These are the last words my mother ever spoke to me.
In a few moments, I will tell you more about the context in which she said them—it really was quite beautiful. But, this does give you a sense that we are not talking about a conventional mother.
At Christmas time and birthdays and Mother’s Day, I would go to the card store, always with disheartened prospects. I knew I wouldn’t find anything that was gonna fit my mom, my “Mongel.” My mother was unique amongst all the people I’ve ever known, and I hazard would have found her a bit singular, too.
Looking through all those cards for all those special occasions, I couldn’t really ever find one that fit my mom.
And so as I stand here—deficient in words to describe she who was my mom—I think the best way I can honor her is to bring her to you in her very own words.
And so I give you, 10 Pieces of Wisdom I Learned from my Mom:
1. Never sit next to someone on the bus who doesn’t have skate guards on their skates.
The literal meaning of this comes directly to mind for anyone from northern climates. We know that as temperatures drop, the ice skating program comes to gym class. And, for me at least, that meant everyone on the school bus had their skates with them. As you likely know, skate guards are those plastic ends that some people put on the blades as protection from the very sharp edges. My mother would’ve zealously emphasized the some people part.
Ever worried for my safety, Mom would admonish me every morning before I headed out to school with my skates over my shoulder, “Don’t sit next to someone on the bus who doesn’t have skate guards on their skates.”
There’s a broader context to this. My mother was making sure that I knew that we can’t always rely on others to protect us. We own the responsibility to look after our own safety. When I landed in uncharted Kazakhstan on a Sunday afternoon, and the company driver failed to meet me, my instinct to look after myself and my safety kicked in, and got me where I needed to go in one piece…and those Kazakh’s definitely didn’t have any skate guards!
2. Let the balls become grounders before you pick them up.
My mother had a winter sport fear—with the skate guards—and similarly, she had a summer sport distress. When softball season came to gym class, my mother informed me that I was to go as far outfield as I possibly could…and even then, if the ball happened to come that far, I was not to try to catch it! My firm instructions were to watch it drop, become a grounder, and only approach to throw it back once it had come to a stop.
As you may well imagine, I was not picked first when teams were chosen. My mother knew that attempting to catch a flying ball carried with it almost certain injury, and even a ball on the ground could catch an unexpected bounce, hit me in the face and knock out my teeth.
There’s a bigger meaning in this, too. In the course of life, as things come at you, they sometimes fly through the air with great force and can pack a wallop, and even if they come rolling toward you they often catch strange bounce. Sometimes, the smartest thing is to stay out of the fray, and watch and assess from a calm, dispassionate distance. Once the hubbub abates, you’ll know what move to make.
3. Shit to shorts.
This is not actually phrase my mother ever used, but rather one that was used about my mother and me. Mongel and I were extremely close. We spent lots and lots of time together; we shared laughs and stories and secrets, and we were too loyal by half. So much so that my father used to say that my mom and I stuck together like shit to shorts.
From this I learned that when you love someone, you stick with them—through good times and bad times, when their better angels are there, and when the demons come out from under the bed.
4. What did you get wrong?
My mother was very loyal to me and she was absolutely my greatest champion. She was also my most severe critic.
As any of you who may have spent more than 30 seconds in mother’s company know, I didn’t do too badly in school. Many a day, I would rush home from school with a grade on an essay or a test or a report card, and say, “Hey Mongel, I got a 97!” or, “Hey Mongel, I got a 95!” And the first words out of her mouth were always, “What did you get wrong?” And I would tell her, and she would say, “Okay, now go study that”.
I’m not going to tell you that those words didn’t, some days, absolutely crush me. They did.
However, I have no doubt that I wouldn’t be the person I am today without “What did you get wrong?” My mother taught me—oh so sharply—that we always have to be a little bit better today than we were yesterday, that our reach must always exceed our grasp, and that we are never ever ever done.
I couldn’t be the person strong enough to stand here today and tell you about who my mother is without “What did you get wrong?”
5. Never have any more debt or more children than you can afford yourself.
I am woman; hear me roar. My mother used to play that song over and over for me and make sure that I sang it with her… and danced around the living room to the eight track.
My mother wanted to ensure that I owned my own life, that I was free to make my own decisions and live the life of my choosing. With this wisdom, my mom wanted to impress upon me that it is my right and my obligation to walk through this world as a fully integrated woman, and be able to make choices about where to work, how to spend my time and who to share my life with, based on happiness and love and joy—not on dependence.
6. Being uncool is cool.
My mother didn’t say exactly those words to me. What she actually said was, “Here’s your new runners”.
My mother didn’t prefer sports, as you may have gathered.
In short, what that meant was I walked around grade seven in sh*t-brown clown shoes. They were the very essence of uncool in a sea of fantastically cool, identical Nikes. I was never going to fit in. And so, the upside is, I didn’t bother to try. I haven’t ever bothered to try since.
Those horrible brown suede Cougar running shoes freed me to be me, and that’s who I have been ever since.
7. In times of stress, keep moving.
Again, this is something my mother showed me more than told me. One of the downsides of being free to be yourself is that sometimes you make some spectacularly stupid decisions. I made one of those when I eloped with my first husband.
I called Mom and Dad late on a Saturday night to inform them that, well.. so, this had happened. Mom calmly wished me well, calmly wished him well, and calmly said she looked forward to seeing us when we got back home.
She then was up until 3 o’clock in the morning ironing. It was during that time, I’m sure, that she thought through everything—everything she’d done wrong that made me do this; everything I’d ever done wrong that should have been a clue that this could happen; and most importantly what on earth was she going to do about the mess I had gotten myself into. I mean, hadn’t she warned me about the skate guards and softballs?!
Now, she could’ve sat down on a chair and cried. She could’ve yelled, or cursed at me, or Fate or the world. But she didn’t. She ironed. She kept moving because while doing that, she could sort it all out, and get ready to deal with it, come what may—and then that’s exactly what she did.
Over the last week since Mom passed, I have cleaned, and sorted, and wrote, and packed, and did all the necessaries and beyond, to keep moving. And, I could not help but feel that she herself had taught me how to process this very time when I would lose her, until I am ready to deal with it—and then that’s exactly what I will do.
8. Be proud of the ones you love.
She may have been my harshest critic, but my mother was beyond proud of me and she was never afraid to show it. During her recent hospital stay, my Mom’s condition was really up-and-down. One of the barometers of her mental state and memory, from day to day, was whether or not she remembered where I live.
One day, I was in her room, but trying to stay out of the way while her cognitive and speech therapists worked with her. It was a good day, and she’d answered most of their questions quite well—very simple things, really. It was difficult for me to listen to my smart and lively mom sometimes struggle with these modest questions. Anyway, that day, at the end of the session, the cognitive therapist looked over at me in the corner and said to Mom:
“My daughter, Terra,” said Mom.
“Where does Terra live?”
“What does she do there?”
“She’s a high-powered corporate lawyer.”
And of course the therapist cracked up. And then, Mom got a very stern look on her face, and said “No, seriously.”
I’m very important. Just ask my mom.
And my Mom, she’s amazing. And my husband? My family? My friends? My dogs? They’re all the very best there ever was. Just ask me.
9. Never lose your sense of humor.
Mom didn’t say these words to me, either. She showed it to me each and every day, right to the end of her life.
As mentioned, in the hospital, the question of where I lived was a daily indicator of how Mom was doing that day. One morning, when I came to see her, her eyes were wide and gleaming. After initial hellos and hugs, I asked her, “Mongel, where do I live?” She looked me, smiled and said, “Oh my God, have you got what I’ve got?”
My mom had a tremendous, irreverent, sometimes dark sense of humor, and I saw how that carried her and eased her, even in the most difficult of times. As you may gather, I have it, too.
10. I love you too. I’m sorry I was such a b*tch.
I was up to see mom again the weekend before her passing. It was not a great visit. Her little body had well outlasted its warranty period and her independent spirit bristled when her body wouldn’t do what what her mind demanded of it. Being dependent; being weak—she would not have wanted to live like that.
I spent most of the weekend with her and she was pretty cranky.
She did not like all the things that were being done to help her. All the kind care by their very compassionate hospital staff was not always warmly received, because she did not want to be in that body or in that place. I would try to read to her, to show her photos or play music for her. I would bribe her to take her medicine by rubbing her hands with lotion, or massage her legs and feet while she used the nebulizer, which was the mask that delivered medicine to her lungs. She was pretty ornery through the whole thing.
On Sunday I had to leave, with plans to come back again soon. I leaned down to kiss her forehead and said, “I gotta go. I love you, Mom.” And she said “I love you, too. I’m sorry I was such a b*tch.”
And she was—she was a b*tch sometimes. And she was also kind and sweet. And smart, and funny, and compassionate, and demanding, and proud, and toffee-nosed, and playful… and she was the whole, big, deep, beautiful kaleidoscope of what a human being can and should be—all of humanity’s jawbreaker-like layers of complexity of sweet, sour, tart and chewy.
Loving my mom taught me to love a fully integrated, complex, non-Hallmark, human being—the good, the bad and the b*tchy. She taught me to love her, and everyone else, for their humanity. Love them—and even myself—not in spite of, but because of, these perfectly assembled sets of imperfections.
I did eventually find a card for Mom.
Last autumn, I found a card that I took back to Houston and mailed to her. When she got it, she called and told me it was the best card I ever given her and she was saving it. When I came up in February, it was still sitting up in the kitchen. When I came up in April, it was still sitting up in the kitchen. It’s been in the kitchen until now.
And I want to read it to you today:
She Who Is My Mom
As a child, I opened my eyes for the first time to
“She who” wiped my tears,
Kissed my boo-boos,
And loved me more than life itself.
As a young woman,
I opened my eyes once again and saw
“She who” was a strong and independent woman.
She gave me wings and taught me how to fly.
Today I open my eyes and see
“She who” is my dearest and truest friend.
She encouraged my dreams,
Applauded my accomplishments,
Understood my mistakes,
And has always been so proud of me.
She’s my mom
And I love her more than life itself!
~ Suzy Toronto (Poem published with permission)
Author: Terra Nicolay
Editor: Emily Bartran
Photo: Author’s Own