What My Mother Taught Me

About a year ago, I was given the opportunity at work to talk about someone influential in my life, I chose to talk about my mother, who was far along in her decline from dementia by then. My mom passed away last week, and I can think of no better memorial than to share those words I wrote a year ago.

If you knew my mom and have stories to share, please do so in the comments.


 One of my favorite Onion headlines reads as follows: 97-Year-Old Dies Unaware Of Being Violin Prodigy

 The article goes on to talk about how the woman spent her life completely unaware that she was one of the most talented musicians of the past century and possessed the untapped ability to become a world-class violin virtuoso, had she just picked up a violin once.

I’ve always liked that article, because in it’s typical satirical fashion, the Onion is highlighting that so much comes down to opportunity. This fictional woman could have been an amazing musician, if she was ever given the chance.

My mother was the person who put the violin in my hands, metaphorically speaking. Also literally in the 5th grade, but I didn’t turn out to be a violin virtuoso. I’m hardly a prodigy in anything, but most of the skills that I feel are so integral to my person today are things that she nudged me into.

My mother introduced me to the performing arts. We both took dance classes at our local studio and she fed me a steady diet of old movie musicals, introducing me to Shirley Temple, Gene Kelly, Vera Ellen and Ann Miller.  She got me a waiver out of health class, so I could take choir. She accompanied me to piano and then harp lessons. Because of her, I know the Good Ship Lollipop, Mozart’s Requiem, and the ballets of Tchaikovsky.

At eight years old, my mother put needle and thread in my hands and taught me to cross stitch. She took me to fabric stores and let me flip through the pattern books and glide my fingers across the rows and rows fabric bolts.  She demonstrated the magic of sewing by making me the best Halloween costumes on the block and she taught me that finish matters, even on pajamas. She loaned me her sewing machine and helped get me first job ever, at our town’s fabric store.

As our elementary’s school’s librarian, she gave me a sneak peek of all the new titles as they came in and let me draw new dust jackets to replace the damaged ones. My mother double majored in science at college, but she encouraged me in every creative endeavor I ever pursued. I probably had one of the few parents out there telling me I should take more art classes.

But the greatest thing my mother ever did for me, was not let her fears be mine.

My mother was always anxious. She had social anxiety that meant she hid in her room every time my friends came over to visit, but she let me have friends over as often as I wanted. She asked me to apply to the college closest to home, but didn’t say a word against it when I moved out of state. Once, after I had moved to Chicago to work in the theatre, she told me that she thought I was very brave.

 It struck me as a strange thing to say. Brave? To be brave you had to be up against something scary and there was nothing scary about it.  I only realized later, that for her, to go to someplace where you had no family, knew nobody, and were trying to make it on your own was about as scary as it could get. But never once did she try to talk me out it.  Time and again she tamped down her own fears to let me do it my way, giving me the space to pursue my dreams.

My mother gave me the tools to be the artist I am today, but the biggest influence she had on me can perhaps be summed up in the words of Shirley Temple in the film Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, “I'm very self-reliant. My mother taught me to always be that way.”

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