Lessons From My Mother

In our Sunday best. Ready to leave for church, circa 1959.

My mother was born 92 years ago today in a small town in northwestern Minnesota not far from the Canadian border. She was the 5th of six children born to second generation Norwegian immigrants, Olga and Elmer. My grandparents were hard-working, no-nonsense Lutherans who expected the same from their children, two boys and four girls. When my mom graduated as valedictorian from high school during World War II, her folks moved to Detroit for a couple of years to help with the war effort by taking jobs in a defense plant. Mom left behind her small town upbringing and followed her parents to Detroit where she enrolled in nursing school hoping to use her training in service to her country. The war ended just as she was finishing up her degree, effectively limiting the recruitment of nurses, so she elected to strike out on her own and moved to Miami to practice private duty nursing. Later she migrated to Southern California where she eventually became an industrial nurse at Lockheed and remained there until her retirement. She passed away in her sleep 10 years ago this summer.

Mom was 26 when she married Dad in 1951. At 26, mom was older, and in many ways, perhaps more worldly-wise, than a lot of brides in that era. She had lived on her own for several years, she had traveled, and she had a degree and a professional career. Dad was a blue-collar worker who changed jobs countless times before he settled in as a postal letter carrier when I was in grade school. Maybe it was her biological clock ticking or Dad’s amorous ways, or just luck, but she gave birth to her first child just 9 months after they married, her first son 13 months later, and me eleven months after that. My birth must have been an ah ha (or an oh no) moment, because it was more than two years after that my baby brother Mark came into the world. I suspect that it was at this point that she decided that a permanent solution to the baby train was in order. Mom clearly loved all her babies but she also loved her work as a nurse and the salary she earned was needed to supplement Dad’s fluctuating income. She was a full-time working mom when that was the exception rather than the rule. She invited her younger cousin from Minnesota to move west to help care for us until we started school. As I  later learned first hand, finding safe and reliable child care is always a challenge.

Mom took her job at home as seriously as she did her profession. She cooked and cleaned and washed clothes. She asked us about our day, she checked homework and she made sure we said please and thank you. As we grew, she assigned us chores that were within our abilities. Not so much to relieve her own burdens but more importantly to help us learn to contribute and not just take. She stressed the importance of doing well in school, of being kind to others and slow to judge. I don’t remember her saying a negative or cross word about anyone. If she had a negative experience with a friend, or especially a relative, she did not talk about it in front of us kids. She didn’t use ethnic slurs or vulgar language. I’m sure she had her moments of anger, frustration and unhappiness, but I don’t think she wanted to trouble us with her  grown-up concerns. Family was always her pride and priority. We siblings owe our love of reading to Mom who always had a book at the ready.

Looking back, her life was so full of responsibilities, it is a wonder that she could juggle it all. Somehow she found time to help care for her mother in her final years (we kids were in grade school then). And later, my father as he struggled with the slow and steady battle with heart disease and dementia after they had retired. As it turned out there was something for which she couldn’t find the time. That was taking care of her own health. She was an insulin-dependant diabetic for as long as I can remember. As a nurse, she had no problem giving herself the necessary injections, but was much less successful in making the necessary lifestyle changes that may have helped to prevent the disease in the first place. Perhaps this is one of the most important, albeit unintentional,  lessons I learned from her. In this increasingly hectic world, it is even more important to take care of our own health and fitness. Not just for yourself but also for the people who love you. Of course we should all try to eat healthy, maintain a proper weight, and exercise. But we should also see our doctors for regular check-ups and screenings like blood tests, mammograms and bone density. Next week I will have my third colonoscopy. I got my first at 40 because we have a family history  of colon cancer -on my mother’s side.

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