Today* is my mother Nancy’s birthday – she is 67 years old. A few years ago she took up Zumba and she’s in great shape, her physical energy matching that of her mind. She reads nearly every word I write in some form or another, and she both encourages and critiques me.
Right now she is proofreading my 340-page doctoral thesis. Luckily for me, she has a PhD in English Literature from UC Berkeley, the title of which I remember after all these years seeing it in her basement, gathering dust: Repudiating the Self-Justifying Fiction.
Mom finished her PhD between giving birth to my sister and giving birth to me 18 months later. This was an 18-month period where my father was undergoing radiation therapy as he had been diagnosed with Hodgkins’ Disease. He was cancer-free by the time I was born, and while my mother did teach some English literature classes later she never took to academia. Instead she taught herself computer programming in the early 1980s and began working in information technology.** My father’s job was always the one which determined where we lived, since he was a foreign service officer, but my mother always found work of some sort of another, and combined that with the work of raising my sister and me.***
My mother wasn’t sentimental but she made sure my sister and I had the delicate balance of security and independence that allowed us to flourish. I was painfully shy growing up but I had a rich imaginative life, and I never felt as though this wasn’t an acceptable thing. Books were a big part of my world. Evenings were often spent sitting around reading and for many years my mother read us from Grimm’s books of fairy tales before bed. Those books fed my imagination for years: dark woods and evil spells, wishes which came in threes and people who were never as they first appeared. My mother encouraged me to write, and I realised the power of words early on when I wrote her a letter asking for more allowance and succeeded where my verbal attempts had failed.
We certainly fought, particularly during my teenage years, and I know there were times she must have thrown up her hands and wondered what was going to become of me, but she let me find my own way. I made some questionable choices, came to regret them, and then learned to make better choices.
Not long ago my mother gave me the baby book she made for me when I was born – amazing considering everything she had been through. She painstakingly replaced the falling-apart album, putting the old pages in plastic sleeves. Here is an excerpt of what she wrote:
“You weighed 8lbs 2oz and were 19 ½ inches long. You had dark brown hair and a remarkable resemblance to W.C. Fields. Your APGAR scores indicated your fine accomplishments at birth. You cried, breathed, and pumped blood with the best of them.”
My attempts at recording my children’s infancy dim in comparison. It is a beautiful book, and so much of its beauty is how it was made just for me. Since having children of my own I have learned that so much of a parent’s love is selfless love, these small people take and take and it is many years before they realise what we have sacrificed for them – what we have given up.
I want to recognise my own mother’s brilliance, her generosity, and her love. She gave so much to her daughters, and yet she always said we were her greatest accomplishment.
I hope I can make my own children feel so loved.
*It’s actually December 10th but I will note that it is still December 10th in the Northern Hemisphere, even though it’s now December 11th in Australia.
**If any of these facts are incorrect or out of order, I am certain that my mother will rectify this below.
*** Edited to read “my sister and me” from “my sister and I” because, as my mother pointed out below, it was grammatically incorrect. I always get that one wrong!