Lessons My Mom Never Taught Me

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I’ve been thinking a lot about my mom lately. It would have been her 76th birthday this October. She died nearly 25 years ago. While it’s been too long since I’ve heard her laugh, she has left me with a bounty of wisdom that sustains me. In fact, there are simply too many lessons to enumerate. She was a Catholic school teacher by profession, so it was in her nature to instruct and impart knowledge. But there were also things she most certainly did not pass down. There are some worldly teachings she decidedly left by the wayside. And for that I am even more grateful and bolstered.

My mom never taught me consumerism. In our house growing up, if something broke, we truly mourned its loss because we understood it would probably never be replaced. My dad was not particularly handy, so he wasn’t going to fix it. We were accustomed to go without. For most of my formative years, our family of five shared one functioning bathroom. As a teenager, I spent more time than I care to admit popping zits in front of that bathroom mirror. Somewhere along the line, the old bathroom mirror began to cloud up in big foggy patches as if it too were overcome with a dermal affliction like my teenage acne. Rather than expect a new mirror in which I could better inspect my spotty reflection, I just searched high and low for a clear stretch in the glass in which I could get a good look, often on tip-toes to get just the right vantage. 

For the majority of my youth, our only end table was a left-over student’s school desk with a pillow case draped over it to make it appear—what? more classy? Not sure. But I don’t think we were fooling anyone. This wasn’t like those trendy decorators who use vintage items for different purposes. Nope. This was just an ugly desk masquerading as an end table. But it worked as a spot to stash your tall glass of Tang while catching a “Chips” episode. We did finally get an end table. But it was a hand-me-down from my grandparents when they upgraded their living room furniture. My mother didn’t look at catalogs longingly dreaming of a day when she could redecorate. She appreciated nice things, but it wasn’t her raison d’être.  She was content with what she had. Maybe it was her time spent in the convent studying to be a Maryknoll nun. She shared a story of a fellow elderly nun who had been in a Nazi concentration camp who always used every bit of food to cook, including the vegetable peelings, which she had scavenged out of the trash to survive. Or maybe it was the practical, communal living which had shaped her. My mom loved her time in the novitiate. Though she left before making her final vows, it left a lasting impact. Even in the peek of 1980’s mall mania, when all our our friends and relatives were flocking to the Gap, she was never bit by the consumer bug. If she went on an expedition to the mall, it was more as an opportunity to visit with my grandmother and aunt who were regulars at the classy, new suburban sprawl shopping center. She was refreshingly out of place there.

When I was a little girl, one of my neighborhood friend’s mom had two huge drawers filled with all sorts of make up. To my delight, we would stare at it and open it up and sniff. We had to do this without her mom realizing, because she didn’t appreciate a couple of 8-year-olds pawing at her pricey cosmetics. But we did! There was every color of eye shadow imaginable. Just the blues alone… I remember feeling so disappointed, embarrassed even that my mom had only 2 or three pieces of drugstore make up in total. How completely UN-glamorous of her!

But now, as a woman who has occasionally bought into the promises of some new make up or cream, I realize how lucky I am that she never taught me the lesson of vanity. I don’t mean that she was unkempt at all. It wasn’t that she didn’t look her best. She just didn’t feed the industry that said she needed to look different. My mom would put on her make up with a small hand mirror as she sat on the couch. After her 2 to 3 minute routine, she still looked herself, maybe a bit more awake. She never had a trendy hair cut or hair style and I honestly can’t ever recall her as much as perusing a single women’s fashion magazine. It wasn’t on her radar. And yet she was the model of femininity and beauty to me. She possessed such dignity, not in how she looked, but who she was, a creation of God.

She did do something uncharacteristic in her early 40’s. When my brothers and I got braces as teenagers, she got them too. She had been born with a pronounced overbite and was always a little self conscious about her smile. She wasn’t the slightest bit self-conscious of the braces. And when the braces came off, she beamed even more from the inside out.

She also never taught me the pervasive lesson that men and women are created equal. I learned from her that we are in fact, very different. When my mom explained that my body was made to carry a baby, I naturally wondered why my brothers didn’t share the burden of dealing with periods, being pregnant and labor. Her answer says it all. She explained that it was a gift to be celebrated and that we as women are so blessed to have the capability to be that close to our babies. But a man will never have that incredible opportunity. She actually felt sorry for my father that he would never experience such a deep, profound connection with his children. This is so counterintuitive to what is peddled in society today. Our capability to carry children should be shelved in order to be more like a man. Instead of rejoicing in the gift we are given, women are encouraged to suppress their fertility and maternal nature, if not strip it away completely so they can get good corporate jobs in order to make a lot of money to be able to afford facials, manicures, end tables, fancy mirrors and so on… In so doing, women of the world distinguish themselves as successful and impactful. I would argue that my mother, in rejecting those worldly teachings, was an authentic success. She was a true heroine—a mother, wife and a teacher. While I’d love to say I always followed her modest, temperate example, there have been many times I have felt the pull of consumerism, vanity and the deceit of gender equality. But in heading down those harrowing rabbit holes, I have always been able to catch myself, recenter, and tap into those lasting prophetic values based on the lessons my dear mother NEVER taught me. What a beautiful legacy.

Happy birthday, Mom!

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