In America 5/8: Lessons from Mom

You remembering visiting her at work, a sewing shop where she monogrammed towels and tablecloths and napkins for people, sat a big white machine and embroidered the names of sports teams onto T-shirts. You don’t remember what you wore, but chances are, she made it herself. She made all your clothes and most of hers when you were that age, barely tall enough to see over the side of the table. Later she painted, later still she wove baskets, and when you look at all the kids, you’re a writer, your brother’s a brilliant actor, your sister the musical one, you see now where all that art came from. For years you took presents to your teachers at Christmas, little blackboards she painted with apples.

Cake decorating, you remember her doing that, too. She had kits and made unbelievably complicated roses and floral designs and once a cake like Barbie with a flowing pink dress. All the kids were so jealous, their moms brought store-bought cupcakes. Yours, in between packing a lunch each night for your father, made butterscotch bars your classmates gorged on like pigs.

She drove you to a job interview after you got out of college, because you didn’t have a car and were scared to drive anyway, but she wouldn’t take the freeway, so it was four hours down the back roads in the van, and then she waited for you while you sat with the editors and then she drove you back. You didn’t get the job.

She hates politics, though you tell her it’s her fault you’re a liberal, with all her words about kindness and sharing. You tell her it’s your fault for dragging you to Catholic church and sending you to Catholic school, where you learned about caring for the poor, the sick, the widow, the orphan. What you mean is that it’s thanks to her you see the world that should be, not the one that is. Because she believed people were basically decent, and you believed her. And you are richer for it, richer than you ever imagined you’d be.

You remember the day you first realized how strong she was, how frighteningly strong. Her father was ill and everybody was avoiding it, everybody but her, and she did so much for him, took so much care of him, that one of the nurses assumed she was a nurse, too, and asked her to help with his lung treatments. This tiny little woman, all of 5 foot 3, brownhairblueeyes, so thin you could blow her over, she fought for him like you’ve never seen anybody fight for anything in your life. And when she lost, because she couldn’t beat back death with her own hands, she walked away from that hospital room with her sister, back straight. She walked tall down the hallway and you watched her go, more proud than you could ever say to be in some small way hers.

There is nothing happier than her face when she smiles. People underestimate her, because of her size, because she’s shy a little, but she mixed it up with some frat boys at a hockey game who were mocking her beloved Badgers. She leaned over into the faces of these ham-necked sides of meat and yelled, “Your power play SUCKS!” The only person she really hates is somebody who was once mean to your brother. She sees the good in everybody else, even the dumb, clumbsy boys you brought home in high school. She knew you were lying about going out with a friend after prom, knew you were going somewhere else, but she let you walk out the door anyway, and forgave you later.

There are so many bedrock things: Every night for as long as you can remember, probably all the 30-some years they’ve been married, she’s made your father a lunch, packed it in a brown paper bag and left it in the fridge. A sandwich, some chips, some pudding. Steadfast, constancy, of such things love is made. Courage that expresses itself through pure persistence. That at the most difficult times life is this: empty the dishwasher, refill the coffee machine, make the lunch. That things temper you, like attrition tempers rocks, and that for all you are shaped, stone is stone, and endures.

A.