I wish you could know my mother. To hear her voice as she tells a story, to see the fierce determination in her eyes as she tackles a logic problem or a Sudoku puzzle. I wish you could know how generous she is. I wish you could see her with her grandchildren, and her great granddaughter. I wish you could sit at her breakfast table. For as long as I can remember, she has been my hero.
Today my hero is 70 years old. She has packed a lot of life into her threescore and ten. Here are some of the images I have of her. Many I have seen. Some, I have pieced together from story or from photographs. (Incidentally, in the above photo, she is the pretty little girl on the far left.)
I imagine her as a little girl…running barefoot through the grass with her brother and sisters or plodding the long rows of the cornfield, dropping corn into the planting holes. I see her walking to a little two room school where her mother was her teacher. I like to think of her curled up with Heidi, one of her favorite books, letting her imagination carry her to far off Switzerland, and snow, and warm goat’s milk. I can’t think that she ever imagined she would someday travel there. But she would.
It occurs to me that I do not know who taught her to play the piano. Or if she played school with her siblings, and if so, did she always want to be the teacher? I imagine her shivering as she swam at the Moffit Hole, and playing in the barn. I see her standing beside her mother in the kitchen, learning the art of making good food.
I picture her as a high school student, too pretty to wear make-up. I have seen photographs of her in the smart, fitted dresses she made for herself. Her impossibly tiny waist. Her beautiful smile. It’s no wonder my daddy fell in love with her.
I try not to think too much about that summer after she graduated. About the tractor that died and how her daddy, a farmer, could not feed his family without a tractor. And how her daddy, a farmer, could not buy a new tractor and send her to college. I try not to think of her broken heart.
But she made the best of things and took a job in Washington, DC. This seems quite exotic to me when I think of it now. She was so very brave.
It wasn’t too long before she married her high school sweetheart. They cleaned up the little pink house and moved in and planted flowers. And there was a baby who didn’t live. And that must have been so hard. But out of meager means, she and my daddy began to craft a life for themselves. They had some babies. They bought land with a tiny little house that needed a whole lot of work. A house that would grow with their family and be the site of many, many family celebrations, and much music and laughter.
I have so many pictures of her from the years when I was a little girl. How to choose? Book on her lap, reading fairy tales and poems to my brother and me, opening fantastic worlds to us with her words. Sitting at the piano, coaxing the beautiful music from its keys that would become a siren call to me, a deep desire to know how to make that magic. Sewing machine awhirl as she stitched Easter dresses for the both of us. Working tirelessly in her flowers, surrounding our family with a beauty that I didn’t even know I needed til I left it.
I see her as she put her last little one onto the school bus and decided it was time to finally chase that college dream. She was so very brave. And even though we whined sometimes because we were no longer the whole of her universe, it was fun to see her excitement over all the things she was learning. She was a very good scholar. There is a portrait of the two of us in our graduation gowns, high school for me, college for her. Both of us on the threshold of new adventures.
I imagine her in her classroom, lighting fires in the minds of her students. How lucky they were to have her read to them. How blessed to see the fire in her eyes when she talked about all things math. How sure they must have been that this was a teacher who cared deeply about what happened to them.
I see her with her grandbabies. Traveling any distance to be there when they were born. Getting down on the floor and playing with them. Giving so much of herself to the precious one who was born sick and was not with us nearly long enough. Always the first one into the pool with them. Making chocolate gravy and biscuits for them. Seeking to know them for who they were and not who she wanted them to be.
One of my favorite portraits is a sunny afternoon in early spring. The air is crisp and cool. And my mother sits in a courtyard with her mother, my son, and me. We sing hymns. And the stroke which stole so much from my grandmother can’t take the hymns from her. And the music is this invisible chord that ties all of us up in it. And it is wonderful.
I see her as she received the diagnosis: Cancer. The fear, yes. But also this quiet determination. Simply taking the next step. I see her astonishment as people poured around her with encouragement and assistance. I see the deep gratitude she found in this hard place and how she became my hero all over again.
I see her gallivanting all over the world. Eating fresh mangoes in Hawaii. Sailing under the falls at Niagara. Opening the windows of her hotel onto a snow blanketed Germany. Gliding through the locks of the Panama canal. Exploring the wilds of Alaska. Collecting apples and maple syrup in New England.
I asked my mama one time if she ever missed earlier stages of her life. Maybe the one when her kids were little, for instance. In that wise way of hers, she said that each stage has had its great joys and its difficulties. But that for her, the best place to be is always right where she is. I love that about her. I hope that someday I grow to be as wise as she.