The Lessons From My Mother

by Melissa T. Shultz
Originally Published: 

My mother just turned 80. She doesn’t look 80, or whatever I thought 80 looked like. She doesn’t act 80, or whatever I thought 80 acted like. Florence Henderson is 80. Cicely Tyson is 80. Willie Nelson, Barbara Feldon, Joan Rivers — all 80. It doesn’t seem possible to me that they are that old. But what do I know? What do any of us under 80 know about being 80, other than it’s the new 70?

Roger Angell recently wrote a beautiful story for The New Yorker about being in his 90s. It was a window into his heart and mind — his voice was timeless and moving. He said we’re never too old to benefit from deep attachments and intimate love. And that having a faithful dog doesn’t hurt either.

My mother doesn’t have a dog. When my siblings and I were little we had a Golden Retriever named Ginger. Mom swore the only reason we had her was on account of us, because Mom was absolutely NOT a dog person. Yet, when Ginger had seizures — and she had them often, especially towards the end of her life — it was my mother who held her and comforted her until the seizure had passed.

As for love, my father was her one true love. He’s gone now, but never far from her thoughts. I’ve often wondered how different her life would be had she let someone else into her world since his passing, but for reasons that are her own, she decided not to go down that road again.

For the last few years she’s kept herself busy and from becoming invisible (the way many seniors tell me they begin to feel), by putting her considerable energy into developing continuing education courses for her peers.

Though many of the clichés about aging don’t apply to her, she has slowed down a tad, and yes, with the wave of a hand she will dismiss offers of help (unless it has to do with electronics). But that’s nothing new — she was stubborn long before her time.

At my mother’s birthday party, we watched old home movies and looked at photographs. Some of them were from her own childhood — evocative images of a lost time. Each Sunday in summer, my grandparents’ backyard served as the gathering place for family and neighbors. Men in ties, pressed shirts, and suspenders played cards at a folding table beneath the trees; women in their best dresses, stockings, and heels played ping-pong; and children danced in circles and sang to Ring Around the Rosie. For the first time I saw her life in a new light: the richness and beauty of a poor family of immigrants, all of whom were happy just to be in America together. She was a dimpled, curly-headed girl, who would transform into a beautiful, sometimes self-conscious, woman — one with big dreams, who married a man with bigger dreams, and had a family of her own.

My mother managed an impromptu narration for the crowd, telling them who was who, and adding story highlights. Growing up, she was always doing that with me — narrating. She would whisper lessons in my ear about the artwork and museums we frequented, the actors and directors of the movies we watched, the fashions in store windows, the objects she collected.

Back at her house a few nights later, we all said goodbye — our flights were leaving the next day. One of my sons, her youngest grandson and an art student in NY, admired a print with a giant eyeball hanging on her wall. He had asked her about it more than once over the years, and once again, she told him the story — the name of the artist, where he was from, what he was known for. While she did, I scanned the room and saw glimpses of my childhood, the objects that have come to define various stages of our family’s life. And for each, I could hear her whispering in my ear — telling me the stories that have always brought them to life, imparting wisdom that I sometimes heeded, sometimes didn’t.

“It’s yours,” she told my son about the print. “I’ll write your name on the back.”

She looked over at me and our eyes met. I put my arm around her and tried not to cry. But I did. We both did. I knew why she said that to him — she’s 80, after all — and it was as if she had just whispered another lesson in my ear.

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