My mother never wrote a book. But she should have.
She will be 84 years old this year, and the Shenandoah Valley girl who grew up with a dozen other kids in a little farmhouse with no plumbing now lives on a hill in a small luxury home on a desert mountain. She was the only one of her siblings ever to leave native soil. And this she did for love. Her husband’s work took her to far-off lands, as far off, in fact, as Istanbul, where she entertained diplomats and dignitaries, finding joy in that strange new life, but still longing for a glass of sweet tea sipped with sisters, retelling stories from childhood and remembering how handy lightning bugs can be for illuminating little moss houses built for clothespin dolls.
My mother’s life has been an unlikely leap from simple to exotic, but that’s not what her book would be about. My mother could have written the book on how to be best friends with your daughter.
Her secret was to include me in virtually everything. While most four-year-olds would have been sent to bed while the parents hosted their important party, my mother made me a cocktail dress with the same fabric as her own, fixed my hair in a sophisticated up-do, put a silver tray of hors d’oeuvre in my hand and sent me off to mingle.
My mother was an ordinary and amazing housewife (back in the day when they called us housewives). She was a phenomenal cook (you know southerners with their butter), and she cooked dinner every single day, without the help of Costco, with all the four food groups. And unlike me, who chases my children from the kitchen because they make me forget how many teaspoons of salt I just added, my mother always invited me in. I know how to make meatloaf and spaghetti and fried chicken and gravy and Brussels sprouts and string beans and applesauce and pumpkin pie because I watched her and I stirred with her and I mixed with her and I measured stuff out with her. (I never chopped with her because she didn’t let me use a knife, and even still, to this day, if she sees one in my hand, she will remind me not to cut myself).
The woman had many talents. I would come home from school and find, waiting for me on my bed, plush animals she had sewn, or a pantsuit she had made, complete with her own original appliqué design and a matching purse which she made with the remnants. On weekends she would help me make Barbie clothes on my own little sewing machine. That was the other way we used up the remnants because she never liked to waste anything. She would never force us to eat everything on our plate because she never herself liked the feeling of being too full, but on the very rare occasions when my brother and I didn’t all but lick our plates clean because the food (even the peas) was so good, she would feed the leftovers to the dogs. (That was back in the day when table scraps didn’t kill pets.)
For the few years we spent in rural Massachusetts, my mother and I gardened together. We grew butter lettuce and pickling cucumbers and strawberries. It was in the garden that I first learned about the intercession of the saints. My little ruby ring had fallen off my pinky somewhere in the vast amount of soil we were tending, and my mother, a Mennonite convert to Catholicism, turned over a dirt clod, in what would seem like a random move, and uncovered the ring on her first try. When I asked her how she did it, she said matter-of-factly, “I prayed to whatever saint it is who helps you find lost things.”
It was from my mother that I learned the power of simple faith. When I witnessed the kitchen sink unclog itself for unexplained reasons, she told me she prayed for the pipe to open. I was mystified why she would bother God with such a trivial request, and she told me God cares about every little detail of our lives. She shouldn’t have had to tell me that because I already knew that about parents. That’s the kind of mother she was and still is. She cares about every little detail.
When I was a young girl, we went shopping together regularly, both for staples like groceries, and non-essentials like the latest fashions. When it came to those non-necessities, we always looked for a good sale, which takes time and burns off calories, you know, so we would end our spree at a place we could get a grilled cheese sandwich and an ice cream sundae and rest our aching feet. Sometime in the mid-70’s, we had our first Big Macs together after one of those charmed days of shopping, and we wore our “Big Mac Attack” badges home.
Though she was handy with a hammer, my mother was fully feminine and always liked to look nice for my Dad. It wasn’t difficult because she had a movie-star quality to her beauty, complete with beauty mark on the cheek. I didn’t have one of those, or any other silver-screen features, but she tried to make me feel beautiful anyway. We curled our hair together and did our nails. We never went to anyone for manicures. My mother taught me to paint my nails the professional way: one brushstroke down each side of the nail lengthwise, finished by a third in the middle. That insured full coverage and a smooth finish.
My mother was one of those rare mothers who looked forward to the end of the school year and got a little down at the end of summer.
When she got the first job of her married life, she took me with her to work. I did the filing while she learned the trade of the travel business to help fulfill my father’s dream of owning his own travel agency someday. When I was 12, my parents opened the doors of our family business. My mother taught me to write airline tickets and make hotel reservations and book rental cars. I wanted to dress just like her, so we went shopping and picked out matching outfits and wore them to work. And we looked pretty classy, I must say, even though we had gotten them at a little factory close-out store. We worked together all through my junior high and high school summers. She taught me that every client is important, and the customer is always right, and whatever mistake you make, there is a way to fix it, and you most certainly need to, but you never beat yourself up over it. She taught me, by example, to treat people well and establish a personal connection with them, not because it is good for business (which it is) but because people are people, not means to an end.
By including me in every little detail of her life, my mother instructed my heart. She taught me to think and to feel. But she never told me what I was supposed to think or how I was supposed to feel.
And so, I am different from my mother. I don’t entertain important people. I don’t cook dinner every day without a little help from the frozen department at Costco. I’ve never grown my own food, except for that one basil plant that ended up breeding gnats and had to be thrown away. I haven’t painted my nails since 1996, and I rarely curl my hair. I have never made a stitch of clothing or a favorite toy, and I will hire a seamstress if something needs a hem.
I do manage, however, to pull off a few things my mother never tried. I write and publish books and home school my children.
But I am like my mother in the ways that matter: I enjoy my children, share my faith with them, and I want them with me (except maybe in that two-square-foot area of the kitchen where I measure out ingredients.) So my mother’s legacy continues.
If you are reading this, Mom, I want to say Happy Mother’s Day and thank you for inviting me into every part of your life. It was a wonderful place. And now I have an invitation for you. Want to write a book?
Copyright 2015 Sherry Boas.
Photo copyright Sabine Nuffer (2013) via Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain.