I would like to relate to you a story that is not about my mother, but that she would likely have used to illustrate a project for her students.
Six blind men were asked to determine what an elephant looked like by feeling different parts of the elephant’s body.
The blind man who felt a leg said the elephant is like a pillar; the one who felt the tail said the elephant is like a rope; the one who felt the trunk said the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who felt the ear said the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who felt the belly said the elephant is like a wall; and the one who felt the tusk said the elephant is like a solid pipe.
Of course, all six men were right, to an extent; each man described the part of the elephant that they knew.
Here I will offer my mother, my wall, the backdrop of my life, to go with the rope that some may grasp, and the branch that others may hold, and the pillar that still others may cling to. Hopefully, this will give dimension to the picture of the woman that I knew simply as “Mom”.
Mom read to us. I can remember sitting on the hideous fuchsia couch in our basement playroom, reading Go Dog Go and Fox in Sox and Where the Wild Things Are and my personal favorite, I Am a Bunny. It is because of her that I started kindergarten as a reader. I still remember her bringing me to kindergarten roundup, showing me the books the kids would get to read, then letting me sit down to read a story about a green lizard before the classroom tour moved on. Over the years, mom would introduce us to the worlds of Laura Ingalls Wilder and J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and Louis L’Amour. In later years, she would share Harry Potter and The Seventh Tower with her grandchildren.
Mom sewed for us. The Halloween costumes began to roll off the sewing machine when we were small and when the sons kept coming, the costumes kept multiplying. By the time most of us were in grade school, she would block out her evenings for weeks to ensure that each of her boys had the perfect costume. There were matching dragons, skeletons whose bones glowed in the dark, and an ingenious rendition of R2-D2 that was made from industrial Styrofoam packaging. Even as adults, there were cloaks of darkness and Jedi robes. Eventually she expanded her clientèle to include her grandchildren. Nothing off the rack will ever be good enough.
Mom drove for us. Our family spent every summer from the time I was five until well after I had graduated high school at our lake home north of Brainerd, miles away from anything. We drove to get there. We drove to do laundry. We drove to pick up necessities, and not-so-necessities. How many miles to Ossippee store for comic books? How many miles to Nisswa for the turtle races on Wednesdays? How many miles to the Brainerd movie theater to see the Rescuers, or to wait in line to see Star Wars for the second time? Once our family returned to the cities for the school year, we also spent more than fifteen consecutive years traveling from ice rink to ice rink as our family sunk into the interminable quagmire that is youth and high school hockey. She knew which ice rink was which, even in St. Paul, where ice arenas are intentionally named similarly simply to encourage confusion. She knew the best route to get to each arena. She knew to which arenas one could wear just jeans as well as which would require one to wrap in multiple blankets to stay warm.
Mom knew how to feed a family of seven on a shoestring budget. Yes, there were meals that can best be described as “inventive”, such as tuna hot dish. Yes, there were more eat-on-the-run moments full of hot dogs from the microwave than any of us care to remember. And yes, there were the feed as many as possible as simply as possible meals like tacos and pancakes and French toast. But there were also the meals to look forward to, like homemade lentil soup and chili from scratch, both of which I am told are wonderful. And there was always Mom’s scratch spaghetti sauce, cooked in the big cast iron pot. Even when we were all grown, she would look forward to the evenings when we would come home and have her prepare a meal for us.
Mom encouraged us. She saved stories of potato chips and chipmunks created on writing paper with dotted lines. She was a Cub Scout den mother. She was the preferred scorekeeper for softball, baseball and hockey. She was the unofficial assistant coach, making sure everyone knew who was batting and who was on deck, correcting referees as to which player assisted on the last goal. She was the constant volunteer. She had the ability to correctly manage fund raising money, usually for no less than three boys selling Christmas wreaths and candy bars for Cub Scouts or Boy Scouts or sports. She knew who needed to be at which practice that would end at the same time as someone else’s game would start, and which gym or diamond or rink needed to be attended.
Mom supported us. She traded a ride home from school for a dinner. She traded trips to the fabric store for gas money. She offered her summer vacations for daycare. She covered cash flow irregularities, like slow paying customers. She allowed her sons to borrow her car while she worked. She spent weekends at the mall and the lake with her sons and daughters-in-law and her grandchildren. She covered rent when there was no money to repay her. She kept room in her home in case someone might need to move in with her long enough to regain their feet. She was no magician with words, yet always made us feel cared for.
Mom made us laugh, and she laughed with us. She never cared to live down the incident when she became stuck to the inside of the freezer at the lake house, alone, for several minutes. She loved our laughter enough that, even on the day we made her blow milk out of her nose all over her dinner plate, she couldn’t stay mad at us. She laughed at our jokes, even though our jokes and shticks aren’t always funny.
Mom appreciated us as we grew older. She would constantly share stories of projects worked on in the computer lab or the media center. She didn’t need our approval, but she appreciated our interest. Even though we would always be her children, she treated us as adults when we became adults, some of us later into our adulthood than others.
Mom was proud of us. Her home and her purse and her desk were littered with pictures of children and weddings and grandchildren. She wore hockey jackets and letter jackets and plastered “United States Marine Corps” all over her house.
Mom mothered us. She was the one to apply the Bactine to scrapes and the calamine to poison ivy; to take us to the emergency room after bicycle incidents; to stitch together ragged security blankets; to reassure us when our lives took bad turns. She was there to help save us from ourselves. Even as she waned too soon, and the roles of caregiver and cared-for were reversed, she refused to let us see the unspeakable pain she endured on a day-to-day basis. She showed us grace and strength as her body turned on itself. She showed us courage as her body was crushed by disease. And while no one will ever call her a religious woman, she showed us faith and peace at the end. I will carry these words with me for the rest of my life: “Everyone believes in something.”
This is my mother, the backdrop to my life, the wall on which I have leaned when I was not strong enough to stand on my own. She is the background of all that I am, and all that I will be. I hope you will place my wall with your rope, your branch, your pillar, and see the greater whole that she was.