I have been thinking about my mother since Mother’s Day was this month, which is also the month she was born and passed away at the age of sixty-eight. After briefly describing my mother and our family life, I will discuss important lessons that I learned from her as a way of expressing my gratitude and paying tribute to a woman who made a difference in this world in many ways, but one whose personal story or positive influence on others will only be known to those she affected.
My mother was barely over five feet tall with a physical handicap that she never let affect her life in a negative way. She took care of six children essentially on her own, as my father had chronic alcoholism, depression, and anxiety during her entire adult life. Dad was often unemployed and our family was often broke and dependent on public assistance. When drunk, he was sometimes violent towards her and us, and was essentially an absent father to us children as he did little to mentor us or teach us about life with positive role-modeling, although I would say that I learned so much from observing how he lived his life and interacted with our family despite all the problems and chaos he caused. My mother left him a number of times for a few days, but always returned to take care of us. Her terminal illness influenced him to get help with his alcoholism and mental health problems.
Mom lost her father early in life, her mother in middle age, a young brother in World War II, and a sister in her thirties to cancer. Sadly, her other siblings avoided her due to my father’s alcoholism and behaviors they did not want to be exposed to. Despite the many losses of her parents and siblings, the lack of closeness with other siblings, and the absence of a stable home life, I believe my mother did her best in raising us and promoting important values.
I never recall my mother having an appointment with a dentist or doctor until late in life when she was diagnosed with cancer. On the other hand, she was often calling doctors for my father who had all types of aches and pains. My dad’s mother was one of the most psychosomatic people I have ever known, so she probably influenced him in regards to physical ailments. I have no memories of this grandmother doing anything nice for my mother or her grandchildren as her focus was on her own physical health concerns.
We lived in public housing or funky houses, had utilities cut off several times, relied on public assistance off and on, had no telephone until I was a teenager (imagine that in this day of smartphones!), and at times had no car. Five of us were juvenile delinquents, and three spent time in local, state or federal facilities for more serious offenses. Five of us were academic underachievers with three high school dropouts. Five of us had mental health and/or substance use problems. At least four of us were injured in accidents—falls, hit by cars, auto accidents, burns, teeth knocked out, and others—some of which were very serious. I cannot recall any of us receiving regular dental or medical checkups (except what was provided at schools) and we only received medical care after an accident. Most of us engaged in behaviors that today would be considered high-risk, such as hitchhiking rides with strangers or being away from home during the summer from early morning to late night without our parents knowing where we were or what we were doing.
As you can imagine from this brief summary, my mother experienced her share of heartache and heartbreak during her life. Yet, she kept a fairly upbeat attitude as much as one could in these circumstances, and she affected me and my sibling in positive ways. During her terminal illness, she did not complain or attempt to elicit sympathy. Instead, her concern was for her children and grandchildren. Despite all of the chaos in my family, I learned many valuable lessons from my mother that have shaped my character and my life. Additionally, I feel grateful to my mother for all that she taught me over the years through her holding our family together, consistently showing loving behaviors to us, and her resilience and ability to cope with all difficulties thrown her way. I also learned from watching her suffer and observing her behaviors that were not so healthy.
Despite negative memories of bad experiences growing up, I also have many good memories of growing up as well. When my mother was with us, we enjoyed normal activities like eating meals together at home or in a restaurant, sitting on the porch and chatting, watching TV or movies, visiting museums or taking drives in the country. Although my mother died when my kids were young, I feel grateful that they spent time with her.
Lessons Learned from My Mother
Hard Work and Stability
Mom was a high school drop-out who cleaned tables at McDonald’s and small business offices to help support our family. My mother was quite innovative in survival skills and taking care of her family. I remember times where there was little or no food in the house, but mom always found a way to get food for the next meal. My mother conveyed the values of hard work and taking responsibility for caring for family regardless of the circumstances. Some of my brothers and I worked at a young age to make money by shoveling snow, having a newspaper route, setting pins in a bowling alley, or selling golf balls we found in the woods, cleaned up and sold to golfers. There were times in which we gave mom money to help buy food. Since my dad sometimes demanded a share of our money so he could drink at a local bar, we would hide most of it in our shoes so that we did not have much to give him, while we complained that it was a bad day at the golf course.
One of the keys to my success and creating stability in my own family was developing a desire to get ahead in life, and putting the time and effort into doing what is needed such as finish school and work hard. At a young age I developed a desire to succeed in life and take care of my own family after getting married and having children. My mother clearly influenced me to value and pursue hard work. I learned that the best way out of being poor is to work hard, appreciate what you have, and be responsible in how money is managed (although I made many mistakes managing money when I was younger). I learned that family stability only comes with balancing work and family life, and giving time, attention, and love to children and family members.
Toughness and Resilience
Mom survived many difficult experiences in life. She showed amazing resilience in bouncing back from these while maintaining a perspective on life that was positive.
Like most other people I know, I’ve had my share of problems and difficulties in life. But rather than let these pull me down and give up, I used the difficulties to learn and improve myself. Viewing these as challenges to overcome rather than reasons to give up were values I learned from my mother.
Love and Compassion
My mother was not one who expressed love through hugging, kissing or saying “I love you.” Yet, she showed love in her actions and how she took care of us and would do anything for us. Despite the many problems most of us children brought her way, she loved us, forgave our transgressions, and looked out for our welfare. One of the most loving things she did when I was in tenth grade was to confront and slap me when she discovered I was drunk. Mom told me she would never tolerate any of her kids getting drunk after what dad put the family through. It worked, because I never got drunk again while living at home. I learned from her that showing love in your behaviors is necessary for expecting accountability from others, as well as important in keeping a positive connection to family and other loved ones.
Kindness and Altruism
When I was a young soldier serving in the United States Army overseas, I received a letter from my mother with a few dollars in it. I suspect this was probably her last few bucks, but my mother would give anything to us, even what little money she had. My desire to help others through my professional work and help my family came from watching mom care about her family as well as others, and giving of herself to so many people and asking nothing in return.
Altruism is one of the best characteristics a person can have in which gifts—time, attention, financial, and others—are shared with others, especially those with problems or in need of help and support. My mother gave to others with her kindness and caring behaviors. I never thought she judged others for their deficits or flaws.
I have no regrets over how I was raised and the chaotic home environment of our family as this was a great learning environment. My experiences growing up and relationship with my mother shaped my character and my behaviors, and influenced much of what I have done in my life. I am grateful that I learned from my mother that anyone can overcome adversities, including poverty, addiction or mental illness in the family, and family chaos. I learned that the best antidote to overcoming a difficult past is to focus on living well at the present, appreciate the many gifts in life, set a direction in life, work hard, and stay focused on others and doing good, rather than focus on self and one’s upset feelings or trouble.
Focus on Others to Make a Difference
A stable support network with close connections to others is an important part of healthy living as this allows us to give and get support from each other. Watching mom focus on others was a great lesson, which not only affected my relationships, but my choice of a career in the helping professions. Early on in life I debated whether to become an accountant or forge a career in which I worked with kids or others with problems. After flunking my first college course in accounting, I knew what direction I wanted to take with my future. I was intrigued by the idea of helping others, especially kids from difficult or disadvantaged circumstances.
The Importance of Humor
A great sense of humor probably saved my mother from the depths of despair. Fortunately, this trait was passed on. Humor helps us keep a perspective on life and our troubles. It also enables us to not let difficult experiences pull us down and overwhelm us with negative thoughts or emotions.
My mother once told me “nothing ventured, nothing gained” in response to a problem I was discussing with her that required me taking a risk. This wise saying stuck with me for my entire life and has actually helped decrease any fear or worry I have about taking chances or risks in life, whether these relate to career, relationships or other aspects of life.
Be Curious and Keep Learning
Despite my mother’s limited formal education, she liked to read. When she visited my home, mom always picked out books to read on many different topics. She had an interest in learning, which was a positive influence on me. I noticed this more during my adult years than when growing up at home. Love of learning is one of my most valued personal characteristics.
Despite my mother’s personal limitations (which we all have), I choose to remember her as someone who gave a lot to me, my siblings, and others. I appreciate that she was able to convey in her attitudes and behaviors many positive values that I embraced and integrated into my life.