This is an ode to mothers everywhere. Your ability to give and withstand suffering makes you the most exceptional people on earth. The following is one daughter’s account of how her mother shaped her, and how knowing her story put everything in perspective.
My Mom’s father passed away when she was 16. He snapped right in front of her. She was the only one who had been able to comfort him. In the end, he had to scream at her to go away so he wouldn’t hurt her. He was the best thing in her life and she had to witness him being restrained on the ground, his big, brown eyes looking up at her, into her, saying, “I’m sorry”. He was 55. All she wanted from that point was to also make it to 55.
Her parents divorced when she was very young, and she and her brother lived with my Grandma. There weren’t many single Dad’s running multiple businesses in the 1950s. It was the way it was. My Grandma was poor but very resourceful. She’d have my uncle toddle into the grocery story, put some meat under his coat, and plod right back out into the car. He too, had those big, brown eyes. Nobody was saying anything to him but Aren’t you an adorable kid?
My Mom and my Grandma didn’t get along. Perhaps there was too much resentment for being the first born, or that my Mom was too much of a reminder of the love that left, but there was a steady strain on their relationship. When she was 5 years old she ran away. My Mom being my Mom, she took my uncle with her. She wasn’t going to leave him in that mess. She packed a few sandwiches for each and took off. They got found out a few hours later and the escape was off, but it would be far from the last time she held her brother’s hand and took him to a safer place.
This nurturing, ‘other person before myself’ mentality she has carried with her for all these years epitomizes the idea of Mother. I was almost twelve pounds when I was born. Twelve frickin’ pounds. I probably ate most of her food. I made her uncomfortable, nauseous, and simply wore the lady down. She still whispered sweet words to me, as I kicked, and took, and squirmed. I’m much too selfish to have children. It boggles my mind that people still do it so freely.
When I made mistakes, it was my Mom made things right. In elementary school when I wrote my full name in the sidewalk and declared to the world I loved animals, my mom was the one who went back with a trowel on a hot summer day to smooth things out. When I drew on a neighbors bricks with permanent marker because “it was ok and they did it all the time”, my Mom was the one who scrubbed it with a wire brush until the blue figures disappeared. I learned to not make my Mom have to do those things. There were far better ways she could use her time.
She was crafty like my grandma in making a dollar stretch. She did most of the home repair and maintenance herself. She put in ceiling fans and re-wired lamps, tarred the driveway, and made sure the laundry room sewer didn’t back up. She painted walls and windows and put in floors. She made a washing machine last a decade past its expiration date. No one could tinker and find a solution like my Mom. As I write this, I’m realizing she was the one that made me enamored with figuring things out.
My mom made me ignorant that there was still such a thing as feminism.
The woman I knew most was never lacking. She was strong and capable and could do anything. I never doubted that I could do the same. She trained me with her actions. It never hurt to try.
She taught me something else about success — something so pivotal for a woman — your looks don’t define you. My Mom never wore make-up. She arrived at the party the way she wanted to arrive. She was comfortable, and she lived in that comfort, regardless of who was around or paying a visit. There is no way you have to look to make people pay attention. You can simply be. Attractiveness comes in all forms, and your character and behaviors are effortless.
When my Mom was 52, she got terribly sick. One thing after another was failing her. The careful, thoughtful practice she perfected in finding a new day evolved into something otherworldly. Worse news followed bad news, and yet she still kept waking up. She was stubborn in the beautiful sense of never wanting to leave. And so she didn’t. Somehow, she endured once more. Her habit of surviving became a routine joy. She was naturally that happy baby in the sink, and is even more so today.
Far more than how to do things and survive, my mother taught me what it was to love. I thought I knew what it meant to care for someone, but I had no idea until I witnessed this woman love her brother though his despair. Love is an action. It does things. It sacrifices. It makes you jump in again and again to save someone who is drowning. You don’t notice that they keep willingly diving in. All you see is they are struggling and all you hear is their cry for help. You suffer with them so at least they won’t be lonely. This was my mother when her brother started to crumble. She sat with him and laughed with him and kept him talking. He had to get the poisoned thoughts out of his head, and my mother siphoned them from his wounds.
As he dwindled away, my mother was the one who cashed in all of her good deeds and called upon the miracle to get him care. She was at his side as he lost the ability to walk, wave, talk, and eventually eat. Those big brown eyes always recognized her. At the end, when all that was left of him was breathing through a machine, I watched from the doorway as she sat next to his bedside and stroked his cheek. She spoke to him with such gentle affection, so sure that he could hear. It was the purest form of tenderness. As I witnessed this scene from the doorway, my eyes welled up from the mere feeling of it all. Dear God, I thought, this is what love is.
There is no compliment I could ever receive that would move me more than You love like your mother.
Anna Ruffolo turned 65 last October. Ten years past her hopeful expiration date. Similar to that old washing machine, someone somewhere stuck a pen in the right place so she could keep on hummin’. I’m so grateful. There’s still adventures to be had.
On this day or any other, remember that the Moms we think we know were people long before we came along. There are pieces to them you’ll never know about because you never asked. Awash in all the compliments and thankful gestures today, ask her questions about her past. It matters that someone wishes to know the other parts of who they are, and requests to hear the stories of how they came to be.