active role as my first teacher and still the best one I’ve ever had. Here’s a few things she taught me, not necessarily in order. It’s a list I rely on even more as I age and counsel my own kids:
- say please;
- and thank you;
- always give your best;
- use your words (not your fists, because “we are a non-hitting family”);
- say what you mean and mean what you say;
- if you don’t have anything to say, silence is a good thing – there’s already too much noise in the world;
- take care of your sister;
- respect your elders even when they’re wrong;
- if you pay attention, you’ll always learn something;
- family first.
It’s hard to say what I miss most about my mom. Her companionship? A given. The fact that my kids will continue to grow, but she won’t be there to celebrate their victories and hold their hearts through their disappointments? A tough one, especially since our youngest, her baby, graduates from high school next month. Or that I no longer have her wisdom to draw on? Selfishly, it just may be the last one. Luckily, I took notes.
In Kabbalah, there are a series of three symbols representing the concept of “parent/teacher, not preacher,” meaning, a parents job is to teach their children the tools to get through life, but not dictate the kind of life they should live — leading by example. My Roman Catholic mother totally embodied this concept, probably bucking the Church as she did; she gave us our religion, but never insisted we follow it. Rather, she gave us choice in life, the ultimate freedom, by putting the clay in our hands and letting us to mold our worlds. It was my supreme honor to be her child and I thank her every day for all her examples of strength and kindness and for her endless sacrifices.
Miss you, Mom, oh so very much. Happy Mother’s Day.