Lessons from My Mama(s)

enjoy life

My mother-in-law

My mother-in-law

Explorers are never lost.

Explorers are never lost.

My mom

My mom

I had planned to post this on Mother’s Day, but one of the things my mother always taught me was “never put off til tomorrow what you can do today” sometimes followed by “best-laid plans…” as a reminder that no matter how carefully one may plan, life has a way of intervening. It feels good and right to talk about them today, to give them a day that’s all their own. They deserve it.

I was very fortunate to have not one but two wonderful mothers who drove me nuts, nagged me within an inch of my life, drove me to tears and despair at times, thought I could do anything (and expected great things of me), loved me fiercely, and taught me many life lessons both through said nagging (anyone who has been nagged by a Southern mother can validate this) but most importantly and lastingly, they taught me by example.

My mother, Mary Ellen Bassett Ros,instilled a love in me of books, reading, and writing. The Dewey decimal system had recently come into being when I was a child and wherever we were, Mom volunteered to set up the school library. She drafted me to help, but I wasn’t much help as my shelving skills lasted until I found a book I wanted to read – usually inside five minutes or so.  After a few minutes of me not surfacing, her refined Southern voice would waft through the stacks “Are you still shelving?” I’d usually reply with something along the lines of “mmmm.” One of the things Mom taught me (and years of Catholic school reinforced) was the importance of telling the truth. Technically, I was shelving the books I wasn’t interested in with one hand and reading the ones that attracted me with the other. As a child, I thought I was getting away with something.  As an adult I realize that was probably her plan all along. Mom loved books and she wanted us to love them, too. One day when there was more shelving going on because I couldn’t find anything that held my interest more than a page or two, I said “I can write better than that.” Her response? “Great! Do it.” and followed that up by handing me a pen and a pad of paper.

Mom never understood my need to get up on a stage and perform, but she and my father supported it by providing dance lessons, music lessons and sitting through all my performances (no small feat in itself). Mom always had a smile on her face and applause at the end. When I mentioned dreams of someday making movies in Hollywood or performing on Broadway, she saw it as a step in a logical progression toward my goals.

We moved a lot due to my father’s job as a troubleshooter (he went where there were problems, fixed them, and we moved on to the next problem area). My mother looked on each move as an adventure and encouraged me to do the same. I was more into whining about how much I hated the new place, how much I loved the old place (even if it was a place I had proclaimed my hatred of a year before when it was new) and how cruel and horrible my parents were for dragging me all over the world against my will when all of my friends got to stay in the same place all their lives. “Someday you’ll look back and be glad for all these experiences” Mom would say. I rolled my eyes and told her how wrong she was as only a drama queen pre-teen can.

Imagine my surprise when I heard myself reciting that same speech to my children as we moved (again) courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

Mama was right once again.

One of the things Mom loved to do every time we moved was “explore our new world.” We’d go for a drive (gas was cheap back then) and every time we’d reach an intersection we would take turns picking which direction to turn. If we couldn’t decide, we’d flip a coin.  We were forever getting lost by the world’s standards, but to Mom, it was an adventure. When we were late getting back, family would often ask “where did you get lost this time?” Mom’s reply “We were not lost. We were exploring.”

From Mom I learned to “let’s go down this road and see where it goes” – much to my children’s dismay. It always led to the most interesting places. Mom died shortly after our youngest child was born. But I was very blessed because I had Fran.

Frances Hampton McClendon Loftis Swafford was my mother-in-law.

She and my mother were very different, yet they had a lot in common.

They shared love of family, love of children. Their faiths were strong and they never wavered in the conviction that “something good will come of this” however tragic “this” was – and they were no strangers to tragedy.  As a young teen, my mother took care of her very ill mother until she died. Fran lost her first husband (my husband’s father) and her daughter (my husband’s sister) in a car crash. Both of my moms saw life as it was, cruel and tragic at times, but firm in their belief that after every storm comes a rainbow. We just have to watch for it.

I thought they were nuts.

I felt fully justified in raging at life’s injustices. Both my moms reminded me that this is not heaven and if I insist on finding perfection here I may as well resign myself to a life of disappointment. They believed in “doing what you can where you can with what you have” and leaving the rest to a higher power. They prayed a lot. My mom went to daily Mass (no doubt for the strength to deal with me). Fran was a minister’s daughter.

One thing Fran taught me was never to be bitter. She went on to marry and bury two more husbands who adored her, who were wonderful grandfathers to our children. Fran’s heart always stayed open.

I didn’t get that whole “good things can come out of bad things” thing that both my moms tried so hard to teach my resistant spirit for a long time. I didn’t see how God could take a tragedy and bring good out of it.

And then I realized I had been overlooking the blessings in my own life.

One of the reasons my husband and I hit it off so well in the first place was because we had both lost our fathers at a young age and missed them. We could talk about that with each other, something we couldn’t with our friends who were complaining about their own fathers while we would give anything to see ours again. We could tell Daddy stories to each other and smile and remember. We incorporated a lot of the things our fathers did with us and for us later on with our own children, who never got to meet either of them but have some idea of them through our Daddy stories.

One of the gifts God brought me with my husband was his mother. We often drove each other crazy. She and I both thought things should be done a certain way – totally opposite. In the beginning I was independent (something learned from years of moving around the world and always being the new kid). The things that frightened her I took for granted. Later on I learned the value of sticking close to home and Fran became more independent. Somewhere along the way we learned to accept and love and enjoy each other just as we were.

For a long time I thought getting too close to Fran would be a betrayal of my own mother. It was only later I came to realize and accept and be grateful that God gave me another mother to help ease the pain of losing my own and gave Fran another daughter to love. Things I couldn’t share with my mother I shared with Fran. She couldn’t watch her own daughter grow and have children, but she could experience that with me. We were each other’s rainbow after the storm.

This is our first Mother’s Day without our mothers. We lost mine years ago shortly after our son was born.

Fran passed away shortly after New Year’s this year.

One thing my mothers agreed on was “life is hard.”

One thing they also agreed on was “even though it’s hard, life is also beautiful and wonderful and the good far outweighs the bad.”

Both my moms loved coffee. My mom liked hers black and strong, preferably New Orleans chicory. I like a little bit of coffee and lots of sugar with my creamer (French vanilla, Italian sweet cream, or whatever my mood of the day is). Fran shared my love of frou-frou coffee, though hers was decaf.

So today and every day I raise my cup to these wonderful women who taught me how to love, how to live, how to look for that rainbow and not give up until I found it – as often as it takes.

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