Firsts


I just published my first book. I just made my fist school visit. And I just got my first piece of fan mail. I didn't think life could get any better than that first sentence, and it did. Today my granddaughter took her first steps.

Our culture has celebrated firsts for generations. We celebrate first birthdays; grown men talk about their first cars; pregnant women are frequently asked if their growing bellies contain the first-born; business owners save their first dollars, and you don't have to be a history buff to know George Washington was the first president of the United states and Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon.

Firsts are important.

Firsts need to be celebrated.

But sometimes it's that second chance that makes you appreciate what really matters.

Second chances are gifts.

Second chances make you sit up and take notice.

Few people get a second chance at a mother.

My mother died when I was 29. I was young enough to still need her (are you ever too old for your mother?), and old enough to remember her well, but not nearly old enough to have asked her details about her childhood and her family, or have the wherewithal to extract all her wisdom.

She had one brother, Uncle Duane, who played football, and a sister, Aunt Lola, who raised her family out east. We hardly knew our cousins. Her father died when she was 11. Her mother ran a boarding house in a tiny Minnesota town, Baudette, to make ends meet. She was really smart and loved to read. She went to Berkeley on a scholarship. She tried to do everything "right," so she played bridge, made beautiful tortes, smoked in secret in the attic, was always beautifully dressed and was an amazing seamstress. (However, being adept at sewing had more to do with my wardrobe than hers.) But that's about all I gleaned about my mother and it breaks my heart. But as I aged, and later discovered a box of her letters and her high school diary, and learned some family secrets, I realized she might never have told me much more than I already knew. She was too ashamed.

I also had Mama.

Mama is the mother of the family I lived with when I was an American Field Service foreign exchange student in Costa Rica 43 years ago. Although she is 91, Mama still asks about my kids by name. The last time we FaceTimed, she had a few things to say about our most recent election. She is proud of my being a writer and delighted by my grandchildren. And she is one of the wisest women I have ever known.

Like my mother, she grew up poor in a small town and lost a parent at a young age. Unlike my mom, she never went to college. In fact, she had to leave school after fourth grade to go to work. Her mother had died, and the woman her father married kicked Mama and her little brother out of the house. At 10 and seven, they had to fend for themselves.

Mama went straight to work and bounced from house to house among her mother's friends until she married. She had five children and continued to work to give them the life she never had. Four of her children went to college and all of them married--happily. They have had solid careers, built homes and provided Mama with many grandchildren. Mama was a natural teacher who taught me Spanish, ancient lore, household chores, and how to behave--without criticism or the selfish need to teach a lesson. She could have originated the idea of roots and wings. And she loved to read.

In many ways Mama had a life much like my own mother's and through her stories I can imagine my own mother's life with more details, more emotions, and a greater sense of who my mother was and what she tried to overcome. They met once, these two amazing women, and proved to me they had a lot in common. They spent an entire day at my mother's kitchen table in Minneapolis while I went off to my college classes. They chatted about kids, life and marriage, although neither one spoke the other's language. I wish I had stayed home with them.

Years ago I concluded that if Mama had been born and raised in my culture, and kicked to the street at age ten, she might not have survived. Who knows how many kids and marriages she would have had. And at least one of the kids would have dropped out of school and maybe another would have become alcoholic because so often we pass our sufferings on to our children. So I asked her, "How did you do it? How did you raise yourself and such a happy family?" She answered very simply, "I knew it wasn't my fault."

So now I keep thinking, when there is no fault, there is no guilt, and when there is no guilt, there is no shame. If only I had a chance to tell my mother, "It wasn't your fault."

______________

Mama died on Friday, May 26th, 2018 at the age of 93. Gone is the woman who would have told me it wasn't my fault. The woman of truth, good intentions and trust. Oh, how I could use a second chance to tell her how much she meant to me and how much I learned from her. She was the mother who understood my busy life in a culture that didn't allow for siestas. And she believed me when I said I thought of her every day. She insisted it was more than enough to carry us forward forever without any guilt or shame. I hope so.

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