Things My Mom Taught Me
Bumper joined the family last Monday, after a rough start to his little kitten life. At four weeks old, he was thrown from a moving car, hit the asphalt, and degloved the lower half of his mouth. Patrick’s kind and quick-thinking coworker scooped him up, took him to the vet, and sent photos to a few folks. Patrick texted those to me with “Do you want a new kitty?”, and now Bumper sleeps safely in a too-large animal taxi at the foot of the bed in the guestroom. He happily takes antibiotics twice a day, licking the business end of the syringe like it’s ice cream (some kitten version of it). I can hold him in one hand and still carry eggs from the coop in the other.
I’ve never had children. Lots of reasons, not the least of which is the absence of a deep-rooted calling or desire to fill those important shoes. Without that, it feels like an experiment that could go bad, and then what—give the little one back to the hospital? No. I bequeath the responsibility of raising young humans to those who have dreamt of it since their doll-playing days. I’ll aunt their offspring with great joy, babysit for free, and follow the rules called out as the parents head out the door on a much-needed date night. So far, that’s been appreciated and enough.
My own mom was a font of wisdom and instructions that I eagerly soaked up as each life event and circumstance presented itself, until I skidded into adolescence and figured I knew pretty much all I needed to know. She still taught me, but I spent the better part of nine years as the reluctant student in the back row of the classroom, doodling in the margins of my life’s notebook, and looking up only when called upon. Mom was a teacher in the formal sense as well, and knew how to handle such impertinence. She raised five young humans through the hilly landscape of infancy-to-adolescence and beyond, letting go when it was necessary, and holding on with a love that still teaches me. She died in 2015, surrounded by a context of details too complex and painful to go into here. It’s enough to say that when my time comes, I look forward to connecting with her again, to fill in the gaps and answer those questions that any loss leaves behind in its wake.
Taking care of a discarded kitten feels a poor comparison to parenting, and so I proceed cautiously in front of any of you who have set your shoulders and hearts squarely to that task. But right now, it’s as close as I’ll ever come. When he’s awake and bumbling around the vast living room space, looking like an animated exclamation point on the end of a perpetual energetic sentence, I laugh effortlessly and feel pieces of my heart slip away. When I’m at work and there’s a pause in the action, I wish I was home holding him as he plays with my dangling fingers. In a week’s time, I’ve grown solicitous and overprotective; I get up to check on him during the night, even when he’s not mewling for food or company. The house has gone a bit more dusty, and I glaze over the piles of projects that, two weeks ago, were at the top of my to-do list. It’s far more necessary to put in his eye drop medication, refill his water dish, and let him explore the kitchen. Or just sit on the old red wide-armed chair in the corner with him in my lap, or purring into my shoulder. As I write this, he’s stretched out, all eight inches of him, next to my leg, sleeping.
Though we didn’t have pets growing up (both mom AND dad insisted the house was full enough already, with five of us bumbling around and climbing everywhere), when we did bring home the baby bird or injured bunny, mom guided us through what to do next, teaching us the care continuum that started with a cardboard box filled with grass clippings and eventually led to the inevitable release back into the wild, or, sometimes, how deep to dig the grave and lay one of God’s creatures to rest. We trusted her, and she didn’t disappoint.
In 2015, as it became clear that mom was dying, I started writing a stream-of-consciousness list of what I learned from her, how her influence shaped the person I continue to become. I formatted it into a booklet and placed copies around the funeral home for folks to page through as they stood in line waiting to comfort us and express their sympathy. I haven’t looked at it in a while, found it in the upstairs office/guestroom, and want to share it with you. If it sparks memories of your own mother’s lessons, tucked safely away in your life’s toolkit, I’m glad. What mom knew and taught me has remained part of my daily routine. She was a woman of quiet power and prayer, an embodiment of hospitality and forgiveness, and the reason music is such a source of joy for me. I still fold towels and make no-bake oatmeal cookies the way she did, and hum Gershwin tunes unprompted.
Here’s some of what I know, some of what I am, because of her:
—How to sew on a button, fix a hem, use a sewing machine
—How to make “Sunday chicken”
—How to fold towels, socks, underwear, t-shirts, pants, shorts, and sheets. Even the fitted ones
—How to dust and sweep
—How to play Bingo, Crazy Eights, King’s Corners, Gin, Go Fish
—How to read
—How to sing
—How to put on a life jacket, and why
—How to trim my fingernails
—How to forgive
—How to pack a boat for a 2-week vacation at the lake
—How to say “please” and “thank you”, and “you’re welcome”
—How to dress for special occasions
—All about Rogers and Hammerstein musicals
—How to put together a creative Halloween costume
—How to fill out a check
—How to make tuna salad
—What a G clef and an F clef look like
—The difference between pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters
—How to use glue
—How to address an envelope
—How to write a thank you note
—How to tell someone who’s lost a loved one that you’re sorry for her loss
—How to care for houseplants
—How to load the dishwasher
—That it’s ok to cry at movies
—How to get through the gross or scary parts of movies, like the chariot races in Ben-Hur
—How to slam open a can of Pillsbury crescent rolls on the edge of the kitchen counter
—That saying “shut up” is as bad as dropping the F-bomb
—How to work a crossword puzzle
—Why soaking dirty dishes matters
—How to put a wet bathing suit back on after going to the restroom at the Northland Swim Club when you’re five years old
—How to imitate a cardinal
—How to make Jell-O Jigglers
—That dark chocolate is the best
—What to do when an ambulance comes to your neighbor’s house
—How to make the bed
—Why to make the bed
—How to measure and pack brown sugar for cookies
—How to make a phone call
—How to use and carry scissors
—How and what to pack in the “go bag” that sits at your feet in the car on a long road trip
—That people can change their minds. More than once
Meister Eckhart, 13th century mystic, once said “If the only prayer you say in your entire life is ‘thank you’, that would suffice”.