Monday, January 12, 2015

The Song My Mother Taught Me--Verse Two

While I attended Upper Columbia Academy, learning valuable lessons about hard work and grace, my mom was busy teaching me a new verse in the song we shared. This new song was all about strength and sacrifice; courage and community; but mostly about effort and reward.

Fifteen is such a difficult age for mothers and daughters. There’s so much angst and awkwardness as, step by step, the changing relationship is negotiated. I don’t think I truly appreciated all my mother did for me, and meant to me, until I left the shelter of our home and went away to school. Of course, Mom had taught me how to keep my room clean and do my laundry. I knew how to study and how to goof off. What I didn’t know was how to balance all of that—I didn’t realize just how much structure Mom had added to my life. She had been the safety net I was tightrope walking over, and I hadn’t even realized it.

The best advice Mom gave me about boarding school was this:

“You will get out of the experience whatever you are willing to put into it”.

She explained further:

“Invest in other people and make new friends, and you will have life-long friends; participate in activities and you will learn new things; work hard in your classes and you will have a rich education. But, if you sit in your room all the time, you will only magnify your loneliness.”

I took that advice to heart, and those three years were full of learning and laughter and love that are still with me today.

Boarding school was expensive, so both Mom and I entered into a partnership of sacrifice to make attending possible. I worked the maximum hours each day to pay for part of my school bill. Our income qualified me for student aid, through our local church. My grandmother and siblings also worked as janitors for the church to help with the expenses. Years later, I would learn of the family friends and church members who sent personal donations. It took a community of love and support to make my dream come true.

Still, the greatest sacrifice would come from Mom. There were more chores at home, with me gone, and never enough money. Many days she worked 10-12 hours, at minimum wage, to support all of us. In order to pay my bill, she refinanced her car at least three times. She did without new clothes, needed furnishings, and even basic treats like orange juice for breakfast. The phone bill became a luxury, so she disconnected long distance service—which meant we couldn’t speak on the phone. Instead, I received a letter from her every week, filled with all of the news from my sisters and our friends at church.
Reflecting on that time now, I can’t imagine how she found the time! And when the time for Home Leave came each five weeks, she made that time with me special. We didn’t quarrel when I came home. The time we had was short and precious. It was spent talking and laughing and there was usually music involved. Perhaps being so far apart helped me appreciate all of the things she added to my life. I know that during those years, I was very aware of how much she loved me and how she was willing to do anything to secure my dream for me.

Mom never missed a concert or school presentation, either. Although UCA was 2 hours away, she made the trip in all kinds of weather and could always be found in the audience, just beaming with pride.

My memories of that time are filled with images of love—and it is a strong, courageous, undaunted kind of love. My mother is one of the strongest women I have EVER known! And that is the part of her I admire most and have tried hardest to emulate. Her strength, in the face of overwhelming difficulty and loss, was an inspiration to me, both then and now.

And that lesson she taught me about getting out of life what you put into it—that means more to me with each passing year. I didn’t realize for a few years that her advice applied to more than just boarding school—it applied to all of life. I’m sad that I let my self-absorption, and the desire to push away in my 20s and 30s, obscure this truth.  (For more details, follow this link: My own path through life took me away from Mom, in terms of distance. But I let my pride and my fear of not being good enough keep me from telling her how much I needed her; I created emotional distance to match our physical distance. I wanted so much to be as strong and independent as she was, that I lost touch with the need to be vulnerable—especially with her. Perhaps I was afraid that she would see my neediness as a sign of weakness, and I couldn’t bear to disappoint her. There were moments in the years to come when I would recognize that need, but I would tip-toe through them and around her, instead of sitting down in that moment of need and embracing it.

After years of getting out of our relationship exactly what I was willing to put into it, I’m learning to invest in my relationship with Mom. I’m taking her important life-lesson to heart.  I get it now—it’s about effort and reward. And I’m enjoying putting the time in and reaping the blessing of letting her get to know me better.

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