In retrospect, I think my mother was a very complex person. She was born in Texarkana, Texas, not Texarkana, Arkansas, although there’s nothing wrong with Arkansas and I have family in both areas. She also lived in Houston growing up, so she was a real Southern girl in so many aspects. I remember she didn’t have a Southern accent at all, but whenever she had visits from her Southern family, it would appear and I would goggle in astonishment at this vivacious and raucous stranger. My gast was flabbered, if you will.
I don’t think she had a happy childhood, because she very seldom told me about it. I know she had issues with her mother and related more to her father, but also that he had a cold and distant way with her especially when he’d been drinking. Alcohol was pervasive in my mother’s family, and I suspect it may be connected to the strain of depression that also ran through. I also know that she adored her grandmother who probably had more time for her than her parents and no doubt showed her more actual love.
Growing up, she was somebody I thought was amazing and perfect, with a lilting musical voice and beautifully shaped hands, clear blue-grey eyes, impeccable handwriting, and an artistic eye that really should have been encouraged and developed and nurtured. She was perfect, of course, until I hit adolescence when out of the blue she became a horrible person who was always Standing In My Way. I knew there was a much better way of living out there for me, and I was determined to show her just how good I could be at doing Important Things. Is anyone surprised that this impression didn’t last long? College and a year bouncing around on my own showed me that this calm, unhurried, and thoughtful woman had already learned the important things and enjoyed the simple things and taught me the important things.
Things like: It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice. One of her most condemning comments was a simple “He’s not very nice, is he?” or a “Was that a nice thing to do?” or “Did you have any reason to not be nice?” She once said that nice people seemed to belong to a secret club and they quietly recognized each other no matter where they went. I ached to be as nice as she was, to be nice as effortlessly as she did, and I found it a very difficult task.
Or: To thine own self be true. I thought she trotted out this Shakespeare quote when she didn’t have anything else to say or write in a gift book as an inscription, but over time I realized it was her nice way of teaching me I’d live a lot easier life if I didn’t try to be something I wasn’t. She didn’t pretend to have a fancy home and expensive clothes, but what she had she treasured. She didn’t pretend to be a horticultural expert, but she planted the flowers she loved and let them tumble wild and free instead of being cultivated into symmetrical perfection.
Or: Good manners show respect for other people. Really, Mom? I need to put my napkin in my lap at every meal? For respect? Her point of view was that when my napkin needed to be used, it should be discreet and in my lap. Why should anyone else who is eating see my greasy fingers being wiped clean? Chewing with your mouth closed so another person’s meal isn’t ruined looking inside your gaping mouth. Asking if the other person needs anything while you are up shows a concern for other’s needs before they need to ask. Habitually holding the door for other people means someone will hold it for me when I need it. Saying “Excuse me, please” when leaving the table or burping or needing to reach across something is an easy way to convey that the other person has importance and should be acknowledged.
I carry all these with me because they’re all I have. My first mother’s day as a mother was also my first mother’s day without a mother, and it has colored all my decisions as a mother. She wasn’t perfect, but she was a huge influence on me. Now that my younger daughter is graduating from college this week, I wish with all my heart I could see my mother’s face smile at her beautiful granddaughters and know that she made a difference just because she was my mom.