“You have in store an outpouring of one of God’s greatest blessings on Earth–the joys of the gift of a child.”
My mother wrote that prediction in a book she gave me for my first Mother’s Day as a mother. I was blessed enough to be able to spend the holiday this year with both my mother and my children. And, as it so often happens, the day played out with Mama spending most of it serving me. Mothers are remarkable creatures, indeed. As you may have surmised from last week’s posts, that first Mother’s Day holiday for me came just a few days after Little Drummer Boy was born. I was still reeling from the sheer joy and wonder of actually being able to see and touch him. Mama was right. Being a mother to LDB, Squiggle and Baby Girl has been the most soul-changing, incredible, challenging, rewarding, frustrating, amazing, exhausting and joyful experience of my life. All at the same time. I’m sure most mothers would say the same thing. It’s the nature of the job. When Little Drummer Boy was born, I remember feeling so unprepared, but I sort of fell into the role led by my love for this incredible little human before me. And my mother helped.
Mama stayed with me for several weeks after Little Drummer Boy was born, as she did with each of my gifts. She was on-hand to offer support and to help with the requisite diaper-changing, bathing, answering of questions, sleeplessness and general cooking and cleaning. That practical service was much needed, of course, but she helped me in ways she probably never realized. And, it started long before Little Drummer Boy’s birth.
As a child, I remember my mother talking to me. I remember her reading books like Are You My Mother? and admonishing me to put my own book away at bedtime as I grew older. I remember her asking me every afternoon about what I did that day and listening to the answers. I remember her giving me time. I remember her baking cookies and decorating them. I remember her putting money in a small envelope in the cabinet for our vacation. I remember her planting violets and marigolds and looking at wallpaper and sewing patterns. I remember creamed tuna on toast with English peas. I don’t ever remember sharing a negative word about Mama with anyone else, not even during those teenage years. There was just something wrong about it, something of a betrayal of her endless effort on my behalf that kept me from falling into that all-too-common mindset of growing up. Perhaps it was because I grew up as an only child. As such, I spent a lot of time around grown-ups, mainly my mother and father. The enjoyment, conversation, togetherness and anticipation of family time was ingrained in me at a very young age. Somehow Mama instilled in me a love of spending time together.
In all these mundane and daily experiences, I remember Mama’s ability to elevate the commonplace to the level of celebration. I’m not sure that was really her conscious and well-conceived intention, but I’ve always felt that the art of celebration was–and is–her gift. I grew up and came of age knowing that paying attention to the joy of life’s daily experience was important to her. Knowing that celebration itself is important. Knowing that it can be a way of life, if you’re just willing to make it so. Beyond her cooking ability, her penchant for gardening, her prowess as a seamstress, and all the other womanly and motherly traits she possesses, that skill of celebration–that discipline–is the one that rises to the surface this Mother’s Day. It has colored a thousand other experiences for me. It is the chief lesson I have sought to incorporate into my own home. It is the mother I want to be.
Far from being a formula, as I think about those memories of childhood and the approach my mother took to homekeeping and mothering and celebration, some themes emerge–lessons I’ve noticed that characterize her way of living, her way of raising me and even her way of being a grandmother now. It’s these lessons my Mama taught me about being a mom, about keeping a home and living a life that I strive to put into practice, just as she did.
Effort is worth making.
It is. I grew up knowing that if something needed to be done, my Mama could do it. And, she would do it. She wouldn’t let anything get in her way. No setback, no empty jar of something or another, no shortage of fabric or icing or whatever requirement for the latest task would deter her from making a project be what we wanted it to be. At age 40 with my own mothering experiences, I now understand that in all actuality, Mama couldn’t do everything. But, there remains a common sense of ingenuity and creativity that was fueled by her insistence that something be special. It was her necessity. Something she wasn’t willing to give up. And she made it happen. Through her own demonstration, Mama taught me that common experiences are worth the extra effort. I don’t mean that things were always perfect or that our home was an issue of Martha Stewart Living. No, we lived a real life. But, Mama put equal effort into making both Beef Wellington and Cheesy Dogs seem special. It was a gift to the people around the table, whether they recognized it or not. Whether it meant staying up late until the turkey was done, chasing down red hots for snowman cookie eyes and buttons, or taking the seam out three times to be sure it would lie flat, I grew up knowing my mother would put in whatever effort was required. I want my babies to know that too.
Little things are important.
They are. My parents were both public school educators. Mama taught third grade. With those professions in Mississippi (or anywhere, really) I’m sure their budgets were on the meager side of adequate. But, I never wanted for anything. Anything. I’m sure there were things and experiences that I missed out on, but I never knew it. I never knew of a time when I didn’t have an abundance. I attribute that overflow to my mother’s ability to make little things important. I didn’t need big things. The small details were given greater significance because of Mama’s attention to them. And because we experienced them together, while giggling and talking and sharing. I came to appreciate the unfinished doll house at Christmas rather than the fully-outfitted one–because I had the fun of Mama helping me choose our own wallpaper for the tiny rooms, sewing the tiny curtains for the plastic windows and painting the front door before hanging the tiny wreath on it. I came to appreciate that we rarely had a meal without placemats–because they just changed creamed tuna on toast and cheesy dogs somehow. I came to appreciate the extra ruffle sewn on a pillow case or the seat cushion covered in coordinating fabric or the bow added to the standard lampshade. These were the little things that made a house a home, and a home our home. I hope I can give my babies that same abundance.
They do. Mama kept things. Whether small trinket gifts from her third-grade students, the churn top that belonged to her grandmother, the last remaining (albeit chipped) cup and saucer from her wedding “everyday” tableware or some framed “artwork” I made in preschool, these artifacts adorned our home in some fashion or another. One thing I learned from my mom through her tendency toward not throwing “stuff” away is that things are things, but they also often hold the memories and impressions of experiences. They are tangible evidence of joy and struggle and the full gamut of the life we partake. The value of “things” doesn’t necessarily rest merely in their shape or the material of which they are constructed, but in the memories they hold of significant times and places and people. Through Mama’s celebration bent, I learned that traditions and keepsakes are how we bring experiences forward to the next ones. They are how we string experiences together. Telling stories, keeping reminders, and displaying the artifacts of our experiences can teach us the context from which we come and offer a framework for the places we’re going. I hope I can move those memories forward with my children.
Above all the lessons in the art of celebration imparted by my mother, perhaps the one most poignantly seen even today is that motherhood is serving. And, it’s a lifelong endeavor. Mama never fails to fold laundry while at my home or to read a book to a grandchild. She has taught me as much in my adult life as any other time that mothering is giving. Time, money, energy, effort, wisdom. Motherhood is giving–even when it hurts. Giving when it’s frustrating, when it’s painful. Giving. When it’s hard. And as I watch her example and strive to put that particular lesson into practice, I’m finding that motherhood has a unique ability to pull from a deep well of love-fueled resources. It finds the ability to give when it seems there is nothing to give.
For me, these are profound lessons for motherhood gleaned from my life’s best demonstration. And, oddly enough, they happen to be pretty good lessons for life beyond motherhood as well.
Thank you, Mama.