My daughters often ask me about my childhood; there are nights when it’s genuine curiosity and others when I’m pretty sure they’re just trying to eke out a bit more time before they have to go to sleep. Usually I tell tidy little stories with a clear beginning, middle and end, like the one about the German shepherd that terrified me on my walk to school, and the lengths I’d go to in order to avoid a confrontation.
The story I don’t tell is one that I am only just now coming to understand. My mom was 23 when she had me, 34 when she and my dad broke up, and 42 when she became sober. Through all of these different experiences she had a quiet lesson that she was teaching me. Today people might call it a “joy-hack,” ironic because her own mother was named Joy.
We never had a lot of money, so the things that we had weren’t top shelf or brand name. I wore hand-me-downs, and she constructed outfits for work from pieces that she tricked out on her own with little embellishments she had about the house. I could say that she taught me not to yearn for material things, but I do yearn and buy! I could also say that she taught me how to make things better, which is true, but that isn’t the thing that she gave me that I turn to again and again.
My mom gave me the wherewithal to find joy, despite what might be happening around me. I have tapped this more times than I can count. I want to give it to my own daughters, but it can only be taught as they see me reaching through a moment to what would seem an impossible thing: to be at peace or comforted against the odds. I can’t just say, “Hey girls, believe me, when the chips are down and life feels like crap, you can still be happy.”
It comes to the fore in times when I feel like an utter failure, like the day a load of laundry had skunked in the washer. The recent warm snap had been broken by a rainstorm, and I heard my middle daughter yell, “Mom, I don’t have any pants.” I fished a pair of stained leggings out a cupboard. “Here you go.” She looked at them and said, “Mom, these have a hole. My teacher sends me to the nurse if stuff has a hole.”
I looked at the pants and grabbed my sewing kit. I started to sew the tear, but the stretchy fabric bunched awkwardly. Where I would normally tighten and tense, I didn’t, and I set about sewing a smiley face and squinty eyes into the fabric so that the bunching looked deliberate. “Mom, you are so awesome!”
Quietly I mused that it was my mom who had been awesome.
A few years ago, my husband and I faced financial ruin as our business struggled under the weight of a crappy economy and the burden of overextending ourselves with a second business. Life was so dark that I felt suffocated; my panic was immobilizing. Yet despite an overwhelming desire to just give up, I found myself on the sofa running my fingers along the threads of a quilt, the boxy grid soothing in its predictability, and the heavy weight of the quilt pressing against me, until a kind of peace hit me.
I looked at the colors and the different weaves in the patches, and I found hope in a triangle of green. I remembered the sun in a blurry orange and red fabric scrap. Life is so hard and so loaded with mistakes we make and just plain bad luck that befalls us, but the thing my mom gave me is the ability to hook a finger to something else in order to keep a part of my spirit safe.