My mother turns 75 years old today. Her father and his mother both lived to nearly 100, so my guess is she still has many years to enjoy this life. But 75 are certainly enough years to merit a long deep breath, a “wow” and a bit of a look at this wonderful woman. Perhaps also some chocolate cake (she dearly loves chocolate) to celebrate.
To honor her and this day, here are 12 things about her that I appreciate the most:
- Growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, our after school snacks frequently included French cheese and water crackers. She used to cook scallops as a side dish on a Tuesday night. Lamb filets were a staple dinner entrée.
- She worked at a small school in a troubled neighborhood for most of her 35 years teaching kindergarten. While raising her own two daughters, she also helped raise a generation of children born into circumstances that many would consider a pathway to poverty, prison or worse. She collected lots of stories over the years, as all teachers do, but the saddest stories she kept to herself, holding them close to her heart next to the happy reunions with grown and grateful students as motivation to keep making each day in her classroom meaningful to each child.
- She’s never been a huggy, kissy, touchy feely earth mama. She loves subtlely and respects covertly by being interested in your life and your ideas, asking lots of questions, endlessly discussing her and your opinions and observations of the world, testing your perceptions and forcing you to consider how and when you share what you have to offer. She challenges you to learn and grow, to figure out your place in the world and, for me, to figure out how to talk about it. And food. Lots of fantastic food.
- She was the first “truth teller” in my life, and I’ve realized over the years she’s one of the main reasons I feel so comfortable—a little too comfortable, perhaps—being one myself. She’s been known to take virtual strangers to task for opinions she finds misguided or associations she doesn’t understand. The first conversation she had with my husband was at a Memorial Day picnic a few years before we dated. Once she discovered he was to start work in a few days as a reporter at the radio news station she listened to, she cornered him for a half an hour explaining why she didn’t like their recent programming changes. Luckily, he married me anyway.
- She is smart, well educated and well read, and beautiful music, her grandson giving her noses and The Bridges of Madison County make her cry. She tries to hide her sensitivity beneath a veneer of intellect, frankness and tough love offered with a tinge of sarcasm. Those who know her see her true optimism and appreciate her enormous soft spot for the lovelier and sillier parts of humanity.
- She has an uncanny intuition for the exact book I need to read at that exact point in my life, and she introduced me to some of the writers that are my most beloved and influential, including David Sedaris.
- When she finds a new interest or project, she doesn’t stop until the whole hog is cooked. She loves children’s books and when Larry and I announced we were adopting she started collecting her contribution to Henry’s personal library. Easily more than a hundred books later, we still get surprise packages a few times a year. Once she began researching her family’s heritage, she didn’t stop before she traced it all the way back to 11th century Normandy, France.
- When she experiences a healthy flow of tears, she loses all control of most of her facial muscles. Her eyes involuntarily squint up to mere slits and her mouth loses the ability to stay closed unless she purses her lips with all her might. I know because it’s exactly how my sister and I also cry. Oprah calls it the “ugly cry,” but I prefer to think of it as the contraction before the blessed release.
- When I look in the mirror I see the uneven curve of her brow and her eyes, which were her mothers before. When I put on my shoes I see her pretty feet with strangely curved pinky toes. When I tap my fingernails on my lips while I read, I remember her sitting in her chair doing the same. When I listen to a recording of me talking, I hear her voice in my darkened childhood room telling me that the sirens at the nearby hospital were just the beautiful sound of people helping.
- She’s never stopped learning and changing. In recent weeks she’s discovered a wonderful new openness to seeing the simplicity of the universe, humanity’s one-ness and the beauty and intricacy of our connections. She’s holding up a light of a slightly different color from the one she used the previous 75 years. And in ten years, she may use yet another color. I can’t wait to see what it is.
- She is very sweet, but she is not easy. She never tried to be. She just does what she is here to do. She pokes. She asks. She challenges. She supports. She offers endless opportunities to learn and change. She pushes my buttons, but they are buttons only she can push. And she does it with lots and lots of love.
- Over the years I’ve come to see the ways in which we are the same much more than the ways we are different. Like many mothers and daughters, the list is long, complicated and full of beauty and growth. It goes back generations and lifetimes and includes all the women who have taught us through life or genetics what it means to be a woman, and what it means to be connected to other women. It is a story that sits up in heaven in all its glory, imparting its wisdom bit by bit as we become ready for it. It’s a story we share, and I’m so glad we do.
Happy 75th birthday, Mom. I am grateful to you and for you. I love you.