Reflections on Life, Leadership, Mindfulness, Change, and other Important Stuff

Month: October, 2013

Just a Few Lessons My Mother Taught Me

It has been said the only difference between the person you are today and the person you will be in five years are the books you read and the people you meet.  So if you consider I met my Mother 53 years ago, she’s had 10 cycles to make a difference in my life.  Along with my wife and father, and a few others she’s clearly a difference maker in my life.  So I can forgive her for never being quite sure if I was born on 18th or 19th of October, even if I am her only child.  After all, I’m 6’7” now and was a “big baby.” So the process of birthing me was probably something she’s tried to forget.  By the way, there’s no truth to the rumor the nurses said, “Oh my Lord, would you look at the size of this kid” when I was born.

The list of things, both profound and useful, Mom has taught me is far too long to be completed here.  For now I will just only expound on the following: sometimes only profanity will do, how to drive, be fiercely loyal to your family, the facts of life.

I remember the first time I heard my mother cuss.  She was removing something from the oven and inadvertently grabbed the edge of the pan.  Unbeknownst to her, I had walked into the kitchen to hear her remarkably skillful use off several words, spoken as if they were one, I’d never heard her use before.  “You okay, Mom?”  I asked.  She was fighting back the pain and it hadn’t quite hit her that I’d heard her.  Once we’d established she was okay her mea culpa included “I guess if that’s the worst thing I ever do as a parent, then I’m okay.”  I agreed with her and proposed we use butter on the burn, which is what you did in the late 1960s.  After all, butter makes everything better if you’re from Alabama.

My mother, like most Southern women, is fiercely loyal to her family.  While she reserved the right to “straighten me out,” no one else was allowed such a privilege.  On more than one occasion, I recall “She-Coon” coming out in her.  Once it was with a teacher I felt had been condescending.  I was struggling in a math class and claimed I was bored to tears and wanted to be placed in a higher-level course.  With Mom’s intervention, I was moved into another class where my grades improved significantly. Although that may have been from the absence of an adolescent distraction named Debbie missing from my new classroom rather than my mathematical genius.   Nonetheless, her defense of me made the world a safer place.

I’m not sure what the standard for learning to drive is in this country, but my father and mother shared the chores.  But my mother started me early, at about age 14.  Since I was a “big boy,” she once offered to let me behind the wheel of a 1964 Corvair on a winding country road.  I jumped at the opportunity.  I did a fine job too and had I kept driving no one would have been the wiser.  But as I pulled into the edge of a cornfield on a fall day one of Fairfax County, Virginia’s finest pulled in behind us.  As we exited the car to swap sides, he figured us out, and asked for my driver’s license.  He then wrote my mother a ticket.   She politely accepted it but muttered something about “sunny beaches.”  I think she was wishing him a good vacation or something.

Having now had the privilege of explaining the facts of life to my then 6-year old son who asked me “Daddy, what does ‘gay’ mean?” I have gained great appreciation for what my mother was faced with when we were waiting for the school bus one morning.  Somehow in less than 10 minutes she was able to clarify things sufficiently when her 8 year old asked the meaning of a particular gesture involving a middle finger.  One thing leads to another, as the song goes, and just as I had to address the much of human sexual behavior in one sitting, she had to cover a lot of ground.  Notably, my son’s response to how a man and woman “make a baby” was “ Eeeeew!  I’m never doin’ that!”  I told him I thought that was a good plan.

Soon, I want to pay homage to several other lessons my mother taught me including: money isn’t everything, how to ask a girl for her phone number, and don’t let college get in the way of an education.  But for now I will close with this.  Mom always taught me that when you are with family, wherever life takes you, you’re at home.  My father’s career moved us all about the country and though it was difficult, my Mom always told me that as long as we were together we were home.  Sure we cried some when we moved about.  But for the most part, it was a great adventure. Because of her attitude and support of my father and me it wasn’t really that painful.  You might think attending three schools in the eighth grade would have done permanent damage to an adolescent boy.  But thanks in large part to my Mother, it didn’t.  Yes, I talk to myself a lot and my brain is a noisy place.  I’m not really like the “other children.”  (Then again, who is?) But I think it would be all the more so if Mom hadn’t had the attitude she had.  It’s a trait my wife shares with her, along with a fierce loyalty to her family.  She has chosen to support the gypsy wanderings of her husband just as my Mother did.  She’s not too bad at the colorful language from time to time either. Though I think I’m mostly the cause of it.  Someday, I suspect both my children will reflect upon lessons their Momma taught them.  Like me, they will have more to share than a mere thousand words or so can contain.


The Wit and Wisdom of Mizz Bishop

The home my Mother grew up in was a place of respite for me during my college years. Having moved 800 miles from home to attend Birmingham-Southern, it was to my Grandmother house I fled to get away from the demands of school, have a home cooked meal and wash a few loads of laundry. At seventeen and far from home, the tastes, smells, and comforts I found there were what started my visits. But it was the generosity, sense of humor, and wisdom I found in the Sipsey, Alabama home of a woman known to the local folks as “Mizz Bishop” that kept me coming back.

My Granmother, Mizz Bishop, was a tall woman, about 5’10’, with silver hair and a broad smile. She was quick to laugh and often had a joke to tell. Her sense of humor was sometimes irreverent. On one visit, I sat at her kitchen table waiting for dinner when she pointed at something.

“How do you like my salt & pepper shakers?” Two green ceramic frogs sat on the table.

“Those are cute.” Odd that she would point out saltshakers, I thought. “They’re anatomically correct,” she grinned. “Turn’em over.”

I picked them up, inspected them. Yep. male and female, bought at some flea market, the frogs were indeed, anatomically correct. We had a great laugh as she finished cooking. I don’t remember the meal itself, yet I do recall some reluctance to season my food. The thought of condiments coming from a frog’s head was a bit unappetizing.

When I graduated from High School, my grandmother came to Northern Virginia for the occasion. I was delighted to have her visit and her words that night are etched in my mind. Like all my peers, I was headed out for a graduation party, this one hosted by my best friend Vince. As I was saying my goodnights and getting last minute instructions from my Mother and Father to “remember who you are” my grandmother rolled down the back door window and spoke.

“Now Son” she said. “I want you to be good tonight.” She smiled broadly. I waited for her to follow it up with “And if you can’t be good, be careful.” What I got was “And if you can’t be good, then be sanitary.

” Wait? What? Be sanitary? What the heck does that mean? “Yes, Mam.” I smiled and headed off, uncertain what to make of such counsel. To be clear, I was good that night. Mostly. Despite the fears of Vince’s Mother, it was he that was a bad influence on me. Not the other way around. I’m still not clear what activity she feared I would engage in requiring me to be sanitary.

Looking back, I see that the wit and wisdom of my Grandmother was a notable presence in my life long before I got to College. On summer visits to her home, as a child of 5 or 6, she would invite me to sit in the swing with her. She would arm me with a Daisy BB gun and, now don’t get worked up over this, encourage me to shoot at stray dogs wandering in to her yard. She always instructed me to “aim for their butts” and we used a BB gun that was so old you were more likely to injure a dog by spitting the BB. I actually don’t recall ever shooting at a dog. I suspect her real plan was simply to get a six-year old boy with an attention deficit issue to sit still.

As she grew older, I grew to respect my grandmother as much as I loved her. I learned from her about forgiveness. Life had not always been kind to her. I learned about caring for others. At 80 she told me she needed to “go up the street and check on an old lady” only four years her senior. I even learned a bit about taking the measure of a man or woman when she grinned and told me “I don’t believe a fella who can’t cuss a little is worth a damn.”

Her deep faith sustained her, as did her sense of humor, as a disease took its toll on her body. On one of our last visits she complained she had a bone to pick with her doctor. His surgery had left her with a large scar on the abdomen. She said she was mad because she would no longer be able to wear her “two piece bathing suit” without people staring at her. Our last visits were brief. She would conclude them with “Well, Son. Let’s have a prayer so you can be on your way.” That was code for “Hey, I love you but I’m ready for you to go now.”

Somewhere in heaven, in between the choruses of the Angelic Hosts, “Miss Bishop” is sharing her wit and wisdom. Heaven is all the richer because of it, just as my life is.