Midnight Musings: Portrait of a mom


I would like to nominate my mother for Mother of the Year. If there is such an award.

Before you assume this is going to be a sappy late Mother’s Day column because I forgot to buy her a card, it won’t be.

My parents had nine kids, six girls and three boys, in 13 1/2 years. In the era of cloth diapers. At one point, four of us were wearing them.

My parents have been married for 62 years, happily. My father said “his bride” looked like Ingrid Bergman when he met her. She still does. She looks at least 15 years younger than she is. Slim and energetic, despite a fondness for dark chocolate pecan turtles and Dairy Queen Buster Bars.

Her legs bore the brunt of all of those pregnancies with varicose veins that have been her nemesis, child-bearing years and beyond. She pulls on her industrial-strength support hose every morning without complaint.

Her knees and hips took a beating too. They’ve all been replaced. When the surgeon saw the X-ray of her knees — bone rubbing against bone — he said he didn’t know how she’d endured it for so long. The stoic German in her kept her from complaining. A true mother — there’s always someone who needs care more than she does.

She mothers everyone who comes within reach of her arms, especially the lost, the forgotten. She manages to find the good in people, no matter how deeply it’s hidden. When one of my older sisters was in high school, she brought home a friend who had nowhere to go. My mother accepted her as another daughter. My sister and her friend lived up in the attic bedroom. Right up until the day the friend disappeared with my sister’s airline ticket to California.

When my sister-in-law’s mother died unexpectedly just after Christmas one year, my mother stepped in as a substitute mom to her and her sister, not to replace their own but to be there for them. The two sisters said they always felt calmer after talking to my mom.

The morning of 9/11, my parents were visiting my sister in Seattle. For two days, they had no cellphone reception and couldn’t be reached. Even though they were 3,000 miles away from the horror, I needed to know they were safe. When my mother finally answered her phone, she was surprised at my concern.

“We’re fine, we were at the cabin.” And then a shift into mom-mode: “Sweetie, are you O.K?”

When we were kids, she had a collection of Hummel figurines. German children wearing Tyrolean hats, playing with puppies or climbing apple trees. They lived on a shelf in our family room, next to the trophies won by my more athletic brothers and sisters.

Not one survived our childhood intact. A splintered arm, a fractured leg, the feather broken off a peaked cap.

At first, she got upset when she’d find a broken one hidden behind the toy crib — an antique overflowing with dolls, stuffed animals and Fisher Price toys. Eventually, my father would just glue those sad porcelain body parts back together and return them to the shelf.

She didn’t love cooking — there were lots of casseroles that involved Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup. She was cooking for 11 people.

But her laundry skills are unsurpassed. She could remove any stain: blood, grass, ink, pee. The laundry room in the cool basement was her oasis of calm, the only place she could “hear herself think.” You’d find her there at midnight, soaking, bleaching, caring for our clothes as if they were made of the finest silks.
She said she didn’t want anyone to think she couldn’t take care of all those kids. We wore matching pajamas and festive 4th of July outfits; for Mass, dresses, white ankle socks and shiny Mary Janes. Crinolines were starched, school uniform blouses ironed, white baby shoes polished.

When I was in college, I came home for a surprise visit, arriving at 4 a.m., after driving 12 hours straight.

While I slept, she had polished my scuffed white Nikes.

She taught me everything I know about being a mother. When our son was born, she and my father traveled 500 miles to spend a week with us. Overwhelmed and sleep-deprived, I greeted her with the relief of a raw recruit welcoming a veteran of many wars. Just her presence, her ease with my squirmy, needy baby, allowed me to take a deep breath and realize I could do this.

Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Safe. Loved.

Blessed are all of us who share in her life.