My Mother's Daughter

So it appears that today, I am suddenly another year older.

This is a little trick that God must find very amusing, as it is happening with alarming frequency these days.

This year's number isn't particularly ominous; it's not a decade, and I'm not moving out of a demographic. Still, it took me aback a bit. It didn't help that my mother, on the phone earlier in the week, insisted that I was in fact a year older than I thought. Putting our heads together on the math, we finally discerned that I was right, and had not "lost" a year, like some poor soul due for an Intervention.

I could certainly learn a thing or two from my mother about handling birthdays with grace. She turned 70 this year, and hasn't sat still long enough to fuss about it. On her birthday, she was up at the church hounding our minister about what the congregation was going to do for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Since then she has been an Army of One, networking with other churches, goading people to prepare baggies of soap and toothpaste, and spending Saturdays unloading donations from cars. Her efforts have sent two relief convoys to Mississippi so far -- the minister drove one of the trucks.

Now I hear she's considering going to Mississippi with the next convoy. Though it may distress those who love her and worry after her health, this bit of news does not surprise us in the least, and we would hardly be so foolish as to try and stop her. I know why she feels that pull, and why it doesn't seem enough just to send the stuff. The people of the Gulf Coast are the latest in a long line of people my mother has felt this way about.

If she goes there, I know exactly what will happen. She will put her arms around the mothers, and kneel down to speak to the children. She will weep with men who no longer have a home for their families. She will have stern but constructive words for those in charge who are not doing their jobs, and she will give, and give deeply, from a bank account that is supposed to provide her and my father's retirement. I don't believe that my mother will ever retire from doing what she does best, and what she believes life is all about. "His eye is on the sparrow," she will sing in my general direction, if I tell her she is doing too much.

Mothers are the comforters of the world, and without them we'd all be lost souls. My mother has comforted my soul in a number higher than I can count: every time her voice breaks into a smile when I answer the phone, when she calls me "my precious child"; as recently as this morning, when hers was the first phone call of the day, wanting to make sure my day began with a reminder of how much I am loved.

Every birthday the phone call is much the same. "Happy birthday, my angel," she'll say. "On this day, [blankety-blank] years ago, your father and I were soooo excited..." She'll continue in a chirpy birthday tone until, as mothers do, during one or another expression of how wonderful I am she will smoothly transition to tears. Forcing me to lose all composure, this maneuver convinces eavesdroppers that in addition to having a birthday, I've also been diagnosed with an aggressive terminal disease. Only your mother can do that; be thankful if yours, like mine, uses her power for good.

The irony is that my mother always gets short shrift on her birthday. Absent her thoughtful touch, the celebration suffers from the rest of the family's less gifted skillsets in that area. She might get dinner out, and she always says we've done too much, but I know from experience that what we do for her is nothing like what she does for us. When my mother prepares your favorite birthday meal, you even get the dinner plate that has "You Are Special Today" painted on it, just in case everything else she's done -- the cake, heaps of presents, surprises, adoration, hugs and kisses -- hasn't made that perfectly clear.

As I drove to work one day this week, I was ruminating on my birthday with some indulgent self-pity. It wasn't the number that had me bummed, more the fact that I still feel like a kid right out of college, trying to decide what I want to do with my life, and the number tells a different story.

As her guest that day, Diane Rehm had Judith Viorst, author of several books about birthdays ending in "0". Her latest is "I'm Too Young To Be Seventy, And Other Delusions."

I had to laugh as I heard much of my mother in Viorst's outlook: totally unimpressed with the notion that turning 70 would in any way limit your experience of life. Ruminations on becoming an old fart quickly turned to ruminations of the love and support I've had in my life, when many go without; the comfort I can seek and find at the other end of the phone line whenever I need it; the wonderful, passionate, vibrant 70-year old lover-of-life that is my mother.

One of Viorst's new poems is titled "As Time Goes By". It goes like this:

I wake up on Monday,
Eat lunch on Wednesday,
Go to sleep on Friday,
And next thing I know it's
The middle of next week
And I am shaking mothballs
Out of the winter clothes
I stored for the summer
Five minutes ago,
Because snowstorms follow
The Fourth of July
Faster than faxes,
Faster than e-mail,
Faster, maybe, than the speed of light.

You want to slow down time?
Try root canal.
Try an MRI.
Try waiting for the report on the biopsy.
Or try being a child on a rainy morning
With nothing to do,
Wishing away the hours, the days, the years,
As if there will
Be more.

(Copyright © 2005 by Judith Viorst)

There won't always be more. That's why birthdays start to bother us in the first place. There will come a birthday for me when the first phone call of the day won't find my mother's happy voice at the other end of the line. It's too much to bear to even think about, so I don't. Much.

There was a touching article in the News & Record last Sunday about a mother and daughter who run a store in Greensboro. The mother has battled breast cancer, and the daughter opened the store to keep her mother close and busy as she recovers. When the subject turned to the cancer, they both spoke to the same concern.

"My God, what will I do if she passes?" the daughter said. "Nobody knows me like she does."

"What's Lynnie going to do when I'm gone?" the mother said. "That scares me."

And so it goes with mothers -- the comforters of the world.

I keep a long and growing mental list of women I am grateful are not my mother. To have been raised by one of them, I would be a totally different person today. Maybe I wouldn't know why I should care about Katrina victims. Maybe I wouldn't have learned, by watching, how to care for them and others who might need me.

So I'm grateful for my mother today -- not just because she's the reason I have a birthday, or because she put a package of goodies in the mail (with a reputed record number of cards: 9.)

No, I'm grateful because whether it's a birthday or a hurricane, my mother never just sends the stuff. She brings the comfort, and wraps it around you like a blanket. And more importantly, she's the best model I've ever found for how to live a life of love, compassion, and service.

If I ever take that for granted, thinking that there will always be more, please remind me of these words. I want to remember this feeling I have today, knowing how lucky I am to be my mother's daughter.

My mother changed our lives once more. This time because she saw in me, to her great alarm, a character flaw of some size. She has taught me to be a watch dog of my character, to control my ambition. I am not quite there.

For that reason should you choose to grant me your scholarship my mother, at my request, will be relocating to the New York Metropolitan Area so that she can stay close during my time at Princeton.

I hope my essay has done her justice. I love her with all my heart.

-- Closing narration from the movie "Spanglish".

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