My mom celebrates her 88th birthday this coming week. No, she is not a vibrant can’t-believe-she’s-88 kinda gal. She has advanced dementia and cannot communicate with words any more.
But, her eyes light up when she looks at my face when I arrive for a visit. And she smiles, and kisses my hand and leans in to kiss my cheek….and, somehow she even managed a knowing wink when my sister was going through her closet to choose some clothes for her to wear the other Sunday morning.
I didn’t have the smoothest or closest relationship with her as a young adult. I didn’t really appreciate who she was, what she was “made of”. I was dismissive of her and didn’t have the patience to connect with her as I moved through university, and an early marriage.
Fast forward 30 years….The other day I was having one of my own sublime “mother – child” conversations with my 20 year old son and all of a sudden I accessed a memory of one of the times when my mom really did shine…I had completely forgotten….
My father had left her with four kids: 9, 10, 12 and 15, and no support – financial or otherwise. She taught elementary school 10 months a year, but didn’t get paid during the summer. It was a rough time, and we had to rely on welfare that summer.
I think it was a wonderful social worker who recognized something in Mom, and helped create a job for her. Mom began to organize and teach a course called “Employment Orientation for Women”. It was offered to other women receiving social assistance who needed help getting on track, finding a job, and feeling supported and more confident.
Although the name of the course seems dry and technical, the course was anything but. It was a haven: a warm supportive space carved out of a vacant classroom, with beautiful posters on the wall and lots of “affirmations” displayed, long before that word entered our common vocabulary.
Mom helped women learn how to write a letter to apply for a job, practice their typing and office skills; she gave suggestions on budgeting, on dressing professionally, and offered a gentle, loving ear to some of those struggling with personal problems. She had guest speakers come in from various walks of life: from accountants to beauticians, including a strikingly elegant yoga teacher named Velvet Tute. I’m sure the women must have bonded with each other too. It was a safe, empowering place to be. To the 12 year old me, it was pretty cool.
Mom’s favorite poem, a type of mantra for her, was a prose poem called Desiderata. A poster of it was proudly displayed on the wall to be read and re-read.
“Desiderata” is Latin for “desired things”. The poem was written by Max Ehrmann in 1927 (the year Mom was born!). It wasn’t well known during his lifetime but became popular in the early 70’s…around the time Mom was creating this course.
The course was successful and enjoyable for Mom, so much so that she didn’t return to teaching that fall, and taught the course for another year or so. I think it was very empowering for her too. This memory is helping me now make connections to myself and where my confidence and fierce strength comes from.
I haven’t read the poem for decades… Happy Birthday, Mom. I’m so proud of you….way to go…..
Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.